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The Transforming Church (Part Three)
by Tricia Tillin


The Problems With The Church Growth Movement

1. Numerical Growth:

The problems with the Church Growth Movement are also those of the cell-church system, for the two are closely intertwined. Cell churches are above all a way of "reaching the unchurched" and adding to the membership rolls.

The Church Growth movement sees as its primary task to add quantifiable numerical growth to the Church. Indeed, some would say that it has replaced all other forms of ministry, including the worship of God, with this obsession.

The worship service is used as yet another tool for attracting new members to the church, and it has to be tailored to the expectations of the "unchurched".

Studies conducted by Church Growth Movement (CGM) researchers show that people want relaxed, informal and entertaining services with high quality modern music and short, positive, affirming talks that do not induce guilt or make anyone embarrassed. People want to see drama, dance and playlets, and this they shall have, say those who are eager to count heads in church. They want clowns? Then they shall have Christian clowns. They want video shows, pot-luck suppers and quiz shows? Let them have anything they want, for it keeps them coming to the church.

One of America's five largest churches decided to perk up its evening service by staging a wrestling match. Another sent the pastor up to 'heaven' on invisible wires to the accompaniment of smoke, music and a light show. This must have made a huge impression on "the unchurched" but were they any different spiritually when they went home?

Time after time, throughout the bible, we find that God looks for quality rather than quantity. Why else would God decimate the Israelites in the wilderness or send most of Gideon's army home before the battle? Jesus the Good Shepherd forsakes the many to seek for one lost sheep (a practice that the CGM would condemn as time-wasting and ineffective!). He changed the world with a handful of disciples and apostles; He told them that only a FEW would walk the narrow way.

When McGravan and others boldly state that "God is interested in numbers" surely they forget the severe penalties He handed out for counting heads in the Old Testament camp!

Yet, as the following quote testifies, missionary success is seen in terms of quantifiable growth.

"In the mid-1950's, McGavran linked conversion to local church membership. He worked from conversion membership backwards to missionary technique from effect to cause. Membership was caused by effective evangelism; effective evangelism caused by effective proclamation; effective proclamation caused by proper technique. Soon, American church planting began to focus on quantifiability (numbers) and accountability (technique.) [Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1993)]

"These words ignited the tinder of American pragmatism:

"How do peoples become Christian? Here is a question to which not speculation but knowledge must urgently be applied. The question is how, in a manner true to the Bible, can a Christward movement be established in some caste, tribe or clan which will, over a period of years, so bring groups of its related families to Christian faith that the whole people is Christianized in a few decades?" (Donald A. McGavran, "The Bridges of God" New York: Friendship Press, 1955),

Historian Thom S. Rainer summarizes the eventual evolution:

"Salvation would be "measured" by "responsible church membership." If someone was attending a church and participating actively in the fellowship, then the probability was high that he or she would be a Christian. . . . Hence the Church Growth Movement arose when salvation became quantifiable [emphasis added], and churches became accountable [emphasis added] for their numbers--in terms of membership, attendance, baptisms, and so forth". [Rainer, p 142]

"The logic was reduced to this sequence: Increasing church membership indicates effective discipleship." ["Unfulfilled Expectations of Church Planting" David Snapper, Silverdale, WA]

2. Pragmatic Approach

As we see from the above, it's not only numbers, but the pragmatic approach to evangelism that is of concern here. Pragmatism means choosing your methods and message according to their benefit and effect on human interests. In other words, if it works, and people like it, anything goes!

Cell church leaders will be training those under them to "go out into their neighbourhoods" and reach the lost using everything and anything to hand. This sounds extremely worthy and biblical until you realise that the goal is numerical growth and the method is "the end justifies the means".

Peter Wagner praises this approach thus:

"... we ought to see clearly that the end DOES justify the means. What else possible could justify the means? If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method. If, on the other hand, my method is not accomplishing the goal, how can I be justified in continuing to use it?" [C. Peter Wagner, "Your Church Can Grow - Seven Vital Signs Of A Healthy Church", 1976, pg. 137.]

