Why Church Growth Is Anti-Progressive: A Thesis

Why Church Growth Is Anti-Progressive: A Thesis February 21, 2020

If you survey the North American religious landscape, the evidence is pretty clear. The mega-churches are conservative. You have churches like Mars Hill in Seattle which went against the trend and built a conservative mega-church in Pacifica in the 2000s. You have that other Mars Hill in Michigan (why both of these are Mars Hill I’ve never understood) which Rob Bell built but once he discerned he wasn’t conservative he had to leave.

Even the more pop cultural mega-churches across the country are at least moderately if not seriously conservative: Saddleback in California, Willow Creek in Chicago, Cross Church here in Northwest Arkansas, Lakewood in Houston, Elevation in North Carolina.

Take a look at the list of megachurches in the U.S. and note their denominational affiliation, and the evidence is pretty clear.

Browsing that very long list, the only church I can say is truly a mega-church and is left rather than right of center (albeit just barely) is Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

So why is this? Why are mega-churches almost exclusively only one kind of Christian, conservative Protestant?

I guess the theory on the right could be right: they’re the only faithful ones, so God blesses them with growth.

But I suspect that isn’t really the case. My suspicion is this: there is something about church growth that is not progressive. Or there is something about progressive Christianity that is allergic to growth.

Here’s the first thesis: Progressive Christianity has a bottom-up approach to ecclesiology, whereas church growth is hierarchical.

Let me flesh this first thesis out a bit. By bottom-up, I mean something along the lines of “history from below.” Howard Zinn’s People’s History. In such “from below” approaches there is an emphasis on disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, the nonconformists, and otherwise marginal groups.

Sound like progressive Christian discourse? You bet. So such churches in their approach to ministry will be unlikely to structure their shared life together in ways that are more hierarchical, emphasizing a prominent leader or founder (common in the mega-church model) and even when they do have a charismatic leader, that leader’s approach to ministry will still be much more bottom-up (think of as just the most prominent current example William Barber II and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign).

**I am guessing that as a Lutheran author I might be somewhat blind to how this specific dynamic plays out in pentecostal movements, where some of the bottom up approaches might still be present while hosting large mega-church gathers, and would welcome insights from readers.

Progressive Christianity has a distributive approach to ecclesiology, whereas church growth is acquisitive.

Church growth has to create a whole world within itself. It is in this sense “absorbing.” Church growth models include large facilities where all of life is lived or conducted within the confines of the church network. Cell groups. Home studies. Gyms. Sports leagues. Book stores. Coffee shops.

Such movements ask listeners to listen to a special Christian radio station, buy their books at Christian bookstores, choose businesses from the Christian yellow pages.

Meanwhile, progressives operate out of more of an inherently Lutheran position: vocation in daily life, no need to absorb. Progressives probably wonder: what’s wrong with regular radio? Popular books?

They might even be suspicious: will a Christian barber really cut my hair better than a secular one? What’s a Christian haircut look like?

Conservative mega-movements are designed to absorb all of life into themselves. They also then need to absorb a lot of your cash.

Meanwhile, progressive Christian movements commit to ways of being that sometimes risk them melting into their surroundings, becoming one, or at least entwined with, those very different from themselves. There is a porosity practiced on purpose: interfaith camps, ecumenical social service, sharing of mission, distribution of the ministries catalyzed by the movement.

I can think of examples here in our own context, like Canopy NWA or Little Free Pantry, both organizations born out of our local Lutheran congregation we haven’t branded or attempted to assimilate into our church brand. Instead, we’ve released them to be themselves.

An intriguing counter-example to my thesis may be Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, featured in the New Republic for it’s progressive values. The article’s worth reading, and may illustrate there is more potential for large progressive church influence than in a previous era. But it’s important to know even this “progressive” mega-church is, according to Church Clarity, non-affirming of LGBTQ+.

Why does any of this matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter a ton. Churches are going to do what churches are going to do. But it does help explain a phenomenon widely observed on the religious scene in North America.

