Book review: This Little Church Went to Market, by Gary Gilley

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Gary Gilley's book "This Little Church Went to Market" has a rather ominous sounding title. My wife saw it and remarked, "That doesn't sound good!" But then I read her the subtitle: "Is the modern church reaching out, or selling out?" In this book, Gary Gilley's answer seems to be that, unfortunately, much of the modern church (especially that segment of it which is focused on church growth at all costs and is applying marketing techniques to growing churches) is "selling out", and he does a fairly good job of backing this up with quotes and material from people who are actually part of this movement. (Note: There is an earlier edition of the book with a different subtitle.)

The book is a short and easy read, only 142 pages, but it was quite eye-opening to me. I'm fortunate to be in a strong, Biblical church which has avoided being influenced by unbiblical approaches to church growth, so I haven't encountered many of the things Gilley talks about in here firsthand. The book, then, is eye-opening because it's quite shocking to see the lengths to which some people in this movement will occasionally go. To give you an idea of some of what Gilley is getting at, let me give some quotes from his book:

("Unchurched Harry" is the generic name for somebody who is not involved in a church; it's used by some people in the church growth movement.)

The new-paradigm church would have no problem agreeing that [unchurched] Harry's true need is salvation from sin (although sin is often redefined). But they do not believe that Harry will respond to such a gospel unless we dress it up with other enticing offers. Felt needs is the porthole, they believe, through which Harry is reached in order that his true spiritual need is met. According to their marketing research Harry is not interested in truth; therefore, he does not react well to 'Thus saith the Lord.' And Harry is not interested in the future (including heaven); therefore reaching him through concern for his eternal destiny is futile.

(p. 39)

Or take the church growth consultant who boldly claims that 'five to ten million baby boomers would be back in the fold within a month if churches adopted three simple changes: 1. Advertise. 2. Let people know about 'product benefits'. 3. Be nice to new people.' The belief in the omnipotence of marketing techniques is changing the nature of the church.

(p. 42)

Even the New Yorker sees a problem with today's audience-driven preaching: 'The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that and bring his finished product into the marketplace in which others are trying to do the same.'

(p. 42)

Lee Strobel has written a book entitled Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, in which he presents the definitive understanding of the gospel message as comprehended by the new-paradigm church. Strobel assures us that marketing studies have shown that 'Harry has rejected church, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has rejected God.' Yet, the Bible clearly says that humanity does reject God... What surveys really show is that people do not reject gods of their own creation and imagination; but they do reject the true God.

What we supposedly learn from marketing study is that the real reason Harry doesn't come to church has little to do with his rebellious, God-rejecting nature. Rather it is because the church is boring, predictable, irrelevant, money-hungry, and does not meet his needs.

(p. 68-69)

Gilley also has a chapter where he deals at length with Rick Warren, and quotes fairly extensively from Warren's initial Ladies Home Journal column, "Learn to Love Yourself." These quotes are rather surprising, but I'll give you just one. Note that one could assume most of the people reading the column would not be Christians.

God accepts us unconditionally, and in his view we are all precious and priceless. Focus on this and you will not waste any time and effort trying to be someone you're not.

(p. 108). Now, there is a sense in which this is true: Christians are all important to God, and he loves us unconditionally. He also doesn't want us to all try and be exactly like one another, because he gives each of us different gifts, and so even our differences are important. But there is also a sense in which it is horribly wrong. Christians, and everyone, are called to be like someone we're not. We're called to be like Christ. And Christians need to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to be like Christ. Without time and effort spent working to be holy and obey God, we won't grow in holiness. And for those who aren't Christians, this statement effectively says, "You're fine exactly the way you are." No, we have all sinned against God and are most certainly NOT fine exactly the way we are.

Stepping back a bit, overall, Gilley's book seems to be fairly carefully researched and references; all of his quotes are well-documented, and even many of his summaries (like the statement above about the church being boring, predictable, irrelevant, etc.) have references to where he's drawing the ideas from. And as you can see, some of the ideas he's dealing with are pretty shocking. Take, for example, Strobel's statement that the ordinary unchurched person hasn't necessarily rejected God. No, the Bible clearly teaches that we all have rejected God, and unless we repent and turn to Christ, we continue to reject God.

