Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Worthen: The Church Growth Movement (7)

Chapter 6 of Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Reviews of previous chapters include:

Introduction
Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)
Chapter 2 (Evangelicals on the Edges)
Chapter 3 (The Strivings of Christianity Today)
Chapter 4 (Mennonites and Nazarenes in the 50s)
Chapter 5 (The Drive to Accreditation)

Now chapter 6, "Missions Beyond the West"...

Around the turn of the millennium, Robert Webber wrote a helpful book called The Younger Evangelicals. Much more broadly than Worthen, he depicted the first two phases of evangelicalism in the twentieth century as 1) traditional evangelicals and 2) pragmatic evangelicals.

Even this far into Worthen, we can see that Webber's picture was somewhat simplified. By traditional evangelicals, Webber referred to the leaders of the neo-evangelical movement. But even then there were older style evangelicals around, like Nazarenes, who didn't fit C. F. H. Henry's mould.

With this chapter, we get to the pragmatic evangelicals and the church growth movement. For Worthen, this is another strand in the complex puzzle. My colleague Bob Whitesel knows the CGM intimately, and the father of my colleague Charles Arn is actually mentioned in this chapter. If they happen to look at this post, I hope they will register any disagreements or reflections.

1. colonialism
The mid-twentieth century saw an increased sensitivity to the imperialism of the West. Missionaries found increased resistance to their evangelistic endeavors. "Missionaries struggled with their reputations as agents of the white man's oppression" (125). For centuries the West had exploited its colonies and treated indigenous peoples as inferior or even dirt. Newly empowered, colonies were re-evaluating missionaries and their methods.

So the Soviets used the West's previous exploitation to try to bring colonies to their side. Islam used the Western nature of Christianity to draw converts. These dynamics had an impact on reflective missionaries like Donald McGavran, Eugene Nida, Charles Kraft, and Peter Wagner. For Kraft and Nida, it drove them to become sophisticated in their understanding of culture. For McGavran, it drove him to use analytics and social-scientific research to determine the best ways to grow a church. For Wagner, it led to a rediscovery of spiritual gifts and spiritual warfare.

2. science of mission
If Billy Graham had used a frontal assault for evangelism, these mission minded practitioners called for research before storming the castle. The blunt evangelistic approach called for an individual decision, even going door to door passing out tracts. McGavran had enough missionary experience to know that families are more often the key to conversion in a world context.

But in the US, this observation led to a controversial approach that has seemed deeply problematic in more recent times. Like clings to like. McGavran advocated conversion in "homogeneous units," and advocated a data-driven approach to doing it. The unintended consequence was to create a lot of large middle to upper-class white churches. "The Church Growth movement, with its assumption that Christians prefer to attend church with people like themselves, may have slowed the pace of integration in many evangelical congregations--an ironic twist on its spirit of cultural accommodation" (140).

3. understanding culture
It is interesting that Charles Kraft and Eugene Nida were sometimes viewed negatively by other evangelicals and fundamentalists. I personally view them as brilliant and opposition to them largely a matter of ignorance. When Wesley Seminary first started, I pushed for Kraft's book Christianity in Culture to provide the lens through which our students would process culture and be able to distinguish the timeless from the transitory. Nida's Customs and Culture similarly helped missionaries see how relative practices and ways of thinking are to culture.

Those lacking serious interaction with other cultures of course lambasted them as relativists. Even people like John Howard Yoder saw these anthropologists as fudging on core doctrines and practices in the name of conversion. Should the church really turn a blind eye to polygamy?

On a popular level, the CGM tended to downplay matters like theology in the name of getting people in the church. The seeker-sensitive service pushed doctrinal distinctives into the background and emphasized an entry-level type approach. Elite theologians and fundamentalists alike thus tended to scoff at what they saw as either a shallow movement or a corrupting influence.

4. the color line
Mission work tended to push churches back home toward embracing the civil rights movement. "Missionaries complained loudest that segregation cost souls abroad" (136). Yet at home, "magnanimous feelings on converting the 'noble savage' thousands of miles away did not always temper their reactions to African-American children bound for their neighborhood's newly integrated school" (137). Some churches softened. On the other side, Bob Jones still wouldn't accept black students in 1970.

