Tuesday, December 2, 2014


A couple of weeks ago I read this rather stimulating article by J.D. Greear in which he defends the multi-site model of church growth. (It is actually the first article in a series of four evaluating the multi-site model.) I say it was stimulating because I went on thinking about it for several days. I could not decide whether I thought he was right or not. My natural prejudice would be to disagree with him, and that is where I will land in this post, but I was not able to dismiss his arguments without consideration.
I probably would have forgotten about it if the Mars Hill news had not come out a week later. The news itself didn’t make much of an impact on me, but I find there’s nothing like a podcast to set me thinking about something. So I want to make a couple of observations about this whole multi-site phenomenon, and particularly Greear’s post. I don’t have any answers: just questions.

What is missiology?

So there’s this much-linked video from TGC (which they recently took down?) where Mark Dever talks to Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald about the multi-site model. About halfway through it Driscoll tells Dever, “you’d probably throw this over in the rubric of ecclesiology—I’d throw it over in rubric of missiology.” I found that to be a fascinating statement, because while I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ecclesiology, I really don’t know much at all about missiology. While Greear doesn’t make the same precise distinction, I think he was thinking along similar lines when he decided to begin his 4-part blog series with a post about evangelistic effectiveness.
Missiology is a latecomer to the world of theology. While the word sounds like it would head a major section in a systematic theology book, it traditionally does not. It did not emerge as a discipline until the 19th century, and is considered an area of practical theology—that is, it is oriented toward what ought to be done rather than what ought to be believed.
One thing that is confusing to me about this is that I don’t know how we’re supposed to disagree about practical theology. I have a framework I am pretty comfortable with for navigating doctrinal disagreements. I know the history of the different controversies and schisms. I know which points of doctrine are essential to being an orthodox Christian at all, which ones were important enough to divide churches over without actually severing the bonds of ecumenical unity, and which are (at least formally) matters of indifference. And for the most part I know where I stand in all of that, and how I would relate to someone who disagreed with me at each level. On issues of practice, however, it gets a bit more confusing for me. Practice flows from theory, church practice from doctrine. One would think that if we agree on all matters of essential doctrine, our practice could not be terribly different. Or at least that whatever differences we have over practice must necessarily be less important than the doctrines that we hold in common. But given the rhetorical fervor around certain issues of practice (such as multi-site churches) that doesn’t seem to be the way everyone thinks.
I mean it would be easy enough to posture one’s self as being above all of that rhetoric. It is true that we have a natural tendency to emphasize our differences more stridently against those who are more similar to us. (The only evidence I will offer for this claim is the oft-repeated Emo Philips joke.) I think it is partly because we see our opponent as sharing our worldview, and so whatever disagreements we have must necessarily be inconsistencies on their part. We have more hope of winning them over to our point of view, but we are more distressed if they are not won.
But I was going to say something about missiology. Where was I?
Basically my initial reaction is that I am pretty of skeptical of missiology being pitted against ecclesiology. Ontologically speaking, missiology should be the same identical thing as ecclesiology. The church is both the instrument and the object of the mission. The mission in question is the church’s mission, and the mission is to build the church. To understand what the church is is to understand what the mission is, and vice versa.
But my second reaction is to admit that I really don’t know enough about missiology to go any further with this discussion. A quick search for recommended books on missiology was enough to show that not only am I unfamiliar with the literature, but I don’t even recognize most of the names being passed around. It is clear enough that practical missiology is a necessary thing to work out, as an extension of our more theoretical ecclesiology. (But it must not be inconsistent with our ecclesiological commitments.) The fact that it is a relatively new topic of theological reflection does not make it invalid. But I would expect that it is less definitively worked out, less clearly defined and defended, when compared to the core of Christian doctrine.
So this just comes back around to being a note to myself to learn more about missiology.

How much is 15%?

