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Testing the Claims of Church Growth

by Rev. Rodney E. Zwonitzer
A Review of the Book

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If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you may have noticed a shift over the last couple of decades in the way church is “done.”  Hymns have been replaced by praise songs, organs have been replaced by worship teams, and “creeds” have been replaced by “deeds.”  This particular “shift” has a name, the Church Growth Movement.  This movement is in response to the shrinking church membership of denominations across America – an attempt to change the way church is presented in order to retain members and attract new members.

There are those who think this shift is long overdue, and those who rail against it.  The Lutheran Church, which has historically been a more conservative denomination, has been somewhat slow to embrace the Church Growth (CG) concept, and its introduction has been a source of debate and division.  CG has elevated a handful of pastors to national prominence and spawned countless seminary classes, seminars, websites, and books.  One such book is Pastor Rodney Zwoniter’s book, Testing the Claims of Church Growth (Concordia Publishing House), first published in 2002.

Rev. Zwonitzer is Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Dearborn, Michigan, and a graduate from Concordia Seminary, a seminary of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS).  Because the book is no longer in print, and because of the continued involvement of the LCMS and other synods and denominations with the Church Growth Movement, I thought now would be a great time to review the book.  I’ve attempted to include numerous quotes for those people who haven’t been able to secure a copy of their own.

Testing the Claims of Church Growth is easy to read, written with a layman in mind. There are no difficult terms or other complicated theological discussions that would make the book hard to understand for the average reader.  He presents a wide variety of quotes while exploring the writings of both sides of the “dispute,” frequently quoting Church Growth Movement advocates such as Rev. David Luecke, and Rev. Kent Hunter, and those who take exception, whom he calls Confessionalists, such as Rev. Kurt Marquart and sainted LCMS President Rev. A. L. Barry.

As the book begins, Pastor Zwonitzer sets out to
...present and test the claims written by both sides of the Church Growth controversy in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.  The goal is to reveal which side is pleasing God and which is pleasing people.
    Basic to such a testing is this question: is the church a business?  Were Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and even C. F. W. Walther [the first President of the LCMS] marketing men, as the Church Growth Movement claims (9)?
He wastes no time formulating an answer, and letting the reader know where the book will take them.  In the next sentence he states
...NO! Marketing is an overarching approach that seeks to please the customer, proclaiming the customer king.  True theology can have no customer sovereignty.
    The precious Gospel must be sovereign.
    Marketing has never helped to grow Christ’s true kingdom and never will.  His kingdom is not of the business world (9).
You might think that beginning the book with such an emphatic “NO!” belies a certain bias that skews his findings towards a more Confessional stance.  And he may have been biased, but biased, if anything, towards a distinctive Church Growth perspective. Pastor Zwonitzer’s previous career was that of marketing executive.  On entering the ministry, he hoped that his previous experience would dovetail nicely into the marketing of the Gospel,
     But eventually, as I entered the intense study of Holy Scripture, I began to question just how much of this marketing experience should transfer over to Christ’s church.  I must admit that for a long period I hoped it would, since I could truly contribute the fruits of 13 years of labor out there in the business arena competing for market share.  I felt this gift of talents and time would be used by God, and I was ready to share it if He wanted.
    Now, on the basis of my study of Scripture, I do not believe that God wants or needs much of what I did as a marketing executive to carry over into His church (8).
With this previous marketing background in mind, it is safe to say that Pastor Zwonitzer had no previous anti-CG leanings.