McGavran's influence on the CGM was to teach evangelists to use anything that produced new church members and rule out nothing unless it was specifically condemned in the word of God. Whatsoever in ministry that did not contribute to growth was discarded - for nothing was more important than "making disciples of all nations".

Therefore the bible is approached by CGM churches as mostly a tool for attracting people to meetings; its message is diluted because the doctrines and passages that challenge, rebuke or condemn are not attractive, and teaching on behaviour is secondary to evangelism. Therefore the principles of Church Growth are "based on" the bible but also based on market research and other non-bible sources that appear to work when approaching non Christians.

Once this thinking establishes itself in the consciousness of missionaries and evangelists, it is but a short step to watering down the gospel and hammering it into a shape that is pleasing to the world, in order to make converts without offending them too much.

In his book "Marketing the Church", the sociologist George Barna says: "the audience, not the message is sovereign".

When the audience is the world and its values are in complete contradiction to the bible, the result is that sinners dictate the message according to their liking, and converts - who already expect nothing more from the Church than helpful platitudes and practical assistance - resist any hint of disapproval or talk of repentance. To play along is to deny them the truth that will save them from a lost eternity!

Pragmatism means "if it works, use it" but is this a biblical method of evangelism? Are we really to be unconcerned about the purity of our methods? Does the end justify whatever means we use? Is God so pleased with quantity that he overlooks the quality?

3. Marketing Strategies:

Church Growth delights to use whatever in the world will support their cause. Thus they turn to sociologists and demographers like George Barna (who is founder and president of Barna Group, a full-service marketing research company in Glendale, California which has conducted extensive research for many corporations and organizations including Visa, The Disney Channel, Focus on the Family, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association).

They justify this with 1Cor. 9:22b where Paul says, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." For the CGM, this validates the use of sociology, demography and the fruits of marketing research for their work. They happily use business planning and management techniques, and borrow whatever suits them from the secular marketplace.

But using the techniques of the marketplace turns sinners in need of salvation into mere consumers of a product.

Marketing the Church leads to a mentality where quantifiable "results" are of paramount importance to measure the "success" of the project. However, in evangelism there are not always immediate or discernible "results" and forcing a visible response goes beyond what God intended.

Commercial companies know how to market a product. They use targeted advertising, slick glossy brochures, multimedia presentations, eye-catching professionally-produced websites. They employ celebrities to endorse their product. They make sure that their stores are large, bright, clean, freshly painted, with adequate facilities like toilets, restaurants and easy car-parking. When all of this is applied to churches, however, the result is a "product" that cannot not "do what it says on the tin". As a result of all the hype, those who come to church expecting to have their desires fulfilled and their senses ticked are either indulged in entertainment services, or sent away disillusioned and feeling betrayed and lied-to. Or both.

As well as that, poorer churches are disadvantaged, and struggling little local congregations are trampled on in the rush to get the "product" out into the marketplace in the most lavish and expensive way possible. Those who have a genuine message of salvation to offer may be doing so in a run-down back-street hall, but they may well be overlooked by the public when it is taught to expect a totally different Christianity.

Church Planting is also big business these days. It is seen as one of the most effective ways of increasing the number of people attending meetings. Through analysis, people's needs and expectations are estimated. One tool used is the Holmes Stress Scale which lists life changes and estimates the amount of stress caused by each change. This scale is used to identify which communities would be receptive to the church message.

After the research discovers a group of people who are, in McGravan's terminology "winnable" - they are likely to respond to the message - an organisation or company is employed to set up a church in that area, ready-made. If only the apostle Paul had been able to call on the services of these companies, think how much time and worry he could have been spared!

I have seen many "church-planting" services offered on the Internet, in which a company of consultants will undertake to set up a local church and train its leadership for a fee.

One example, Crosspoint International, charges "$3650.00 to take a church planter through our two-year coaching process. This is not the total cost to plant a church, of course..."

