The book is entitled The Gospel-Driven Church by Ian Stackhouse, pastor of Guildford Baptist Church just southwest of London. In the book, Stackhouse has mainly taken up the task of challenging the more vibrant church of the UK, specifically relating to the newer churches and more established charismatic churches of the past few decades.
It’s not that Stackhouse is not a charismatic, for he is, or I can only assume he is by his words. But he has still taken aboard to pastorally challenge the church in a few areas. Having lived in the UK from August 2003 to July 2006, I am somewhat aware of the church scene in the UK, hence my interest in the work. I came across Stackhouse’s book soon after it was published in 2004-2005, but only read a few pages. Nevertheless, I liked those few words I did read. But I was never able to get back into the book, as I ended up giving it away to a friend.
But recently I re-bought the book and wanted to go through it. And, to my delight, the book has been an excellent read.
As I said, Stackhouse has taken up the mission of pastorally challenging some things within the church of the UK. One area where he really brings a challenge is into its over-obsession with fads and movements. So, we can see how this relates to the church wider than the UK.
The church, as a whole, has typically been enamoured with movements. Matter of fact, in some places, there is an outright obsession with such. We have the church growth movement, the worship movement, revivalism, church planting movement, missional movement, emerging movement, and those are only a few to name.
Now, not one of these things are evil in and of themselves. Who doesn’t want to reach people and see the church grow? Who doesn’t want worship that is Spirit-directed and draws the people of God in? Who doesn’t want God to move with true renewal and revival? Who doesn’t want to see churches planted as a sign of the extension of God’s kingdom in the lives of others? And who doesn’t want to be involved in mission?
All of these things are good and not evil, right? Of course! But all of this becomes unhealthy when they become our obsession, our main goal. In all of this, we end up developing unhealthy ‘isms’. And these ‘isms’ can actually start to become anti-God if we are not careful.
But why are such movements bad? As Stackhouse states himself:
…fads have diverted attention away from the real challenges that face the church in the West, specifically the challenge of discipleship. (p18)
Thinking specifically about the church growth movement, if we get so caught up with wide-open front doors and a great musical experience, we can forget the bigger and yet simple picture of what Jesus asked us to stay focused on.
Not only that, but growth first starts with seeing the saints grow in maturity. If we are not looking to see this developed, then it doesn’t matter how many flood through the doors each Sunday, for when hard times come, and they shall, the back door will be just as wide.
In regards to an obsession with church growth, Ian Stackhouse reminds us:
Churches that are committed to the programme of Church Growth cannot do this essential work, because the addictive character of the numbers syndrome effectively stifles any genuine attempt in spiritual formation. (p33)
If we are so focused on getting people in the door, we will forget to nurture, care for, strengthen and challenge the family of saints of which we are already a part. That’s dangerous. That’s unhealthy. And it might just be that those hungering for discipleship will leave even before the others leave in reaction to hard times.
Another problem that Stackhouse raises when we focus on church growth in numbers is that we end up with a dichotomy between pastoral care and evangelism. But this rips apart a holistic gospel:
When growth replaces qualitative Christian nurture as the rationale of the church, traditional notions of initiation into the gospel are sacrificed on the altar of expediency, and pastoral care of the saints, in the somewhat ambiguous and messy business of real life, is set in opposition, unnecessarily and unbiblically, to the call to evangelise. (p28)
When we shepherd (or pastor), we are to encourage our people to be salt and light in the world. When we challenge them to have compassion for the broken, the poor and disadvantaged, we are pastorally challenging our people to care for others. This all works together for a holistic training of the people of God.
The more interesting challenge is that an obsession with church growth can actually get in the way of mission:
The comfort that comes from numerical increase is what makes evangelicalism so susceptible to Church Growth theories and the latest religious trends – tantamount in many cases to opportunism. And it is this obsession with growth that many are now realising needs to cease if, paradoxically, the church is seriously to engage in the task of mission. (p27)
How can church growth theories get in the way of true mission? Well our mission is not to get people into our buildings on Sundays, nor is it even to get them to raise their hand or walk an aisle. Our mission is about seeing truly converted disciples of Jesus and the kingdom be raised up.
So this might not mean that we keep our meetings (or services) to one hour. It might mean that we lay aside an action-packed morning of multi-media. It might mean that we actually let spiritual gifts operate in our gatherings and not relegate such to home groups. And there are a lot of other challenges that might come to us.
The problem is, when we see a method working, and by working I mean seeing hundreds of people in our buildings on Sundays, it’s hard to ever think change needs to happen. If the method works, who is to stand against it? It would seem outrightly foolish.
But, if we are not seeing people equipped and strengthened and built up and challenged, with fruit being produced in their lives, then we are actually missing the mark. We are actually not walking out the commands to seek first the kingdom of God, it’s righteousness, and to make disciples of those responding to the gospel.
Thus, we have got to lay aside our obsessions with certain fads and movements! Seriously!
At the end of my life, I know I won’t be wishing I had brought just a few more hundred through the doors. What I shall wish is that I will have given my life to better equip, mentor, train and disciple more people. As Paul said to Timothy:
…and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)
I want to be raising up faithful disciples who know how to walk with God. If the numbers come, they come. If they don’t, they don’t. But we must not get wrapped up in a movement. Movements come and go. This has been so throughout history, and especially church history. But we know One who remains consistent. And we know He is calling us to the same consistency.