5. charismatic movement
One of the most distinctive elements of the 60s and 70s in evangelicalism is the rise of the charismatic movement. If the CGM was very rational and quasi-scientific, individuals like John Wimber and Peter Wagner wanted to reclaim the spiritual gifts of the early church. Tongues were sweeping every church, including churches like the Episcopals and the Anglicans. Meanwhile, the Jesus People were "getting high on Jesus."

This was the time when Oral Roberts and Kathryn Kuhlman were on the rise. Classic dispensationalism was revised in the light of current events. Israel's restoration as a nation in 1948 became part of a newly issued Scofield Bible. Miracles were extended beyond the apostolic age.

6. conclusion
As usual, I'm not exactly sure what to take away from this chapter. It of course reminds us that it is hard to get a good perspective on what is going on when it is happening. If you think back to the positions different people took at these junctures, there were obviously cultural elements to what they thought. It perhaps behooves us not to take ourselves or our ideas too seriously. May we never look back and be embarrassed because we made a big deal out of something that ultimately really doesn't matter.

3 comments:

Bob W said...


As usual, critics who don't study a movement's original writings will have many holes and misperceptions - such as in this book's analysis. Probably most troubling is the continued misperception of the concept of a homogeneous unit. I'm thankful to my contemporary colleague Mark DeYmaz who has pointed out that McGavran never believed that churches should be homogeneous. What McGavran stressed in the Bridges of God book and elsewhere is that the bridges we used to reach cultures should be homogeneous. This means a young peoples rock music service to reach the younger generations, a hymn-centric service perhaps to reach the senior generation, a blended aesthetic to reach the middle generations, a worship service in Spanish to reach first-generation Latino/Latina, against, etc. etc. These are standard processes in our churches today.

What McGavren was saying is that a church needs to build many culturally-sensitive bridges to reach out to the Mosiac of unchurch people. Prior to McGavren's time the concept was inculturate non-churchgoers into your dominant culture before they could receive the Good News. Pete Wagner called this the "creator complex" and reminded us "it lurks deep in the heart of all missionaries." The church growth movement attack was upon cultural assimilists who demanded that the gospel be presented in the dominant culture's aesthetic and language.

What McGavren stresses, and I continue to stress today, is that these multiple cultural bridges need to be established in each and every church when possible, not separate congregations. My consultancy and others (McIntosh) have found that autonomous church planting without equally aggressive venue/campus multiplication has often led the church to further divide itself. From the very first book I wrote called "A house divided" to my most recent book "The healthy church" as well as an upcoming book for Abingdon called "MIX: Growing a colorful church in a black-and-white world," the message needs to be we can do more together than fragmented. And this was the essence of McGavran's thrust, which more commentators would grasp if they study the original sources and the latest research on them.

That is often a weakness of such overarching volumes. Because they analyze such broad spectrums of history they create spectral analyses which highlight stereotypes rather than original and helpful contributions.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for weighing in, Bob. Very helpful clarification. This has been a good book to get me further into the material, but I suspect specialists at each point will have similar reactions to yours.

For example, while my holiness forebears were dispensationalists, they never in the slightest, as she stereotyped, stopped believing in miracles or healing. Their opposition to tongues did not come from a sense that the gifts had ceased in the time of the NT.

John Mark said...

Larry Eskridge's Gods Forever Family sees the seeker sensitive movement as a direct result of the Jesus People movement. Hybels, he claims, was very influenced by- at least- the music which came from this. Of course he has nothing to say about anthropological approaches to evangelism; that is not what his book is about. But he does tend to think that the Jesus People movement, for all its flaws and excesses was most likely a movement of God in the middle of the hippie era. Which is, to state the obvious, not anything calculated or even expected but something inspired by and carried along by the Spirit. Now my history is of a culture that looked at all this with extreme skepticism. But I think Worthen, being an agnostic, might overlook things that go beyond social science or a particular method.