Parish Development – A New Discipline?
I have been asked to speak to you about the introduction of a new discipline in the curriculum of the Theological University of our sister churches in the Netherlands. This new discipline is called “Church grow” or “Parish Development” and is taught by Prof. Dr. M. te Velde. He has also been travelling around the country speaking on this topic in many churches. It is clear that he envisions a program of reorganization that he also would like to see implemented in the churches. One should not think that this matter only concerns the theological training. As you can expect, this is a subject directed to the practical task of building the congregation. Therefore, practical implications immediately play a role! So it is of value for us also to pay attention to these developments.
Our purpose will be straightforward. We will first define what is meant by this subject, then outline some of the leading ideas associated with it, including why it is considered to be a necessary complement to the existing program; and finally I will offer some critical remarks with respect to the introduction of this new discipline and its ideas in the churches.
Definition of “Parish Development”
Let us first begin with the definition of “Church growth.” Te Velde defines the actual activity of parish development as follows:
The work that is done in the Christian congregation according to God's command and in His power in order to build it up, and that in a manner in which special attention is given to the gifts and task of every member of the congregation, to intermediary activities, while further much stress is placed upon a well organized goal, and a directed and carefully planned approach, with use of the insights and methods from the humanities.1
In this definition “intermediary activities” are those done by the congregation in its various societies and organizations, i.e. the midpoint between personal initiative and the consistory. Clearly this discipline concerns the question what is the best way to build up the congregation as a whole. It is not denied that God builds His church through His Spirit and Word, i.e. through the preaching of the Word. Yet the New Testament specifies the duty that the members have with regard to their fellow members: they are to build one another up in love.
Taking together the whole of the activities in a congregation, te Velde says that we can distinguish between workers, structures, processes, and forms of activity. Workers are of various kinds: ministers, the caretaker, the appointed visitors, and so on; there are structures, as, for example, the consistory, the committees; there are also different processes, e.g. a growing consciousness for missionary activity; and there are various forms of activity: home visits, preaching, catechism classes, and so on. What is the goal of “Church growth”? It is to make these four factors integrate in a planned approach, so that the whole runs as smoothly and as productively as possible.
How then does Te Velde define the science, or the discipline of “Church growth”? He says:
It is the theological examination on the structures, forms of activity and processes in which the gifts and services in the congregation of Jesus Christ can be made serviceable, in an optimal interrelationship to its internal and external, horizontal and vertical functioning with a view to its perfection in Christ.2
Thus we have a theological science which focuses on the structures, processes and forms of activity mentioned earlier. It makes use of the “humanities” i.e. sociology, psychology, human resources, and related disciplines to optimize growth and potential in the congregation.
You may wonder why this discipline is necessary, or why these new activities are being introduced in the churches. This discipline indeed does not just fall out of the sky. For years increased attention has been given to the theme of congregational growth and development in the “mainstream” churches. Te Velde mentions the “Parish Development” movement in England, and the “Church Growth Movement” in the United States.3 In Germany as well, much attention has been given to what there is called “Gemeindeaufbau.” Te Velde isolates five streams of thought on this point, or five distinct models of church growth that have been common place in the broader theological world to date, which for want of space I will not outline here. He is also critical of these five approaches, since they are built on man-centred, and in some cases secular principles. Yet, for him this does not discount the need for attention to this subject from a Reformed point of view. In his view the Reformed approach to church growth concentrates on the following points:
it will develop a confrontation with other concepts and strategies, e.g. a conciliar or pluralistic approach to church growth;
it will develop the Reformed principles and criteria for church growth;
it will provide assistance in regard to the promotion of church life in all its aspects and in concrete situations, i.e. marriage counselling, training for evangelism, and so on. In this area it can also assist in conflict resolution, and in providing different strategies for leadership to a consistory.
