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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 114–17 

Response to J. B. Toews

Response to “The Church Growth Theory and Mennonite Brethren Polity” by J. B. Toews 20/2 (1991): 102–13.

Marvin Hein

J. B. Toews maintains that Mennonite Brethren believe and should practice a modified Presbyterian form of church government, which includes the idea that the primary church unit is the conference, not the local congregation. Do we see the conference as the primary church unit? Our recent inability to change the conference name suggests we are not agreed that we are “a single covenant community rather than a loosely bound association of local churches” (General Conference Yearbook 1990). There is a growing tendency to emphasize the local church.

The move toward local autonomy likely occurred not for theological reasons but because we have breathed deeply from a culture that virtually defies free choice and independence. The “me-generation” has caused us to think in terms of “me-churches” rather than giving precedence to the conference.

Persuading people that the conference is prior to the local church will be difficult. If George Barna’s analysis of our culture, along with others, is correct, promoting loyalty to a once-removed, larger sphere church (conference) will be going against stream. Toews gives us helpful hints about the biblical rationale. I and others will need persuasive arguments to understand this view. If both the Bible {115} and our rich heritage support the view that the local church is part of an organism that is larger than and prior to the local church, then we need instruction both at pastoral and grassroots levels. There is no doubt that our spiritual forbears made the conference the prior church unit.

An illustration of our move toward local autonomy can be seen with respect to ordination. In the United States, and perhaps in Canada, district/provincial conferences have become less involved in ordinations. In study conferences we hear repeated calls for ordination not to be restricted to pastoral roles. Without arguing the biblicity of that idea, such calls give another example of moving with our polity to local churches rather than to the conference.

I see little in the Church Growth Movement, with its emphasis on size, success, numbers and strong leadership that holds promise for giving the conference priority. The more powerful and successful the leader becomes, the more powerful the congregation is apt to grow. The more powerful the church becomes, the less need it has for a conference.


More basic to our discussion, perhaps, is the emphasis of the Church Growth Movement on a leadership pattern centered in the pastor rather than in corporate congregational leadership. As Toews has aptly pointed out, the language of Church Growth adherents with respect to pastors as “commanders” hardly agrees with our understanding of the servant-leadership style. A leadership model that is blatantly promoted as highly centralized and autocratic does not blend with leadership styles exemplified in Christ’s life or modeled in the early Church. We may have to ask, however, if it is possible to function as a large super-church without employing the corporate model of governance.

Can leaders working under a highly centralized and authoritative polity be shepherds? How does the shepherding image inform us on our practice today when we turn to a management style of leadership? The shepherd image hardly allows for leaders being “bosses” and manhandling the sheep.

While suggesting that the jury is still out, Brother Toews illustratively points out that the Church Growth Movement builds quantitatively but lacks quality. Illustrations might well {116} be offered of other churches led by low-profile pastors who fail as well in qualitative leadership. Is it really true that smaller, less evangelism-oriented churches with less autocratic leadership necessarily produce more “quality” persons?

How do you determine “qualitative” growth? The more recently publicized pastoral scandals have indeed usually involved “super-pastors.” Many other pastors in smaller churches, however, not enamored with Church Growth theories, have fallen to the same sins. Perhaps the key to most such moral failures is that leaders, in small and large churches, whether using or ignoring Church Growth principles, fell more easily because they took advantage of power as leaders. A word of warning is appropriate for strong, autocratic leadership that tends to be unaccountable to others.

Is a successful emphasis on outreach incompatible with longterm qualitative growth? Can highly centralized leadership also be servant-leadership? Can church growth centered in the pastor build strong, stable and enduring churches? Can churches majoring in numerical growth also maintain a corporate leadership style?

We want both strong and shared leadership. Both are biblical. Either, when drawn to extremes, is dangerous. Strong leadership easily becomes corrupt. Shared leadership with strong congregational involvement easily succumbs to so much processing that little is accomplished. A further danger of the stress on highly centralized polity is that heavy-handed leadership tends to reproduce itself. Well-meaning elders, mentored by strong pastors, become autocratic and oblivious to how the congregation perceives their abuse of power. Moreover, heavy-handed leadership more often majors on kingdom-building (its own) than on building community. If the covenant community idea is valid, then we do well to examine any system or polity that de-emphasizes congregational participation and highlights the power of leadership.

George Barna suggests we may have to redefine “success.” He combines quality and quantity in his redefinition. Typically, he says, we define success by counting-counting attendance, counting members, counting dollars. He suggests we emphasize quality in order to come to quantity:

Perhaps the ’90s will enable us to examine quality, rather than quantity, as a better indicator of success and church {117} growth. If the experience of many of today’s growing churches is any indication, the best means to gaining quantity is through quality: Americans are irresistibly drawn to those organizations that ooze quality. Given our shifting values, and the peaking interest in excellence and high standards, churches which evoke a sense of quality will be more attractive than those that simply continue to perform their usual routine, oblivious to standards (The Frog in the Kettle, 150).

Marvin Hein, Pastor
North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church
Fresno, California

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