Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Church Growth Movement: A brief synopsis of its history and influences in American Christianity

This post was originally published on Intrepid Lutherans in May of 2012, under the title, Vatican II, the Church Growth Movement, contemporary “Sectarian Worship”, and Indiscriminate Ecumenism: A Brief History and Synopsis of their Relationship

Sectarian Worship (also known as “Contemporary” or “Charismatic” Worship) is not just a benign preference that some choose to engage in for strictly personal or otherwise irrelevant and inconsequential reasons, but is always adopted with a purpose in mind. Often, that purpose is to use man's choice of practice as a necessary means of drawing or keeping people within the family of Christ, apart from which, people will unnecessarily spend eternity in Hell and the Church on Earth will shrink and die. This necessity, whether confessed or not, is demonstrated in the rejection of other forms historically associated with confessional Lutheranism, forms which are viewed as old, irrelevant, and thus incapable of drawing a crowd (which is supposedly necessary for worship practice to accomplish, since true Christian worshipers won't come on their own), of keeping its interest for one hour a week (which is also supposedly necessary, since true Christians don't normally have an internal motivation to remain interested in Law & Gospel preaching and the Sacrament for one hour a week), according to the shifting fads and priorities of contemporary pop-culture (which is also supposedly necessary, since true Christians are unable to recognize and appreciate the uniquely cross-cultural and consistent historical practices of the Church Catholic). Thus, also involved in the purpose behind adopting Sectarian Worship, is, as the title of this worship practice implies, to volitionally express a separation and “apart-ness” from the catholicity of the Lutheran Confession, and consequently, whether confessed or not, a togetherness with all those who likewise reject the notion of catholicity, regardless of their confession.

These supposedly evangelical motivations view the Divine Service, not exclusively as the privilege of the passive Believer to be served by His Lord and Saviour in Word and Sacrament, but, eschewing this notion, views the worship assembly as primarily an assembly of unBelievers; they do not view the function of the “Worship Service” solely as a process for focusing the Believer on the centrality of Christ and the Means through which He serves His own (as does the Divine Service), but primarily as a stage upon which is mounted the active foci of the worshiper – musicians and orators – as those foci engage in the age-old task of mass-manipulation and crass salesmanship. And because of the inherent ecumenical nature of these “evangelical motivations,” there is, among those Lutherans who adopt Sectarian Worship forms, a palpable fear of distinguishing Believer from unBeliever in the worship assembly, and worse, of distinguishing orthodox Believers from heterodox – a fear which results in two equally egregious abuses: an invitation to everyone to partake of Christ's Body and Blood (upon the functionally meaningless condition of “private self-examination,” of course), or the elimination of the embarrassing Sacrament from the Service altogether.

Modern Sectarian Worship is a contemporary peculiarity of the Church Growth Movement (CGM), which sprung mostly from Arminian and Baptistic influences in mid-20th Century America oblivious to the the Lutheran and Scriptural teachings of the Church, of Predestination, and of the Means of Grace, and is today being referred to by confessional Lutherans as Functional Arminianism. In fact, the topic of Functional Arminianism (in the context of Predestination, no less) came up relatively recently on Intrepid Lutherans, in a comment to the post Circuit Pastor Visitation. In that comment, I directed readers to a recent and important paper on the topic of Functional Arminianism, statingAs a choice, the Sectarian Worship of the Church Growth Movement, in distinctly Arminian evangelical fervor,
  • vaunts man and his efforts with respect to the Church;
  • augments by man's efforts, or entirely eliminates, the Holy Spirit from His own work, and
  • thus inherently and unavoidably discards the Means of Grace as insufficient and ultimately superfluous;
  • removes Christ and His service to man from the center of the Divine Service, and instead places man, his interests and his entertainment needs at the center, calling it "his service to God" in the Worship Service;
  • and blasphemes God by crediting the results of man’s work, outside of and apart from the direct use of the Means of Grace (i.e., bald numeric growth in the visible church), to the Holy Spirit, with statements like, “Such an increase in numbers! Surely, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, alone! Praise God, that He equipped us with the right organizational tools to save all these people!”
It is no accident that the Charismatic Renewal in greater American Protestantism coincided with the rise of Church Growth theories emanating from Fuller Seminary, and it is no accident that the introduction of Church Growth theories emerged from Fuller at the same time this institution was the center of doctrinal controversy – indeed, the epicenter of a veritable crisis in American Christianity.