Te Velde also explains why this new discipline has had such a rapid development in theological studies in Europe and America. Several influences and leading ideas of our modern era were absorbed by or in other ways influenced this movement. For one thing, life has become more complicated today. This requires that more measures need to be taken to properly regulate all affairs. Also, there is an increased desire to consciously spell out the things we do, even things that perhaps for years have been taken for granted. Also instrumental are the great advances in the fields of psychology and sociology with regard to the analysis of individual and group behaviour. Coupled with this is a growing individualization and democratizing process in societies at large. And, in general, more attention is given to methods and forms of working today than in the past. All of these factors have contributed to the rapid growth of this area in theological studies as a whole.
Te Velde then isolates some of the leading ideas of this new school. The first leading thought is planning. Just as builders on a job site work with plans developed by an architect, so there must be a blueprint for the growth of the congregation, 1/17. There must be a systematic approach to the organization of the various activities in the congregation, 1/39. Te Velde does not necessarily suggest that things are running poorly. He only asks in what way they can be made to run more effectively. The work must be done as efficiently as possible. Hence the increased focus on the structural, methodological and organizational sides of the work in the congregation.
Another key concept in “Church growth” is functionality. Te Velde focuses on this idea in dealing with the relationship of the new discipline to all the other disciplines in diaconiology. How does “Church growth” fit into the scheme of the diaconiological subjects? Te Velde suggests that this subject is concerned with the functioning of the different offices and tasks in the congregation, p. 51. What then are the elements this subject deals with? It deals with things like motivation for activities, cooperation, developing a vision, taking stock or self-analysis, forming a program of action, making and executing plans, evaluating programs, and so on. In other words, “Church growth” deals with the practical side of all the other disciplines. Te Velde also sees a connection with Art. 44 of the Church Order which provides a forum for self-evaluation in the annual church visitation.
Why is it Necessary?
Te Velde sees many risks associated with introducing this new discipline, and its strategies for action in congregational life. Some of these risks are: putting too much stress on man, or on organization; expecting too much in terms of visible growth; catering to the desire for change for its own sake. Yet this does not deter te Velde from asserting that we must go forward. The Bible is clear in the call to hold fast our heritage, but is also clear in its call to continual renewal. In the measure that our society has become more complicated, a more planned approach to congregational affairs should be fostered. There should be ongoing improvement in local congregational life. Hence the need for a specifically Reformed approach to “Church growth.”
The necessity for this new subject arises from the fact that we fall short in matters of organization. Te Velde then gives a number of central problem areas in the church life of our sister churches, the Dutch federation of Reformed churches. Te Velde intimates that these churches show a lack of missionary effort; also, they are wanting in regard to family worship, and they leave a lot to the ministers. At a later point he also adds some additional critical remarks: they do not have a good record on personal evangelism; they are self-sufficient, but not turned to the outside world, and thirdly, the influences of secularism and materialism have not escaped them. Later he says that they are not very systematic and consciously planned in their approach to congregational activities, 1/68.
This summation of the problem areas in the life of the churches forms for te Velde the grounds for introducing a new discipline, and implementing its suggestions in congregational life.
Using the Humanities
Te Velde sees definite risks in using the humanities for “Church growth.” But he insists that there are also possibilities that must be exploited. The danger is that one ignores the divine element in the building of the congregation; the positive aspect is that these sciences can aid in elucidating the human side of the work. Therefore, te Velde insists that a planned and organized approach to congregational affairs is not in conflict with the character of the Christian congregation. Organization is a requirement – a must in an age of new technological advances, 1/59, 65.
Developing a Plan
Te Velde feels that the development of an overall plan is not simply the task of the consistory or elders as the leaders in the congregation. He insists that the whole congregation must be involved. He then outlines the key factors in forming a planned approach to congregational activities: motivation, cooperation, the development of a “total vision,” taking an inventory of gains and losses, forming a concrete plan, and establishing goals and priorities.
