Affluent West, slow church growth: Another look

A reassessment of the role and success of church growth in "developed" countries

Borge Schantz, Ph.D., professor emeritus and retired from Newbold College, lives in Denmark.

The church growth movement, with impetus from the "mission Fields," reached the Western world around the early 1970s. At the foundation of the movement was Donald McGavran, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

The genius of the movement is that studies in biblical theology, church and mission history, social and political sciences, church structure, and statistics are integrated and become a basis for growth principles applied to both mission fields and Western churches. This new approach has brought blessings but also some dangers.

When I began my studies at the School of World Mission at Fuller, the dean warned me not to be too engrossed in the extreme "pragmatism" of the church growth movement. He knew there were aspects, strategies, and fallacies of world outreach that were explained solely on the basis of human logic and science. He also had the numbers-game in mind, through which church statistics are easily turned into an end-in-itself ecclesiastical numerology. As time passed, and I have been involved in both teaching and practical evangelism, I have often thought of and agreed with his warnings.

Western churches: a bleak picture?

The December 2002 issue of Ministry presented some analyses and research studies related to the present state of American (Western) churches. George Barna was quoted, who in various books and articles (between 1993-2001) no doubt accurately and honestly presented some of his findings. It mentioned that 80 percent of the evangelical—even Seventh-day Adventist American churches had plateaued, and were ending up with a life span of about 70 years. The members were described as a "community of saints" living in "country clubs," where they were "pampered" and "over-comfortable."1

These rather pessimistic sentences were presented to Ministry readers, many of whom have responsibilities in Western countries, where soul winning generally is hard work with meager results. What is the effect of publishing such facts to ministers who carry the burdens and heat of days, and who spend time and energy keeping the flock together?

Is the picture too one-sided? Are we getting too deep into the pragmatic aspects of church growth? Is it encouraging information for the pastors (up to 25 percent of ministers in the SDA world) who have been called to work in dry areas where soul winning is an uphill battle? Let me suggest that there are other aspects and explanations to consider when we view and evaluate the situation the churches in the West are facing today.

Where do Adventist children go to church?

In Europe (my location), we have Christian churches in various traditions that can report lifespans of considerably more than 70 active years. In my services in various parts of the world I know of active Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some "mainline" Protestant churches, some of which can report more than 1,000 years of continual spiritual, social, and pastoral services to their respective communities. Canterbury Cathedral, for instance, has a sign at the entrance announcing that in that church continual services have been held for more than 1,500 years. This has been despite the increasing secularization of Western Europe.

No doubt, their uninterrupted existence through generations has many explanations—spiritually, socially, culturally, economically, even politically. The main reason, however, is that the parents in each generation brought up, taught, and instilled in their children that the Christian faith and their active presence and support for the local community are significant to their personal life.

In our desire to see dynamic and filled churches we could, no doubt, have reached that goal ourselves if we had been able to bring up and keep our own children in the faith. Had we been more successful in this respect we would in many churches have had three generations of Adventists filling the pews. In many ways, it would not be necessary to win the unchurched in each generation in order to have an active church and overflowing pews. Those who were born into the church es would be able to carry the torch.

Referring to Deuteronomy 6:21, Ellen White has this counsel: "Here are the principles that we are not to regard with indifference. Those who have seen the truth and felt its importance, and have had an experience with the things of God, are to teach sound doctrine to their children. They should make them acquainted with the great pillars of our faith, the reasons why we are Seventh-day Adventists—why we are called, as were the children of Israel, to be a particular people, a holy nation, separate and distinct from all other people on the face of the earth. These things should be explained to the children in simple language, easy to be understood; and as they grow in years, the lessons imparted should be suited to their increasing capacity, until the foundations of truth have been laid broad and deep."2

Church growth principles and Advent message

Our original commission and prophetic calling was not, of course, just to bring our children into a meaningful relationship with Christ. It is not even limited to filling the churches with people who are sincere and happy Christians, although this would give us a sense of fulfillment and certainly is one of the main emphases of those in the church growth movement.

Our divine call is much more comprehensive and somewhat different. It is to warn the world about the soon coming of Jesus Christ and proclaim the three angels' messages. This really means that we should not aim at get ting people into the pews on Sabbath by any method. The main attraction should be the Advent message.

Ellen White's counsel quoted above also underlines this special call and role in the world. Seventh-day Adventists are to bring a warning message to the world. Our work is to call people into a community of believers who are "distinct from all other people on earth" with a proclamation of lost biblical truth.

