Doing what works (part 2): The Bible’s marching orders

In the first part of this article (in our last Briefing), we looked at the pluses and minuses of pragmatism. We saw that ‘doing what works’ is a quite legitimate path to follow in one sense, because God has created an orderly world. Yet pragmatism has its limitations, as a result of the complex and flawed nature both of the world and of ourselves. We ultimately need a revelation, a word from outside, to guide us.

But how does the Word guide us? In our last article, we looked at one approach, the so-called ‘Hooker Principle’. Let us begin Part II, by looking at a related but much more recent way of using the Bible.

Method #2: The church growth movement

The basic premise of what we may broadly call ‘the church growth movement’ is that churches do not grow by accident. Growing churches have certain characteristics in common, and these may be studied, analysed and generalized in order to help all churches grow. Church growth pioneers like C. P. Wagner and Donald McGavran made their reputation by carefully studying successful churches, and isolating the principles and practices that produced them. Growing churches tend to do certain things: they target particular groups (the ‘homogeneous unit principle’); they give new members a job to do; they meet the felt needs of the people they’re wanting to reach; and so on.

This is not the place to assess the strengths and weaknesses of church growth thinking (and there are real strengths, as well as weaknesses). What we are interested in is how the church growth movement uses the Bible, for use the Bible it most certainly does. Most church growth experts wish to maintain that their methods and prescriptions are ‘biblical’ or ‘Bible-based’, and that the thinking that has lead to them has included intense study of the Scriptures. Let us take just a couple of recent examples. (I wish to stress at this point that I am not making any judgment about these particular approaches, the godliness of those involved, the integrity of their ministry, or any such thing—we are merely looking at how the Bible is related to methodology).

In Rediscovering Church (published 1995, and co-written with his wife Lynne), Bill Hybels outlines some characteristics of Christian leadership. How do you know if you have the spiritual gift of leadership, the kind of leadership that will draw people to you and see your ministry grow? Hybels lists eight key indicators, but he prefaces his list by saying:

As I’ve looked through the Scriptures at those who throughout history have been unmistakably strong leaders, I’ve noticed certain behaviour patterns and attitudes that they seem to hold in common.

He then lists the eight characteristics (things like ‘Leaders have the ability to inspire and motivate people’ and ‘Leaders allocate resources effectively’). However, only three of the eight mention the Bible or a biblical example. Under ‘Leaders have the ability to cast a vision’, Jesus is quoted as an example of a great leader who had a God-given capability to place a vision of the future before people, such as when he gave Peter his name (of ‘Rock’) and declared that he would build the church on him. Nehemiah is the biblical example of ‘Leaders have the ability to coalesce people’, on the grounds of his admirable efforts in mobilizing the people to rebuild Jerusalem. And Paul is a champion of ‘establishing core values’ in that “he said to the other leaders of his day, ‘If you want to hang out in Jerusalem and build churches for the already convinced—yea, God! But I want to go out and build churches where Christ is not yet known.’”

This passage from Bill Hybels is typical of much ‘church growth’ literature, as anyone who has dipped into it will testify. There is a tendency to use the Bible to illustrate principles and ideas that really have been derived from elsewhere, such as psychology or management theory or just by common sense. The presence of the Bible is somehow meant to legitimize the ideas being presented, even though the way it is used is very often quite forced and arbitrary. (I have noticed, for example, that some biblical heroes of faith like Samson and Ezekiel almost never rate a mention as exemplifying leadership or ministry attributes, whereas others—like Nehemiah, Ezra and Paul—are never far away.)

Having said that, Bill Hybels’s eight characteristics of a good leader are quite probably true and helpful. Yet the Bible passages used to undergird them are tenuous at best, and badly mis-read at worst.

We find a similar story in Rick Warren’s stimulating and helpful book, The Purpose Driven Church. It is hard not to be impressed by this book; it is inspiring, challenging, and full of practical ideas for ministry and evangelism. Yet it is interesting to again find that the use of the Bible in it is almost universally poor. To give just one example of many, the chapter ‘Developing Your Strategy’ has a section entitled ‘Catch Fish on Their Terms’, where the very sensible advice is given that we should be flexible and adapt to the unbeliever rather than the other way around. This of course reflects the practice and teaching of Paul, as in 1 Corinthians 9 (which is quoted). But more biblical warrant is apparently needed and so the ministry strategy of Jesus is invoked:

Jesus told the disciples,“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:8, emphasis added). In saying this, Jesus was giving more than dietary advice, he was commanding them to be sensitive to local culture. He was telling them to fit in with those they wanted to reach. (p. 195)

Needless to say, it is not at all clear from Luke 10 that Jesus was giving his disciples cross-cultural missionary advice; far from it. Examples of a similar use of Scripture abound—e.g. the fact that Jesus often knew what people were thinking is used as an exhortation for us to get inside the heads of our hearers and understand their mindset (p. 188); or the very loose Living Bible translation of Colossians 3:15 (“This is your responsibility and privilege as members of his body”) is used to show that believers have both responsibilities and privileges in the church, when neither idea is in the original text. And on it goes.