It may also offer a bit of relief. It very well could be that models for “church-growth” simply won’t work well in progressive churches because the models, which often portray themselves as practical, business solutions to growth, are at root more theologically influenced than they appear.

For progressive churches to flourish, they’ll need to find vitalizing models that resonate with the inherently bottom-up, distributivee approach to church life that aligns with their theology.


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  • Judgeforyourself37

    Mega Churches, and far right wing Evangelical ?Churches have large choirs, orchestras and they sing hymns with singable tunes. Why? First and foremost it is the “entertainment factor.” Unless your pledge is more than you can afford, and you only donate a small amount, it is cheap entertainment. When the preacher spews his nonsense, folks just take a morning nap.

  • Roger Wolsey

    Good work here. Other things at play include the reality that progressive Christians don’t think Christianity has a monopoly on God’s truth and so people are merely making lateral moves and if they’re already a member of a different religion there is no real need for them to convert. Also, we need to remember that if one looks at James Fowler‘s stages/perspectives of faith, the vast majority of the American citizenry hold perspectives more in sync with conventional forms of theology that simply provide a syllabus that one must agree to.

    That said, progressive Christians do hold a special place for the empowering story of Jesus in our hearts and, because of our humble view that no one really needs to convert to Christianity, that very humility, that our approach to God is but one of many, is what is compelling to many people. So we are evangelistic even as we are not (in conventional understandings)! We just may not ever have congregations of over say 2000 people max. Most will be between 100 to 500 members. And that’s OK.

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like Christianity”

  • bill wald

    The Church model has adopted the American Capitalist business model. Money is the civil religion of the USA and the rest of the world.

  • Dennis Evans

    The “Church Growth” model is also anti rural and anti small town.

  • I think there are a number of issues at play as well. Just as American mainline denominations have lost membership over the last few decades, so are evangelical denominations, at least in America. It makes sense to combine a shrinking membership or attendance into larger venues. Also, since evangelical churches heavily emphasize proselytizing and mission work, larger churches have more resources to do mission work. Conservatives also tend to see themselves as beleaguered and “persecuted” and mega-churches offer an all-encompassing “escape” or alternate reality to what they feel (either real or imagined) is happening in outside culture. Conservative confirmation biases can be quite comforting. But the most obvious reason for mega churches is the conservative tendency to follow personalities. Strong personalities have a great deal of appeal to authoritarian religion and followers who like to have their religion explained to them.

  • Is it not also the case that biblical church growth is about a focus on the increase of Christian converts not the size of a local church per se? Other aspects of growth concern individual spirituality.

  • Nixon is Lord

    The “progressive” churches are descended, mostly, from state churches-places in Europe where you had to belong or you got exiled/fined; they never developed “growth” strategies because you were born into them. Coming here, they structure of Protestantism filtered down into class/racial lines and people ‘rose’ into them with education/social status increase-again, no “growth” strategy needed or used, other than that of class and education markers and self-selection. Since the 60s, people have been able to filter themselves by class without using religion and do politics and marriage without much reference to church, with the result that a lot of the “progressive” churches are shrinking.

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    When conservative Evangelical churches began preaching the false ‘gospel’ of prosperity, they lost many of their truly genuine practicing Christian members. Mega-churches are the outward manifestation of that false teaching.

    Jesus said: “The Son of Man hath nowhere to lay his head.” – Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58

    There is a reason why God the Father had his Son born in a barn. There’s a reason why Christ, with his Earthly family, were refugees in Egypt.

    There is a reason why the Scriptures plainly show us which is the right path to follow our Savior.

    “He hath shown thee, oh man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
    – Micah 6:8

  • Guthrum

    I know of several area churches that would qualify to most people as “mega”. They are not ultra-conservative, but more middle of the road. They have full service programs such as small groups, sports leagues, multi-cultural, community involvement, partner with local public schools, and support groups.Some send mission teams to other countries to help the people there. They are Gospel oriented and involved heavily in helping people. There is a UMC church, a PCA church, and a Pentecostal church. Most of the others are independent. And there is Elevation.
    They are characterized by being energetic, welcoming, and most are always in some sort of building expansion project.