For that reason our main task is not just to get people into the churches. It is to invite those to join us who are looking for sound doctrine and who are heeding the last call before the advent of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps there is a notion here that, valuable as church growth principles are, they should always be geared and adapted to this special role of the Seventh-day Advenstist Church. Our goal is primarily not to grow in numbers. More specifically, we are here to call those who are seeking the truth for the last days. And we have to accept that they generally are few in numbers in some areas.

God's right- and left-hand work?

Some church growth analysts say that 80 percent of Western evangelical churches have plateaued and lost their sense of mission. And these 80 percent want to be pampered rather than "get dirty" by involving them selves with winning the lost. They are comfortable Christians gathered as a "community of saints" in churches that are more like country clubs. Is it fair to apply such an evaluation to Seventh-day Adventist church es in the affluent West? Perhaps there is some truth to such an evaluation, but isn't it possible to understand that the Lord of missions has both a "righthand" and a "left-hand" work in the world?

God's "right-hand work" could be seen as frontline activity where Adventist Christians are proclaiming the three angels' messages in many parts of the world, sometimes under trying circumstances, but mostly with good results. They constitute a growing number of national workers and missionaries who in spite of dangers choose to go to places that are ripe for the harvest. The "left-hand work" takes place at traditional home bases. Here believers are specially called, among other things, to support the "right-hand work" as it goes on at the demanding frontier venues. In this calling, these so-called "country club" Christians have an important role to play in salvation history. They may not be living where many souls are won, but they are generally members of financially strong churches, with well-educated members in good positions.

This means they contribute considerable amounts of tithe and offerings to the general storehouse. This creates a setting in which sound financial strategies may be implemented in behalf of the world church as it presses forward with the activities of the "right hand," resulting in large additions to church member ship, generally in areas that are less financially advantaged.

Another important contribution of the "left hand" is the supply of human resources. A vast majority of administrators, missionaries, teachers, theologians, pastors, and evangelists in the worldwide Advent movement are second-, third-, fourth-, and even fifth-generation Adventists. They generally stem from what some have perceived and termed the "pampered community of saints."

Thus, during a time when their churches do not have the great possibilities for wholesale numerical growth, these communities of saints have a very significant "left-hand work" to do. They supply the ripe fields with resources. They are keeping the wheels turning. God's left and right-hand workers are supplementing one another and seeing to the growth of the body as a whole. Both left and right have their important place in the overall plan of the Lord of missions.

Is church growth always possible?

There are other important matters to consider when we evaluate Western churches in a merely negative way. Soul winning and church growth are sometimes legitimately seen as resulting from such factors as the four Ms: effective, charismatic ministers; active members; attractive methods; and convincing messages. There are many active "left-hand" churches with hardworking pastors/evangelists, all kinds of stimulating methods and ideas, keen members who are consistently reaching out, the spending of vast amounts of money on various evangelistic approaches, that still yield meager results. Let us consider some reasons for this.

1. Only people in transition are generally winnable. The most significant factors that cause people to come to Christ and the church are not evangelistic approaches. They are persons yearning for God, homesick for His kingdom. They are sinners longing for forgiveness and the peace that passes understanding. Often they suffer from a feeling of emptiness, depression, and insecurity. They are people with all sorts of needs, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. They are people in a state of transition on both a personal and community level. At the heart of things, they are in no way prompted by any church activity.

Generally people in affluent Western societies do not experience extreme distresses in the way their counterparts do in other societies. They are taken care of socially from the cradle to the grave. The places where people are turning by the thousands to Christ are countries deprived in various ways. The impressive reports of people turning to Christ come from the so-called developing world. A hardworking pastor in an affluent society cannot change this situation, and therefore should not feel guilty, or take the rather thoughtless criticisms of others too much to heart, even when such criticisms come from the "left-hand" ranks right around him or her.

2. An area can have reached a state of gospel saturation. At His ascension Jesus outlined the geographic sequences of future mission: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He promised His apostles the power of the Holy Spirit in order for them to witness. First mentioned is Jerusalem, then Judea, and after Samaria to the ends of the earth. We notice that Galilee is not included in Jesus' outward vision. Still it was in this province that He grew up and spent most of His earth ly ministry. Geographically speaking, if Samaria is mentioned, surely Galilee should also be included.

Is the reason for omitting Galilee the fact that Christ and the disciples, the majority of whom were Galileans, evangelized Galilee to her borders? They spent most of their time there. Of His 33 recorded miracles, 25 were performed in Galilee, and 19 of His 32 parables were told to Galileans. Galilee in the days of Jesus had a small population and covered only about 1,250 square miles (the size of the state of Rhode Island). Are we to conclude that after the Ascension there was not very much to do in Galilee? The people there had had their opportunities. It was now time to go to the world around Galilee.