Hopefully, at this point the reader will have a clear idea of the direction te Velde is taking. He wants to introduce a more streamlined and well organized approach to church life. In Volume 2 of his book on “Church growth” te Velde outlines ten basic principles required for the development of a “global-plan” for congregational life. We will examine these ten principles next time, and also give our assessment concerning the introduction of this new subject in the training program in Holland.
The Ten Principles
In Volume 2 of his booklets on “Church growth” Te Velde deals with the ten basic principles required for the proper functioning of the congregation. These ten principles help to give an overview or “total vision” of the work done in the congregation. They are:
Place: the congregation functions in a certain place or locality. Its functioning can be pictured in terms of concentric circles that reach out toward the outside world in ever-widening concentric circles. Te Velde uses different images to make his point. The congregation can be like a rock, so fixed in its position against the world that it is totally cut off from the world; or it can be like a sponge, drinking the influences of the world in. It ought to be like a magnet, fixed in its position, but drawing the world to itself, 2/19.
Basis: The basis should be clear: all “Church growth” must be seen as rooted in God and His word. Te Velde quotes Ps. 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain.” Christ also said: “On this rock I will build my Church.” The building of the church is God's work in Christ.
Goals: The third basic principle for church growth is setting the goals. Goals are necessary to give one a good orientation in the work to be done. Also, they help to avoid the pitfalls of a strictly managerial approach to congregational life. Also, they serve in formulating specific operational goals for various concrete projects.
What is the overall goal that you are trying to reach? This must be kept in mind in all activities. Primary goal areas should be: to know Christ, to grow in communion with Him, to grow in fellowship with each other, to promote the renewal of creation, to give God the glory and to be “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit,” Ephesians 2:22 (2/33).
Tasks: A proper approach demands a good overview of the various tasks to be performed in the congregation. Te Velde isolates six areas of service: proclamation, self-offering, instruction, oversight, communion of saints and ministry of mercy. This configuration of six key areas of service is divided into two parts: the first three dealing with service to God and the following covering service to fellow human beings. Te Velde also sees this as a logical and systematic deduction from the various terms for service as found in God's Word.
Norm: The norm for all work is directly connected with the basis. The norm is God's Word as confessed in the Reformed confessions. Many activities involved in “Church growth” have a confessional qualification. Some are also determined by the church order, which includes both confessional and non-confessional provisions.
Heart: God's Word has priority. Therefore the heart of all “Church growth” is: preaching. Te Velde wants to see more preaching on passages like Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4. The key is: keep your heart pure. Many activities that do not have one's heart in the right place will prove to be fruitless.
Power: All “Church growth” begins with the zeal of the indwelling Spirit. The energy of the Spirit manifests itself in faith, hope and love!
The Way of Functioning: The church is compared to a body in Scripture. Christ is called the head of the body. All the members must be ingrafted into Him, and only in Him can they adequately work in good harmony with each other. Five integral elements make up the life in the body: information, communication, action, reception, therapy.
Gifts: All believers have charismata, gifts of the Spirit. Borrowing from the American church growth expert, C.P. Wagner, Te Velde gives a list of twenty seven gifts described in Scripture, cf. Romans 12:1-7, 1 Corinthians 12:8-18, 28; Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 13 and 14, 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Peter 4, and Ephesians 3. Te Velde also posits that there is continuity between natural and supernatural gifts, i.e., the Holy Spirit makes use of natural gifts, and employs these for His purposes. There is also a marked discontinuity in the relationship between natural and supernatural gifts. The natural gifts never work of themselves in a wholesome way, but can only work fruitfully through regeneration and renewal of the Spirit. Some gifts tend to the special office, others do not.
Te Velde sees a degree of unnecessary poverty in our church life on this point as well. He intimates that we live below our standards, because gifts are not adequately transferred into actual deeds of service in the congregations. Too often gifts are hidden under bushels, or in the ground, rather than capitalized for service and growth in the congregation.
