Thursday, June 13, 2013

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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.

5 comments:

  1. Ginger HarringtonJune 13, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    Lots of food for thought here! Interesting Post:)

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  2. Amen, Ray! Whereas I agree that you're title was provocative, that was exactly what drew may attention. I understood immediately what your premise was and still is, and I believe it translates well into the realm of CPM's. As with all things in the body of believers, we must continually check ourselves, our motivations, and our paths. If they are not fully God-centered, they are either wrong completely or will be soon.

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  3. Darrell Todd MaurinaJune 19, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    I've passed this essay and your previous essay ("Jesus Flunked Evangelism") to several people who are considering the options for Reformed church planting near Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. I like both of your essays and think they are useful. The essays are absolutely right about the dangers of putting unqualified people into leadership positions, failing to teach and train for discipleship, and in general, using methods other than those which God teaches to build God's church.

    My only caution, LTC Powell -- growing up in Grand Rapids, and seeing Amway up close even though I've never been an Amway distributor or been interested in becoming one, I think you are being a bit unfair in your comparison of broadly evangelical church planting methods to Amway. Founded by Christian Reformed businessmen with a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship and work ethics, Amway actually does a far better job of training its salespeople than the typical evangelical church does of training its lay leaders and church members -- and in some cases, even of training the pastors.

    The problem may be less that modern evangelical church planting has borrowed bad lessons from secular business and more that secular businessmen, unlike too many church planters, do understand the need for setting and enforcing high standards, selecting salespeople with passion, and giving those salespeople the training necessary to put that passion to good use.

    In other words, not only have many of the leaders of modern church planting gotten their methods from the wrong source -- business practices rather than the Bible -- they often haven't even done a very good job of applying the methods used by secular businesses to recruit and develop their sales force.

    I'm no supporter of Finney, but if those who want to use a broadly evangelical church planting strategy are going to follow Finney's emphasis on the "right use of the duly constituted means," at least they ought to find out what works in the secular world rather than not even learning the secular world's lessons about recruitment and development of sales forces and franchise strategies.

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  4. Well, defending Amway against the charge of being like evangelical church planters is an angle I hadn't considered!

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  5. Darrell Todd MaurinaJune 19, 2013 at 4:44 PM

    Yep... it says something when the secular world often does a better job than the church of having a clear message about its product, having high standards, and having a solid training program for those in leadership. Those who think they are adapting secular methodology to the church may actually doing a lousy job by the standards of both Scripture and secular business!

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