Is there a lesson in this for us today? A town or an area can be evangelized to a saturation point in such a way that after a certain point few will embrace the gospel invitation. Further intensive work may be futile and a waste of energy and money.

This is often the case for SDAs living around major church institutions. Members are drawn to these places, not only because of employment opportunity, but also due to interesting church programs and church schools. Where this state has been reached, the task of the pastor/evangelist is largely to keep members faithful and to support mission in areas where people are winnable.

3. Other nongrowth factors. Three motifs from the New Testament will further help us to understand the hard times "left-hand" churches experience as far as growth is concerned.

First, the Bible speaks (Matt. 10:14; Luke 10:11; Acts 13:51) of cases where people do not welcome, refuse to listen, and even persecute the missionary. The biblical message in such a case is that the messenger should not waste time on such people and do as Jesus said: Shake off the dust of the feet and move on.

Second, on one occasion Paul was held back by the Holy Spirit from preaching in certain areas (Acts 16:6- 10). The apostle proceeded to Macedonia where the first European converts were baptized. There are areas, which at a certain time are not ripe for the gospel. The messenger is advised to go on to the next place.

Third, the church in Ephesus received a warning: You have forsak en your first love and the lampstand could be removed from its place (Rev. 2:4, 5). The lampstand is a fitting symbol of the church's proclamation of the gospel, resulting in growth. There can be churches not spiritually ready for new converts. The primary work in such situations is to evangelize the local lukewarm church.

These three situations reveal obstacles to church growth and planting. Such negative causes can stem from inside and outside the church. The lampstand is mobile: 2,000 years of church history have shown that the lampstand has moved from Western Asia to North Africa to Southern Europe. During the Reformation God moved the lampstand to countries in Northern Europe and from there to North America. Today it seems that the lampstand burns brightest in Latin America. Missiologists predict that in 50 years Africa will be the strongest Christian continent. This seems well on the way to being true.

In the Adventist experience we have also seen the phenomenon of the moving lampstand. Our movement was only a North American one 150 years ago. One hundred years ago it had developed into a "white man's" movement, as it began to encompass Europe, Australia, and South Africa. Today these bastions only account for 10 percent of the world membership, promising even smaller proportions in the future. The lampstand has now moved to almost "every nation, tribe, language, and people."

Advice to pastors in affluent churches

Do not lose courage. Don't feel pity for yourself or be slack on your activities and initiative. Facing your special challenges, you have a very important call and tremendous responsibilities. It could be, of course, that your priorities should be changed. Here are some thoughts along this line:

1. Prepare and make your churches and members aware of the activities of the Spirit of God, who alone is able to make a church effective in His mission, so that it brings true growth. The day could well come when the lampstand moves back to your area. We should stand ready for this, striking to make an otherwise cool iron hot.

2. Conduct inspiring programs in the church and be diligent in regular home visitations. This will keep the members content and even proud of their church and her activities both at home and abroad. Let them under stand that growth and progress in socalled mission fields is certainly also their reward, because they have been faithful in tithes and offerings, prayers, and even sending personnel to places where things are happening. Regular home visits will increase church attendance, tithe, and offerings.

3. Let special meaningful activities be geared to the children in the church. However, in doing this, we must be careful not to give the idea that the children are so distinct and favored that they begin to separate themselves from senior members. Although the programs for children should be somewhat different, it should still be made clear to them that they are by all means members of the body. It is vitally important that the worship service be an occasion each week where the whole family of God is together, singing the same hymns, listening to the same sermon. In the baptismal preparations for the youth, we need to emphasize the uniqueness of the Advent message while we make faith in Jesus the uppermost concern.

4. Public evangelism is a demanding but by no means hopeless undertaking. There are persons, also in the neighborhood of any church, even in prosperous Western areas, that are in states of transition—physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They are the winnable. Study your district to find out what the issues are and where the problems reside. Then design evangelistic programs that meet the needs of the people.

5. Pay close attention to church growth literature. But read it with a grain of salt. Above all, do not be discouraged by what you read. Always have in mind that in soul-winning work, you are not at a table of self service. God is the only true Author of church growth. "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Cor. 3:6, NIV, emphasis sup plied).

1 George Bama, cited in Russell Burrill, "Can Dying Churches Be Resuscitated?" in Ministry, December 2002, 14.

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1948), 5:331.



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Borge Schantz, Ph.D., professor emeritus and retired from Newbold College, lives in Denmark.

October 2003

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