In ‘A Church for the New Millennium’ he spoke about the incomprehension church growth theorists express with regard to the success of his Grace Community Church.
In other words, how could they increase their numbers without using the seemingly all-essential — in reality, unholy — principles of church growth?
Church growth in that context requires incorporating worldly values into the Church. It is big at Fuller Theological Seminary. I’ve written about it before.
MacArthur has never resorted to such falsehood. Yet, his congregation started from a small, local one nearly 50 years ago and, today, has thousands of people attending on any given Sunday.
He began by explaining the seeming urgent conundrum of modernising the Church. Emphases mine below. There has been a:
Tremendous amount of discussion on what it’s going to take for the church to reach this generation. The generation itself is incessantly being defined and redefined. Familiar terms – yuppie generation, the generation X and all of those kinds of terms are used to describe something of the cultural attitudes and mor[e]s of our society which are moving so very rapidly and churches are scrambling to try to react and find a place of relevancy in the culture under the fear that if they don’t, they will not be able to reach that culture.
It was some months ago now, quite a few months ago, that I told you about a book which I read, which has become very popular among church leaders that essentially says the church is going to be out of existence in the next 50 years if it doesn’t re-invent itself. By the mid-21st century, the church could literally be out of existence unless it redefines itself in terms of cultural expectations.
He rightly said that this was the wrong approach:
The church continually trying to redefine itself under the terms that are defined by culture, puts itself in a very difficult position since culture is going in the wrong direction to start with and it’s going there very, very rapidly.
In his congregation:
We have always believed at Grace Community Church that the church is defined not by the culture but by the scripture. That it is God who defines the church not the society around us. And certainly not the prince of the power of the air, who is the source of the culture, morays attitudes and philosophies so even religious. So we are different than other churches.
I received a great compliment recently from somebody who said[,] you know the thing that’s remarkable about Grace Community Church is that while everything in our society seems to be changing rapidly over the years, you haven’t changed at all. In fact, he said to me you are doing the same things you used to be doing in about the same way you used to be doing them. And I said this is true. And of course, the question comes up aren’t you concerned about being relevant? Well I’m only concerned really about being obedient to scripture and leaving the consequences to the Lord. So you know we’ve never been caught up in this scramble to try to adjust to the culture. And our church has grown and that’s kind of turned us into something of a curiosity.
This has flummoxed Fuller, which offers courses such as Theology and Hip Hop Culture:
We used to have the people from Fuller Seminary come here with the Church Growth classes and because our church was the fastest growing church and the largest church in Los Angeles, they of necessity would bring students here to show them a rapidly growing church and then they stopped doing that because they said we confused the students because we had no regard. We don’t have any information about how churches grow and we grew anyway. And that was confusing so they felt that selective research that reinforced their point was more useful for them and so they stopped coming here.
That is so sad, and I’m posting on it today because it reminds me of a reading from Matthew 13 coming up next (link goes live Saturday night UK time).
To draw a parallel, the Fuller faculty and students were exposed the truth of a good church then chose to ignore it in favour of their own flawed, worldly theory! It is appalling that their students are no longer taken as part of coursework to see Grace Community Church’s authenticity and faithfulness to Holy Scripture. That is a very serious and deliberate oversight on the part of Fuller faculty. It is a sin to twist a divine blessing into a manmade falsehood.
However, Grace Community Church’s natural growth thanks to the faithful preaching of Scripture has puzzled many other adherents of the church growth movement:
This church has been the subject of magazine articles and thes[e]s. Doctoral dissertations have been written on our church and on my preaching. There have been all kinds of reports about our church seminars, newspaper articles, journals, tapes, books, all undertaken to analyze our church. And our ministry ha[s] been examined and analyzed every way possible. Studied, labeled, categorized, copied. We have been blessed. We have been cursed. We have been defended. We have been ignored. We have been endowed. We have been publicized and we’ve even been sued. So just about a little of everything has come against us and the church itself can be rather simply defined in a lot of ways.
The definition includes:
the word church. That’s what we are. We aren’t anything else but a church. That is what we are. By definition we are a church. And if you understand that word means then you understand what this church is. That is the key to understanding Grace Community Church. It is the key to our identity. We are not like any other institution in the world. We are absolutely and utterly unique. And when you understand church, then you have a definition of what we are and what are to be in the world.
And it is really an unchanging definition. It is no different for us in the 20th century than it was in the 2nd century AD. It is not different for us than it was in the 10th century. It is no different for us than it was in the 15th century or any other century. We are defined by a divine designation church, not by anything cultural, not by anything contemporary, not by anything that society developed but rather by the word church, which is biblical.