  • Guthrum

    I would not disagree with some of that. I have looked at the church growth movement over the last two decades. There may be some common factors, such as location being very important, and an energetic pastor. And I have seen new church plants try to copy other churches. It does not work that way.
    As far as re-starting a church in decline, that is harder than starting a new church. It can happen but the Holy Spirit has to really be present.
    Ed Stetzer is a good source for information on church trends and church planting.

  • swbarnes2

    Yeah, I think the desire for authoritarianism is a big part of this. Authoritarian Christian churches are losing membership slower than mainstream, less authoritarian churches. I think authoritarians really want their authoritarianism, (though they are pushing out non-authoritarians) and non-authoritarians are not finding anything useful in mainline Christians churches, so they are just leaving.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    Our nation is in crisis, due to Trump, people are frightened that we are becoming a Fascist Nation, thus, when frightened people attend church they want “Black and White Answers.” This is a sin, something else is not a sin. Some folks just do not know where to turn, they do not know what to do so that the black and white answers is soothing.
    Another advantage the Far Right Wing Evangelical Churches have to offer is their large choirs, sometimes orchestras, old time hymns that the attendees recall from their childhood. If you boil this down they need some cheap entertainment, as they cannot afford to attend plays, concerts, or dine out, so they love the “church’s pot-luck suppers” along with the entertainment.
    A church that has a progressive minister who deals with the issues of the day that need to be addressed is depressing, they are already depressed, hence, they want entertainment.
    I am old enough to remember WW II, and the movies that were shown were happy, with tuneful songs, such as “Singing in the Rain,” and other such movies, today’s movies are full of violence and chase scenes, along with shoot ’em ups. When people are tired of the violence and the rhetoric spewing from the lips of tRump, if they go to church at all, they want platitudes, and old hymns.
    Frankly, most people eschew church and as someone posted earlier, “Church is boring.” To that I say, I completely agree. I do not like church suppers because who knows if the cat walked in the pie, or lasagna, or stew. Did the dog lick the spoon that put the stew into the container taken to the church supper? No way, I will cook at home, thank you.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    That “holy spirit” tells me that what I will hear will put me to sleep, thus, I stay home, sleep late, and enjoy that third cup of coffee. as I read the Sunday paper.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    The UMC has lost most of their members. The UMC, well, when we joined had many members, now, since our church is in the New England conference headquartered in Boston, and we are in the far, far western part of MA, we do not get the brightest and best clergy. Younger clergy who wish to “climb the ladder” to be assigned larger churches, or obtain a Conference position, opt to be assigned churches nearer Boston, so that they can network. attend the endless, boring, but somewhat useful meetings so they can at least pastor a church that pays a better salary than the smaller churches in western MA. That being said, no church pays an adequate salary that is commensurate with the amount of money spent to obtain a Bachelor Degree and then a Master’s in Theology, another three to four years. The housing offered is substandard, and no one takes responsibility for the upkeep of the parsonage, which is an outdated system.
    Very few young people want to incur immense debt in student loans and be unable to pay that debt completely until they were nearly ready to retire.
    The UMC is in its death throes, due largely to the southern churches and the churches in the Philippines and Africa that will not allow full inclusion of those who are L.B.G.T.Q.A, or I. The UMCs in the northeast and far western USA are progressive and some of them are growing, especially if they have a vibrant, progressive minister.
    The church is slow to change its old ways and is constantly trying to “put new wine in old wineskins.”
    Thus, the old song sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers.” Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God, brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod. Some lack hope, some lack love and all lack charity.” The song goes on for a couple of stanzas and ends with, “With the cross of Jesus hidden behind the door.”
    Who, in their right mind wants to wake up early on Sunday, especially if that is the one day to sleep late, and hear the same old nonsense, Bible quote after Bible quote ad nauseum? I do not. I had to for far too many years and now, my friends, I am “churched out.”