In the introduction, Pastor Zwonitzer describes the philosophy and strategy that underlies the Church Growth Movement, which is essentially a modern business strategy of marketing technique applied to God’s Church.  This is the “seeker-sensitive model” that we see in churches today, in which “marketing seeks to not sell or promote anything that a potential group of customers does not want or need” (13). In this case, the “customer” is believed to be the “seeker,” who in a previous generation was known as an unbeliever.  A significant change in emphasis must occur in order to switch to a Church Growth paradigm.  The emphasis must change from a “product orientation” in which the focus is on the product itself, in this case the Gospel, to a “market orientation,” which “begins and ends with the focus on the market, the customer, the consumer of products and services” (12).
     For the marketing paradigm shift to be given any chance of succeeding, the entire business must take on this orientation.  Thus, beginning with upper management through all levels of the organization, indoctrination and education to this new way of doing business must be implemented.
    All resistance to this shift must be overcome and a synergistic commitment to a marketing orientation must be established (14).
This paradigm shift is the goal of many current LCMS Synodical leaders.  From the perspective of this shift, the Gospel is now referred to as “substance,” and everything else, such as the liturgy, is “style.”    
     Marketing makes a way for the church to completely research, plan, and then implement a style and language that are oriented for those seeking a closer relationship with God. These target disciples, or “customers,” become the driving force behind everything done by churches under this new paradigm: their planning, staffing, and community life.  Each and every activity is run through a filter–what does the seeker think and how might he or she react?  Everything is now geared to reaching the unchurched... (20).
By now, if you’re a Confessional Lutheran, you’re probably squirming in your chair.  You may believe the Church cannot be market-driven.  Pastor Zwonitzer immediately addresses this point in Chapter 1, People Pleasers? Or Bond-Slaves to Christ?  He quotes:
The Lutheran Confessions emphasize what causes true growth. Speaking of the Gospel and the Sacraments, the Augsburg Confession says, “Through these, as through means, He (God) gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where He pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” (Article V) (25)
He continues with a discussion of the “proof text” that is often used to bolster CG claims, 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (29).  He then uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, pointing to Galatians 1:10 to explain the previous verse: “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (29-30).  The important point is made that “Paul’s goal was not to please people, but to serve them with the Gospel untainted by human thoughts and ways” (33), so that they might be reconciled with God.  The discussion of this verse is further developed on pages 44-45.  Other significant CG “proof texts” are discussed throughout the book, including Acts 15:19 (43, 44), Proverbs 29:18 (76, 80-81), and Ephesians 4:12 (92, 93, 96, 97).

In Chapter 2, The Goal of the Gospel, it is stated that “CG shifts the goal of the Gospel from the justification of sinners to the equipping of believers to win more souls” (38).  Hence CG devotee David Luecke’s thought that “...God gives His blessing wherever an infectious attitude of communication occurs...” (36).  Conversion no longer depends on the efficacy of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, but rather on whether or not we have an “infectious attitude” – in other words the conversion of someone else depends on a work of our own.  With this type of CG emphasis, it’s is no wonder that the Gospel is “watered down.”  There’s no need for its power. Pastor Zwonitzer points out that “Advocates of CG avoid sensitive issues and hard doctrines to keep people engaged with the congregation.  Thus, God’s Word is limited, so that people won’t hear from God what they don’t want to hear” (38).  But the Gospel “cannot be stylized, culturalized, modified, or marketed, because its Lord is the same yesterday, now, and forever (Hebrews 13:18)” (36).

Former missionary Roland Allen is quoted:
One of the salient features of Paul’s preaching is that it exhibits “no timid fear of giving offence, no suggestion of possible compromise, no attempt to make things really difficult appear easy” (38).
Chapter 3, Barriers to the Gospel, investigates the CG aim to “take away anything that hinders the easy flow of the means of grace” (41). Pastor Zwonitzer comments:
When one puts the doctrine of justification (and its expression in traditional worship) in a subservient position to a missionary zealousness that seeks to gain relevancy by constantly shifting means, then vigilant maintenance of the pure Gospel gives way to techniques and programs that people can control and measure.  Kent Hunter says, “Of course, we want doctrinal purity, and we desire to be confessionally strong. But our primary task is not to defend the truth, but to share it.  That is the real war and the essential battle that is before us” (51).
The CG “message” and “communication” are contrasted with the sermon and proclamation in Chapter 4, Third Base Ministry? Or Running the Bases?  David Luecke maintains that “The tradition of Lutheran worship leaders is to be proclaimers rather than communicators.  The tradition puts distance between them and the congregation as audience”(53).  On the other hand, Pastor Zwonitzer insists
...CG “ministries tend to focus on sanctification issues–now that you’re saved, this is the way to live your life in Christ. Sermons will be topical; that is, they do not follow the lectionary of the Church Year.  In one CG congregation, the pastor polls the congregation to find out what topics they would like to hear about.  The pastor then schedules these topics for the year–sex, taxes, money management, parenting, and so on.  His “messages” consist of lists of what to do and to not do, along with guidelines for improvement and correction.  The various doctrines of the faith are not requested by the people, nor are they selected by CG preachers (57).