In much church growth literature, there is a genuine, heartfelt desire to be biblical. Pastors like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren don’t want to hive off into something purely because it works—they want to be involved in God’s work in the world, to fulfill his mission, to do his will. Yet curiously, their attitude to the Bible seems to swing wildly from overuse to underuse. At one level, they overuse the Bible, erroneously citing it willy-nilly to give example, illustration and legitimacy to the principles they espouse. At another level, however, they underuse the Bible, spending far too little time thinking about what the Bible might actually say about ministry and methodology. In church growth literature, the Bible seems only to provide very broad parameters for action (such as the basic task at hand to see people saved), but doesn’t have much active role in shaping or grounding the ministry. What really drives the ministry comes from elsewhere—from management models, demographic analysis, research, experiment, common sense, sociology, psychology, or whatever. Certainly in Hybels’s case, he makes no secret of his debt to management gurus like Peter Drucker, to current theories of pop-psychology, and to basic textbook principles of modern image-management and marketing.

All this is quite similar to the ‘Hooker principle’ (that the church is free to establish laws for its own order and governance so long as they are ‘not contrary to Scripture’). The church growth movement would say that so long as no principle of Scripture is being transgressed, we are free to use the techniques and insights of the world to be more successful in church. Certainly, the church growth approach is different from Hooker in other respects—chiefly in that it believes more in the power of empiricism rather than rationalism. It believes that we can discover by observation and experimentation what will work best, and that this is what we should do (whereas for Hooker, it was the rational deliberation of reasonable men over time, who would frame from first principles the right structures for church government).

However, what Hooker and the church growth movement have in common is a limited view of the Bible’s relevance in shaping and driving the practical decisions we make about Christian ministry. For Hooker, the Bible is a set of laws, relating to a certain sphere (to things supernatural), and so long as we do not transgress those laws, we are free to frame all manner of other laws in other spheres. Similarly for the church growth people (although they would most likely not articulate it), the Bible provides a set of broad parameters in which to operate. It sets out the playing field and the goal posts, and tells you the aim of the game, and then you largely figure out the strategy for winning the game yourself.

As we noted in Part I, this way of thinking underestimates the fallenness of creation and overestimates our own capacity for mastering it. We don’t understand the whole story. A does not follow B because we think it normally should. The world is not the kind of place where you can conduct an experiment in 50 churches, and then draw reliable conclusions about what will achieve God’s purposes in church number 51. It’s just not as simple as that.1 Doing what works may indeed work in the short-term, or appear to. But it may be quite disastrous in the longer-term.

Standing orders or marching orders?

This brings us directly to the question that we have left hanging all along. What is it about these two models that seems unsatisfactory? How ought the Bible shape our lives and ministries?

The Puritans tried to express it in terms of not ‘shutting out’ God’s word. They struggled to mount their argument successfully, but there is a real truth in this way of putting it. God’s word is living, active and present to us through the work of his Spirit. When we attend obediently to Scripture, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. In this sense, it is not merely law, but personal command. It addresses us and calls on us to respond, to follow, to submit. To either confine the voice of God to a particular sphere (things supernatural), or to treat it as a source book of illustrations for management principles, is to ignore it. In the end, it is to build one’s ministry on the sand.

It is like the difference between standing orders and marching orders. Standing orders provide the rules and limits for behaviour in a meeting, the boundaries, the broad parameters, within which you run your meeting. They are important, but they do not set the agenda.

Marching orders, on the other hand, tell us where we should be going. They not only give the overall mission, but send us off in a particular direction, with certain commands, and objectives to achieve along the way.

In both Hooker and Church Growth literature, Scripture seems to function more like standing orders than marching orders. It provides a context for action, a set of boundaries and limits and rules, and does speak authoritatively on certain matters pertaining to salvation and eternal life. Yet it does not actively shape and drive the agenda; it does not determine methodology; it is not the starting point. Both are too optimistic, it seems to me, about our capacity for getting it right; and too pessimistic about the role of the Scripture in getting it right, and providing an agenda that ‘works’.

Does the New Testament give us marching orders? How much instruction is there concerning the nature of our task, and the methods we should use? The answer is: a great deal. Christ commissions us to a particular task, and gives quite extensive instructions, principles, examples and encouragements for doing that task.

It is at this point, however, that we encounter another difficulty. How should we read the Bible to receive these supposed marching orders? How do we avoid what we might call the ‘Nehemiah syndrome’, where we pick and choose our way through the Bible’s narratives for likely examples of ministry or leadership principles?

