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The Market-Driven Church: A Look Behind the Scenes*

By Gary E. Gilley  

Part I -- The Market-Driven Church

The church, as observed throughout its history, reminds me a lot of a duffer's golf swing. She is constantly going from one extreme to the next, over correcting, coming up short, searching, and frustrated. Occasionally, she gets it right and drives one down the middle, but repeating that feat is rare and soon she is slicing again.

Take the church growth movement for example. Having watched a large segment of the church become content with short yardage and lousy scores, some decided that there had to be a better way. The church was not penetrating society; she was not pulling in the masses; she was not making a significant impact for the gospel. It was not that the church leaders didn't care, it was, it seemed, that they lacked the "know-how," the tools, to effect change. The gospel was still "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16), but it was being rejected out-of-hand by too many. What was needed, apparently, were new methods to reach the lost, new techniques to promote the church, new packages for the gospel message. People, we were told, were not rejecting the gospel or Christ; they were rejecting our out-of-date, unappetizing forms, philosophies, and methods. It is these pronouncements that need to be examined.

While we will examine the writing of various individuals who speak for the market-driven movement, we will focus often on the two flagship churches: Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, and Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. These churches serve as the models that are reshaping the way we "do church" today. As a matter of fact, many refer to these churches and their clones as "new paradigm churches." Churches all over the world, even those who would claim to reject the church growth movement, are imitating the many methods promoted by Saddleback and the "Creekers." Others have written about church growth, but these two churches have made it "work," and for their success they are idolized and adored by the modern evangelical community.

The New Paradigm

There are numerous things about the market-driven church growth movement that are disturbing. But at this point, we need to ask some questions: What exactly is a new paradigm church? How do they work? How do they differ from more traditional churches? What are they doing right? Why are they growing? And what can we learn from them?

First, we must distinguish between megachurches and new paradigm churches: Megachurches are defined as those with average worship attendance of 2,000 or more, but these behemoth churches come in all shapes, stripes, and forms. Some are centers of great preaching and teaching, some are charismatic, others are little more than social clubs. New paradigm churches, on the other hand, are identified by a philosophy of ministry intentionally designed to effect numerical growth. In their church growth methodologies, more attention is paid to market strategy, business techniques, and demographics than to New Testament instruction. Read the leading literature from the pens of the church growth experts (e.g. The Purpose Driven Church, by Rick Warren of Saddleback; Marketing the Church, by George Barna and Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry, by Lee Strobel) and you will find bucket loads of marketing techniques and only passing references to the book of Acts (the divinely inspired "church growth" manual), or to any other Scripture for that matter.

An interesting article, just the type that shapes the new paradigm system, is found in American Demographics magazine (American Demographics, April 1999, "Choosing My Religion," pp. 60-65, by Richard Cimino and Don Lattin). Several statements from the article are worth quoting since American Demographic seems to have its finger on the pulse of Americans' wants and desires. According to this article, people today claim they are:

... into spirituality, not religion Behind this shift is the search for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not the head. It's a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and revels in direct experience of the divine -- whether it's called the "Holy Spirit" or "cosmic consciousness" or the "true self." It is practical and personal, more about stress reduction than salvation, more therapeutic than theological. It's about feeling good, not being good. It's as much about the body as the soul Some marketing gurus have begun calling it "the experience industry" (Ibid., p. 62).

"Congregants," the authors believe, "care as much about a church's childcare services as its doctrinal purity, pay more attention to the style of music than the pastor's theological training" (ibid.). If these things are true, how should the church react? Church marketing consultant Richard Southern encourages us to have:

... an essential paradigm shift in the way church is done, putting the needs of potential customers before the needs of the institutional church. Baby boomers [the inevitable target of new paradigm churches] think of churches like they think of supermarkets, they want options, choices, and convenience. ... Numerous surveys show that Americans are as religious as ever -- perhaps more than ever. ... But what is on the decline is Americans' loyalty to particular denominations or traditions. ... In 1958 only 1 in 25 Americans had left the religious denomination of their upbringing. Today, more than 1 in 2 have left or switched. Protestant megachurches have become the evangelical answer to Home Depot, marketing such services as worship, child care, a sports club, 12-step groups, and a guaranteed parking place (ibid., p. 63).

The natural outcome of church leaders who pour over such literature, is that they begin to use "computerized demographic studies and other sophisticated marketing techniques to fill their pews" (ibid., p. 62). And the good news is that it does not matter what a given church believes, for "anyone can learn these marketing and outreach techniques. You don't have to change your theology or your political stance" (ibid.).

Springing from this fountain of demographic "truth" is a whole industry of experts to teach church marketing techniques. One such expert is Christian A. Schwarz, who is the director of the Institute for Natural Church Development. Schwarz claims that between 1994 and 1996, his organization conducted "the most comprehensive research project about the causes of church growth that has ever been conducted in the Christian church More than 1,000 churches on all five continents took part in this study" (The ABC's of Natural Church Development, by Christian A. Schwarz).

From this mountain of research, Schwarz has observed eight characteristics of growing churches. These are:

... empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism and loving relationships.

Schwarz claims that these principles work in any type of church anywhere in the world, and that if all characteristics are present, these principles will work every time:

Every church in which each of the eight quality characteristics has reached a certain level. . . is a growing church. There is qualitative value -- which can be shown in exact statistical terms -- beyond which a church will always grow (ibid., p. 23).

One quality especially important to today's growing churches is enthusiastic worship services. Schwarz asks his readers, "Is the worship service an inspiring experience for those who attend it? It is this area that clearly separates growing from non-growing churches. People who attend inspiring worship services unanimously declare that the church service is -- and for some Christians this is almost a heretical word -- 'fun'" (ibid., p. 14).

Growing churches are creating an atmosphere, an environment of fun. So fun has replaced holiness as the church's goal. Having a good time has become the criterion of an excellent, growing church, since fun and entertainment is what church consumers want. Yet Scripture references encouraging churches to become havens of fun are, as one may suspect, sadly lacking.

Which church was a growing church in the book of Revelation -- the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22), which saw itself as rich and wealthy and in need of nothing; or the church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11), that was described as poor, in tribulation, and facing great persecution? God said of the Laodicean church that He would spit them out of His mouth, but of the Smyrna church that they would receive the crown of life. The obviously growing church did not please God, while the struggling one did. This is something worth pondering.

                                                                                                              part 2


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