Thursday, June 13, 2013

Church-Planting Movements: Multigenerational Discipleship or Multilevel Marketing?

A reader takes issue with my post, "Jesus Flunks Evangelism", which was just republished by Live58:
Very good points, and a lesson to take to heart, but terrible title, a bad trend of crude, false misleading, shocking statements to grab attention, truly a product of Machiavellian marketing campaigns we are bombarded with daily.
I understand his point, though I didn't cop to the charge of Machiavellianism:
Well obviously I take a different view. My ironic title is intended to be provocative, of course, insofar as it provokes a stark reexamination of evangelical methods which themselves approximate marketing techniques. One might also suggest that Hosea's taking an adulterous wife and giving his kids names with meanings like "not my people" constitutes Machiavellian and shocking marketing behavior, but since God commanded it we accept that there must be a better explanation. I don't claim the prophetic gift or direct mandate, but I believe that sometimes a rhetorical device such as the one I employ here can be useful in driving home an important point.
I went on to point out that my implicit point was that if Jesus "flunks" our church's course on how to evangelize, there are only two possibilities--either (a) something was wrong with Jesus' approach; or (b) there's something wrong with our courseware.  The first suggestion is ridiculous (and blasphemous), so we are left with the second.

Think of it like this:  imagine John Calvin were to take a test on "The theology of John Calvin".  The only way his answers could be wrong would if he were to misrepresent himself, since his honest answers would have to be correct by definition.  If he fails, there must be something wrong with the exam.

In the same way, Jesus's evangelistic methods--coming as they do from Him who is the way, the truth and the life--must be right.  So if He fails our methodological tests, the only right conclusion is that they misrepresent Him.

So in short, it's possible for Him to flunk our evangelism tests, but that tells us something important about our tests.

Let me take this a step further.  One may say that so-called "church-planting movements" represent the current evangelistic state of the art. The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board defines CPMs as "a rapid and multiplicative increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment."  To accomplish these, they use a model of aggressive evangelization coupled with training in disciple-making techniques and accountability, so that every new believer is encouraged to make more disciples.
CPMs are all about rapid, multigenerational growth

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with rapid growth.  If God is truly giving the increase, we should indeed rejoice and join hands!  Moreover, it is important to recognize that much of what passes for discipleship in our churches neglects this accountability to the Great Commission, so spiritual growth becomes more about self-fulfillment and navel-gazing than about our primary mission here on earth.  We become mere lights under a bowl, comforting ourselves that if only someone were to peek underneath, they would find us shining purely.

In other words, the primary advantage of CPMs is their emphasis on personal obedience to the Great Commission, which is a discipline the organized church tends to neglect in favor of programs that make our lives comfortable and predictable. In this sense, CPMs have an important message for the church, illustrated as follows:
One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody's reply was "I agree with you. I don't like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?" The lady replied, "I don't do it." Moody responded "I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it."
However, the risks associated with these method-based growth strategies seem substantial to me:
  • Over-emphasis on reaping the harvest over cultivating the soil and sowing the gospel.  CPMs tend to leave the "hard cases" behind because they don't respond quickly enough.  
  • Quantity over quality:  a ministry so focused on rapid evangelism may fail to build other aspects of doctrine, godliness, relationships, family, etc.
  • Heresy (that is, serious theological error), especially when new believers immediately become leaders.  Some will bring in some strange concepts, which their disciples, peers and even disciplers are unable to recognize due to the lack of a biblical foundation.
  • Rapid burn-out, especially if/when a new discipler's aggressive reaping attempts prove unfruitful over time.
  • Pragmatism, or reliance on technique rather than the Holy Spirit.
It is this last danger that seems the most insidious to me.  The more I study the CPMs, the more they look like spiritualized Amway.  It's multilevel marketing for the church.  Get converts, train converts, follow-up converts to make sure they're making more converts.  If they don't respond, move on.  The field is white unto harvest (CPMs take this pronouncement and make it normative to all places and times)!  It's a proven method for growth, so get moving and get growing!  See you next week and tell me how you're doing.