Fuller Seminary and the Church Growth Movement
Established in 1947 as the flagship theological institution of the burgeoning Evangelical Movement – an ecumenical movement begun in reaction against the separatism of Fundamentalists (viewed as a barrier to spreading the Gospel and to engaging in constructive dialog with errorists) – Fuller Theological Seminary initially stood as a theologically conservative Evangelical bulwark, and progenitor of “the new paradigm” of evangelical methodology. Among pop-church Evangelicals, it is still a widely respected institution. Within a decade of its founding, however, cracks in the foundation of this bulwark began to reveal themselves, and by 1972 they had become chasms, as Fuller went on record officially questioning the veracity of the Scriptures by striking the phrase “ from all error in the whole and in the part...” from their statement concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures. The environment created at Fuller by raging internal struggles over the inerrancy of the Scriptures, coupled with ecumenical predilections under the waving banner of the “new evangelicalism,” provided both the soil and the atmosphere in which the ideas of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) could germinate and flourish.

In 1965, “the father of the church growth movement,” Donald McGavran, became Dean of the Fuller School of World Mission (now the School of Intercultural Studies), moving that department to Fuller from the school at which he had founded it in 1961. Thirty-four years' experience as a missionary in India led him in 1954 to begin developing his own entirely pragmatic notions of “cultural contextualization” for the purpose of “Christianizing whole peoples,” etc. One can immediately see the preoccupation with mass appeal and the inordinate fixation on popular culture that these notions engender, and the displacement of concern over individual souls, along with any sense of catholicity, that result from them – indeed, McGavran, in his Bridges of God repudiated the notion of carrying the Gospel to individuals as counterproductive to true evangelical “Church Growth,” inevitably leading to the acceptance of particularly revolting and unscriptural Church Growth principles, such as “scaffolding”1. C. Peter Wagner was a disciple of McGavran’s at Fuller, and was later passed the mantle of CGM prophet.

But these were not the only influences at work at Fuller.

Ecumenism and the “Pentecostal Experience”
A primary purpose of the Evangelical Movement, as a reaction against Fundamentalism, was ecumenism, and this Evangelical purpose was seriously supported and engaged at Fuller. Enter “Mr. Pentecost,” David J. du Plessis, who had been active through the 1950’s as an ardent proponent of ecumenism on behalf of the Pentecostals, convinced that the Pentecostal “experience” could serve as an effective ecumenical bridge to non-Pentecostals (namely, the historic mainline denominations) and help bring unity to Christianity worldwide.

That “experience” had its modern genesis partly in the Brethren movements of Europe2 in the early/mid-1800's (the left-overs of Scandinavian and German Pietism), but especially in the practices of the Scottish Irvingites with whom John Nelson Darby (Plymouth Brethren) spent much time during their outbreaks of agalliasis (“manifestations of the Holy Spirit,” which, among the Irvingites at that time and place, included practices such as automatic writing, levitation, and communication with the dead3) and whose practice and theology (including the foundations of Dispensationalism) influenced him greatly. Passing from Darby to James H. Brooks and Cyrus I. Scofield in America, his teaching has continued to see development over the years and is still disseminated by Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones University and others.

These experiential practices began finding their way to America at about the same time that a charlatan known as Charles Finney exploited the use of these “New Methods,” as they were called, during America's “Second Great Awakening,” fueling the fever of “revivalism” and captivating Christians with the allure of the “Anxious Bench” as a means of saving souls4. Widespread use of such practices strengthened the Brethren movements and touched off the Holiness Movements within Methodism (which later developed into [and at Azusa Street, Los Angeles in 1906, was confirmed as] full-blown Pentecostalism). By the mid- to late-1800's, such radical practices defined “American Worship” – and it was precisely these forms that Walther notoriously condemned. Even the Old Norwegian Synod, in the 1916 edition of its Lutheran Hymnary, Junior stated its warning against Sectarian “American Worship” forms:
    The songs of childhood should be essentially of the same character as the songs of maturity. The child should therefore learn the easiest and best of the songs he is to sing as a communicant member of the Christian Congregation. Old age delights in the songs learned in childhood. The religious songs learned in children should therefore be worth while. We want childlike songs, but not childish songs. The early songs should be the choicest congregation songs adaptable to his age and capacities. In the same manner as he is taught the rudiments of Christian theology through Luther's “Smaller Catechism” and the chief Bible stories through the “Bible History,” he should also be taught the words and tunes of our most priceless church songs and chorals. It can be done just as easily as teaching him a number of equally difficult and perhaps new songs and tunes which will never be sung in his congregation. It should be done, for a child should be trained up the way he should go (Pr. 22:6)