  • Judgeforyourself37

    Some folks say that they are “spiritual,” but when asked what that meant, they were unable to answer. Frankly, I am glad that the Pentecostal churches help others, but I wonder how many folks go to those churches because they need help that the government should be supplying but does not as money is going to the top, both in industry for profit companies and hospitals, nursing homes and other non profit companies.
    Employees are not seeing raises that make up for the constantly rising cost of living, and some people depend on church food banks and community meals. They make use of these needed options but do not attend church as it is boring, and a useless waste of time, when they have to either work or if they have a Sunday off, sleep late.
    BTW, it is not just the Pentecostal Churches that have food banks and meals, most mainline churches in poor areas do the same. The scenario is the same, though, folks take the food offered, as they need it to survive, but eschew attending church.

  • swbarnes2

    No. This did not begin with Trump.

    Don’t Episcopalians still use the old 1984 hymnals? I don’t think that’s keeping anyone in. There’s also a poster on the evangelical side who hates hates hates mega-church music, and not because it’s too old fashioned and familiar and melodic.

  • swbarnes2

    Just because Stetzer trying to make a buck selling content doesn’t mean his content is any good.

  • I grew up as a Catholic and had to go 9:30 am Sunday mass and sit with my classmates or face the consequences Monday. I recall hating every minute of it. Mass was in Latin and we rarely had an organist. Our church was a large imposing structure that held 2000 people and at that mass it was full. there were five services each Sunday.

    Continued next…

  • By the time I got to high school because I was an altar boy, I figured I had been at enough masses that I could miss Sundays for the next 20 years. So I quit going. It had nothing to do with the sermons or the doctrines because the Catholic doctrines did not and do not change. I just had no interest in hearing the same ritual service every week. Besides, the Pope assured us that being a Catholic was a first class ticket to heaven. I was good to go service or not.

    Continued above 2…

  • The only thing that changed later was our children. We decided that we had a responsibility to take them to mass. So we did. They hated services as much as I did and did not want to go. Here we made a tactical error and gave up cajoling them to go. It was the 80’s after all. But again, nothing I heard had changed since I stopped going. Only the faces changed.

    Continued above 3…

  • If the churches want to get attendance growing they would need to get families involved and require attendance. Since the family is under attack that is not going to happen. So attendance will continue to dwindle. If Mega Churches can slow that slide so be it.

    Conclusion…take that useless filters.

  • Interesting analysis. I’ve been in two United church of Christ churches, one much more progressive than the other. In this particular case, the less progressive one came close to closing down from aging/shrinkage. One element, both needed and implemented, was greater inter-generational emphasis, support of families, kids.

    And beyond this, I believe there are some vital “niches” progressive churches should move into. One involves that “Lutheran” one of vocation. More specifically vocational “discernment” and guidance/support for teens/young adults to find both meaningful places of service and self-understanding and support toward an appropriate career. Sometimes the two will converge, but can also be on parallel tracks. But churches seldom put consistent effort into helping in this area, including reaching out beyond current membership in doing it.

  • gadfly

    Jesus’ call to personal repentance, command to teach his exclusive claims, and commission to go to the ends of the earth are absent from this article… just like they are from most ‘progressive’ sermons.

    Maybe something more at the crux of why “church growth is anti-progressive”?

  • Ozark man

    As a former staff minister at a Southern Baptist church your article raises a very good question. I agree that the majority of large congregations I know of tend to be theologically conser vative. The motivation for growth that I’m familiar with is focused on reaching people in the community who are unchurched (although cross over christian attenders are ok lol). This is accomplished by trying to create a worship experience that is engaging to the generational groups (preferably younger families with children) that you are trying to reach and a disciple ship process that facilitates attender spiritual growth/formation. For evangelicals church growth is the prime indicator of success. Unfortunately this process tends to create shallow Christians who either drop out of move on to the next church who may have a better children or youth program or better music. There is a Methodist church in our town that had 3 services – southern gospel, traditional, and contemporary. I am an emerging progressive Christian and my sense is that – at least in our conservative locale- a progressive church is equivalent to a ” liberal” church that “doesn’t really believe the Bible” etc. I believe we need a new church paradigm because the old ways of emphasis on church growth don’t work anymore. As Bishop Spong and others have suggested traditional Christianity based on literal biblical interpretation has simply become “unbelievable” and toxic.