Officers: The officers are a gift of God to the congregations. They are not to be seen as a hindrance but a help to the work of “Church growth.” The officers in the church have a connecting and coordinating function with respect to “Church growth”, like ligaments and arteries in a body. Officers should take initiatives, give instruction, give examples, encourage steadfastness, stimulate, coordinate, correct, guard and decide.
I think these ten points give us a flavour of the object and goals that Te Velde has in mind with respect to this new discipline. While it represents a development in a new direction, he wishes to build the discipline up from Scripture.
Let me at this point make some critical remarks with respect to what has been introduced by Te Velde, and then conclude with some indications as to the direction we should take in this matter.
Grounds for a New Discipline
All in all I do not see the introduction of this discipline to be well-founded in the approach Te Velde has taken. He says that in the scheme of Kuyper, “Church growth” would combine elements of cybernetics (a course on church government dealing with the task of the elders) with organic laics (the activities of the congregation in the general “office of believers” with respect to advancing the cause of the gospel). His critique of Kuyper is that cybernetics never really has enough “body” in his encyclopedic system. Indeed, cybernetics later was simply treated as “church polity.”
However, there is no indication that this discipline lacked body in Kuyper's encyclopedic division of the subjects in diaconology. It is true that on this continent it became another term for “church polity.” But it is clear that this was not Kuyper's intention. He defines “cybernetics” as the art of governing the church, which is something different that a consideration of its various laws. 4 That the subject never was taught does not mean Kuyper gave the wrong task description for it. I think it was not introduced simply for practical reasons. In our College, that which Kuyper called cybernetics is dealt with in poimenics, the science dealing with the care of the flock. Is not care directed to mutual upbuilding and proper, practical government?
The important point is that Kuyper built up his various disciplines out of the Word of God as the sole principle of division (principium divisionis) regarding the various subjects of theology. Kuyper also attempted to formulate the logical necessity of the various disciplines as derived from Scripture. But in the case of “Church growth” it is not clear whether we are dealing with a need born out of the encyclopedic questions themselves, or whether Te Velde only seeks to answer a need from the side of the practical concerns in the congregations, i.e. from practical life. Te Velde has not sufficiently answered the question why the discipline is needed today.
This raises the question concerning the integration of this new subject in the family of diaconological subjects. Even though it keeps its eye on the whole congregation, diaconiology has always considered the special offices in the church. Even in the case of evangelistics and missiology, the disciplines are approached from the point of view of the special officers in the church. It is clear that in Te Velde's view, we have a much broader scope to deal with in this discipline. The role of the special officers is very limited in his perspective, and the focus is on activating the congregation as a whole, and on the application of systemic study and techniques to the integrated harmony of the efforts of the congregation as a whole. The question can be raised whether this fits at all in the specific focus of diaconiology as that branch of theology which considers the service of the special officers for the congregation.
The duty of all believers in their various tasks in the world has never been a part of diaconiology as such. The perspective of this department – which deals with ministry in the congregation – is concerned with all the members of the church only in so far as their activities fall under the direct supervision of the special officers of the church. This, roughly speaking, comes down to being the ecclesiastical component of these activities.
Reasons for “Church Growth”
A second area of concern I have is the reason why Te Velde feels this discipline must be introduced, not only in the theological curriculum, but also in the practical life of the congregations. These reasons include a number of pointed criticisms directed against his own church federation. It is not for me to judge the accuracy of these criticisms, although they seem to be overstated, considering the fact that Te Velde nowhere introduces actual evidences for his assertions. As strong as these criticisms are, I still wonder whether they in themselves warrant the introduction of a new discipline in a theological program, or the implementation of a new strategy in congregational life. For example, it may be true that in our Dutch sister churches too much work is left to the ministers. But cannot this be corrected within the existing framework that we have in the Church Order? He also says that there is a lack of missionary consciousness in the churches. But here one might ask: does this require the introduction of a new discipline? It may be true that too often gifts are hidden under bushels, rather than transferred into actual deeds of service. But again – will a new approach to the operation of the congregation correct this fault? 5
“Church growth” and Church Order
A third area of concern for me is how to place this new approach to the congregation in the context of the Church Order. This focuses not so much on the theory as on the practice of “Church growth” Te Velde mentions that a work group has been formed in Kampen which serves to provide congregations and consistories with advice on forming a congregational “work-plan” that would serve to make all activities more productive and streamlined for the whole congregation, 1/74. The work group is a kind of consulting agency, seeking to eliminate blockages and inefficiencies in church life. But should consistories open their internal affairs to such an outside group? Does this not involve an intrusion upon their work as the leaders and pastors in the congregation?
