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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 66–69 

Response to Herb Kopp

Response to “Biblical Perspectives of Church Growth Which Mennonite Brethren Should Embrace” by Herb Kopp 20/2 (1991): 50–65.

Chuck Buller

There are three paths by which to understand the impact of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) on Mennonite Brethren churches. One path, the one chosen by Herb Kopp, is to read the available literature, analyze it both theologically and sociologically, and draw conclusions. Herb Kopp walks this path well. He raises the issues in a fair and comprehensive manner. Two other paths are: attend a Church Growth seminar, and use the “tools.” The CGM specialists are indeed pragmatists. One really cannot understand the tools they have to offer until one has sat through their conventions, heard from the practitioners, and then gone home and learned the hard way what was good and bad about their advice.

To follow these two paths may lead to conclusions different from those reached by Kopp.

A key criticism of the CGM, says Kopp, is that it too narrowly defines evangelism. Kopp outlines the possible evangelistic approaches: presence, proclamation, and persuasion. The CGM’s stated philosophy is that of persuasion. Kopp believes that CGM leaders “forthrightly reject a notion of ‘holistic’ evangelism,” and that the CGM moves onto shaky ground “when it sets one {67} word of Jesus (the Great Commission, Matthew 28: 19-20) over against another word of Jesus (the Great Commandment, Luke 10:25ff).” If one spends any time at Church Growth conferences, and evaluates the tools they offer, one quickly discovers that here is an organization with a target. I’ve never been left with the impression that CGM proponents seek to provide all the answers regarding evangelism. They want to see churches evangelize for the purpose of people’s conversion to Christ and their subsequent responsible church membership (sounds like Anabaptist objectives!). Their name tells the story. They are about church growth. Don’t parachurch organizations exist precisely because the church, so concerned with having a complete theology, completes nothing in particular? If churches and pastors choose to define their own purpose narrowly as one of persuasion only, that’s their problem, and not the fault of CGM.

It is troubling when pastors and churches think they have to buy all or nothing of what a parachurch organization has to sell. When pastors (who have very few objective criteria by which to evaluate ministry) use Church Growth as their one and only method of evaluation, they quickly become idolaters at the altar of numerical success. When, on the other hand, they resist the sociological truths that have an impact on evangelism, they may find themselves disobedient to the Great Commission. We must reject both extremes.

Any exposure to CGM leaders will quickly indicate that although they exist to help churches grow, they are not necessarily narrow in their methods. Some of the most recent assistance the CGM has offered to churches meets the needs of the whole person. A “tool” which CGM is marketing effectively is the small group philosophy. The assumption is that if one wants to minister Christ to the whole person, one must know the person’s needs. In the modern context one needs a mechanism that provides accountability. To quote Jim Dethmer (Conference on Assimilation, Toronto, 1991), “The church of tomorrow will not have small groups, it will be small groups.” The CGM is simply marketing a tool that it feels best fits our culture in helping churches move from talking about “holistic” evangelism, to actually doing it.

Consider the CGM’s “pragmatism.” Its directives for both pastor and congregation to be willing to pay the price for growth, and also to get rid of that which does not work, are in {68} my mind, its most helpful contributions. Such pragmatism is threatening, both theologically and experientially, until one realizes the underlying assumption. Here is not a model for persons who simply love success. It’s actually a model for those who are willing to fail in their efforts to see people converted to Christ. At a recent CGM conference, the speaker suggested that in urban settings, for every four ideas we try, three will fail. For people with rural roots that sounds strange. (My father would have been a poor farmer indeed if for every three peach trees he planted, only one survived.) Yet, in cities, trial and error must be part of our strategy. If we are indeed, a “Christ-centered,” “God-conscious,” “Bible-reading movement,” those risks serve as no threat to our theology.


In truth, we need as many self-evaluative tools as we can get. We are all notorious for seeing ourselves as we want to be seen, not necessarily as we are. For too long we have seen ourselves as a denomination that is a “missionary movement.” Such self-appraisal “warms the heart.” But the CGM simply asks: Are you sure it’s not really heart burn you’re feeling? By whose definition are you a “missionary movement?” Can a denomination that barely exceeds biological growth credibly claim that it is a missionary movement? How long can we live on the fruits of our efforts in India and Zaire? What about the urban centers such as Toronto and Los Angeles where Mennonite Brethren ethnic immigration has not been a part of our story? The CGM asks us an amazingly simple question (which we are tempted to complicate in study conferences): Are we willing to pay the price for urban mission in North America? It is in urban evangelism where we as a denomination need the help that CGM can give.

These reflections are not intended, however, to suggest unqualified support for the CGM. Every human movement has weaknesses. As I see it, the critical weakness in the CGM (one not noted by Kopp) is its lack of sensitivity to the way its methodology affects the people (mainly pastors) who “buy its product.” The CGM must help its pastors discern when methodology becomes theology. Failure to do so is devastating for a pastor’s psychological health. Bill Hull, in his excellent book, The Disciple Making Pastor, describes the danger of a {69} theological idea which is sold as a method. The method is to enlist resource people, the top five percent of pastors in North America, who create expectations which the other ninety-five percent of pastors will never meet, simply because the ninety-five percent do not have the same mix of gifts. One may compare CGM with Madison Avenue techniques. However, church growth doesn’t come guaranteed with the binder. Real pastors have eventually to work with real people to permit God the opportunity to build His church. When pastors attend seminars such as those offered by CGM, they should have key lay leaders at their side. These brothers and sisters can ensure that the pastor retains balance: that the pastor has not succumbed either to delusions of grandeur or to suicidal tendencies. If ever a priesthood of believers is needed, it is in pastors and lay leaders sharing together a new strategy for evangelism in our cities. The growing of the church is a shared leadership task.

Chuck Buller, Pastor
Waterloo, Ontario

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