Deep and Wide
By J. Matthew Pinson
One Inch Wide and File Miles Deep
In his timely book From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church, Harry Reeder talks about two kinds of churches. He describes the first as “one inch wide and five miles deep.” This church is “reactionary, critical, and cynical” against the church growth movement’s too-prevalent use of “cultural steroids” and emphasis on consumer tastes and desires and shallowness. So, it assumes a bunker mentality, priding itself on depth and theology. But it does so at the expense of evangelism. It values deep, rich preaching and a Word-driven ministry. But it has lost a deep commitment to the zealous ministry of the gospel to the lost.
Five Miles Wide
and One Inch Deep
The other kind of church Reeder describes is “five miles wide and one inch deep.” He says the mentality of the church growth movement has produced this kind of church. Reeder says the church growth movement has focused too much on pragmatism—a “what works” mentality—and pumps what he calls cultural steroids into the church. These bring seeming growth in programs and numbers. But they ultimately fail to bring sustainable life, health, and growth to a church. This has resulted in “a glamorized, marketed and culturally tamed church” that is shallow and places more emphasis on attracting people to the church via cultural tastes and preferences than through personal evangelism and gospel mission.
Maintaining the Balance
We constantly emphasize to ministerial students at Welch College the vital importance of maintaining a balance between these two extremes in our culture. We must emphasize deep, rich, practical teaching and preaching of God’s Word through solid, textual, expositional pulpit ministry. And this emphasis on the Word is not limited to the pulpit. We must be expositing and teaching the Word, admonishing with the Word, and exhorting and encouraging with the Word not only in our sermons but also in songs, prayers, Bible studies, and evangelism.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
We must emphasize the sufficiency of Scripture: that God has carefully and painstakingly given His Church, in His Word, all it needs for a thriving church. This is true at any time or place, from first-century Greco-Roman culture to 21st-century American culture. Allowing Scripture to set the agenda for the ministry of the church is what will allow the Holy Spirit to bring about gospel growth in the church.
This will help us not to drive too much of a wedge between the “message” and the “methods” of the church, just to defend using people’s consumer tastes and desires to “attract” them to church. The Apostles and their immediate successors in the early centuries of the Church had hundreds of very popular cultural practices, tastes, desires, and “consumer methods” at their disposal. But they did not use them. Instead, they utilized the simple, New Testament, ordinary means of growth.
But a solid emphasis on allowing Scripture (as our forefathers used to say) to direct the “matter and manner” (the message and methods) of our churches will result in an evangelistically zealous church! The church an inch wide and five miles deep is not a biblically faithful church. It is not a deep church.
Evangelism as the Heart of Church Growth
In our complex cultural matrix, we must reemphasize evangelism as the heart of the church growth program. Many people who emphasize church health fear the words “church growth.” We must not stop working for the growth of the church because the church growth movement in America has been too attractional and not missional enough! A move back to a sufficiency-of-Scripture model of church health and growth will cause us to re-focus on evangelism and mission and move away from the attractional model of the seeker-sensitive movement.
The Missio Dei
This missionary mindset is a lot of what Ron Callaway and Barry Raper talk about at Welch College—not just with the ministry and missions majors but with everyone: the Missio Dei, Latin for the “mission of God.” It’s the idea that the church in the post-Christian West is on a mission from God, just as churches going to non-Christian cultures in the past were on a mission. We no longer function in an environment where the church is ascendant in the larger culture. Instead, the church is going against the grain of the dominant culture. The church, as Jesus and the Apostles envisioned it, is “against the world for the world.” It’s taking a prophetic stance against the world so that it can be for the world as the Spirit works through the gospel to draw men and women to Christ.
This is why understanding cultural context is so vitally important. As Ken Myers says, contextualizing the gospel biblically is not really about seeing how much we can be like the world so we can attract people with what they like in the world. Instead, it’s about understanding our culture so we can preach the gospel faithfully and prophetically in that culture. Often, this goes against the grain of people’s comfortable cultural sensibilities.
This Missio Dei mentality dovetails with a mentality that the Bible is all we need for a healthy and growing church. It goes against the cultural steroids and consumerism and shallowness so popular in some quadrants of evangelicalism. But it does not go five miles deep while only being an inch wide. It goes five miles deep and five miles wide. It goes deep in the Word and the gospel in a practical, spiritually vibrant way that emphasizes theology is for life and truth transforms. But it goes wide in spreading the Word and gospel through personal evangelism.