"What is Crosspoint International's purpose? Crosspoint International exists to carry out Christ's Great Commission by catalyzing a global cell church planting movement. Our intention is nothing less than to change the world by planting thousands of multiplying cell-based churches across the United States and around the world.

"Crosspoint International has designed a process that provides skilled coaching by an experienced cell church planter and a network of peers who are also planting churches. Meeting regularly, this Cell Church Planting Network (CCPN) provides a supportive, safe environment for church planters to develop spiritually, professionally, and emotionally.

"CCPN costs break down as follows:

$625.00 annual tuition
$100.00 monthly coaching fee"

Yes, if you have money, equipment, talented young entrepreneurs, large modern buildings, access to commercial advertising, and an experienced Church Planting Team to train your staff then success is guaranteed. But woe betide Paul and Barnabas who have nothing more than an offensive gospel message that gets them run out of town or stoned in the marketplace.

4. Group Salvation, not Individual:

McGravan taught, and CGM proponents have followed in his footsteps, that "it is not easy for individuals to become Christians on their own". People like to stay with their cultural group, and to respond to a message and make changes in their lives as a group - whether a family, tribe, religion, culture, linguistic or ethnic group.

Therefore the CGM plays down those elements that tend to emphasise the separateness of the Christian life, and individual decisions for Christ, and tries to develop a "tribal consciousness" that maintains people's comfort-factor, so that a whole group converts en bloc. To this end, the leaders and spokesmen of a group are targeted first in the hopes that they will influence everyone else. This is considered to be a more effective way of reaching large numbers of people at the same time.

Modern "mission" involves targeting "people groups" around the world, and aims at changing the religious persuasion of that group to a Christian one where most people are attending Christian churches, having their children baptised and following the commands of the bible rather than those of other sacred texts.

McGravan's teaching has received a boost in recent years from those who see the "revival outpouring" and techniques such as "spiritual warfare" as a way of reaching whole nations at a time. The "prophets" say - for instance - that "millions of islams [sic]" will come to Christ, and whole nations will be impacted by an outpouring so intense that none can resist.

5. Ethnicity:

McGravan believed numerical growth is much more likely to take place if the person doing the evangelizing belongs to the same culture, class, tribe, or family as the person he is trying to evangelize, and that churches consisted of people from the same cultural background.

This is the often-cricitised 'Homogeneous Unit Principle'. In reality, it is not a "principle", but a descriptive observation that people do not like to cross ethnic, linguistic, or other social barriers in coming to Christ. This - as we have seen from McGravan's own explanation - means putting an end to the "separation" from the world and often from families and former friends that converts accept when they become Christians.

Jesus was himself One who separated himself from his mother and family as a deliberate act, and called believers his new family. He said that those who consider their natural ties as more important to following God do not deserve the name of disciples, for in Christ we are all as one family and there is "no Jew or Greek". Yet McGravan set in place a principle that converts must identify as closely as possible with their old way of life and keep the same company. (How does this work for Hindus and Muslims who are saved, to say nothing of tribal shamans and witches.)

The reasons for all this is simple - NUMBERS! McGravan does not deny that one-by-one conversation works, but complains that it is so slow that the world will never be saved. Thus, biblical principles are overthrown for the sake of rapid church growth.

Frank Kaleb Jansen (Adopt-A-People Clearinghouse) writes:

"God in his wisdom asked us to bring the gospel to every "ethne" because he knew (and it's been proven true over and over again) that then and only then would the gospel spread like a forest fire.....if this is the meaning of the Great Commission, what then is a people-group... after more than twelve years of different uses and definitions of the term, a group of missiologists came together in Chicago in 1982 and agreed upon a common definition. The meeting was sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the minutes have therefore since served as the common ground for evangelical targeting of missions. A "people group" [has] a shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class, caste, situation or combinations of these. For evangelistic purposes it is the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church-planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance." ["Target Earth: The necessity of diversity in a holistic perspective on world mission" 1989 published by Global Mapping International, Pasadena California: Editor Frank Kaleb Jansen, Foreword by Ralph Winter.]

