Church growth, the Ku Klux Klan, and you

At the close of the workshop I felt troubled and uneasy. I know that a single incident cannot be taken as characteristic of the entire church-growth movement, but that workshop and subsequent experiences have raised in my mind several serious questions about certain aspects of church growth.

Samuel Geli serves as a chaplain at the Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, California.

Viewpoint is designed to allow readers an opportunity to express opinions regarding matters of interest to their colleagues. The ideas expressed in this feature are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church or the opinions of the MINISTRY staff.

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The workshop on church growth was almost over; the time for questions had come. I felt uneasy and troubled in spite of much \good that had been said. I stood to my feet. "Following the [principles that have been given here today, how should we present the gospel to a group such as the Ku Klux Klan?" I asked. I felt that the question was in order because the premise of the workshop had been that pastors need to "target" and "win" special groups no matter what they espouse or advocate.

The speaker's answer: "Don't feel that they need to change their culture or their practices; there is no need to interfere with their ideology. The important thing is to recognize this group as a highly motivated, effective unit that needs to be targeted for the church. The KKKs have needs like any other group people in the church who can understand them and accept them. Market the gospel to appeal to that group."

My surprise and response were spontaneous: I turned and left the room.

I don't claim that this person's answer is necessarily representative of all church-growth thinking, although he is considered a leader in that movement and has authored several books on the subject. But that workshop and subsequent experiences have raised in my mind several serious cautions and questions about certain aspects of church growth.

All of us had spent a generous amount of money to attend this workshop and had read several books on church growth prior to it. Various denominations were represented, and during the devotional I could sense a real bond of fellowship tying us together. But after the morning devotional Madison Avenue took over. We learned that we were salesmen who had failed our Leader, Jesus Christ. Jesus was our corporation executive whom we had frustrated by becoming entangled in social concerns, individual counseling, and wasted hours preparing sermons. We weren't aware of how much power we had as pastors; we needed to take the bull by the horns and recognize that we were religious managers and executives. Growing churches were those that were being aggressively led by their pastors. The speakers emphasized that churches that did not grow numerically would ultimately fail, and that most of the blame would be ours.

In order for church growth to take place, it was stressed, we must focus on the group. This is the unit to serve. Emphasis on the individual is gone; the group is the most important element. Church-growth concepts, as explained at this workshop, seem based on the principles undergirding supply-side economics invest energy and capital where it will insure the highest return. This is only wise stewardship. Thus to spend time and valuable resources rehabilitating the sick or ministering to the elderly is poor strategy. The inner city is abandoned for the suburbs, and concern for the poor is no longer a priority item on the church's agenda.

Any change that could facilitate growth should be made. Someone inquired whether this included doctrinal positions. The reply suggested that the church must keep in step with changing social climates and with the values of the groups it has "targeted." In order for the church to grow, it may have to change radically.

I realize that a single workshop cannot be taken as characteristic of the entire church-growth movement. I have read several books on the subject since the workshop, and I believe that much good can come to the body of Christ from church growth. I have never envisioned mediocrity or smallness as being synonymous with virtue and success. I too believe that the church needs to grow numerically if it is to accomplish its divine mission in these final days. But I also believe that an excessive zeal for numerical growth and the flawed theology behind certain church-growth concepts pose a real menace to the church. In my opinion there is much damage taking place, primarily in three areas.

1. The self-concept of the ministry. Who am I? A manager pushing buttons (people) or a facilitator for the development of the church through individual members who have unique needs and gifts that can minister to others in fellowship? I believe that much of the church-growth emphasis at present is answering this question incorrectly by presenting a self-concept of ministry based on a predetermined model patterned after secular standards of success rather than on the model provided by Jesus Christ. To me a pastor is a spiritual leader who represents Jesus in a ministry of words and deeds. Pastors are sent into the world in His name, bearing His authority not in our style and with the authority of our numerical "success." We are to present the gospel as a living potential waiting to be realized in the lives of men. We are to deal with the profound needs of individuals, as Jesus dealt with the needs of those who came to Him.

In much of church growth, pastoral care for the individual is not given priority because it isn't seen as being efficient. Unique ministries are not seen as effective unless they appeal to the masses. Individual development is encouraged in order to meet the needs and concerns of the larger group.

2. Institutional concerns versus the message of the church. Numerical growth is a poor substitute for the church that believes in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Institutional concerns within the church must never take precedence over the message of the church. Marketing techniques and management strategies may be fine if one wants to sell cars, but the gospel message is not a consumer product to be advertised and packaged in the most effective way to a targeted audience. I have seen friends in the ministry experiencing a great deal of stress because of the many charts and forms they must contend with in order to document the growth and achievements of their ministry. In the name of efficiency, church growth has tended to make the successful institution of the church the number one goal of ministry. In the name of accountability and wise management it tends to make salesmen of pastors.

3. Polarization among groups. Church growth accents the differences that separate people and emphasizes the importance of homogeneity as a main ingredient of successful growth. As a result it tends to segregate and polarize people along racial, ethnic, and economic lines. In the ideology of church growth there is little room for social concern and the needs of the inner city. To the extent that these polarizing concepts are taken seriously, people are encouraged in their prejudices and strengthened in their belief that change to the point of uncomfortableness is not necessary. Few real sacrifices, such as Jesus demands, are called for.

How would Jesus present the gospel to the Ku Klux Klan ? If we take John 10 and 2 Corinthians 5 as a guide, He would probably emphasize the ministry of reconciliation to individuals in that organization on a one-to-one basis. The ministry of Jesus was highly personal. He did not target special groups and then conform to their ideology in order to win them. He presented a fundamental alternative to the status quo. He went out looking for the one lost sheep even though it wasn't cost effective or part of an efficient strategy. Jesus listened to individuals with love and concern. He ministered in a way that held a mirror up before men so that those who would could see themselves as God sees them. Then he offered forgiveness and victory over sin.

I'm sure that Jesus would not be talking of targeting highly motivated and effective units without affecting their ideology. He would tell that Klan member to repent and leave all racial bigotry aside, to accept the love of God.

Jesus was sure of His role. Are we sure of ours?

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Samuel Geli serves as a chaplain at the Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, California.

June 1983

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