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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 89–98 

Response to James R. Nikkel

Response to “Church Growth Leadership Theory and Mennonite Brethren Theology” by James R. Nikkel 20/2 (1991): 72–88.

John E. Toews

The Nikkel paper is an important statement that deserves a careful and critical response. It sharply focuses the issue of church leadership in the church growth movement.


I believe the paper is too narrowly defined. It argues for one way of defining church leadership and church growth. My response argues that Nikkel’s understandings and proposals are inadequate. The paper and this response put one of the most critical issues among Mennonite Brethren on the table, the issue of our theology and style of church leadership and church growth. Church leadership and growth questions are divisive today in the Mennonite Brethren Church.

Nikkel single mindedly argues for the Church Growth Theory [CGT] model of leadership and growth. I suggest that what we need in the church is a much more sophisticated understanding of the issues and the options, and simultaneously greater tolerance for diversity in leadership styles and structures. The CGT model works in certain churches, but not in others. We need churches and church leaders who will bless the diversity required by our culture and our {90} churches, rather than who argue the superiority of only one approach. The Mennonite Brethren need growing mega churches and growing house churches, and everything in between. We need churches that are growing both in the size of the churches and in the multiplication of churches.

The Mennonite Brethren have established some growth goals for the 90s. As one of the participants in the writing of the Vision Statement that we adopted in Hillsboro ’90, I carry a deep burden that the Mennonite Brethren Church grow to 550 churches and to 65,000 members during the ’90s. I affirm and support church growth as understood biblically.

One of the barriers to our goal is a tendency to define the means too narrowly. We will grow if we will be renewed and empowered by God’s Spirit, and if we will bless different models to evangelize and to build the church.

I think the Nikkel paper is problematic, but its theology and strategy work well in some settings. We need to bless James and his supporters, while calling them to greater humility and openness to other alternatives. We need to bless other models as well, while calling the supporters of these models to greater humility and openness to other alternatives.

My first plea then is for acceptance of greater diversity on questions of church leadership issues and styles. But I do not want to be understood as blessing diversity uncritically. Diversity must be both centered and bounded. The criteria for diversity among the Mennonite Brethren on church leadership issues are twofold: 1) biblical theology, and 2) our historic polity. Our theology and practice of church leadership must be biblical. Secondly, Mennonite Brethren believe in strong and directional church leadership that is dependent on and accountable to the members of the church. Our polity is historically a modified presbyterian governance, not a radical congregationalism. These two criteria cannot be compromised by unqualified diversity without compromising the church we wish to see grow.


Nikkel’s paper is guided by two fundamental passions. The first passion is for strong and centralized church leadership. The second is for change in the church for more effective evangelism. {91}

The passions shape the theses. The central theses of the paper are 1) that Mennonite Brethren Church leadership is fundamentally flawed by its congregational nature and its servant style, and 2) that the Church Growth Theory (CGT) and practice of central and directive leadership is the model Mennonite Brethren Churches should adopt to become effective in evangelism.

Nikkel believes Mennonite Brethren are benefiting greatly from CGT. Mennonite Brethren would benefit even more from CGT 1) if churches would adopt a more centralized and authoritative leadership structure, and 2) if pastors would define their fundamental role more clearly as change agents.

Critique of the Paper

The paper is problematic for several reasons.

First of all, the paper is very power and male oriented. Growth is a function of strong and directive male leadership. The paper does not argue for growth as a function of renewal. Most historic eras of significant church growth grew out of the profound renewal of the church. There is no reflection on growth as a function of nurture. A nurture approach to evangelism might be a more fruitful one for the baby-boomer and baby-buster generations. There seems little concern for growth as a function of enabling and empowering the God-given gifts of ministry in the church. It might be fruitful to ask if a leadership movement can be a missionary movement? Is there historical precedent for such a missionary movement? Can a missionary movement in the modern world be male-power driven, and thus by definition exclude half of the church as well as half the population?

