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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 15–18 

Response to Paul G. Hiebert

Response to “Planting Churches in North America Today” by Paul G. Hiebert 20/2 (1991): 6–14.

James N. Pankratz

Paul Hiebert has helped us by reminding us of several of the dominant features of our culture which have received considerable attention by social scientists in recent years. I will neither review nor challenge his analysis, for it is clear and persuasive. Instead, I will indicate some of the lines of thought which his presentation has prompted for me.

First, I comment about the role of Hiebert’s paper in our consultation. His paper about the cultural context is the first on our agenda. In the past, within our church, it would have been customary to have a biblical or theological paper at the outset so that the framework for our discussion would be biblical and theological. It is fitting that in this consultation on Church Growth we begin instead with a presentation from the social sciences, for this movement has avidly embraced the insights of the social sciences and tends to chart its course on the basis of the current conventional wisdom of these sciences.

The social sciences are relatively well equipped to tell us what “is” and even what probably “will he,” but they are poorly equipped to tell us what “ought” to be. Hiebert tells us, for example, that culturally homogeneous immigrant churches grow as long as immigration continues, and decline as assimilation {16} proceeds. One or two generations after they are established, these churches go through significant disruptive adaptation and lose members as they struggle with preserving or shedding their ethnic character. Whether we decide to establish culturally homogeneous churches or not, do we base that decision on theological convictions we have about the nature of the Church, or on these sociological observations? The social sciences may be able to predict which strategy is most likely to succeed and under which conditions, but what is the normative framework within which we make our decisions about strategy? I hope that this consultation will address this question.


Hiebert’s paper reminded me of the consensus among social scientists that relationships and emotional well-being have a high priority in our culture. It is worth noting that the relationships given highest priority are voluntary relationships and friendships, not the relationships of the family or even the workplace. This is especially true among young people. The implications of this for the Church have often been noted: people brought to a church by friends, as well as people who quickly establish friendships in a church, are most likely to stay; therefore, activities which nurture friendship should have high priority.

Many churches understand this and give high priority to the development and nurture of small groups in which friendships can be established. Churches increasingly represent and promote themselves as places where friendship, acceptance, involvement, and support flourish. They decreasingly define themselves by their doctrinal and historical distinctives. Contemporary brochures describing a local church usually contain plenty of pictures of happy people involved in joyful activity, a list of programs and interest groups sponsored by the church, and almost no reference at all to theological convictions or denominational identity. This suits the mood of our time, but delivering on the promise is very demanding. To develop and nurture many satisfying relationships in church in the midst of a mobile and transient society is an enormous challenge for staff and congregation.

This emphasis on voluntary, deep friendships creates {17} challenges for a denomination. Suppose someone were attracted to a church by the promise of the warmth and support of friendship, and found that promise fulfilled. If this person moved to a new community, what would he or she look for in the new church? Probably the attraction of friendship would be greater than location, theology, or denominational identity. Positively, this means that such people can potentially be drawn into fellowship in almost any church, so long as it is able to provide the network of personal relationships that they are seeking. Negatively, this implies that people may easily be lost to a denomination through a move to a new community, since denominational identity and loyalty will not be significant factors in church selection. As a denomination we could benefit from an intentional networking strategy that will help church members find a church home within the denomination when they move.


Our affluence and the availability of many choices make it possible for us to approach life with a “consumer” attitude. People who share interests buy similar products and join similar organizations. What happens when you project the consequences of this consumer mindset to congregations? Similar people will choose a particular congregation. Presumably this will mean that local congregations will tend to become more internally homogeneous over time. In the short term this may simultaneously make them more distinct from other congregations within the same denomination. Will there also be a natural tendency toward long term denominational homogeneity? Will congregations increasingly exercise the same choice that individuals do, opting in or out of denominations according to their own changing character or preferences? If so, congregational growth may not necessarily be reflected in similar denominational growth.

Hiebert reminds us that the public and private spheres of life are increasingly compartmentalized in our society, and he, along with many others, places religion in the private sphere. This trend is evident among us in our preference for personal experiential ecstasy rather than corporate transformation or public responsibility. This privatization of religion will be accentuated in the future if the primary attraction to faith and {18} church membership is based on the importance of personal relationships. In the past the church either withdrew from public issues or it tried to dominate and control the public sphere. In a pluralistic world, domination will be impossible, and the urgency of a Christian voice on many public issues will make withdrawal a poor alternative. The Church should create contexts in which public issues are discussed rigorously, and it should openly model alternatives to the ways of this world.

The religious pluralism of this generation may well diminish in the future as immigrant groups enter the second and third generations and become secularized. Some religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are closely linked to particular cultural forms and family traditions. As the cohesive power of the traditional family and culture diminish, the religious worldview which was inherent in them will lose its integrative capacity. Many second and third generation immigrants shed the religious tradition of their families as they adapt to their new cultural environment. The greatest challenge of the future will probably involve bringing the Gospel to people from those backgrounds who now see their religious traditions as an impediment to life in North American culture. The greatest competition will be secularism, expressed as individualism and consumerism. Even many of the new forms of spirituality have the character of secularism, for they are mostly technologies for controlling the sacred in order to augment personal well-being.

In summary, Hiebert’s paper raises several major issues for me. First, what is the proper role of the social sciences in creating the framework for our understanding of the Church? Second, on what basis will our relational bonds reach beyond our local congregation in the future? Third, the Church must find ways of openly engaging public issues in a world in which the voice of the Church will not be dominant. Fourth, and here I sense that Hiebert and I may not agree, despite the current proliferation of new religious expressions, our long term challenge will likely continue to be secularism.

Dr. James N. Pankratz, President
Mennonite Brethren Bible College
Winnipeg, Manitoba

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