To their credit, CPMs are making a serious attempt to do what many of us pay mere lip-service to:  fulfilling the Great Commission through personal evangelism.  In so doing, however, they appear to pay lip-service to true reliance on the Holy Spirit's work, and to the kind of patient and genuine love for our neighbors that should be the hallmark of a godly witness.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Whose Revival Is It?

News flash:  Something is wrong with the church!

Oh, wait ... in a fallen world, something is always wrong with the church.  Yes, even during the time of Christ ... of the Apostles ... of Luther and Calvin ... of pick-your-favorite-idealized-period ...

So then, can we agree on that?  Good.  But what exactly is wrong, and what do we do about it?  Well, this is where consensus among the faithful ends.  It's not that there are no answers, but rather that there are so many answers.

In some senses, the discord resembles the well-known metaphor of the blind men and the elephant, where each man "sees" a mere part of the whole, and draws broad conclusions based on a limited perspective.
  • To the missional evangelist, the problem is clearly one of widespread disobedience to the Great Commission.  
  • To the orthodox theologian, we have abandoned serious study of Scriptural truth.
  • To the socially conscious, we have neglected justice and indulged in our comfortable Western opulence.
  • To the maverick, we have allowed our traditions to blind us to God's Word and dynamic direction.
  • To the conservative, we have abandoned many healthy, godly traditions in our rush to be "relevant", and thus thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
  • To the prayer warrior, the answer is that we've simply neglected to unleash God's saving power through focused petition.
And so on (feel free to add your own).  Of course, none of these diagnoses is necessary incorrect, nor is any of them complete.  

In truth, the church needs to be called to godliness in many respects--it would be simplistic to believe in the "silver bullet" approach.  The single-minded missional evangelist may find himself surrounded by spiritual infants and heretics without the counsel of the orthodox theologian.  The socially conscious may discover that his zeal to rescue bodies fails to save many souls without the spoken witness of the evangelist or the perseverance of the prayer warrior.  The maverick is annoying but absolutely necessary to the conservative, to call attention to the paralyzing power of dead traditions and Spirit-denying methods.  However, left to his own devices he may well find there were, in fact, some very important babies left squirming in that rashly discarded bathwater.  Worse, he may simply be an Angry Young Christian, for whom: 
There is likewise a temptation to arrogantly savage the organized church without issuing--or better yet, living out--any higher calling. In many cases, the self-righteous rejection of the organized church serves as little more than a cover-up for sin. Freed from the "oppression" of the church (or should I say the accountability to the church), there is often a descent into sloth. This is not a spiritual revolution ... it is a temper tantrum.
Ideally, this realization should leave us humbled, but hopeful.  Somehow each of us needs to maintain our ardor for our particular calling, without then getting lost in our own hype. Yet this can be extraordinarily difficult, in part because we are so limited and sinful, and in part because we are so poor at recognizing how limited and sinful we are.

Last month the young and socially conscious Karla Colonnieves penned an important post over on Live58, "Can the Justice Movement Ruin Your Relationship with God?", in which she recognized her own weakness in this regard:
In words and theory, Jesus and justice are a package deal, but in my heart and in my actions, I've picked up justice and dropped Jesus, slowly but steadily. 
In my response, I noted that she's hardly the first to fall into this trap:
Almost ANY movement can get us off track, because of the temptation to replace the BEST with the merely GOOD; to treat one of the King's concerns as superior to all others ... even more important than exalting the King Himself. Meanwhile, we judge those who do not share our level of excitement or outrage for our particular calling, neglecting the notion that God may have given them a different calling. In other words, there's no endeavor--even the outwardly spiritual ones--which we sinners cannot corrupt.
This gets us to the heart of the problem--our selfish proclivity for idolizing our own ideology.  We discover a truth and decide it is THE truth.  Somewhere along the line we neglect to consider that we don't get to choose the precise terms of God's reforming work.

Biblical and church history demonstrate that it is never too late to pray for revival to come in our time.  Of course, Scripture teaches that nothing short of the consummating work of the Savior Himself  will be sufficient to save the church or the world utterly from the devastating consequences of sin's corruption.  In the meantime, there is much hard work to be done, and fratricide is unlikely to help things along.