Especially catered to are those who were one-time active church members, but were driven away by the attitudes and practices of the church.  We are now in the era of religious consumerism: the audience is supreme; the customer comes first (58).
He quotes 2 Timothy 4:3:
“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (63).

...Preachers are called and ordained servants of the Word.  Their agenda is driven by the One they are speaking for, not the ones they are speaking to (58).

God’s promise to build and sustain His church on the solid rock of the pure Gospel is no longer trusted. Instead, trust is given to other things: marketing, sociology, management techniques.  The church, which for generations has been built by grace through faith in the pure Gospel and Sacraments must return to its God-given “catholic” heritage of preaching (63-64).
The CG aim of transforming “style” but not “substance” is examined in Chapter 5, Effective or Faithful?  “CG measures growth quantitatively in terms of attendance and qualitatively in terms of the members’ (customers’) involvement.  Research and analysis of these measures determines the prescription for repair and growth” (67).  In order to meet the customer’s expectations, most anything can and will be changed in the life of the Church.

Pastor Zwonitzer believes “CG has a bias against Lutheran practices, which it labels as tradition, style, and adiaphora. But these cannot be modified without changing the substance, the theological foundation, the Gospel.  As the Church Growth Study Committee’s report concludes:
The problems with the Church Growth Movement have to do with the assumption that God’s Word is not sufficient, that it needs to be supplemented with “contemporary social and behavioral sciences.”  In practice, this means changing the church–it’s worship, its self-understanding, and its confession–so that it conforms to contemporary American culture.  Marketing techniques turn sinners in need of salvation into consumers.  The church adapts its practices to attract consumers and seeks thereby to grow in numbers. Institutes and mega-church workshops and church-growth materials are potential sources of introducing alien doctrines into the life and mission of the Synod.  Tragically, the Gospel itself is sometimes compromised, redefined, or treated as secondary” (68-69).  [This document was prepared in 2001 by the synodically sanctioned Church Growth Study Committee, and can be found here.]
He continues:
We need to reach out to an anti-Christian, postmodernist culture with the same defenses and offenses the church has used throughout the centuries: catechesis, evangelism, and discipleship (69).
The Church Growth Study Committee is again quoted, listing the harmful symptoms of a market-driven church:
When spiritual life is measured in terms of happiness, earthly success and appearance, worldly wisdom and human glory (1 Corinthians 1:21-25); When behavioral and social sciences are given a shared authority with the Word of God as a measure of spiritual truth; When it is thought that saving faith can be imparted by human market strategies or that the growth of the Holy Christian Church can be adequately or accurately measured by numbers (Matthew 7:13-14, 16:18; Acts 2:47; Colossians 2:19); When a congregation sees itself as necessarily more faithful because it is not growing, or, conversely, when a congregation views growing numbers and income as an indication that Christ is necessarily building His church. Numbers, large or small, are not a litmus test of the Gospel’s power (Matthew 7:24-27); When anything other than faithfulness by pastor or people to the pure Gospel and Sacraments of Christ is used to measure the “health of a congregation” (1 Corinthians 2:2) (71).
Chapter 5 fittingly closes with a quotation from the Augsburg Confession, Article V:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted.  For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ (74).
The CG concept of the pastor as “leader” is explored in Chapter 6, Will the People Perish?  Here we find the all-too-familiar blueprint for “positive change” that is infecting many churches of all different denominational persuasions.  This blueprint is at the heart of every attempt by CG advocates to transform a Confessional church into a CG church.  Here are the transformational steps as Pastor Zwonitzer presents them:

    1) Implement a vision statement.