    ...The songs of Lutheran children and youth should be essentially from Lutheran sources. The Lutheran Church is especially rich in songs and hymns of sound doctrine, high poetical value and fitting musical setting. They express the teachings and spirit of the Lutheran Church and help one to feel at home in this Church. Of course, there are songs of high merit and sound Biblical doctrine written by Christians in other denominations also, and some of these could and should find a place in a Lutheran song treasury. But the bulk of the songs in a Lutheran song book should be drawn from Lutheran sources. We should teach our children to remain in the Lutheran Church instead of to sing themselves into some Reformed sect.
By engaging in such forms, the Old Norwegian Synod insisted, Lutherans will wind up singing their way out of their own Confession. A sound application of lex orandi, lex credendi.

With widespread criticism against these experiential “American Worship” forms, and, let’s face it, their rather shallow substance, infantile antics, and transparently manipulative purposes, such practices fell out of fashion by the early 1900's (as “contemporary” forms have a habit of doing anyway). Nevertheless, Pentecostals continued to cling to them, and continued to develop them alongside their theology. Accordingly, such worship forms have come to mean much of the following:
  • the actions of the worshiper are themselves Means of Grace, or means through which the Holy Spirit supposedly comes to, and works in, the worshiper;
  • the Holy Spirit's work in and through the worshiper’s actions is generally regarded as a function of the zeal with which the worshiper engages in them;
  • the purpose of these acts is human centered, “to draw near to God in the act of worship,” that He would reciprocate by drawing near to the worshiper and experientially confirm for the worshiper that the Holy Spirit is with him, and that he is therefore accepted and loved by God;
  • these acts of “drawing near to God” are really acts of man's yearning, tarrying, and striving, of wrestling with God through worship and prayer with the expectation that He give the blessing of spiritual experience in return;
  • the assurance of one's salvation is measured by the magnitude of the blessing which proceeds from successfully wrestling with God – in the experience of God Himself through worship;
  • such experience of the Holy Spirit's presence in worship or prayer, or “the Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” is public confirmation of an individual's “spiritual anointing,” of his salvation and approval before God, and serves as divine qualification and appointment for ministerial authority in the congregation (creating levels of Christians in the congregation based on relative “spirituality”);
  • apart from such visible experiences, the individual is naturally prompted to introspection regarding why God does not bless him with His presence (with the usual explanations being sin or doubt, or not really being saved, or even demonic possession), and is looked upon with suspicion by fellow worshipers as one who is not visibly accepted and blessed by God – both factors leading individual worshipers who lack spiritual experiences to guilt and dismay;
  • as a result, many of those who have habituated themselves to the “Pentecostal Experience,” also have a keenly developed ability to whip themselves into a frothy lather (to avoid introspection and the suspicion of others, and to vaunt their spirituality in the eyes of others); if they cannot, or do not, or are unable to reach a pinnacle of spiritual euphoria according to their own expectations, or those of their peers, they just blame it on the band for “not doing it right;”
  • worship accompaniment must therefore serve the need of the worshipers to have particular spiritual experiences, by manufacturing those experiences for them;
  • and these experiences are referred to as “the working of the Holy Spirit,” even though they are little more than the cooperative effort of human worshipers seeking hard after emotional/psychological “spiritual experiences,” and of human entertainers, mounted on stages in classic entertainment-oriented venues, who are skilled at providing those experiences for their audiences;
  • thus, the “Pentecostal Experience,” and all of its derivatives (including contemporary “Sectarian Worship”), are the epitome of anthropocentric worship practice, which, as stated above, remove Christ and His service to man from the center of the Divine Service, and instead place man, his interests and his entertainment needs at the center... and blaspheme God by crediting the results of man’s work, outside of and apart from the direct use of the Means of Grace, to the Holy Spirit..
The “Pentecostal Experience,” Vatican II and the Charismatic Renewal
Pentecostalism dwindled over the early decades of the 20th Century to near insignificance. It was in the throes of this insignificance that David J. du Plessis, the ardently ecumenical Pentecostal, secured a position as Pentecostal Representative to the Second Vatican Council. Following Vatican II came implicit encouragement to Roman Catholics to reach out to Protestants through investigation and even experimentation with worship forms that appeal to them, which eventually led in the 1960’s to the opening of the “Catholic Charismatic Renewal.” The Charismatic Renewal had already begun in some quarters of liberal protestantism, but following the start of the “Catholic Charismatic Renewal” it began to rapidly spread among Episcopalians and liberal Lutherans, until finally, beginning in the late 1970’s it spread to Reformed Evangelicalism where it was swiftly incorporated by the Church Growth Movement as a necessary component of the congregation’s corporate experience – specifically, necessary to the salvation of souls, since appealing to unregenerate culture on its own terms, and to individuals directly through means of physical and emotional manipulation (rather than the public use of the Means of Grace, Word and Sacrament), was considered necessary to attract the un-churched from pop-culture, secure their conversion, and increase the membership of the congregation. Hence the connection of “worship style” to so-called “evangelism” – similar to Papistic ritualism which was also considered necessary for salvation, and was the cause of its repudiation by the Reformers.