A misinterpretation of the word "ethnos" (nation) has led to these organisations targeting clans, tribes, classes, professions and anything else that they understand as "people groupings". It has resulted in the decision to allot people targeted for evangelization to groups according to their "ethnicity". One "Joshua Project 2000" people's list has people groups in Canada, for example, as "German Jew; Hindi; Urdu". Download the Joshua Project Peoples database and listings

Yet the word according to Vine's simply means a nation or people - ethnos: originally "a multitude," denotes "a nation" or "people," e.g., Matt 24:7; Acts 10:35; the Jewish people, e.g., Luke 7:5; 23:2; John 11:48,50-52; Acts 10:22; 24:2,10,17; (from Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words).

6. Social Sciences and Psychology:

The aim and urgency to increase the size of the Church has led the CGM to use sociological principles as tools rather than classic biblical evangelism, in an effort to reach the largest number of people in the shortest possible time.

Thus, the emphasis of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) is to put people and their needs before sanctification and holiness. "Discipling" in cells is more often "sharing" than biblical teaching; more often meeting people's needs for comfort, friendship, healing or emotional support than a challenge to conform to the bible in genuine spiritual transformation.

Sarah Leslie writes in her unpublished report on cell churches:

"In the 1970s, some groups based their home churches on the encounter group model, emphasizing humanistic psychology rather than biblical authority. For example:

"The house church movement borrows whatever skills and insights from contemporary education, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and the human potential movement may serve its purpose, whatever will enable persons to work and love more freely and sensitively, less defensively, secretively, tensely". [P.33, Anderson "The House Church" Nashville NY, Abingdon Press 1975]

Peter Wagner holds that Church Growth is:

“...simultaneously a theological conviction and an applied science, striving to combine the eternal principles of God’s Word with the best insights of contemporary social and behavioral sciences, employing as its initial frame of reference, the foundation work done by Donald McGavran.” [C. Peter Wagner, “Principles and Procedures of Church Growth.” Fuller Theological Seminary. Seminar, 1978, p. 4.]

The assumption here is that the bible is insufficient to disciple converts and needs to be supplemented with “contemporary social and behavioral sciences.” But when psychology takes over from doctrine, we end up with a gospel of self-esteem.

7. Social Reform

McGravan writes that the Church Growth mission is the growth of the Church, which he understands as synonymous with the "renewal of society".

This view is the prevailing one amongst conservative a-millennial Christians who see the kingdom of God as the continuously-spreading government of God on earth through his people in the Church. They believe that through mission, evangelism, good works and being salt and light in society eventually the Church will spread out to cover most of the world and influence most of its population to act in a Christian way.

So McGravan hopes that his book "Understanding Church Growth" might be "used of God to aid in the urgent revitalization of His Church and the incorporation of sufficient men and women in it, so that major social advance may be achieved in all nations."

Another study, on house churches, has this to say:

"Although house churches also have imperfections because people are still people, the nature of house churches is a model extremely conducive to Christ's command to disciple the nations, especially as house churches network with other house churches in their community and throughout their country, and indeed with other house church networks throughout the world." [Housechurches are a Growing Part of Discipling The Nations"]

Believing the Church to be God's agent of deliverance for all mankind, Church Growth and cell-church teaching looks for an advancing "kingdom" ever-increasing in power and size so that its message of goodwill and hope can eventually rescue the world from the effects of the Fall. With this fantasy in view, the target is the largest possible Christian Community, at any cost, by whatever means and as soon as possible.

Wolfgang Simson who wrote the "15 Theses for a New Reformation" says in the draft of his book:

"As I shall argue later, when church is reinvented, mission will be completely revived too. 'When the church rejects its mission, the church ceases to be the church,' says Donald Miller. But when the church again becomes the church and accepts its apostolic and prophetic nature, then it can become God's instrument of transforming and discipling neighbourhoods and nations. An individual church can be used by God, in the spirit of global partnership, to pour its oil on other people's fire, so that the light increases and the world can see the one whom it has overlooked for too long: Jesus Christ." ["Houses That Change The World: Towards a Re-Incarnation of Church" Wolfgang Simson, Madras, December 1998.]