In Greear’s post, he does some back-of-the-envelope calculations about a “relatively conservative” church growth scenario. I’m sure he didn’t intend to represent this as a robust analysis by any means. But the more I thought about it, the more his argument seemed to hinge on this scenario, and the more the scenario fell apart.
Consider this relatively conservative growth scenario: If even 15% of the members of a congregation of 400 meeting in a room that holds 500 bring one person to Christ every year, in two years members will no longer be able to bring any more of their friends to church.
A couple of paragraphs later he underscores that he considers this to be a conservative scenario.
And if a church is not growing by 15% every few years, that means that not even [15%] of its baptized members are bringing someone to Christ. Could any pastor who takes Jesus’ promises about the fruitfulness of his church seriously be satisfied with that (Luke 5:1-10; John 15:8)–and not hoping, and yearning, and planning, for more?
I just can’t get over the fact that he considers 15% year-over-year growth to be small. Either my experience in the church (my whole life) has been almost exclusively in unfaithful churches, or this number is hugely optimistic. I can see how you could frame the number in a way that it would seem pretty reasonable, and in fact it came across that way when I first read the article. If a Christian is actively pursuing evangelism, hoping to see one conversion a year doesn’t sound unreasonable. And if you are preaching evangelism from the pulpit, expecting just 15% of your people to put it into practice seems pretty conservative.
But that doesn’t change the fact that it is an exponential growth model. I’m reminded of the old CEF song that goes, “If you tell two people and I tell two people, then four more people will know / If they tell two people and we tell two people, then more and more people will know.” Wheat on a chessboard and all that. If Greear’s church were a business with shareholders, it would be a pretty solid investment. Maybe not exciting enough to entice Silicon Valley VCs, but better than the cumulative average of the S&P 500. 15%-per-year works out to doubling in just under 5 years. So if a pastor is in one church for 20 years he should expect to see his congregation double 4 times over, meaning 16x what he started with, and with no end in sight.
My point is not that this never happens. Obviously it does. But it is what we sometimes call “a nice problem to have.”
When I was young and foolish I would talk about different business ideas and one easy mistake was to say something like, “But look how big this market is! If we can just get 1% of the market, we’ll be rich!” The trick works because 1 is the “smallest number.” It just sounds conservative. But if you actually multiply it out and see that 1% represents, say, 300k people you are hypothetically going to sell your widget to, it becomes obvious that you are just indulging a fantasy of unbridled success. Now looking at year-over-year growth is not nearly as insane as taking a percentage of some population, but it kind of feels like the same thing insofar as it is a completely made-up number. Is 15% large or small? It depends on how you look at it. Compared to your goal of 100% participation in evangelism it seems quite small, even pessimistic. But 16x over 20 years seems kind of massive.
I’m doing a lot of comparison of this 15% number to the business world because I think it invites that comparison. Another bit I know from my own line of work is that you can’t just ignore attrition. Greear’s model doesn’t account for people leaving a church for reasons other than going to join a church plant. But we all know that isn’t actually how the world works. People leave churches for lots of reasons: they die, they apostatize, they move across the country. More than any of those, they go check out the church across town that seems more like “what they are looking for.” The church I grew up in probably averaged what we would call “0% net churn” over the 20 years I was there. Outreach was done, new people came in, but old people left too. It grew some years and shrank other years, but continues to fit in the same building to this day.
Another thing I wondered about is whether he came up with this number based on baptism or profession statistics. He wants to make a strong connection between church attendance growth and effective evangelism, but in reality there are a lot of ways that could skew the numbers. For one thing, lots of baptisms are people who were already attending the church for several years, whether children of believers, or adults who were never saved. If those people were taking up a seat from the time you started counting, then they skew the number. (Not to mention those who get re-baptized.) There’s also the matter of evangelism outreaches that result in professions of faith but don’t result in anyone joining the church. Those were distressingly common in my experience growing up.
Of course there’s also the matter of people transferring to your church from another church, which does mean you’ll need more places to sit. Nobody who pastors a big church wants to emphasize this source of growth, since it is a zero-sum game. “Our mission is to tell those who have never heard. We aren’t interested in church transfers. … [beat] … Present company excepted! We’re so glad you decided to join us today!” I don’t know whether it is a real thing or just confirmation bias, but I have always had the impression that when people transfer, they on average tend to go to a larger church than the one they are leaving. Which would in turn suggest that once your church is of a certain size it will see a disproportionate percentage of its growth come from transfers. I wonder if there’s a way to test my theory.
I do have this nagging doubt that maybe I am too pessimistic about all of this. Maybe Greear is right and I have just never experienced a faithful church. Maybe all churches are supposed to grow like the Summit Church (at least if they are in a major population center) and if they don’t it is because they are unfaithful. What do I know?

Can we set a quota for the work of the Spirit?