Secondly, the paper is built on a series of assumptions which need careful analysis and reflection. The following, at least, are operative throughout the paper:

1) There is one normative biblical model of leadership and church governance structure. That model is a highly centralized, authoritative and directional pastorate. The best name for this normative model is eldership, a professionalized and centralized pastorate working with a group of male leaders called “elders.” This assumption is presented as the only biblical model, and the model to which Mennonite Brethren churches must return if they are going to be biblical and going {92} to grow. There is no biblical foundation for this assumption. Biblical scholars are unanimous in asserting that there is no one biblical structure for local church leadership. The New Testament and the history of the early church reflect diverse patterns of leadership structure (see Toews, 1980; Fee, 1989). Nikkel unfortunately confuses one thing, the clear affirmation of leadership offices in the NT with one particular model of structuring church leadership, and rejects or seriously questions another: the biblical idea that leaders are servants. Leadership is critical for the church in the NT, but there is no one normative model for the structuring of this leadership. And, maybe even more important for our time, leaders in the NT are servants, not lords; shepherds, not ranchers. While Nikkel acknowledges that Mennonite Brethren teach servant leadership, and that CGT does not, the underlying argument of the paper is that servant leadership cannot and does not work in the church. Servant leadership only creates the problems facing the Mennonite Brethren churches, according to Nikkel. But if Nikkel wants Mennonite Brethren to be biblical, he needs to call the church to multiple leadership in diverse governance structures and to servant leadership.

2) The paper assumes that a church is defined by its leadership. The ecclesiology of the paper is profoundly Protestant. The dominant Protestant ecclesiology defines the church by its leadership, e.g., the church is where the Word is properly preached and the sacraments properly observed. This definition of church has little or nothing to do with the members, but everything to do with the proper function of the leadership. Anabaptists-Mennonites, in contrast, have defined the church in terms of the people. The church is where binding and loosing, churchly discernment, and accountability take place.

Nikkel wants Mennonite Brethren to shift ecclesiological understandings and commitments. To acknowledge this would bring theological and leadership integrity to the discussion. It also would help the people in the church understand what the deeper issues are, and why some of them intuitively resist CGT about leadership for deeper reasons they do not quite understand.

Some of us would question the biblical foundation for the proposed ecclesiological shift. All the biblical metaphors for the church use peoplehood, family, categories rather than {93} leadership definitions. Others would argue that the sociology of the shift is out of date. Baby-boomers want participation and ownership. They reject institutionalism and hierarchical styles of leadership. A servant spirit and a collegial style attract them.

3) Nikkel assumes that the Mennonite Brethren Church does not have a clear and coherent leadership theology and that whatever polity exists is congregational and democratic. Furthermore, he believes that the current crisis in church leadership and church growth is a function of this faulty ecclesiology.

It is not clear on what basis Nikkel makes this assumption. A reading of Mennonite Brethren history, especially recent history, indicates that leadership questions have dominated public study processes. The issue has been the subject of multiple General Conference study conferences (1951, 1964, 1971, 1980, 1986). Many of these conferences have resulted in resolutions to the Conference. Gerry Ediger has summarized the main conclusions of these Conferences in a March 1990 paper for the Canadian Institute on Church Ministries in Winnipeg. Ediger’s paper indicates that Mennonite Brethren do have a clear leadership theology, and that Mennonite Brethren leaders do speak with one voice about church leadership.

The same must be said about the polity issue. As another paper for this consultation makes clear, Mennonite Brethren polity historically has been a modified presbyterian structure, with strong leadership and with strong congregational involvement. Mennonite Brethren ecclesiology calls for strong multiple leadership and strong congregational involvement. The crisis in many churches today can be explained in terms of unfaithfulness to this ecclesiology. In some churches the problem is strong leadership without congregational involvement, and in others it is strong congregational participation without strong leadership. A one-brush analysis does not do justice to the realities in the church.

4) Nikkel assumes that bigger is better. The problem of Mennonite Brethren is too many small churches. Breaking the 200 barrier is the criterion of measurement and the definition of the good.