    2) Be open to new ideas.

    3) Promote “change for more growth in Christ’s kingdom” (78).

    4) “...lead the people to take risks (79).

    5) Equip people for ministry “through the discovery and development of spiritual
        gifts” (87).

    6) Expect conflict and be ready to deal with it.

Several pages in this chapter deal with the word that is completely overused in our churches today – “vision.”  The discussion then moves to the end result of such a transformation model:
In a remarkable summation of their leadership principles, advocates of CG insist that they strive to avoid the biblical shepherd model of leadership since it leads to flock preservation and maintenance.  CG mission/vison-oriented leadership favors planning and equipping the sheep to shepherd themselves and other sheep (80).

This lack of proper biblical interpretation and application has led the CG movement to become dominated by disciplines outside the realm of theology.  Many of the good laypeople in LCMS pews understand management, marketing, and leadership techniques.  However, when pastors impose these business models on Christ’s church, it begs the question: “What does the Lord mean by ‘being in the world, but not of the world’” (81)?
Chapter 7, Everyone a Minister?, studies this particular non-Lutheran concept, the demotion of the pastor to business manager and the promotion of the layperson to minister. Pastor Zwonitzer quotes Marquart:
In typical Church Growth thinking all are ministers, using their particular “gifts.”  The task of “pastor” or leading minister then is to choreograph the services of his (or her!) fellow-ministers with their various “gifts,” and to provide a coordinating “vision.”  The office now is basically one of prodding, not one of distributing the saving Gospel treasures.  Its character has changed from an evangelical to a legal institution, with a totally different understanding of the Gospel.  A steward of God’s mysteries is one thing–a CEO quite another (86).
Pastor Zwonitzer refutes this CG twisting of Scripture:
What the Bible describes is different. It shows God gathering His people around the means of grace, proclaimed and distributed by His pastors to the priesthood of all believers. Apart from these Divine Service gatherings, we see these priests going about their daily calls and vocations–parenting, marriage, career, recreation, friendships, and so on.  Through these opportunities, this priesthood of believers shares their faith by their lives and by their confession of the living hope in them so that some might see their good works and faith and be brought out of spiritual darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. As Hamann concludes:
This is evangelization and church growth New Testament style. If a pastor aims at a congregation whose members live by faith active in love–which is the only thing that finally counts in Christ Jesus (Galatians 5:6)–and if he were sure that all his flock were doing just that, there would be no need at all for any further organization in his congregation beyond the barest minimum for the sake of order.  There would be no stewardship and evangelization committees, no frantic searching and scratching of heads so that every member in the congregation would have something to do, no elaborate programs to show that everybody keeps busy in some spiritual activity.  But there would be a mighty spiritual, churchly movement, as all members of the congregation would live their free lives of faith, loving their fellowmen, and serving them in freedom, heedless of self, as the whole body of Christ would grow and build itself up in love, each part doing its work.  And that mighty spiritual movement would exert a tremendous attraction on the unbelieving world, as the Holy Spirit would, through it and the preached Word of the Gospel, add to the church daily those who were to be saved (97-98).
When synodical and congregational membership declines or plateaus, how are we to react?  Not by the unbiblical problem-solving approach taught in business colleges.  Not by sociological analysis.  Not by turning to theologies that are not faithful to all of God’s Word. Not by concluding that people just don’t like the Law/Gospel, means-of-grace emphasis that we have clung to as the only true way God will deal with us and give us real growth.  The failure is not with God’s Word, Law and Gospel, or the precious means of grace. The failure is with people, be they churched or unchurched.  They do not like the things of God.  Then why should we constantly rearrange and reorganize the church around their “felt needs” (99)?
He concludes:
     But Lutheran belief and practice and history will not allow this unbiblical intrusion.  I can hear the protest already:  You’re willing to accept decline; you don’t want to strive and fight for growth.  I reply: I’m willing to accept whatever response comes to God’s holy means of grace.  God will provide! His will be done, not mine or yours (99-100).
In Chapter 8, Where Does One Go For Help?, CG enthusiast David Luecke is quoted:
Because of their different culture, Lutherans are prone to raise up Christ in ways that do not get the attention of people different from ourselves.  The key is understanding and addressing needs they feel and recognize. Marketing is a modern term for the focus on trying to understand what potential consumers want when they are shopping to fill their needs (103).
LCMS CG promoter Kent Hunter is proud that CG pastors seek guidance in places besides our Confession as they “learn from trend-setting congregations like Community Church of Joy in Phoenix or Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area.  The consistent message of these teaching churches is that each congregation has to find its own way with what works best to accomplish its purpose in its own community” (101).