In the past few years, this thinking has received a boost through the "revival" that introduced the idea of:

Impartation Evangelism

Speaking at the former Toronto Airport Church, home of the so-called "Toronto Blessing" Ralph Neighbour Jr. commented that conventional evangelism using a reasoned approach based on the truths of the word of God is not effective enough to do the job. He said:

Ralph Neighbour"Compelling people to come to Christ, strictly by means of doctrinal truths has not been that effective. We need to develop friendships and relationships with people. We need to express the love of Christ through our lived experience of him. This draws people. The apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 14:23ff relates how the gifts of the Holy Spirit (in this case prophecy), can be used to convict an unbeliever of the reality of God among us. It is not so much a belief system that compels one to Christ, but the supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit through us. The Holy Spirit assembles us in small group, "and we invite others to "join us" and observe the manifest power of God in our midst." [TACF conference reports for Jan 17, 2001]

8. Reconstruction - new wineskins

One of the most sinister aspects of the 'Apostolic Reformation' with its church growth techniques and its cell-church structure is the push to dismantle the present-day Church and replace it with another more suited to their dominion mandate.

Although not all groups subscribe to this principle, the underlying doctrine of the "new apostolic order" dictates that the "old order" with its traditions, churches, clergy, buildings and all the old ways of thinking (including much that is biblical and sound) must be removed entirely to make way for the church of the 21st century with a foundation of new apostles and prophets to lead and direct all people.

In his "Houses That Change The World" Wolfgang Simson - a major leader of the house church movement - says that:

"Many churches which are desperate for renewal - or at least for change - tend to overlook the fact that you cannot produce a new quality in the church by changing the structures. As management guru Tom Peters says, renewal and reformation is out, revolution is in; a company does not really need a CEO - a Chief Executive Officer - but a CDO - a Chief Destructive Officer, regularly dismantling obstructive traditions, because it is much easier to rebuild according to a new pattern than to restore and renew an outdated one. Changing a church by changing some outward forms is as futile as trying to change your mentality by changing your clothes or walking backwards in order to stop yourself going to cinemas. Adding a new mission statement or some other cosmetic alteration without a radical genetic reformation of the church will only lead to frustration - like sewing a patch of new cloth onto old cloth, which, says Jesus, is bad advice. Revival and reformation truly start with a complete rediscovery and reconstruction of the core essence of the church, with New Testament DNA, the genetic code of God, supernaturally empowered with growth potential from within (Mk. 4:26). This spiritual seed material is, like any grain of wheat, equipped and able to develop its own appropriate structures from the inside out, without instruction from outside; it simply unfolds itself according to a creational blueprint within; it unzips. Its soil is the soil of nations and people groups. The result of this incarnation, at least in New Testament times, was a house-church movement, that swept through the city of Jerusalem like yeast in dough, or like an unstoppable virus, in maybe less than two years. [Chapter 1: "The reincarnation of the church"]

In order to establish the "kingdom" on earth they must do away with denominations, and unite all church members and leaders in a new apostolic network, presumably with the "Presiding Apostle" C. Peter Wagner at its head. The Singapore FCBC cell church led by Laurence Khong says:

"The Lord is using the Cell Church today in an incredible way to help fulfill the Great Commission worldwide. He is transforming the structure of the church to become the new wineskin, capable of fulfilling the task of world evangelization through His power. The Cell Church provides a "new wineskin" that can stretch and grow, making room quickly and easily for many more people to join the community of believers."

This is not just a minor modification of the old Church. It is COMPLETE REPLACEMENT with no hint of incorporating the "old paradigm" which Ralph Neighbour, for example, thinks is incapable of doing the job.

