The Wall Street Journal Online featured an interesting article profiling a growing number of church splits over the “purpose-driven” model of doing church (HT: PulpitLive). The article is well worth the read.

Many folks have already offered critiques of pragmatic church-growth models like purpose-driven (see here, for example). I don’t want to rehash those efforts in this post.

What I am interested in is how the article revealed a “Biggie-sized” ambition among a great number of small-town pastors. I was struck at how a number of the churches and consultant groups profiled in the article were located in the hamlets and villages of the U.S. These small town outfits were so concerned about numbers in the congregation and size of the budget that they invested $50,000 to $150,000 in sound and lights to attract seeker-sensitive musquitoes to their neon displays… before zapping them with… something… but not the gospel.

These pastors lived and worked in places like Waxhaw and Burlington, NC. I’m from NC… I know these places. Been in most of the nooks and crannies in the state… from Cherokee at the farthest end of the western mountains to the “finger counties” of the NE and the outer banks… that’s 10 hours from tip to tip. And I can tell you… most of these places don’t have enough people in the town to build a mega-church if every adult in the town began attending! And to be sure, most of these small-town, blue-collar saints can ill-afford to give to such projects and will gnash their teeth before the Maker when they give an account for such poor stewardship.

What causes a pastor laboring in the anonymity of small town America to want “bigness” so badly that he is willing to divide the people of God over it? What causes him to look past the obvious demographic facts in most cases (and that’s a rich irony, that a purpose-driven or church-growth type doesn’t do his demographic homework!) to push for a church growth strategy that can only succeed in larger settings?

Perhaps it’s pride. Perhaps it’s wrong assumptions about what constitutes success. Perhaps it’s a professionalism that invades the ministry. Perhaps it’s greed or jealousy or competition. Perhaps it’s ambition or zeal without knowledge.

Seems it’s probably all of these things. One thing it is not… is trust in the will and ways of God for His church. It’s a failure to see that God has spoken to us about how to “do” church. He has laid down for us sufficient instructions on everything from how to organize to what elements should be in our public worship. There is in the Scriptures sufficient teaching to shape our membership practices and our individual discipleship. The Bible records enough apostolic preaching to prepare a man for a life of ministry.

But rather than pursue biblical faithfulness, these men appear (I don’t want to speak too harshly here) to be interested mainly in drawing disciples after themselves. Here’s how the article summarized the teachings of one official purpose-driven consultant:

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church…and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

I wish pastors would call other pastors over matter of official church discipline. I wish pastors would contact neighboring pastors when some members try to leave one local church to join another without ever speaking with the leaders of the congregation they are currently covenanted together with. And I shudder to think that — while failing to perform these most basic of duties — UNDERshepherds would dare play “hardball” with the sheep of God!

What’s the consequence of all of this? Falling numbers of congregants. Severing the local body of Christ. One church from 600 to 275. Another from 700 to 550. The pastor of this last church commented, “I’ve often wondered, where’s bottom?”

It’s hard to know where “bottom” is when you’re following the depraved “wisdom” of man. It seems clear that increasingly the prophets of purpose-driven approaches are “like jackals among ruins” (Ezek. 13:4). And yet, as this testimony points out, recovery is possible for those who choose faithfulness over success.

The Lord has placed the church at the center of His redemptive plan, and over His church He has exalted His Son for His own glory. To turn away from His instructions about how to care for His blood-bought sheep is sheer folly. Methods other than those the Lord established are bound to fail. Better that we leave our biggie-sized ambitions at the cross and get on with the business of being slaves of Christ!