Plateaued Churches

Recently I read a heated discussion about Reviving a Plateaued Church Without Ticking People Off stirred up by an article by Rick Warren in which he writes:

“If your church has been plateaued for six months, it might take six months to get it going again. If it’s been plateaued a year, it might take a year. If it’s been plateaued for 20 years, you’ve got to set in for the duration! I’m saying some people are going to have to die or leave. Moses had to wander around the desert for 40 years while God killed off a million people before he let them go into the Promised Land. That may be brutally blunt, but it’s true. There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.”

I think it’s important to ask: “What defines a plateau? Who gets to decide that a particular church has plateaued?” Is the pastor alone in his view that a church has plateaued? Is he defining the plateau simply in terms of numbers? If you read the whole article, it seems Warren is talking only numbers, especially since the article is adapted from the Rick Warren resource “How to break through the 200-300 attendance barrier.”

I imagine a lot of the feedback on this quote comes from Christians in cities. I live in a large rural farming area. There will never be huge numbers at the churches out here, but the people still need to worship God. Are they worshiping God in Spirit and Truth? Do they seek His kingdom first? Are they helping the weak, serving the poor and lifting the fallen? Are they seeking to put everything in their lives under the Lordship of Christ? Are they fulfilling the Great Commission?

If the answer to these questions is yes then the numbers are irrelevant, but these issues aren’t even discussed by Warren. He talks about three things for the pastor to do when his church has plateaued: 1) Realize it will take time. 2) Love everyone but move with the movers, and 3) Be prepared for conflict. It may be telling that the only time he mentions prayer is in step one when he advises pastors to pray for patience.

Equally telling is that the “movers” he refers to are the “E. F. Huttens” of a particular church. There is one and only one real Mover of the Church. He doesn’t mention praying for the Spirit to do the moving. If the Holy Spirit isn’t doing the moving then it’s best to sit still. The fact that Warren believes that “some people are going to have to die or leave,” indicates, to me at least, that he sees church growth as something to be accomplished by people and not the Spirit.

The transformation of God’s people is one of the primary purposes for which the Spirit was sent into the world. To argue that people who “love God sincerely” (Christians specifically for who else truly loves God?) and who have received the Spirit (unlike the wandering Israelites) as all Christians have “will never, ever, change” and they “are going to have to die or leave” before any change can take place is bad theology indeed!

Numbers can, if fact, mean exactly what the quote implies is true of churches without numerical growth. Again: “There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.” First, as I argued above, if you truly love God, there will be change, transformation. One can not come into the presence of God with a humble and broken heart and not be changed. Second, if the church is growing because of “market” forces rather than the genuine transformative and reviving work of the Holy Spirit then people may be coming just so they don’t have to change. A church that’s changing on the outside but not on the inside is worse than one not changing at all for it leads even more people into a stale, shallow, nominal understanding of our Lord.

I am not opposed to large para-churches. After all, the first church added 3000 members the first day, but that was after a sermon calling them to repent and in the face of sure persecution. The Founder of that church had just been executed a few months prior and the preacher was a mere fisherman. How many people who decide to go to churches with a mime ministry, contemporary music and plasma TVs would choose to join that first church? If all, great—I don’t want to minimize any of those ministries–but if not then one has to question if that “growing,” rather than plateaued, church is not really, in fact, in a downward spiral.

I’m Reformed through and through, but one of the unfortunate effects of the Reformation is that we now have dozens of churches per square mile competing with one another for members using models of competition borrowed from economics and entertainment. If a church’s numbers come from people who want church without transformation, sacrifice and a willingness to suffer and that has been facilitated by a staff focused on numerical growth then that church is in a state far worse than a plateau.

If the church is growing in numbers but the members aren’t growing in Christ then one has to question if the numerical growth is a result of the Spirit’s work. Evangelism and outreach are extremely important, but they can only truly be accomplished by those equipped by growth in Christ. The only thing some of the people at large, hip, numerically thriving churches would be willing to change is the church they attend.

My last problem with the quote is it says a plateau can be as short as six months. There’s no way one can determine that a church has plateaued in that span. That church may be in a period of preparation, like Jesus in the wilderness or Paul in Antioch or the disciples prior to Pentecost. If one is quick to judge a six month period of no change (read: numerical growth) as a plateau then his definition of plateau is probably seriously flawed.

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