Nikkel’s categories are very Western and modern. The most expansive eras of church missions, the first three centuries and the sixteenth century, are suddenly defined as {94} unsuccessful; most churches in these eras were house churches. The most phenomenal church growth of modern history, the church in China, suddenly becomes unsuccessful because the movement was a house church movement.

The examples show the problem of the Nikkel criterion. Church size is very much a function of a historical time frame, a cultural setting, an ecclesiology, and a group intention. Many churches cannot grow beyond 200 members because the politics or the demographics of the region do not permit or support such size. Many churches are small by choice. One of the most rapidly growing forms of church, even in the charismatic movement, is the house church. Church growth and health cannot be measured by one narrow and quantitative criterion.

5) Nikkel assumes that North American corporate structure is the model for church structure. Church structure and organization ought to look like the modern corporation or educational institution. Therefore, pastors should look like CEOs (chief executive officers), not servants or shepherds. This assumption certainly has no biblical foundation. The biblical models for church are clan, or family, or body. What these social units need are leaders who love, nurture, lift up, and build family solidarity. If anything, the Bible warns about church leaders who look like the dominant cultural models, e.g., kings, lords, masters.

It is even questionable if the church as corporation has good social science support. Peter Drucker (1990), one of the gurus of modern corporate wisdom, argues that the church is not a corporation, but a voluntary association. Therefore, its leadership pattern must be fundamentally different than that of the business corporation. The non-profit organization does not need CEOs, but models who embody the vision of the organization, who build up people, and who motivate the volunteers to do the mission. Drucker’s description of leadership in the non-profit organization sounds a lot more like biblical enablement and equipping than CEO managerial language.

6) Nikkel, having bought into a certain understanding of corporate structure, assumes that management by objectives (MBO) is the most effective leadership strategy, and the contemporary leadership style most consistent with the biblical teachings about leaders. MBO is a very modern definition of {95} leadership mission and function. It says the leader knows best, and, therefore, defines the objectives in measurable categories. He then manages, even drives, the organization in terms of the achievement of these quantifiable objectives.

It would be hard to make the case for the biblical faithfulness of MBO. But, it also should be noted that MBO is already out-of-date in corporate North America. Given the short-lived success and economic dominance of American corporate power in the world, the gurus of American corporate wisdom have become critical of MBO. The new language of corporate management is “management by wandering around” (MBWA). The task of leaders is to relate to people, to build up people, so that they will be motivated to do the mission of the corporation and to perform that mission effectively and efficiently (Peters, 1987).

7) Nikkel accepts the CGT assumption that sociology is the normative social science for the church. If we are going to move beyond biblical categories, we do not look to philosophy or history, the disciplines that used to inform the church’s thinking about its mission, but to sociology. And the sociology which guides the church’s thinking is structuralist sociology. Structuralism is one sociological theory or model. It is the theory that examines the structural units that make up a society and the relationship between the social units in a culture. Structuralist sociology was one of the dominant sociological theories between the 1930s and 1960s. It was helpful in understanding tribal and peasant societies, which was the sociological context of Donald McGavarn’s original work, but it is not very helpful in understanding modern urban settings. Structuralist sociology also has a static view of the social order. Modern urban life is chaotic and fragmented, not ordered and homogeneous (Hiebert, 1991).

Post-1960s sociological theory has moved beyond the structuralist model. It is more pluralist, sophisticated and interdisciplinary (taking into account the insights of anthropology and psychology). After all, it is trying to understand complexity, change and chaos. The least the church can do, if it wants to use sociology for theological and strategic guidance, is use the most current models and to do so with the caution and humility of novices who are outside their areas of conceptual and analytical competence.

8) While Nikkel has some concerns about the pragmatic {96} underpinnings of CGT, he assumes that pragmatism, what works, is a critical criterion of measuring church growth and health. And what works is defined in quantitative terms, the growth of numbers in the church.

The pragmatism of CGT is very problematic. It leads to “the least common denominator” theology. Whatever the church does in mission, it cannot offend the people in a culture if it wants to evangelize them. Quantitative success rather than faithfulness becomes the driving criterion for the church. Largeness rather than faithful discipleship is the yardstick for evaluating every church and every denomination.

