The Hottest Thing at Church Today

According to a new study, what people want in a church is changing.  Blogger, author and book reviewer Tim Challies expresses his concern that pastors will give their congregants what they want but “they will do so not on the basis of biblical convictions, but on the basis of pragmatism.” In other words, pragmatism or “whatever works” to get people to come to church, will be what drives preachers to adopt what appears to be a hot new trend in the visible Church. Challies writes:

According to a new study by Gallup, the hottest thing at church today is not the worship and not the pastor. It’s not the smoke and lights and it’s not the hip and relevant youth programs. It’s not even the organic, fair trade coffee at the cafe. The hottest thing at church today is the preaching. Not only is it the preaching, but a very specific form of it—preaching based on the Bible. And just like that, decades of church growth bunkum is thrown under the bus. As Christianity Today says, “Despite a new wave of contemporary church buzzwords like relational, relevant, and intentional, people who show up on Sundays are looking for the same thing that has long anchored most services: preaching centered on the Bible.” Praise God.

Praise God, but please don’t jump on the bandwagon. The last thing we need is a bunch of preachers responding to this poll by suddenly ditching their series on “7 Keys to Successful Relationships” or “5 Secrets to a Happy Home” to dabble in biblical exposition. What we need is for preachers to search the Scripture, then to commit to biblical exposition.

Pragmatism Dies Hard

For decades, the Western church has been dominated by the church growth movement, a movement that drew heavily from the business principles of pragmatism. Pragmatism insists that the end justifies the means. It demands that we establish goals, determine the best means to achieve those goals, then assume that success proves that both the goal and the means are good. As one of the fathers of church growth said, “Never criticize what God is blessing.” According to pragmatism, there is no distinction between what works and what is experiencing God’s hand of blessing. One proves the other.

The church growth movement established the goal of having as many people as possible profess faith in Jesus Christ. To do this, it would need to make church attractive to unbelievers. This demanded changing the services to make them seeker-friendly, changing the music to make it more contemporary, and even changing the gospel to make it less offensive. Of course, it also demanded changing the preaching to make it more palatable and that meant preaching themes and principles rather than preaching the Bible itself. Pragmatism is so ingrained in the very fabric of the church today that it is extremely difficult to root out. Churches that have been immersed in it have to battle tooth and nail against its seductions. They need to retrain themselves to look not to what appears to work, but to what the Bible demands.  Continue reading

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31 Responses to The Hottest Thing at Church Today

  1. Deb Sullivan King May 4, 2017 at 2:53 pm #

    Wow, while the topic of the Gallup study is a great one to explore, this author has just about everything wrong, concerning the church growth movement–in fact, I don’t think his article is even about the Gallup study. And after further reading, I realize there isn’t time or space here to address all of the inaccuracies regarding church growth.

    First of all, Rick Warren, who the author did not credit, or quote within context, has never been considered, “. . . one of the fathers of church growth.” It might be accurate to call Warren a father of the modern mega church movement. The church growth movement has a much older history, which many consider to have started with Donald McGavran.
    The author’s next statement, a generalization about pragmatism that could apply to many disciplines, he “pins” onto the practice of church growth. Journalistically, that’s a “low blow” in my book.

    Another weird claim from the author is, “The church growth movement established the goal of having as many people as possible profess faith in Jesus Christ.” Did he just pull that out of a hat? Of course, bringing the lost to personally know and become a follower of Jesus is, or should be, the ultimate goal of all churches. But what the author states, in that particular manner, gives the impression that the study of church growth is overly simplistic.

    In fairness, many of us have heard of, or experienced situations where someone took a good idea and applied it in the wrong way–sometimes for personal gain, sometimes out of stupidity. The church growth movement has in no way been immune to distortion.

    Still, my disappointment with this article is the lack of journalistic rigor and accuracy surrounding an important topic–that of Informed Ministry. Sociologists and statisticians of religion study the modern church, much like scientists and physicians study the human body. The goal is to find what is right in some places, what is wrong in others, and identify methods for healing when possible. The health of the church is the goal and yes, growth is a positive symptom, but it is only one sign of true vitality.

