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Growing weary of worldly rhetoric?  

06 January 2017

David Martin on the church-growth thing

Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European experience
Stefan Paas
Eerdmans £28.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.10



THIS book is part of a series focused on the incipient secularisation of North America, and it examines church-planting in the most secularised parts of the European North and West to glean what can be learnt strategically from an empirical point of view, and what ought to be understood theologically, especially from searching the scriptures.

Stefan Paas is a missiologist with experience of church-planting in the highly secularised Netherlands. He is a committed Evangelical who has a sophisticated grounding in biblical understanding, in the Fathers, in the historical concept of Christendom, in Protestant theology, and in the competitive confessionalism that has emerged from the fragmentations of the Reformation.

He is something rather rare: someone from the Evangelical stable who is theologically very well-informed, has a critical acquaintance with all the issues involved in church-planting, especially pragmatic versions focused on growth, and who understands that branch of sociological theory based on “rational choice”.

It is not that he is steeped in secularisation debates broadly understood, but he grasps quite acutely that sector of the debate associated with Rodney Stark and “rational choice” or Religious Market Theory (RMT), which overlaps Church Growth Theory (CGT). Quite unusually, he brings them together. His book is quite hard work, because it bristles with relevant distinctions and discriminations; but it should be taken very seriously.

He points out that CGT arose in the 1950s in response to the challenges of global evangelisation. It became very influential among American Protestants, and for many still feels self-evident: doctrine is marginal, and success validates the method, so that numbers prove faithfulness.

Paas takes the view that faithfulness in a New Testament perspective is something very different: the Church is a seed that grows fruitfully in a minority acting as leaven in “the world”. Moreover, church growth in a deeply secularised Europe is empirically wildly optimistic. It may be empirically true that people are more easily gathered in socially homogeneous groupings, but precisely that homogeneity is false to the gospel and a sign of the internal secularisation of mission. Equally false is a focus on bringing in key opinion-changers.

Paas then engages in a careful critique of the assumptions undergirding the utilitarian pragmatism of both CGT and RMT: both of them American and both analogous to the assumptions of market capitalism. Paas thinks that notions such as the maximisation of individual social capital spring from a false philosophical anthropology.

He goes through the assumptions of RMT at every level, exposing the worldly wisdom that aligns churches with mutually competing providers such as restaurants and supermarkets. Schools, museums, and hospitals, for example, provide education and health irrespective of the populist demand of “clients”.

Paas goes on to show how many of the empirical claims for CGT are so much “mobilisation rhetoric”. Is it really the case that younger churches are better at growing than older ones? In short, the management-shaped Church is not all it is cracked up to be.


The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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