One thing that stood out to me was that while Greear is willing to put a number on evangelistic faithfulness, he doesn’t think that we can expect people to mature to the point of being willing to participate in a church plant at a pre-determined rate. Here is what he says in response to the objection that we should keep our churches small by sending out our members to plant new churches.
Even if you do manage to send out 10% of your members every year for the first few years, you will see a law of diminishing returns begin to kick in. The amount of believers ready to uproot their families and plant a new church will not remain constant at 10%. I’m not saying mathematically it couldn’t happen; I am saying that I am very familiar with the most mission-minded, mature, church-planting churches in the nation, and I have never seen an example of a church that could sustain that level of sending. The first year you harvest that zealous group–who are in a place for a new challenge and ready to go with your new plant. The next year, you convince a few more, as people in your church are maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice… but it probably will not be quite as many. Soon, you will have run the metal detector over the sand so many times that there just is not enough metal shavings left to send out in a new plant. And, even if you could maintain the 10% sending rate, you would not be keeping up with the conservative growth rate of 15%–which I still think is a low growth percentage in light of Jesus’ extravagant promises about the fruitfulness of his church!
He believes Jesus has promised us that we will see fruit in bringing new people into the church (in excess of 15% exponential growth) but when it comes to people “maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice,” well, the numbers just aren’t there. At this point Greear becomes the pessimist. He wants to see people sent out, but they just can’t mature quickly enough to be sent quickly enough to offset how quickly new converts are rolling in. Best I can tell this means his people are maturing at a rate of less than 15% year-over-year.
I think I would rather hear Greear talk about real numbers in both cases. I would rather that he said, “God has blessed us over the last 10 years with so many conversions. The multi-site model is the best way we could find to faithfully steward what the Spirit has given us. He has blessed us with relatively fewer new leaders, but we are praying that he will send more.”
I don’t necessarily think that the sending-out model is the right answer for dealing with church growth. Like I said in the beginning, I don’t have an answer on this. But I think it is strange that he would put a number on his expectation of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, but would not have any idealistic expectation at all about the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification.

What do we mean when we say “it’s not about numbers?”

All my life I have heard it said that faithfulness as a church is not about numbers. I guess I should also ask whether everyone actually accepts that it is not about numbers. Maybe it is just something we told ourselves to make ourselves feel better about our relatively static numbers? But I realized that there are actually two things people could mean when they say this.
One thing they could mean is that faithfulness means obedience regardless of the outcome. If I am doing all the things Christ commanded, it doesn’t matter whether I actually see conversions or not. A possibly distinct, but related, idea would be that fruit in the area of discipleship is just as good as fruit in the area of evangelism. God may bless us at certain times with more new converts and at other times with more personal growth in existing believers. God gives the increase.
The other thing that someone could possibly mean by this is that it isn’t about the number that you personally can take credit for. It isn’t about counting. It isn’t about how many conversions you personally see, or how many baptisms you perform, or how many people listen to your sermons. But it is, ultimately, about how many people you impact. So you want to share the gospel with as many people as you possibly can but, hey, if they end up going to the church down the street that’s fine with me. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.”
Theologically I could see this distinction falling along Reformed vs. Arminian lines. But my experience of it has actually been more like fundamentalist vs. evangelical. I’m not sure what to make of that.

How should we prioritize preaching ability?

