Emergent vs. Church Growth, vs. Biblical Christianity

1:02 am | Emergent Church

About two years ago I spent a lot of time digging deeply into the materials of what is commonly called the church growth movement. It’s largely a catch-all phrase for Seeker Sensitive and Purpose Driven models, but of course the church growth reading list is much larger and broader than these two approaches would indicate. Usually, when people criticize the church growth movement, they are critiquing any synthesis of the Willow Creek model or the Saddleback model - and further, in my experience, they are not critiquing the model so much as how people implement it. There was a real problem of people not interacting with Willow Creek and Purpose Driven materials directly, just their impressions of what people were doing with it. George Barna has also written a great deal on church growth, and he remains one of my favorite authors, despite his ministry being criticized as being too discouraging.

One of the books that really crystallized my thinking about the church and body life was Gene Getz’ “Sharpening the Focus of the Church”. It came highly recommended at the time when Emergent wasn’t such a buzzword in Christian circles, being largely relegated to online discussions. Unfortuantely, I can’t find my copy of it now, because I would like to revisit it with a little distance from my first read. Getz did not state any conclusions in the book directly, leaving those as an exercise for the reader - but the observations seemed as timely when I was reading it as they were when he originally wrote the book. Meanwhile, the Fellowship Bible model has grown rapidly and shown much real fruit.

There were a couple of critiques of the church growth movement that I found particularly salient. One was John Piper’s “Brothers, we are not Professionals.” This book was addressed to pastors who were becoming affected by the world’s understanding of success in ministry while losing site of the Kingdom of God, and that the gospel will be foolishness to the world. So many times I have wanted to jump on board the bash-Piper bandwagon, but after actually reading his books, it’s really hard for me not to have tremendous respect for the man. He has shown an incredible resiliance against being drawn into every current and passing fad in the Christian church, and he’s had a balancing effect on my vision for the church.

The other book was Mark Dever’s “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church”, which very simply laid out its nine marks. No frills, no fancy charts or graphs, just 9 simple ideas that are laid out no-nonsense and easy to understand: Expositional Preaching, Biblical Theology, Biblical Understanding of the Good News, Biblical Understanding of Conversion, Biblical Understanding of Evangelism, Biblical Understanding of Membership, Biblical Church Discipline, Promotion of Christian Discipleship and Growth, Biblical Understanding of Leadership. The plain simplicity of Dever’s points resonated very deeply with me, giving me a fresh elegance to my vision of what I wanted in a church. In fact, it helped me refocus from a self-centered felt-needs approach to church to focus instead on matters of prime importance - exemplifying Biblical Christianity.

Together, these two books were significant in causing me to throttle back and change course at precisely the time when I was ready to launch off into exploring what I think of now as “the fad-driven church” (as Phil Johnson called it). It gave me a solid grounding and a tether to reality, which is undoubtedly a good thing. Meanwhile, a dizzying array of new church models are being proposed. One called Mosaic reaches across racial lines to embrace grace-based racial reconciliation - a model I was particularly fond of, so much so that I had at one point had the Mosaix church in Little Rock (a big thinktank in this approach) on the short list of churches I was recommending my brother visit. But that was 2003, and just a little age, maturity, and simple wisdom goes a long way.

The Emergent church right now is showing plenty of signs of pulling apart at the moment as well. The funny thing is that a few years ago I strongly recommended Mars Hill Church to a friend who was moving to Seattle. A couple of years later, as leadership at my brother’s church Summit Church (SBC w/ purpose-driven background) appeared to be getting drunk on Mark Driscoll’s “Radical Reformission” I became skeptical of some of the things he was recommending. Then, just last month Mark Driscoll burst onto the Emergent Blogosphere with much controversy, when he announced that he no longer considered himself “emergent” and was critical of some of the directions that many emergent leaders were charting. The momentum of the movement as it exists right now is going to cause the movement to tear apart into at least two major groups; the division is unavoidable at this point.

But at the end, I’m stunned by how the mistake of one generation - being too professional - is so radically swung the opposite way by the next - being hippies. Neither the 1950s or 1960s were entirely good one way or the other, but the church prevailed. Finding some balance between being professional and inauthentic, and being hippie and excessively authentic to the point of inauthenticity, I think this is the challenge. Maybe, we should strive to be followers of Christ first, and let our authenticity flow from a true understanding of our position in Christ, being properly sourced (orthogeny) in God.




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