But this attempt to marry Lutheran theology with foreign practice is fraught with problems.
Kurt Marquart responds that it is bad to allow such unlutheran theologies to be placed side-by-side with the Lutheran Confessions, imagining that one retains the Lutheran substance (engineering) with unlutheran style (marketing).  To be able to do this, a Lutheran would have to believe “that ‘Church Growth’ itself is ‘built on’ the means of grace. it clearly is built on nothing of the sort.”  Marquart comes to this conclusion based on the evidence he hears from Hunter and other LMCS [sic] CG advocates who pay lip service to the means of grace, but in the next breath praise revival theology (105).

This is just another instance of CGers who say they are Lutheran in substance but are in fact Finney-style revivalists.  “At its Calvinistic best ‘Church Growth’ relies on the Reformed-pietistic direct encounter with the Spirit in prayer.  At its Arminian (synergistic) worst, it projects a manipulative religious engineering, where everything depends on techniques and methods developed and certified as ‘effective’ by ‘science’” (105-106).
Pastor Zwonitzer quotes Luecke’s syncretistic views...
The traditional LCMS approach views others as heterodox when they were not in agreement on all details of a church body’s confession.  That is a very narrow definition that may have fit the times of the nineteenth century. Does that traditional interpretation have to extend now to ministry in the twenty-first century (111)?
And he answers those syncretistic views with this:
If one’s primary theological concern is not the doctrine of justification, but rather the saving of some through any old generic gospel, then the result is a rapid, indiscriminate acceptance of heterodox confessions, coupled with attacks on those faithful to Lutheran beliefs and practices (111-112).
In Chapter 9, Can Anything Good Come From Pasadena?, the question is asked “Is there anything salvageable from the CG movement” (116)?  Some of Pastor Zwoniter’s observations of good things coming from CG and problems within the Confessional “house” include:
Most will readily admit that the CG commitment to evangelize the lost is vital, and they are united with CG on this issue (116-117).

    The lack of doctrinal discernment with the Lutheran CG movement is troubling, but equally troubling is the lack of concern for evangelism that some Confessional pastors and congregations exhibit.  Certainly Dr. Barry would not condone this, nor would many Confessional pastors. Doctrine and evangelism go together.  They both are vital, necessary, and biblical. Continued admonition and encouragement should be given to both!
    Pastors and congregations that have no desire for outreach and growth should be disciplined and given good pastoral counsel.  The CG charges of academic interest at the expense of outreach are in some cases embarrassingly true (117).

Some Confessionalist pastors and their congregations seem to equate intentional outreach with CG and therefore regard outreach as somehow tainted, unbiblical, and unlutheran.  This needs to be corrected and monitored just as adamantly and fervently as our vigilance against false doctrine (119).

What is warranted is criticism aimed at an ecclesiastical academia that becomes unattached from and disinterested in the life of the church. Academia can at times simply live in the past, comfortable and protected from all contemporary movements. As Hunter illustrates... (122).