    No, I’m not a sociologist and I don’t work for a church, but I would invite you to look at a denominational research group, for whom I volunteer. From them, I have learned so much about informed ministry and the real motives of church growth–they are committed to using science to benefit the church. Their annual conference is in a couple of weeks–Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers. People of many different denominations use this group’s services and come to their free conference. Check out the conference website at and you can find a link to their regular website. The author of this article could learn a lot from the ANSR group–just as I have.

    • Manny1962 May 4, 2017 at 3:59 pm #

      “Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR)

      ANSR is an organization of Nazarene sociologists and others with professional interests in understanding the structure, function, and processes of the church, as well as its role in society. It is a close–knit group that values fellowship, mutual encouragement, and prayer support.

      The goal of the association is to generate the kind of sociological research that provides valid information related to those subject areas that our denomination considers to be especially helpful in better fulfilling its God–ordained mission.

      More than three decades ago, church leaders asked sociologists to form an organization that would use their professional knowledge and research skills in the service of the church. ANSR was formed and sustained under the leadership of Jon Johnston, chairman, and Bill M. Sullivan, who until his retirement was director of the Church Growth Division. The organization has conducted and disseminated research, created the ANSR Poll as a mechanism for listening to the grass roots of the church, and focused attention and provided resources on social/cultural issues.

      Conferences, which are held annually, often feature prominent speakers, including Anthony Campolo, Martin Marty, Robert Bellah, and George Hunter III. Annual meetings typically have representation from most of the Nazarene colleges and universities, leaders from the Global Ministry Center, and pastors and lay members. In addition to academic papers and keynote addresses, meetings feature rich, inspirational times of devotion. Meetings are held near the denomination’s Global Ministry Center in Lenexa, Kansas.

      The Harold Young Research Award is given annually to encourage scholarly original research pertaining to the Church of the Nazarene. This research competition is open to all undergraduate students at Nazarene colleges and universities or undergrad students who are member of a Church of the Nazarene. The award is named for Dr. Harold Young, registrar and sociology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, whose life and interests exemplified the attitude of a Christian scholar.

      Participation in ANSR is open to anyone interested in sociology and other research related to the Church of the Nazarene.

      ANSR theme verse: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.” (Revelation 7:12)

      Sponsored by: Research Services, Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center
      Dr. Dale E. Jones, director

      Founder: Dr. Bill M. Sullivan; Chair Emeritus: Dr. Jon Johnston

      Executive Board: Prof. Bo Cassell (chair), Dr. Kenneth Crow, Dr. Jamie Gates, Rev. Richard Houseal, Debra King, Dr. Linda Wilcox

      Anthony Campolo……….. Red flag anyone???!!!

      Harold Young Research Award Coordinator: Patricia Killewald”

      • Deb Sullivan King May 4, 2017 at 4:17 pm #

        Hi Manny, you came across a page I thought had been updated on the site and one that definitely needs to be checked. Yes, Campolo is a red flag, but he spoke at the conference several decades ago, prior to his controversial personae.

        Actually, I’m now looking for the list of speakers and topics from over the years, but I’ve filed it away somewhere. It would be interesting to look back at what he was speaking on at that time. This is a pretty academic group, so the only rock stars they ask to speak, are in the knowlege-based fields and most of the time, very humble individuals.

        Additionally, what I really wish were on the website, were the myriad of additional presenters from the conferences, most of whom are people serving in the field of reaching the lost, but they depend on Informed Ministry to help them know where to best use their meager resources.

        • Manny1962 May 4, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

          Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Maggie May 4, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    “…using science to benefit the church.” Is that like using business principles to benefit the church? I believe teaching the Bible rightly will benefit the church.

  3. Manny1962 May 4, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

    Funny thing, there’s no where in scripture that says one must come to “church” to be saved. We as BELIEVERS are to gather together to break bread and support each other’s burdens, nowhere does it say to save anyone, as David sinned by trying to number the armies of Israel, many sin today by “counting” their growth…….scripture is clear, GOD grows His church (bride) not pastors, not clergy, not focus groups, not marketing groups, not anyone, the true church or bride is invisible.