One can envision the possibility of officebearers seeking advice in difficult circumstances and bringing in church visitors or a senior minister to assist them in certain pastoral difficulties. But to subject the church to a plan which is mutually binding on both the consistory and congregation is a different matter. The agency deals with questions like: the work load and “job description” of the minister, the relationship between organizations in the church, and so on. Here I foresee certain misgivings, at least on the part of some consistories, who would rightly question to what extent they may share their leadership duty with outside agencies.
This also raises the question of the appropriateness of an overall “master plan” for a local church. The classical Reformed view on this matter is: Christ Himself fulfils the master plan, through the execution of the duties of the various officers, each one in his own office. In other words, there is no person in the local church who has the overall “plan” for the church in mind. The minister more than elders will try to exercise an all-round oversight. But he too can only do so in the context of his office. And God's oversight is effected in the church through the faithful exercise of the various limited offices and tasks in the church. To be sure, Te Velde does not want to turn the minister into a manager. But has he sufficiently guarded himself against the modern tendencies in this direction?
At this point, the discipline is already loaded with a terminological baggage that begs certain questions. Te Velde speaks of “functions and processes.” What is a function? Or a process? Are these terms sociologically qualified, or biblically qualified? Te Velde is very explicit about the use of the humanities in this discipline. In itself that is not necessarily a fault. Theology always makes use of “lehnsatzen” or “borrowed principles” from other disciplines. But are those disciplines from which one borrows adequately characterized by a Christian approach to science?
In this area I think that Te Velde has been rather uncritical in his approach. In many parts, his booklets form an apology for charting new courses based on conclusions essentially introduced from outside the life of the church. Te Velde seems to be aware of the dangers, but when he takes recourse to the positive gains to be appropriated, (as he sees them) he minimizes the threat of these dangers for the church.
Coupled with the new emphasis on process and function I detect a corresponding lack of attention to the concept of office. For the most part, the term “office” is reserved for the special officers in the church, and all the rest of the people are called the “ordinary members.” But what about the office of all believers? It is barely mentioned in an area of study in which I would have thought it deserved much more attention. Kuyper may have misused this concept of the “office of all believers” for his purposes, but this does not detract from the valuable Scriptural concepts associated with this term. Furthermore, the concept of an overall plan does not fit well with the idea that each must serve in his own office.
Notwithstanding these critical remarks, I do not want to withhold my appreciation for the work that is being done in this area. Regardless of the names given to the subject, the attention to looking for ways and avenues to assist in the building of the church of Christ can only be positive, as long as these ways stand the scrutiny of Scripture. An important positive point is that organizations and projects should be so stream-lined that everyone in the church has an idea of what the other organization, club or committee is doing. We should also be helping and serving each other as societies and organizations!
Will we bring in the discipline “Church growth” into our College curriculum? Our own resources and other constraints make that impossible for now. But this area will receive attention in the discipline called poimenics, i.e. that subject that deals with the care and oversight of the flock, To be sure, matters are dealt with that go beyond the limits of poimenics per se, but the disciplines of diaconiology overlap in other areas as well. Thus, from our point of view I do not see the need for this discipline at present. But it is a good thing if each and everyone (each in his office!) expends his efforts for the building up of the congregation of Christ.