We in the LCMS must take all the “gags” off God. We must not gag Him by our arrogant contentment, ignoring those outside the faith with our “let them come if they want to be saved” attitude.  Neither can we wait until all of our internal issues are reconciled before we can be such witnesses. We must be about our Father’s business!  Nor can we dare presume that we have pure confession and then apply foreign techniques and methodologies, thinking we are still serving the end goal while letting the yeast pour into the dough.  Sheep without a faithful shepherd have a constant junk-food diet.  Predatory wolves will be welcomed into the fold. We must not gag God with unbiblical “style” (125).
The final Chapter of the book is titled Maintain This Work of Concord In Our Land. Both sides of the CG issue are again presented.  CG claims that “...the truth is that Church Growth represents the authentic, Reformation evangelical movement of focused Christianity” (128). Confessionalists claim that “...God causes His growth through the means that He has given us, the word and Sacraments.  These means do, in fact, bring people to faith, as they have for centuries. Dire warnings that churches will ‘die’ unless new and questionable methods are employed cast doubt upon god’s faithfulness and His active work in bringing sinners to Himself.  We do not need anything new or unique to cause growth; God can and will grow His church by the means God has given the church” (129).

Pastor Zwonitzer continues:
It always comes back to where we began.  This controversy is about the primary purpose of the church. CG says mission. Confessionalists say pure Gospel.  All the rest–barriers to the Gospel, effectiveness or faithfulness, vision and leadership, pastors as divine gifts or everyone a minster–depends on one’s paradigm. Which will it be: Lutheran pure and simple or Lutheran mixed with CG (131-132)?

It’s time for each man to state before God and His church his allegiance.  I believe that the warning Jesus gave each of us, that one cannot serve two masters at the same time (Matthew 6:24), applies here: one cannot serve both CG and Christ!  You will either love CG and all it stands for and serve that paradigm, or you will love being the “bond-slave” of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ and suffer all, even a declining membership and charges of cultural irrelevancy from the unchurched, rather than allow one ounce of false doctrine to intrude.  We need to move to such a commitment as pastors and as congregations in our beloved LCMS (137-138).
Pastor Zwoniter, in one of the most important parts of the book, suggests a format for a return to concord:
We need the Lord to have mercy upon our poor Synod and send us a group of confessors today to help us find the same process that our fathers used in the sixteenth century (138).
He then goes on to present the following steps for such a process:

    Step One: Establish and work from a corpus doctrinae (a set of doctrinal
    statements to which the church subscribes).

    Step Two: Define terms.

    Step Three: Practice the art of precise talking.

    Step Four: Refer all points back to the Scriptures.

    Step Five: Be willing to say we don’t know.

    Step Six: Conclude with a formal written agreement for those in concord.

Sadly, his reasonable steps to address the current crisis in the LCMS have never been accomplished.  The LCMS remains a synod divided. The legacy of Pastor Zwonitzer’s book may therefore be not one of concord, but one of warning.  It serves as a Confessional warning to all of what will happen when the Word of God is discarded in favor of the plans of men.

In some ways, these seem like dark times. Yet there is hope, because the Gospel cannot be chained.  No Church Growth expert will ever be able to enslave the Church of Jesus Christ by chaining it to a man-made Gospel of meeting felt-needs.  It cannot be done, though they may try. Flip open the Holy Bible to any book, and there you will find the easily discernable Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is why you rarely find Church Growth advocates, when discussing CG technique, dwelling in the Scriptures or the Confession for any length of time, because it convicts their philosophy.  It is also the reason why Pastor Zwonitzer’s book is such a joy to read – because he repeatedly uses the Gospel and the Confessions to refute the false philosophy of the Church Growth Movement.

In closing, I’ll quote some of the last words of the book.  These are the words of the great reformers in the Preface to The Book of Concord:
Likewise, we desire furthermore to agree in a friendly way among ourselves earnestly, using whatever means possible, to maintain this work of concord in our lands, according to our own and each community’s circumstances, through diligent visitation in the churches and schools, through supervision of the presses, and through other salutary means. And should the present controversies about our Christian religion again surface or new ones arise, we agree that to protect against all kinds of scandal they be settled and reconciled in a timely way before given a chance to spread (140).

Written by Scott Diekmann

Other articles investigating truth claims within Evangelicalism may be found here: