“Church growth strategies are the death gurgle of a church that has lost its way,” is how Stanley Hauerwas describes this book, noting that, “God is making us leaner and meaner.”
This insightful analysis of contemporary churches comes from a pastor who wanted to become a great leader by using “successful” pastors as his model. Tim Suttle attended seminars on church growth where he met strategies borrowed from the business world. At leadership conferences pastors are told to “dream big” and embrace the latest strategy.
“I mimicked the leadership practices of the mega-church,” he said.
Those sessions leave many pastors feeling bad about not being bigger. Church leaders love models, and try to solve problems by finding models of success and copying them.
A common assumption is that the church’s job is to grow. “[T]his assumption is built not on the gospel but on the American narrative. The church’s job is to be faithful.” He sees current church leadership conversations focusing on the American way of growth and expansion, not on the Christian narrative.
The American narrative teaches that life is about growing, expanding, winning, gaining and impressing. Suttle admits to being part of the “bigger is better” dream. “I spent over a decade chasing bigger, better, higher, faster, stronger,” he says.
Suttle started a church with two families that grew to 200 in three years. “But when we decided to stop chasing success to pursue faithfulness, we lost 50% of our people,” he writes. If pressed about his church’s growth strategy, he usually says it is to get smaller and die.
Christian leadership is often about what works, makes us grow, gets results, and is most effective while faithfulness takes a back seat. Pastors have morphed into CEOs, he says, “[W]e need a leadership narrative built on Jesus’ vision of the kingdom . . . always the way of descent.”
He describes the mega-church (2000 or more) as a body on steroids. “Our celebrated church leaders have been feeding the church the equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs. God save us from a successful church,” he says.
Suttle notes Willow Creek’s own critique showing that the mega-church has been wonderful in its ability to make Jesus fans, not necessarily followers. He believes the mega-church reflects the way of our culture, not the way of Jesus; the demands of discipleship run contrary to the needs of the organization.
While providing a needed critique of the mega-church, Suttle is not as helpful in the solutions department. He talks about faithfulness but does not articulate sufficiently what it would look like. This becomes problematic when churches try to be faithful by being “missional” since Suttle sees “missional” merely as another strategy.
He suggests vulnerability, risk, gentleness, emotional uncertainty and caring for the “least of these” as essential characteristics of the church—a strong service orientation. He says we should stop asking how many people attend our church.
In order to make Christianity acceptable in our day the gospel has to be sterilized and rendered impotent and harmless. “The temptation is to be relevant, powerful, spectacular.”
With church attendance declining in North America, this might well be a prophet we should heed. Shrink, be freed from ambition, give up the desire to draw a crowd. “What if God wants the America church to shrink?”