Equally, maybe even more troubling, is that the pragmatic criteria are very narrowly defined, specifically numerical growth over the short term. “Does it work?” is a valid question to ask. The question, however, must be asked over time, and it must be asked by both church leaders and by the churches. Leaders must ask, has our vision, our style, our ministry really worked? Has it made a long-term difference in the life of this congregation, this denomination? Churches and denominations also must ask the same question. Has the leadership of our leaders worked? Has it made a difference? Many leaders today, and many churches, are asking if the leadership styles they have used and they have struggled with really work. There are divided churches today among the Mennonite Brethren because leaders tried to impose a particular style of leadership on the church. If the task of church leaders is to build the body, to make the sum greater than the parts, there is reason to ask if CGT really works? The sword of the pragmatic criterion cuts both ways.

9) The Nikkel paper assumes that the solution to the current crisis in the church and in church leadership is the increased professionalization and clericalization of the pastorate. Nikkel here uncritically buys into a larger analysis of the church and church leadership. This analysis makes the case that the church is in the midst of a crisis of authority. Pastors in particular no longer have any authority, social status or prestige.

One proposal to address this crisis in leadership is for the pastors as a professional guild to rebuild the authority, identity and social status of the church’s ministry. They must do this in three ways: 1) centralize the importance of the call to ministry, e.g., “I have authority to lead because God called me.” 2) Stress {97} the professionalization of the pastorate. The pastor has the authority of the expert, as in medicine and law. The pastor knows the theory. He/she can fix the problems in the church if the people will be good patients and clients, and do what the professional expert tells them to do. 3) Embrace the authority of the helping professions. People gain authority by helping others. The dominant images of the clergy today are manager and therapist. The pastor gains authority by helping the organization, by being a good CEO, or by helping people in pain, by being a good psychologist.

This mode of addressing the crisis of authority is being promoted by what is called “a ministerial culture” and is advocated in pastors’ seminars, pastors’ meetings and leadership literature for pastors.

The professionalization response to the crisis in leadership authority is again only one response, and a response driven primarily by people in church leadership who have the most to gain by their own analysis and proposals. Another group of church leaders, and social commentators, argue that the professionalization of the pastorate is a theological and sociologically misconceived response to the dechristianization of the West. The crisis is much more profound than the professionalization model perceives; it involves a major shift of social, intellectual and spiritual paradigms.


Mennonite Brethren church growth will look different than the growth of CGT. It will look different because Mennonite Brethren have a different theology of church, church leadership and church growth. Mennonite Brethren have a different theology on these issues because of their commitment to biblical theology and because of the Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective they bring to biblical interpretation and to questions of ecclesiology.

Nikkel wants Mennonite Brethren to become Protestant so that our church growth will look like CGT. Some of us want to say a very strong and powerful “yes” to church growth, but a “no” to Nikkel’s call to become something other than we are. Growth yes, but not at the price of our theological and sociological identity, integrity and faithfulness.

Mennonite Brethren churches need to grow and to plant {98} new churches. The vision of 550 churches and 65,000 members by the end of the decade is an important goal. Diverse models of church that are biblically faithful and that affirm both strong leadership and strong congregational involvement are needed to achieve these goals.


  • Fee, Gordon, “Laos and Leadership under the New Covenant,” Crux 25 (1989) 3-13. Drucker, Peter. Managing the Non-Profit Corporation. Harper, 1990.
  • Hiebert, Paul, “An Evaluation of the Church Growth Movement,” unpublished paper, 1991.
  • Kelly, Dean M. Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Harper, 1972.
  • Kreider, Alan, “The Growth of the Early Church. Reflections on Recent Literature,” Mission-Focus 18 (1990) 33-36.
  • Peters, Tom. Thriving on Chaos. Handbook for a Management Revolution. Knopf, 1987.
  • Toews, John E., “Leadership Styles for Mennonite Brethren,” unpublished study conference paper, Board of Reference and Counsel Study Conference, Clearbrook, B.C., April 1980. pp. 1-22.
John E. Toews, Academic Dean
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary
Fresno, California

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