Fuller Seminary, the Charismatic Renewal and the Church Growth Movement
The incorporation of “Charismatic Worship” as a necessary component of the Church’s practice was immeasurably influenced by the ecumenical and evangelical work of Fuller Seminary. By the mid-1970's du Plessis had an ongoing partnership with Fuller Seminary, as a consultant on ecumenical issues, and by the mid-1980’s, Fuller Seminary had erected the multi-million dollar David J. du Plessis Center for the Study of Christian Spirituality in his honor. It was also about this time, in 1974, that the Quaker, John Wimber, was hired as the founding Director of the Department of Church Growth at the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth. Wimber left that position in 1978, starting what would become the very influential Vinyard Movement. By the mid-1980's C. Peter Wagner was not only the chief exponent of CGM, he was, along with John Wimber, also one of the chief prophets of the Signs and Wonders Movement, inextricably linking CGM with Pentecostalism and Charismaticism.

The notions under which “Sectarian” or “Charismatic Worship” was introduced to the Lutheran Church in the era of the Charismatic Renewal were entirely foreign to her practice. Striving to achieve ecumenical unity through shared experience across denominations, it was also foreign to her Confessions. Clawing for approval by Arminian standards of evangelical necessity, it betrayed her entire body of doctrine. The fact is, the Church Growth Movement and Sectarian/Charismatic Worship, insomuch as they evangelically strive to achieve by man’s own alternative means what the Scriptures say is exclusively the Holy Spirit's work through the Means of Grace, by definition begin with a low view of the Scriptures and the Sacraments, and with a dismissive attitude toward the Holy Spirit’s work through those Means. Insofar as CGM “evangelically” regards such manufactured worship experiences as necessary for the salvation of souls, CGM practices directly serve the synergistic doctrines of Arminianism. The ancient liturgical principle of lex orandi, lex credendi must be respected with regard to these points. Moreover, Church Growth methods along with Sectarian/Charismatic Worship were designed to function cross-denominationally as ecumenical bridges, and whether engaged in with these purposes in mind or not, they are nevertheless understood among those who regularly practice them as ecumenical expressions, and thus, when engaged in by confessional Lutherans, make a mockery of our Confessional unity and voluntary separation from the heterodox.

False practice leads to false thinking, and eventually false belief
It has been said that there are no non-smokers like former smokers. The same can be said of former Evangelicals, particularly those of us who lived through the height of the Charismatic Renewal and nevertheless emerged with an intelligible, articulable Confession – in other words, who miraculously emerged rejecting vapid Evangelicalism, mindless Charismaticism and the Arminian Church Growth theories that have facilitated their proliferation, who have emerged with a clear view wrought from long experience with how false practice induces false thinking and eventually false believing, having watched friends and family lose their faith as a result, and having only been saved ourselves “as though escaping through flames.” Experience. Decades of first-hand experience with false practice and the false belief that follows from it. I’m not about to live through it again, nor am I going to subject my children to it.