    As false as Warren is he was not the progenitor of the movement: “Since the advent of the modern church growth movement which dates from the 1950’s, pastors and local churches have been under massive pressure to do something to facilitate church growth. The movement was founded primarily by two people, independently. Those people are Donald McGavran and Robert Schuller. Donald McGavran wrote The Bridges of God in 1955. C. Peter Wagner claims that this book, “launched the Church Growth Movement.”3 Rick Warren cites McGavran’s book as being influential early in his ministry.4 About that same time Robert Schuller started his ministry in California which became the Crystal Cathedral. Later, in 1970, Schuller founded the Robert Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, where he has trained many key leaders in the Church Growth Movement including Bill Hybels and Rick Warren.5 It is accurate to say the McGavran is the intellectual founder of the movement and Schuller the most visible popularizer of the movement……..”

    At the end of the day, it’s arrogance and pride on display. That’s why we have Churchianity and the bride who is being called out from it.

  4. Deb Sullivan King May 4, 2017 at 3:54 pm #

    Maggie, in context, that would be social science and yes, God can use our brains to enrich the church.

    For example, both of our children work in church ministry: our daughter is a young mother with a degree in graphic design and marketing. I’m always amazed at how she serves her church’s women’s ministry through beautiful marketing materials and leadership encouragement to young moms.

    Should she shun her university training? Perhaps instead, she should merely place text on paper and say, “God doesn’t want me to put pictures of flowers or trees on the brochure, because marketers know that will appeal to people and that would be using science in the church.”

    Or, when our son, an attorney and father-to-be, who volunteers as music minister at his church, uses his business and legal knowledge to help with church board matters involving taxes, or purchasing–should he tell his pastor to instead, “Throw caution to the wind, God will work things out with the IRS, we don’t need business skills in the church.”

    Science belongs to God and He has gifted us each in different ways. We were created in miraculous complexity and should seek to understand all that God has placed in our hands.

    • Sola Scriptura May 4, 2017 at 9:22 pm #

      University training has zero relevance to the church. That kind of thinking leads to the secularization and americanization of the church.
      Maggie was 100% correct. The Bible alone establishes and governs all things church. The last thing a church needs is a graphic design and marketing team. Jesus Christ said that we he is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself. Since the real Jesus is only found in the Bible, we must use the Bible and only the Bible to preach Jesus…and his Holy Spirit will draw “whosoever will” to him in truth and power. Jesus himself said that the road is narrow and few find it. Let us not substitute what seems right to us to what IS right according to the scriptures.

      • Manny1962 May 4, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

        I have a problem when the words scholar and scripture are uttered in the same breath. It reeks of caste, privilege and elitism.

        Paul was schooled, he became “unschooled” to understand the simplicity of the gospel message, as he said:

        Phillipians 3:7-3:9 “7But whatever was an asset to me, I count as loss for the sake of Christ. 8More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith”

        Peter was a simple fisherman, Matthew a lowly tax collector………these men turned the world upside down with the simplicity that is the Gospels of Jesus Christ. The wisdom of men is foolishness before God. Science was a gift from God so man could study and enjoy God’s wonderful creation, but it degenerated into a worshipped idol, a false religion that led to the demise of over 57 million children since 1973 in Roe vs Wade. Today science denies God, and mocks Christians. Why is that system needed when we have the sufficiency of scripture? What more can “learned” men teach us that The Holy Spirit can’t?

        • Sola Scriptura May 5, 2017 at 7:10 am #

          Amen Manny.

          “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:”
          ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:17-28‬ ‭KJV‬‬

          • Q May 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

            I couldn’t agree more with Maggie, Manny and Sola. Sociology plays no part in the church.

            Besides the verses already mentioned Colossians 2:8 comes to mind. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”

            Thinking sociology can help build the church seems harmless because it is not obviously sinful or licentious but that’s also what makes it so dangerous. It also comes across as highly intelligent but it’s foolishness because it is rooted in mans wisdom not God’s. Things like this lead people away from Christ making it “empty deception”.

            Has man trying to help God ever worked out?

        • Deb Sullivan King May 5, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

          I’d like to think Romans 12:6-8 has meaning here.

          Still, in my example, my children chose their vocations, based on our years of homeschooling and seeking God’s will for their futures. They never questioned that they would give their best to God first, based on the individual way He created them–that included serving their churches.

          I’m sure this too will be blown out of proportion and skewed–although I’m not sure how using one’s gifts in service of the church, has been warped into assuming I’m advocating for something sinister.

