I was greatly influenced by, and indeed I was a part of, the church growth movement with its emphasis on numerical growth in congregations. Today, the influence of church growth writers has waned. My son, Jess Rainer, was recently reading an older book in this genre. His interest encouraged me to review some of the contributions of this era.
It was a fascinating journey to read again works from the 1970s and 1980s by Bill Sullivan, C. Peter Wagner, Elmer Towns, Bill Easum, John Maxwell (pre-leadership guru days), Carl George, George Hunter, and others. I was particularly interested in those works dealing with the 200 attendance barrier in churches. So I took a day to review those specific works. Allow me to share with you some observations.
- The interest waned in materials on attendance barriers and was replaced by deeper biblical and theological works. This corrective action was sorely needed. Though the authors of these works did not intend it to be so, many of those who read and followed these teachings, including my own, focused on numbers as an end instead of using them as just one good measurement for the health of the church.
- It is unfortunate that the interest has waned so significantly though. These teachings can be very helpful. The aversion to and criticism of church growth teachings has, in many cases, caused us to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” The 200 barrier books, for example, dealt with churches struggling to move past a barrier in the 150- to 350-attendance range. Many church leaders would benefit greatly by looking over these principles.
- The numerical emphasis is not as important as Great Commission obedience. But if a church is Great Commission obedient, it will have to deal with numbers. The early Jerusalem church, for example, discovered that reality: “And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, HCSB).
- Many of the issues related to the 200 barrier dealt with church members being willing to get out of their comfort zone for the sake of the gospel. That issue has not changed. C. Peter Wagner noted five reasons church members often resist the change needed for growth: the desire to preserve social intimacy; the desire to maintain control; the desire to conserve memories; the desire to protect turf; and the desire to remain comfortable.
- One of the most important messages of the 200 barrier works was the imperative for leaders to let go. They can’t be control freaks. They can’t be micromanagers. They can’t always be second-guessing and reviewing what others have done. They must be biblical leaders who equip the saints to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
- These works showed us the importance of goal setting. It’s not just a numbers game; it’s a statement and step of faith. And it exemplifies good stewardship because it causes you to think ahead about the resources that will be needed.
- These works showed us that the attitude of the congregation is critical to breaking the 200-barrier. I have written about this issue in many other articles. Read 1 Corinthians 13 in its original context. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth to tell them what type of attitude they should have as church members. It’s not about them, their preferences, and their needs. It’s about putting others first.
- Evangelism must be a priority. I hear little emphasis on evangelism in local congregations today. The 200 barrier books reminded us of the priority of evangelism and the Great Commission. Those are critical reminders for us today.
- These works helped leaders become more effective change agents. Change is inevitable. How we deal with change in our churches will determine much of the direction we go. This leadership skill is sorely lacking in many of our church leaders.
Church revitalization is critical in as many as 300,000 Protestant churches, perhaps even more. I am so grateful for the theological recovery and emphasis that has taken place across many congregations. If we wed that emphasis with practical Great Commission obedience, we might just see a wave of churches renewed for years to come.
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