Overall, Gilley argues that the "new-paradigm" church has resorted to a market-driven approach to evangelism and church growth, where the gospel is not seen as something sufficient to attract people. Instead, he argues, these market-driven churches try to find out what it would take to get people to come to church by finding out what they feel they need -- doing surveys, asking what people are interested in, asking why they don't come to church, etc. Then, they try to implement what they learn. Gilley argues that this fundamentally amounts to setting forward a new gospel, and that the true gospel inevitably falls by the wayside. You can't simultaneously tell someone what they want to hear and try and meet their felt needs, and tell them that they are sinners desperately in need of salvation, having offended a holy God, and bound for judgment unless they repent. I don't know about you, but I'm not naturally eager to hear that I've sinned. So if a church operates based on surveys of what people want to hear, it will almost inevitably quit preaching about unpopular subjects like sin, and instead, Gilley argues, preach about how Jesus can solve our problems and give us what we most want. Gilley argues that this approach to church growth probably results in church growth, all right, but churches growing by being flooded with people who are unconverted, and who remain unconverted.

This is a good book, and if you're quite unfamiliar with this approach to church growth, like I was, it's definitely worth reading as an eye-opener. I don't think, however, I would recommend the book to those who are convinced that this new approach is a good thing, because I'm not sure that Gilley goes into enough detail responding to the arguments supporting this approach to convince such people. But this is a good book for those who are either uncertain what to make of the church growth movement, or (like myself), skeptical but largely uninformed. Again, I would recommend the book to those who are unfamiliar with the church growth movement or uncertain what to think of it, but probably not to those who want in-depth discussion of where exactly it may have gone wrong and point-by-point responses to the arguments in favor of it.

There are also a couple areas in which I disagree with Gilley to some degree. Most of these are relatively minor so I'll just note a couple of them below:

  • In his chapter on singing, Gilley writes, "That said, we would quickly add that the Psalms, as wonderful as they are, are nevertheless limited to Old Testament truth and so could not provide a balanced musical diet for the New Testament saint." I'm certainly not a Psalms-only person when it comes to hymns, but I think Gilley is perhaps being a bit too sweeping here. There have been many great Christians in the past who loved singing just the Psalms, and, as Jesus wrote, "all the law and the prophets testify of me," and there are certainly a great many places in the psalms where Christ is spoken of fairly clearly. Perhaps Gilley thinks some hymns ought to speak explicitly of Christ, by name, but that doesn't mean that the Psalms cannot provide a balanced diet for a New Testament Christian.
  • Gilley attributes part of the problem to a focus on evangelism in the church, which he thinks is unhealthy. He writes that in the early church, "Evangelism was the one biblically mandated function in which believers engaged outside of the assembled church. They did not invite friends to church gatherings to win them to Christ." Later he adds, "Next, we note that when the early church came together, rather than spending the bulk of its time evangelizing, it focused on the apostles' teaching, or New Testament theology." First, I don't see anywhere in Scripture that people in the early church didn't invite friends to church gatherings. Yes, they did share outside the church, and we ought to do so also, but that doesn't prove that no evangelism took place in church meetings. There's certainly no rule against it given. Second, I don't think sharing the apostles' teaching and New Testament theology necessarily excludes evangelism. My church has very theological sermons covering a wide range of topics, yet there is always at least a brief explanation of what the gospel is. As a result, believers are encouraged and learn theology and doctrine, and unbelievers who come hear the gospel and some are saved. Granted, sermons and church services shouldn't always be primarily evangelistic, but Gilley's statement is more sweeping than that, and so I disagree with him.

Caveat: This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes through a book review program coordinated by the Diet of Bookworms.

2 Comments

There is more to the "church growth movement" than what Gilley has characterized. Just because a church are more atuned to market research doesn't necessarily mean that it has sold out the gospel. There is a difference in the message that the church uses to reach its intended audience to draw them to church. "Modern culture has rejected the church" doesn't necessarily mean that this is an indication or symptomatic with man rejecting God. Man's rejection of God is reflected not just in the general culture's indifference to the gospel of grace but can also be found, for example in the regenerate who are indifferent to the command to love one another. My point is this: let us not judge what the so-called "church growth movement" is doing by the hype but let's try to understand what they are trying to do in getting the gospel out to those who need to hear.

I am about half-way through this book and just about to start the chapter on singing, so my comments are from a limited standpoint. Unlike Abednego, I HAVE been a part of churches that have been caught up in the purpose driven movement, and more recently the emerging church movement. I knew there was something not quite right about what was going on but until recently I had not realized what it was. This is because I had not been diligent enough, myself, to know what the Word of God actually said about many basic truths. Before even reading the chapter on singing, I recall observing that so many of the songs, particularly in the purpose driven church, were focused on the individual rather than praising or glorifying God. The focus seemed to be all on the unsaved, and little concern for the growth of the existing Christian members. In the most recent church, there was no Sunday School, no classes for new believers, and neither of the churches was there any talk of discipleship or what it means to follow Christ. Totally a very "Christian Lite" experience, as the phrase has been used.

I am now in the process of looking for a church with the qualities that Abednego attends. I'm not encouraged that it will be an easy process .

I know this was a fairly old post so this comment may not even appear.

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