          As for our biblical forefathers, the fishermen disciples, who I imagine sold some of their fish to support themselves, were in that way business owners. Tax collectors, albeit corrupt, were also businessmen, and Luke was called a physician.

          The accusation of elitism swings both ways–at its heart is prejudice–even prejudice against learning, or listening.

    • berlorac May 5, 2017 at 7:09 pm #

      Deb, I have a master’s degree in (research) psychology. I studied the disciplines of social pysch, developmental psych, and organizational psych. I ended up gravitating toward social psych. I also took every statistics course available — test construction, research methodology, you name it. So, I get where you’re coming from.

      But as I was working on my master’s thesis, the Lord saved me. I suddenly realized that all that learning was as nothing compared to the Bible and the knowledge found only in Christ. I resigned from the doctoral program and have never regretted it.

      It seems that you are trying to reason this all out — that if someone has a talent and a degree, then God must want him to apply it to the Church in some way. I just don’t see it. The Bible is clear as to how men are “added to the Church.” And it has nothing to do with marketing and the social sciences.

      I urge you to please reconsider your application of man’s “wisdom” to God’s sovereign work. It takes faith to walk with God and to be pleasing to Him, but the particular work “for the Church” in which you are engaged has nothing to do with faith.

      • Deb Sullivan King May 5, 2017 at 8:02 pm #

        Could you please reference where, “The Bible is clear as to how men are “added to the church’?” Thanks.

        As for whether or not I’m trying to “reason” something out, the point is, if someone feels called to use their talents in the church, should they refrain because legalistic church bullies are making up the rules. Or, should they listen to God’s call and follow where He leads?

        • berlorac May 5, 2017 at 8:37 pm #

          Hi Deb,

          The day of Pentecost. The disciples had been instructed to wait in Jerusalem. They waited and then the Holy Spirit came in a new way. They rejoiced and continued in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, praising God. “And the Lord added to them day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

          In Acts 4, Peter and John preached in the name of Christ. Had they taken a survey first, they either would not have preached in the Temple due to the danger, or they would have worked up some slick marketing tools first due to the mood of the people. As it was, with only the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit, another 5000 men were added to the Church. Peter and John were brought before the high priest to answer for their offensive ministry, but God went right on saving people through two men who had no “ministry tools.”

          Go up to Acts 16. Paul, Silas, and Timothy were in Philippi. They approached some women and began speaking to them. Lydia heard Paul and the Lord opened her heart. Paul didn’t ask the women what they could bear to hear, or what would be pleasant to them, or what would be of no offense. He didn’t approach them with marketing tools and a slick presentation. No, but the Lord opened Lydia’s heart through the Gospel.

          The preaching of the Cross is foolishness by the world’s standards (1 Corinthians 1:17), but it is God’s way — the only way — to salvation (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).

          The didn’t develop tests, they didn’t optimize a random selection process, they didn’t survey the people, they didn’t analyze the data. Instead, they had implicit faith in God; therefore, they were obedient to preach the Gospel. It is the Holy Spirit who does the work and adds men to the Church.

  5. Manny1962 May 4, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

    And Tony Campolo?????!!!!!!! Why would you have him giving a conference? I know you are aware of the controversies attached to him. Is he someone you agree with?

    • Deb Sullivan King May 4, 2017 at 4:20 pm #

      I replied to this in your comment above.

  6. Manny1962 May 4, 2017 at 4:43 pm #


  7. Jerod May 5, 2017 at 2:57 am #


    ANSR seems like a technocratic approach to church growth. Is it?

  8. Jerod May 5, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

    Sorry… meant to write “Deb”!

    • Deb Sullivan King May 5, 2017 at 7:17 pm #

      Hi Jerod,

      No worries on the name.

      As for your question, ANSR is a research group. They don’t approach, do, carry out, or govern any church. Sociology of Religion is a field of study. In my experience of watching it and being exposed to it, they gather information about matters involving church and culture. Those who are interested in that information may access it.

  9. Deb Sullivan King May 5, 2017 at 8:31 pm #

    In the recent past, I followed a European interior design blog. I enjoyed the pretty photos and home organization tips. But, when the blogger and several followers seemed to be using the site to bash conservative values and promote a liberal agenda, I felt the need to speak up.

