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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