Biblical theology to the rescue again

The answer is to read the Bible as it has been given to us, that is, as an unfolding revelation (what is often called a ‘biblical theology’ way of reading the Bible). We should treat the Bible as we find it—as the inspired and preserved public Word of God, explaining his purposes throughout history, and how they have culminated in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a textbook arranged by subject, nor a manual, an encyclopaedia, a rule book nor a set of illustrative stories.

The whole tells us how to read the individual parts, and helps us to apply them. As disciples of Christ, we get our marching orders for our task asChristian ministers or elders chiefly from the New Testament, because that’s where we are in the unfolding story of God’s cosmic purposes.

And even the New Testament itself is an unfolding story, in which we have a place. At the risk of stating the obvious, let us briefly rehearse what the unfolding nature of the New Testament tells us.

  • The Gospels tell us of the coming of Christ, how he fulfilled the prophets, how he inaugurated the kingdom. They tell us what the good news is. Yet even within the Gospels there is a movement in God’s salvation-historical plan: the very bare “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” of Matthew 4:18 becomes a fuller picture by Matthew 28, for at this point the Christ has come into his authority, and sends his disciples out to preach to the nations. We see much the same in Luke 24. As the Gospels draw to a close, the foundation is laid concerning the content of the good news that will be proclaimed concerning the dead and risen Saviour Christ. We also have the groundwork in place for the norms and values (if I can put it like that) that will mark Christian ministry, in particular the pattern of the cross as the paradigm of service and sacrifice for the sake of others, which will be an ongoing model in the rest of the New Testament for Christian lifestyle and ministry. At the close of the Gospels, the basic commission is given: to spread the Gospel to the nations, making disciples in Jesus name, and looking forward to the end of the age.
  • All this flows into Acts (from Luke in particular, of course), as the risen Messiah pours out the promised Spirit, and under his power the apostles begin to proclaim the word; repentance and forgiveness begins to be preached to the nations. Acts shows churches being founded, and the work of the Spirit in continuing the work of Jesus through his disciples, as they wait for his return from heaven.
  • The Epistles then show God’s people in action in these circumstances, living in the last days, suffering, striving for godliness, beating off heresy, organizing their corporate life, passing the gospel on to the next generation, and so on. They show us, in other words, as we currently are, living between the ages, the kingdom having been inaugurated, and yet still waiting for its final consummation. The Apostles write to Christian churches and leaders who live in this tension, who wait for all things to be brought together under Christ, according to God’s purposes.We see this big sweep of the unfolding plan popping up in all sorts of places in the Epistles, even though the letters can be very situational and the problems very practical and specific. The big theological picture keeps being appealed to as the basis for everything—whether that’s the cosmic sweep of things in Ephesians 1, or Romans 8, or in Titus 2. The Pastorals, I would suggest, are particularly important (to reverse current scholarly tendencies), for they show the ‘ball being passed’ to the next generation and give all sorts of instructions as to how gospel ministry should proceed and be organized.
  • In Revelation, we see a graphic picture from now right through to the end, of the sweep of history from now to the consummation.

In this unfolding story, this ‘biblical theology of the New Testament’ as we might call it, we are presented with a definite program—not just parameters and boundaries and rules, but an agenda that arises out of Christ and his work, and God’s purposes to unite all things in him.

We could summarize it thus:

“A ministry of the gospel, preached and lived; preoccupied with Christ crucified and raised, as both the central content and manner of what is done, and Christ glorified as the goal of everything, in line with God’s purposes to sum up all things in him. Thus we do the work of an evangelist, preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ to all nations, making disciples in his name, acting at all times in sincerity, honesty, intelligibility, and good order, and with a loving involvement in the lives of our hearers. It is a ministry built on prayer, and the preaching and teaching of the Word in season and out, warning and encouraging and training and rebuking everyone to live in accordance with sound doctrine.”

You might want to add things; and there is plenty of detail missing. But these essentially are our marching orders. Note how they include methodology (such as the primacy of preaching the word and prayer, the importance of godly living and diligent encouragement of others, and so on). This is no accident, for ultimately the methodology flows out of the theology, out of the plan. Even when we make purely pragmatic judgements about what might work best in a certain situation, we should do so from a biblical standpoint, with certain values, priorities and goals already established for us by Scripture.

This is something which both the Hookerian and Church Growth approaches to Scripture seem to fail to recognize. Whether in our rational judgements about how things ought to be structured, or our empirical conclusions about what sorts of programs build successful churches, we always start from a set of principles. Certain assumptions and frameworks are already in place, and deeply affect the conclusions we draw. What I am saying is that these assumptions, presuppositions, mental models, values—however you wish to express them—need to be drawn from the biblical vision of Christian life and ministry. We need to be constantly reading Scripture on its own terms, as the unfolding revelation of God’s will for his creation. We must allow Scripture to reform and challenge our assumptions, for our theology will always drive even our most practical and mundane decisions.