MacArthur gave this sermon in 2000. It is sad to think that the church growth movement has been around for decades and shows no signs of abating. Fuller isn’t the only institution promoting it. Rick Warren — possibly their most famous alumnus alive today — does, too.
Fuller’s reach is a long one. Many Lutheran churches in America believe there is a winning formula in church growth.
So do Anglican churches here in England, although it is not referred to as such, however, we are seeing an ever-increasing number of ‘programmes’ and the deadly ‘small groups’. ‘Do, please join,’ our clergy and churchwardens exhort. Everyone needs to be ‘involved’!
It doesn’t work. I went to my Anglican church’s midnight service at Christmas last month. It was only a third full. Twenty years ago to the day — 1995 — it was standing room only. Making the C of E ‘relevant’ has brought down numbers dramatically.
Back to the biblical meaning of ‘church’:
The word church in the New Testament is from a Greek word ekklesia that is a noun that comes out of a group verb kaleo, which means to call. So ekklesia is simply the called, the called ones, those called together, those according to Romans 8:28 called according to God’s purpose. We are called together. In Ephesians 4:1, Paul says I therefore the prison of the lord and treat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called. You are the called because you’ve had a calling. And the church is simply the called ones. We are the assembly of the called. This was a very ordinary Greek word by the way. Very ordinary Greek word so it can be any assembly of any people called together for anything …
We are not a human organization built by good people. We are not a human organization designed by well-intentioned people. We are not a human organization basically constructed around some tradition. We are a group of people summoned together by God himself for his purposes. So we can say this the church is an assembly of people called by God. We are an assembly of people called by God …
We have been called by God together. Romans 1:6 you also are the called of Jesus Christ to all who are beloved of God in Rome called together as saints. And you find this in 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John and other places. Even Hebrews 3:1 talks about our heavenly calling and heaven is really a synonym for God.
It is not our church. It is not my church. It is not the pastor’s church. It is not the elder’s church. I have to tell you, it’s not even your church. It’s Christ’s church. He ordained it. He builds it. He leads it. We are simply called into it and he is the caller.
And this explains really all the goodness, all the blessing, all the success, all the power, all the things that we have seen by way of spiritual richness. It has all come from God. The weaknesses of our fellowship, the failures of our church on the other hand are the marks of humanness. Where you see us weak and failing is where you see the hand of men and women. The weak human vessels God has chosen do show up in the weak elements of life in the church. We fail because of us, not him. We succeed because of him, not us. So when you come to Grace Church and you want to analyze why it is what it is and when you want to find some pathway to success that might be repeatable somewhere else, you are going to find it very difficult. Because wherever we have succeeded it is because God has done a mighty work and wherever we have failed it is because the imprint of human hands is on this place.
The successes then cannot be easily defined. They cannot be easily analyzed. They cannot be easily canned and they cannot be easily reproduced and repeated because they are the work of God who is the caller of the called. The failures, yes, you can find those and you can certainly can repeat those. People can come to Grace Church and analyze our failures and go back and repeat them. But when they come and try to analyze our success and go back and repeat that, it’s really impossible because the Lord is the one who has caused the blessing and the success. The Lord is behind the power and the impact of the church. And he is not easily defined, analyzed, canned and repeated.
So what I’m saying is that Grace Community Church has been blessed only as we have functioned as God’s called people, not some human organization, not with some unusual level of human leadership or some unusual level of the power of persuasive speech. That is not what has caused this church to become what it is. That is not how we define ourselves and that is no reasonable explanation of the blessing of God. Wherever God moves, the flowers have always bloomed. Wherever we walk, they always die.
what I’m concerned about today is so many people in the ministry who under this pressure to somehow let the culture define them are ceasing to be the church. You can look at some of those places and they may call themselves the church and there is a church in there somewhere. There’s a community of the called in there somewhere not to be confused with what is visible. We never wanted to have somewhere hidden the midst of a visible human organization a real church. We wanted the real church to be visible. The single great goal then for the church through all its life has been to let God be at work and to allow the church to be the church. We don’t want the culture to define what we are. We don’t want the society around us to define what we are. We want to be whatever it is that God wants us to be. That’s what we want to be. Nothing less and nothing more.
Fuller, Warren, their followers and the rest of the church growth movement will never understand that simple, biblical principle.
May we choose our congregations wisely.