The Real Problem, the Real Solution
Sometimes, when pastors talk in certain evangelical subcultures, it almost sounds as if the problem is that we are faithfully adhering to all the biblical, apostolic means of grace, and they’re just not working. Maybe the culture is too resistant. So, the thinking goes, we must look to secular industries or CEO-leadership or marketing to find out how they break down cultural resistance and get people to buy what they’re selling.
But here’s the problem with that: all the studies show we aren’t working the biblical, apostolic means of grace. The problem is not the ineffectiveness of those biblical means and methods. The problem is we are doing a poor job working them. The studies show we’re not really pulling it off with God’s people—prayer, fasting, biblical meditation, tithing, helping the poor, family devotions, basic Christian worldview, personal evangelism.
The problem is not the ineffectiveness of those biblical means and methods. The problem is we are doing a poor job working them.
Personal evangelism offers a great example of this point. Studies from Thom Rainer, the Barna Group, and similar researchers have shown for 20 years that while the church is putting a lot of emphasis on numerical growth, it’s not doing a good job of emphasizing evangelism and basic spiritual disciplines. For example, in a Barna Group survey, only 31% of survey respondents said they would invite someone to an Easter service.
Many other studies demonstrate that evangelical churches are failing at this first step in personal evangelism—inviting a friend, relative, neighbor, or co-worker to church. Yet, as Thom Rainer discovered in a recent survey, almost 90% of unchurched 20-somethings would listen to someone who wanted to talk with them about their faith, and around 60% of this age group would be willing to attend a small-group Bible study.
Evangelistic Success Without Attractional Church Growth
The statistics above are why I think many younger, gospel-centered pastors across denominations who try to avoid older seeker-sensitive, consumer-attractional methods are experiencing sustainable gospel growth using evangelistic Bible studies such as “Christianity Explored” and one-to-one Bible studies. This is also in line with the long-established statistic that more than 80% of formerly unchurched people who join a church do so because of the witness of a friend, relative, neighbor, or co-worker. But LifeWay, Barna, and other groups have shown over and over again that the percentage of Christians engaged in personal evangelism is small and getting smaller. This correlates to the number of Christians who read their Bibles, engage in family devotions, pray, fast, tithe, have a basic Christian worldview, etc.
Go Deep AND Wide
So let’s get back to God’s means of grace, to the sufficiency of Scripture. But let’s not use our aversion to attractional church growth methods as an excuse to do things shoddily, to be lazy, or put our heads in the sand. Instead, let’s be people of excellence. Let’s understand and be sensitive to our culture without simply mimicking it. Let’s emphasize evangelism. And this is going to mean learning apologetics, because so many people know nothing about the gospel.
It’s also going to mean cultivating in the hearts of our people a zealous burden for unbelieving friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. Yes, different people have different skill sets when it comes to evangelism. Some are better at seed planting. Some are better at harvesting. But this emphasis on biblical evangelism as the core means of sustainable church growth goes hand-in-hand with the other biblical means of growth God has provided—Bible intake, prayer, fasting, tithing, helping the poor, hospitality, knowing God more deeply by going deeper in biblical truth, etc.
Where are You?
I don’t know where you are, where your “temptations” in this area lie. I think few ordained or lay church leaders I know fall solidly into one of Harry Reeder’s camps. And one thing is certain among Free Will Baptists: as we strive for unity, we need, more and more, to commit ourselves to charity and to praying for and learning from brothers we perceive as leaning too much toward one camp or the other. We must be careful not to judge our brothers’ motives or spiritual commitment to the Word and the gospel.
Maybe you’re more tempted to identify and meet consumer tastes, thinking that’s what will do the job in growing the church. Perhaps you’ve been tempted to think, as I was at times when I pastored, that the attractional model is the way to go. Or maybe you’ve given up completely on cultural steroids and consumerism and the uber-marketing mentality of too much church growth theory. Maybe you’ve outgrown the idea that we should niche-market the church to certain types of people with certain cultural tastes and preferences. But, in doing this, maybe you’ve also gotten into a mentality that emphasizes depth and substance, but you’ve lost your zeal for seeing people come to know Jesus.
Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, let me encourage you to go deep and wide. Get back to God’s means of gospel-growth. Prayerfully consider gospel-centered, Word-driven churches and ministries that are experiencing sustainable growth. Look at churches that emphasize the sufficiency of Scripture but are really having success in getting more members engaged in personal evangelism; seed-planting; mercy ministries; evangelistic Bible studies, or one-to-one Bible studies; and praying, fasting, and giving for evangelism. You don’t have to choose between being five miles wide and one inch deep, or one inch wide and five miles deep.
Go deep and wide.
About the Writer: J. Matthew Pinson is president of Welch College. Learn more about the college: www.Welch.edu or visit his blog: www.MatthewPinson.com.