A classic example in church growth literature is the place of ‘worship’ in the church program. All sorts of priorities, ideas and programs are analysed, discussed, modified and promoted in relation to how our ‘worship services’ should serve the purpose of church growth. Yet in none of them that I have read is there any serious engagement with what the New Testament actually says about ‘worship’, and its relation to our public gatherings (see Briefings #236, #237).


What, then, of the puzzle of pragmatism? How does all this help to solve some of the practical questions we started with? Let me suggest three areas of implication.

Avoiding distraction

At one level, all this gives us something we should simply be getting on with. We should fulfil our orders. This is what should drive and shape our lives and ministries. This is our charge, our trust. It should be the criteria or ground for action, upon which we make our daily decisions.

At one level, this helps us avoid distraction. If this is the direction we’re marching in, and we have it fixed in our minds, it does help us to say no when someone wants us to detour somewhere else, no matter how helpful, worthwhile or potentially successful that direction may seem.

Being pragmatic

Having the clear agenda and methods of the New Testament fixed in our minds also helps us to be pragmatic in the right sense. That is, there are many details about the particular way we do things which need working out. Given that our marching orders are clear, and determine a great deal, there is still considerable freedom and flexibility available to us. Rick Warren, for example, point outs a number of practical, helpful ways that the Corinthian principle of ministry flexibility and love for the sake of the salvation of others might be worked out in practice. We benefit from his wisdom and experience in this.

It would be possible, then, to construct some proverbs pertaining to ministry that are simply matters of good sense and experience. It is possible to benefit from the wisdom and ideas of others, and for all its failings, Church Growth literature can be mined for insights in this area.

In the end, however, there are no secret or foolproof techniques for building a ‘successful church’. The pragmatics and fine-tuning are just that—fine-tuning. We may come up with a hundred different settings, times, contexts and styles in which we might preach the word, but the word must still be preached, and in a straightforward way without trickery or deceit. The practical details and techniques must not determine the agenda, nor dictate the dominant methodologies.

It is fascinating to ponder how Hooker and the Church Growth, while sharing much, yield quite different pragmatic approaches to church structure and life. For Church Growth people, nearly everything is up for grabs. If it will yield better results, change it. In so doing, the tendency is to downplay or sidestep the ‘marching orders’, and to focus on the latest technique for success. The legacy of Hooker, by way of contrast, is to make church structures and order very difficult to change—“equity and reason, the law of nature, God and man do all favour that which is in being”, as the famous quote goes. Thus we find ourselves in the strange position of wishing to implement some change that is helpful or useful in the fulfilment of our ‘marching orders’, yet being frustrated by those who defend the status quo on the grounds that it is ‘not contrary to Scripture’.

Evaluating alternatives

How then do we evaluate suggested programs and resources?

Firstly, we must not accept an alternative agenda or basic task. We have our orders, and a basic methodology. This is non-negotiable. We may benefit from all sorts of ideas and suggestions at the level of detail, but these mustn’t threaten our essential task, nor subtly impose a different program.

This is the problem with things like the Toronto Blessing, and many new proposals and trends that spring from the charismatic movement. There is a different basic program in operation, a different basic set of suppositions, values and methodologies from the ones that the New Testament directs us to be getting on with. We need to be very careful in learning from them.

The same is true of many of the church growth fads. They are very often not thought through from the Scripture. They are not really driven by the agenda and methodology of the New Testament, and so are dangerous.

Some years ago The Briefing was criticized in some quarters for being so uncharitable as to publish a critique of the Cursillo program. Yet the problem with Cursillo is exactly what we have been talking about here. That the program seems effective, and can be used to achieve apparently good results, is not the criteria by which to judge it. The distinctive things which make Cursillo more than just a weekend church camp—the special surprises, the aura of secrecy, the artificially created emotional environment—do not spring from a New Testament way of thinking about ministry. They are based on different assumptions and basic methodologies springing from a more Roman Catholic theology (which of course is where the program originated). This is why it is not a helpful program to pursue.

We have a job to be doing, a trust to be fulfilling. In this sense, we are not at liberty to devise an alternative program or model. Nor are we required to search for a clever set of principles or techniques which will provide the secret to successful ministry. Christ not only graciously calls us to be involved in his work, but gives all manner of instructions, values and priorities to pursue. Let us take heed, then, how we build, for as 1 Corinthians 3 puts it, one day all of our work will be judged with fire.


1 Interestingly, modern management ‘systems’ theory is beginning to catch up with this very idea; that business systems are far more complex than we might at first think, and that our actions have all sorts of unintended consequences. See Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline for a fascinating recent example of where management theory is up to.

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