    After posting my opinion on the day’s topic, I identified myself as a Jesus follower. Very quickly, several other followers also identified themselves as Christians. And I fully believe that we all spoke truth in love, when voicing our more conservative views.

    Unfortunately, in today’s cultural climate, you can imagine the pile-on that followed. Women from, literally around the world, began spewing liberal political rhetoric, like it was some kind of magic spell that would bring the Christians to their senses.

    What really struck me was the process they used–it was like they had all shared a memo on how to:

    1. Seize on a fringe part of what we had written and blow it completely out of proportion, thus moving the conversation off the main topic and onto us.

    2. Spout rhetoric that didn’t even pertain to the topic or what we had written, but make it sound like an argument and we were in the wrong.

    3. Accuse us of being racists, elitists, and about ten other “-ists” even when our writing wasn’t even about anything pertinent to their “-ist” list.

    4. Basically have a knee-jerk reaction to every. single. thing. we. wrote.

    Signing off,

    • berlorac May 5, 2017 at 8:56 pm #

      Deb, I’m sorry you feel that way about the way some of us have responded to you. Not one of us, I’m sure, wanted you to feel personally attacked. What we were trying to ascertain is the basis upon which you have built your argument for applying sociology and social psych to the Church.

      The basis for my argument is that the social sciences are irrelevant to the Church. The Bible already tells us how people are saved and that God is in control of it all. The Bible already tells us the history of humanity — we are no different now than the mass of the antediluvian population or the unfaithful Israelites of 2500 years ago. The Bible already tells us how this age will end — apostasy, the mixture of wheat and tares, the leaven leavening the meal, the unfaithfulness, the continuing downward spiral of the masses into idolatry. And then, judgment at the coming of the Lord. There is no need to use quantitative methods to figure it out.

    • Maggie May 5, 2017 at 9:40 pm #

      Deb, I will explain my comment further. Many in the visible church are Bible illiterate and oftentimes the true gospel is not even presented, when the focus for the Body of Christ should be in discipling the members and equipping them for ministry to the world. Social science and business strategies will not accomplish that.

      We can do honest and God-honoring work in our secular vocations, and it can be a way to “serve our neighbor,” as well as provide for our financial support. Our professions can even be our mission field.

      • Maggie May 5, 2017 at 9:54 pm #

        You also sound like you may be in a large church where marketing, accounting, and various ministries are of utmost importance in the financing and running of the church. Many of us here have trouble finding even a small good Bible-believing church or even a home group after having left churches that no longer teach the Bible correctly and are involved in the latest trends and false teachings. It’s a different perspective.

    • Q May 8, 2017 at 4:12 pm #

      Deb Sullivan King.

      If you are still reading, people simply don’t agree with you and believe what you are propagating has and is harming believers and the church’s true purpose…they used scripture to show their point. As far as Romans 12, marketing, and lawyering…isn’t a spiritual gift.

      You seem very vested in what you are promoting. If some on here are correct it appears you have wasted some of your time and maybe would have to even question some home schooling decisions… Things like this can make it difficult to change one’s mind and become easily offended…

      • Q May 8, 2017 at 4:21 pm #


        Sociology may be fine for a governor to help the inner city population but it has no business in the church, different kingdom different governance. Providing clean water and taking the trash away is different than spiritual things.

  10. Jerod May 6, 2017 at 1:32 pm #


    Interesting this discussion also surfaced on the Phoenix Preacher blog discussing National Day of Prayer. By “technocratic” I specifically meant the civil religious aspects of technocracy. It’s a topic I have just started diving into, but a couple notable authors have been Auguste Comte, Robert Bellah.

    Here’s a link I found on Wikipedia on American Civil Religion, and it seems to parallel what you are talking about.

    FWIW, I think it’s a misdirected approach to church growth. Endeavoring to engineer church growth scientifically or sociologically (a fallen rational approach to man and the study of groups – which in and of itself is soft science) places man in the place of the Holy Spirit, who is himself the vicariousness of Christ himself.

  11. Jerod May 6, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    You can also find Dr. Martin Erdmann on YouTube and at who possesses more letters behind his name than I believe is rational or necessary 😉

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