  1. According to the purely utilitarian CGM theory of “scaffolding,” the backs and money of established and active members of a congregation exist solely for the use of that organization's “leadership,” on which they are not only free, but ordained by God, to build something new and foreign according to the “vision” God directly reveals to them, regardless of anyone's objections. When those who object, or realize they've simply been used, leave the congregation as a result, their departure is happily accepted by “leadership,” who appeal to a twisted version of God's sovereignty to excuse their gross actions against those entrusted to their spiritual care, by concluding that God, having led such departing members away from the congregation, has merely indicated to them that their work on the “scaffold” of such former members has been exhausted, and that thus the old scaffolding ought to be dismantled, while the focus of their leadership ought to be more fully directed on the new scaffolding that had been erected as work was being accomplished on the old. Hence, the need for interminably new “fads” in the pop-church – these are nothing other than new “scaffolding” to erect on the backs of new or continuingly gullible members, as the usefulness of the old “scaffolding” wanes along with the enthusiasm of increasingly disenfranchised members who realize they've just been used.

    In this CGM theory we see prima facia evidence that at its foundation, CGM does not consider that the visible Church exists to minister to Believers, but solely to use Believers in its task to convert entire people-groups. It is myopically fixated on incessant change because people and pop-culture incessantly change, which is also why “congregational leadership” is continuously exhorted to create and re-evaluate “Mission” and “Vision” statements, to frequently engage in “Strategic Planning” to verify the relevance of these statements to continuously shifting strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats with respect to a single, narrow and immediate objective: bald numeric increase in the organization. Thus, the Church Growth Movement calls upon the congregation to continuously re-invent itself and to this end leverages contemporary leadership theories which exult and glorify the role of a congregation's “leadership class.”

    Because the Believer is not the purpose of the congregation's existence and the focus of its ministry, continuous back door losses are an inevitable reality in CGM congregations. The repulsive CGM theory of “scaffolding” was invented to explain and justify it. Because continuous back door losses are an inevitable reality in CGM congregations, continuous numeric growth, or at least continuously driving new people through the church doors, is vital to the existence of the congregation as an organization. Because evangelism is the Biblical process of achieving numeric growth in the congregation, the “Mission” and “Vision” of the congregation must fixate on evangelism as a process of achieving numeric growth. Rather than the Means of Grace, a congregation's “leadership class” is central to the practice of a CGM congregation, and because leaders must have something to lead, the health of the congregation as a visible organization is the focus of the leaders’ vision and of the organization’s effort. In CGM congregations, the congregation as an organization, and the people in that organization, serve the organization’s leadership, rather than the leadership serving the souls entrusted by God to their care.

  2. Gerstner, J. (2000). Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, 2nd Edition. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications. pp. 17-59.

  3. Please see following works:
  4. For more information on the errors of Charles Finney, see the following article written by Michael Horton almost two decaes ago:


Anonymous said...

"...nor am I going to subject my children to it."

AMEN. I write this with great emotion as I think of my own children and their future in the Christian church. Pray Psalm 122 with your children. Here is a hymn verse to pray also from "Lord of Our Life" (LSB 659).

See round your ark the hungry billows curling; See how Your foes their banners are unfurling And with great spite their fiery darts are hurling, O Lord preserve us.

Shelley Ledford

Anonymous said...

Add my AMEN to that, as well! The children, our heritage, are really what this is all about. We adults at least have a chance at recognizing the emotional manipulation inherent in non-Lutheran worship practice for what it is, but if children have been raised from infancy in a church that (from their perspective) exists to entertain and amuse them, what chance do they have?

My (future) children will not be subjected to a congregation that practices sectarian/"contemporary" worship, nor will they be subjected to a congregation (or a school) that uses the NIV2011 paraphrase.

Mr. Joseph Jewell

Anonymous said...

Have you considered that your response to this entire topic is inflammatory due to your own experience? Perhaps the truth is in the middle.

-Seth Enius

LPC said...

The main error of Arminians is not so much their denial of TULIP for Lutherans deny TULIP as well. The main error of Arminians as the Lutheran Fathers taught was the Arminians understanding of Justification, i.e, it was their Pelagianism that is their biggest error.


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