Ron Wood, one of a large number of present-day "prophets", comments:

"Jeremiah's anointing was to tear down as well as to build up. In tender mercy, with delicate but unrelenting patience, the Lord will demolish man-made structures and traditions. He will break a few tables and knock a few heads in cleansing His temple. He will hurt us to help us. The good will give way to the best. What Father did not plant will be uprooted. What God did not build will be shaken. The weakness of the present pastoral foundation of the church will become apparent in order that we may begin to cry out for the true foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone." ["Prophets Will Confront Jezebel" Ron Wood of]

This same author expands on the doctrine is his article "Leaving Organized Religon":

"There is a new paradigm of church, based on a old model. It is radical in the sense that God is taking us back to our roots. The word radical refers to a root. We can’t cut ourselves off from our lineage and pretend it doesn’t exist. Our history can’t be undone, only denied. Yes, the organized church is part of our heritage. But thank God, a new era has dawned. God is changing his church. God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on millions of Christians worldwide, stretching the wineskins with new wine. He is also changing the authority structure of the church. Apostles and prophets are emerging, thus offering an alternative to independence or denominationalism."

Yet, in the midst of all this renewal, the historic church stands at a crossroads. Many are joining in the flow of the river of God. Others are watching from the banks, critical and doubtful. We need to be patient and intercede in prayer, not be quick to shoot our skeptical brothers. God hasn’t given up on the organized church. He loves all of his family, but he doesn’t want any of us trapped in ignorance and powerlessness due to substituting man’s tradition for God’s word.

The church is in transition and in a state of flux. We don’t yet know what it will look like. Like a chick still in its shell, we can only guess at its final appearance. We hope we will resemble the church in the Book of Acts. ...We will emerge from our limitations and traditions and look more like the Son of God, only corporate. [Note: this is the belief in the Corporate Christ.]

God has spoken to several prophetic people that the church as we know it will not be the same, either in its function or its appearance, and that this transformation will occur in our day. I believe this. [Ron Wood, "Leaving Organized Religion"]

Leaving aside the question of how many of the current cell-church and apostolic networks consciously or openly subscribe to the above doctrine, it has to be said that, in practice, the work of removing people from supposed "ignorance and powerlessness" in the traditional denominations, and making a transition to a "new wineskin" is being accomplished more by the introduction of cell systems than anything else. Therefore it would be good to go on and examine this phenomenon. Starting with the history and background, and the people responsible for launching this new move, the remaining parts of this series will examine house groups, house churches and cell churches.

continue  Part Four: Other Influences & Personalities

Acknowledgements to:

"The Doctrine Of Justification: The Foundation Of The Church's Life And Its Work" Presented to the Pastor/Teacher Conference of the Manitowoc Conference : October 6, 1995 :St. John Ev. Lutheran Church : Newtonburg, WI by Bruce A. McKenney;

"An Evaluation of the Church Growth Movement", Kirk Wellum, Pastor, Sovereign Grace Community Church, Sarnia, Ontario.

"The History of the Church Growth Movement" section from "Law and Gospel in the Church Growth Movement" By: Robert Koester [Dakota-Montana Pastoral Conference -September 18,19, 1984]

"Church Growth Movement" by A. Scott Moreau.

"For the Sake of Christ’s Commission": The Report of the Church Growth Study Committee of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod 2001

"Dangers of the Church Growth Movement" by Ralph H. Elliott, Senior Pastor, North Shore Baptist Church, Chicago. See

"What is the Church Growth Movement?" found online at

"Church Growth Leadership Theory and Mennonite Brethren Theology" by James R. Nikkel, Executive Sect., Board of Evangelism, Canada.

"Have Your Heard What's New in Church Growth?" by Kevin Fenster and Greta Olsloe

© 1995-2013 Tricia Tillin of Banner Ministries. All rights reserved. Cross+Word Website:  This document is the property of its author and is not to be displayed on other websites, redistributed, sold, reprinted, or reproduced in printed in any other format without permission. Websites may link to this article, if they provide proper title and author information. One copy may be downloaded, stored and/or printed for personal research. All spelling and phraseology is UK English.