Thoughts on Tim Suttle’s Article “How to Shrink Your Church”

Tim Challies posted a link to this article at, of all places, the Huffington Post.

How to Shrink Your Church

There is so much in this article that is so spot on I’d love just to post the whole thing but I won’t. Here are some quotes and my thoughts on them. I know many won’t click through so I’ll cite longer portions.

That our ultimate picture of success is a crucified Messiah means any conversation about success will be incompatible with a “bigger is better” mentality.

I’ve been saying this for years but, as a small church pastor, people think you’re just being self-serving and justifying what they assume to be laziness and lack of ambition on your part. Which in itself shows how much this mindset has affected almost our entire culture.

…bigger and better is exactly what most churches seem to be pursuing these days: a pursuit which typically comes in the form of sentimentality and pragmatism.  Sentimentality and pragmatism are the one-two punch which has the American Church on the ropes, while a generation of church leaders acquiesces to the demands of our consumer culture. The demands are simple: tell me something that will make me feel better (sentimentality for the churchgoer), and tell me something that will work (pragmatism for the church leader). Yet it is not clear how either one of those are part of what it means to be the church.

These demands are as prevalent in the small church as in the large or megachurch. In fact, sometimes the smaller church is just as guilty only in other ways. They won’t capitulate to the culture in terms of embracing seeker-sensitive methodology, but they will capitulate by using therapeutic preaching, or by entertaining people. They justify their therapy or their entertainment by claiming they are not like the Saddlebacks or the Willow Creeks around them, but they’re still entertaining just the same. Just because it’s Southern Gospel and not pop music, doesn’t mean it’s not entertainment.

Instead of pursuing faithfulness the sentimental church must provide a place where people can come to hear a comforting message from an effusive pastor spouting fervent one-liners which are intended only to make us feel good about the decisions we’ve already made with our lives. […] Above all the sentimental church must never teach us that in the kingdom of God, up is down, in is out, and nothing short of dying to ourselves and each other can help us truly live.

It’s so easy to pretend the megachurches and the seeker-sensitives are the only ones guilty of this, but I’ve heard so many sermons that did this same thing but the pastor was wearing a suit and tie, preached from a big, black KJV, and would never have used a PowerPoint or music soundtrack. But that doesn’t make the drivel that they’re preaching any less sentimental. It’s still not the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Perhaps more than sentimentality, pragmatism is ravaging the church. Pragmatism has led to a fairly new niche industry I call the Church Leadership Culture. Taking their cues from business, church leadership manuals are more than willing to instruct the interested pastor in how to gain market share. I once heard church consultant and leadership guru Don Cousins say that you can grow a church without God if you have good preaching, great music, killer children’s ministry, and an engaging youth minister. Cousins should know. He helped build Willow Creek Community Church and the church leadership culture. In the pragmatic church, there is only one question that matters, “What will work to grow my church?”

This is the bottom line in many small churches, too. They’re not willing to go to the lengths some churches will go to (e.g., they won’t play “Highway to Hell” on Easter Sunday), but they are willing to step outside the lines in many smaller ways in order to get or keep those who give and serve. We can tell ourselves out motives are pure, but do pure motives ever excuse misbehavior or compromise? The answer is no.

Two more brief paragraphs sum it all up:

The fundamental problem with the one-two punch of sentimentality and pragmatism is, of course, the church’s job is not to affirm people’s lives, but to allow the gospel to continually call our lives into question. […] God’s part is to grow whatever God wishes to grow. Growing a church isn’t hard … being faithful as the church, that’s a different story.

Really, though. Don’t just accept my assessment; go read the whole thing:

How to Shrink Your Church

Then I hope your prayer will be Suttle’s prayer:

So, God save us from the successful church. Give us churches who shun sentimentality and pragmatism and aren’t afraid to face the inevitable shrinkage which comes as a result of following Jesus. God save us from church leadership strategies. After all, it takes zero faith to follow a strategy, but incredible faith to pursue the kingdom of God and leave the rest in God’s hands. If I’ve learned anything as a pastor, it is this: faithfulness flies in the face of sentimentality and pragmatism, and if you pursue it you have to expect small numbers.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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2 Responses to Thoughts on Tim Suttle’s Article “How to Shrink Your Church”

  1. Terry Reed says:

    I agree with your article. However, I would point out that all pragmatic thinking is not bad. Sometimes it is good to take a look at what we are doing and see if it is accomplishing kingdom work. If not, we should pray about whether or not to keep it. For example, many programs that were used when I was young would not bear much fruit today. But if I insist on keeping it going because that is what I have always known, I am not being a good steward. But pragmatism can be carried to the extreme, and I feel like that is what you are speaking about and if so, I certainly agree…just because something works to get a crowd does not mean it is godly.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  2. I totally agree, Terry, and thanks for your comment. (I don’t think I wrote anything that implied that, and you suggested that this was the case. I also don’t think the original article implied that either.)

    No one despises the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mindset more than I do (just ask the people in the church I pastor). When I moved up here I found that some of the things that worked in the South didn’t work in the North and I’m sure there are many techniques of which that is true in reverse.

    The problem comes when pragmatics becomes the measuring tape of our methodology. When the sole or even the major concern is, “How many people will this attract?” then we’ve got a problem.

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