I think it is unavoidable in this discussion that we talk about quality of preaching. It is obvious that one of the major factors that differentiates big growing churches from small struggling churches is the ability of the primary teaching pastor to draw a crowd.
While it is also obvious that different people are looking for different things when they go listen to a sermon, one can imagine all of it averaged out into a single number that captures a preacher’s perceived quality. (If we accept the assumption that we could use church growth as a proxy for a preacher’s skill, then this might actually be a practical project. Some adjustments would have to be made to account for starting size, length of ministry, area population, etc. Of course it would still be a gross oversimplification since there must be other factors that make a given church more or less attractive.)
Whatever this plot would look like, I’m pretty sure that men who can draw a crowd of more than 10k people every week would be a vanishing minority. They are outliers. When framed this way, the whole question morphs into something like, “How we should steward this kind of rockstar homiletical talent when it happens?”
A friend of mine was telling me about how his parents have struggled, not having a solid church near where they live. He said that if were him he would just move so that his family could go to a good church. I understand that. From the perspective of a Christian choosing a church, insofar as we are given a choice, it is incumbent upon us to go the the best church that we can. And it is part of our Reformation heritage to place a great deal of emphasis within the church on the ministry of the Word.
So I can completely sympathize with someone who goes out looking for the best preaching they can find. But it seems that if everyone did this, then the vast majority of them would end up concentrated in megachurches. I guess this depends on how much their taste in preaching falls within the mainstream. I suppose there are tiny churches with horribly distorted messages that appeal to a small number of people. But if we are generally limiting our discussion to basically sound, Biblical teaching, then the issue is primarily a matter of skill or giftedness, with some allowance for individual preference.
But there are reasons to think that churches should not be organized solely in accordance with preaching ability. There are the usual concerns about anonymity in a large church. There is also the idea, which I would tend to agree with, that the act of preaching itself becomes diminished above a certain size. The introduction of multiple sites reduces the confrontational immediacy of the event. The loss of eye contact. The reduced awareness on the part of the preacher of the individual lives and struggles of his congregation. This is not to say that there is no place for preaching before a stadium-sized audience, but rather that there is a particular value to preaching to a smaller congregation, in person, that is highly valued by some, particularly in the local context of a weekly worship meeting.
All of which is to say that I think we are right to value preaching very highly, but I also think we should be nuanced in how we value preaching, and that we should not elevate it to an absolute priority.
This discussion is highly relevant to my own church history. My wife and I just made the decision to join a church plant that was sent out by our home church (IDC). The preaching ability of the main preaching pastor, Tony, was the foremost reason we had decided to join IDC in the first place. To exchange listening to Tony (who is a professor of preaching) for a couple of new seminary graduates was not an especially easy decision to make. The basis of our decision was first, that while our new elders are not as experienced, they are sound and gifted. We will miss listening to Tony, but we will not have to give up listening to the Word itself, expounded week by week. Secondarily, there were a variety of personal reasons we expect the church plant to be a better place for us to serve and grow (especially proximity to where we live).
So I guess I have a kind of threshold of preaching ability beyond which I consider a church to be acceptable. Below that threshold the Word is too obscured by the inadequate handling of the would-be preacher. It is the Word that we want, not the anecdotes, reactions, and musings of the preacher. But not every self-styled preacher has dedicated himself to bringing us this Word, and not all those who do wish to bring us the Word have the gift and the learning necessary to do it.
As a further autobiographical aside, we spent a few years in the exact opposite of a megachurch—a cell-like house church where every man was expected to aspire to the role of a teacher. The responsibility of elders was greatly diminished and the men were strongly encouraged to “step up” and be spiritual leaders of their families. The calling to lead within the home was almost equated with the role of leadership in the church. Consequently the members of this church learned to have basically no expectation of the weekly sermons. With no one called specifically to pastoral ministry, and basically no training in good hermeneutics or homiletical techniques, the Word was basically absent from our collective church life for those years. Eventually I got into podcast sermons.
So I feel pretty safe in saying that setting a very low value on the quality of preaching is disastrous. I have not personally experienced the dark side of placing too high a value on it, but the Mars Hill debacle suggests there is such a dark side.
Our house church experience left me with a bit of a chip on my shoulder about larger churches. It was common for people to fetishize the intimacy of their languishing church, which I now read as a dark combination of rationalization and cliquishness. I’m pretty allergic to people saying that they wish their church was smaller. But thinking through the implications of unbounded growth makes me think maybe there is a real virtue for mature Christians within our particular Western, post-Christian context of trying to join the smallest healthy church they can find. It must meet a basic standard of soundness, which for me would be pretty stringent in certain ways. But giving up the “extras” you get in a big successful church for the sake of helping to establish more individual healthy churches, and supporting called ministers who are just starting out, seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.
(That’s kind of a grandiose rationalization for our decision to join the church plant, I guess.)

Should a church have a brand?

It’s interesting that it has become so important for local churches to have a logo. In the video at one point James MacDonald talks about the “influence” he has in the Chicago area. He doesn’t explain what he means by this, but the first thing that comes to my mind is brand recognition. I’ve never been to Greear’s Summit Church, but I know their logo on sight just from living in the Cary area. (My experience with Summit bumper stickers is skewed by general lifestyle similarity between myself and Summit attendees, and does not reflect the experience of an average resident of Cary. I’ve seen several in the IDC parking lot.)
The logo thing seems a bit like an anti-denominational move to me, and I am a pretty serious denominationalist (although that is a story for another time). I will just note that I also find it interesting that it seems to be terribly old fashioned now for denominational churches to indicate their denomination in their name.
And then there is the matter of the personal brand. MacDonald and Driscoll are very well known in the Evangelical publishing world. They cultivate a certain persona. I expect they have media people who help manage that persona. People say they are celebrity pastors for a reason. And as lead pastors their personal brands are pretty much inseparable from the identity of their respective churches.
I’m not sure what I think about all this. We can see fame and media being used by the Spirit throughout church history, from the strategic publishing moves of Martin Luther to the televised arena rallies of Billy Graham. I definitely think it is valid for talented teachers to seek to serve a wider audience by writing books and speaking at conferences. (Although I am enough of a curmudgeon to question the value of parachurch conferences marketed to lay people.)
But I will say that the use of marketing and business management techniques grates on me. And I tend to buy into Carl Trueman’s distinction between celebrities and public figures. We need carefully distinguish between faithful stewardship of one’s public reputation and the temptation to seek fame at the cost of integrity.
Should a church build a brand for themselves for the sake of the Kingdom? Should pastors cultivate fame and public image for the sake of the Gospel message? When they are successful, it seems to work, at least numerically. I don’t have any real arguments here. Just some general aesthetic grumpiness.
(I am in no short supply of aesthetic grumpiness.)