20 July 2005

More on the Fad-Driven® Church


In the book Tony Campolo co-authored with Brian McLaren (Adventures In Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel) Campolo seems to suggest that seminarians ought to pay more attention to marketing techniques and less attention to theology, exegesis, and other traditional seminary curricula. After all, those are academic subjects with limited practical significance, and pastors these days hardly ever use such stuff after seminary. In Campolo's own words:

What if the credits eaten up by subjects seminarians seldom if ever use after graduation were instead devoted to more subjects they will actually need in churches—like business and marketing courses? It is not true that with a gifted preacher, a church will inevitably grow. Good sermons may get visitors to stay once they come, but getting folks to come in the first place may take some marketing expertise.

It was a marketing degree, not an M. Div., that Bill Hybels had when he launched the tiny fellowship that would one day be Willow Creek Community Church. It's not that Hybels is a theological lightweight, contrary to some critics. His sermons are biblically sound and brilliantly relevant to the needs of his congregation—and the relevance comes not from giftedness or theological discernment, but from thoughtfully studying his congregation. As any good marketer would, Hybels deliberately surveys his people with questionnaires in order to determine what they worry about, what their needs are, what's important to them. . . . Then he schedules what subjects he will preach on in the coming year, and circulates the schedule to those on his team responsible for music and drama in the services.

The result is preaching that is utterly biblical and acutely relevant. But the process isn't something you'll learn in most seminaries. Maybe it's time that some business school courses find their way into seminary.

I don't know where Tony Campolo has been for the past twenty-five years or so, but if that advice sounds the least bit fresh or novel to you, you haven't been paying attention to the drift of the church growth movement and its influence in seminaries over the past three decades. What Campolo is suggesting is precisely what many evangelical seminaries started doing some twenty years ago.

Pastors these days are thoroughly indoctrinated with the notion that they must regard their people as consumers. Religion is carefully packaged to appeal to the consumers' demands. There are even marketing agencies that specialize in church marketing. (Typical slogan: "Changing the Way the World Looks at Christians.") There are seminars for church leaders who want to learn how to "brand" their churches as a marketing strategy.

This stuff is everywhere. Fad-driven® pastors can even buy prepackaged, market-tested sermon ideas or whole sermon series. ("New fall message series designs!" now available.)

Church leaders these days are obsessed with image, opinion polls, public relations, salesmanship, merchandising, and customer satisfaction. They have been taught and encouraged to think that way by virtually every popular program of the past two decades.

It has been nearly twenty years since George Barna published Marketing the Church. In that book, he proposed this then-revolutionary notion: "The audience, not the message, is sovereign." That is the basic idea that underlies every Fad-Driven® church. And it's a notion that thousands of pastors and church leaders have uncritically imbibed—and it has been parroted in virtually every major book on church leadership up through and including The Purpose-Driven Church. The audience is sovereign. Their "felt needs" should shape the preacher's message. Opinion polls and listener response become barometers that tell the preacher what to preach. That's what Barna was calling for back in 1988. He wrote,

If [we are] going to stop people in the midst of hectic schedules and cause them to think about what we're saying, our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience. When we produce advertising that is based on the take-it-or-leave-it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people's needs, people will invariably reject our message.

Compare that with the words of the apostle Paul, who said, "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:2-5).

What was Paul's point? Do you think he would have agreed with Barna, who said we must adapt our message to the preferences of the audience, or risk having them reject the message?

I think not. Here's what the apostle actually did say to Timothy: "But you . . . fulfill your ministry." "Preach the word! . . . in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching."

That is what pastors are called to do—not ape the fads and fashions of our culture. Not even to follow the silly parade of evangelical fads. I'm convinced that those who do not get back to the business of preaching the Bible will soon see their churches shrivel and die—because, after all, the Word of God is the only message that has the power to give spiritual life.

And, frankly, the death of the fad-driven churches will be a good thing in the long term. It's something I hope I live long enough to see.


KS said...

It's sounds like Balaam and Barak getting together again. Oh how we need some more Balaam's Asses!

Chris Caldwell said...


How do you balance pragmatism and the Biblical instruction? Ultimately, God's Word wins out, I understand. How far do the practical methods go? Can you share some insight from your experiences with Dr. MacArthur and GCC?

Thanks. Awesome post.

Tim Challies said...

Excellent post, mon ami.

I don't know how many more times I can commend this book before I become an official fan-boy, but the absolute best book I've read on this subject is Selling Out the Church. It's a definite must-read on this topic.

steve said...

Not to mention that Campolo, far from being a prophetic, countercultural voice, was a court chaplain, apologist, and all-purpose lap-dog for Bill Clinton's immoralities--like the OT false prophets and court prophets.

Unknown said...

Os Guinness makes the case in "Prophetic Untimeliness" that the church's blind pursuit of relevance has made her irrelevant.

Steven H said...

Proponents of the Fad Driven Church have a fallacious presupposition: they think numerical growth is a sign of health. If that was the case, then Jesus’ ministry would have been a failure as even His disciples scattered as He was being crucified. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to scatter and divide families (Matthew 10:34-46). In the Gospel According to John, we read that many stopped following Him after His teaching (John 6:66; 8:30 cf. 8:59). Biblical Christianity is not the all unifying ‘religion’ the Fad Driven Church makes it out to be. Even if one was to applaud the effort to get the masses into church, the biblical testimony concerning itself is that its message is foolishness and a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).

Numerical statistics, large or small, are not the indicators of the sign of spiritual health. Faithfulness to God’s Gospel is what brings pleasure to Him; whether small, large, or out-right rejection of the Gospel. Were the disciples any less faithful when they were required to wipe the dust off their feet to towns that rejected the Good News they brought? Of course not. Was Paul’s ministry in Athens a disappointment because they laughed when they heard about the resurrection? Again, no.

In the end, we must remember that man’s nature has not changed since the first century and since Postmodernism reigns in our culture, the Church must prepare that she too will suffer as we are faithful to His Gospel. “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My Word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).

puritanicoal said...

"I'm convinced that those who do not get back to the business of preaching the Bible will soon see their churches shrivel and die . . ."

Phil, while I agree with your post, I don't think the above sentence is entirely accurate. While that may (and could), in fact, occur, it does not necessarily follow that because a church is not preaching the Bible, it will shrivel.

In Romans 1, Paul writes, " . . .and just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, etc."

So, a failure to preach the Bible, i.e., acknowledge God, may cause these churches to grow. God will "give them over" to unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, etc. Exhibit 1: The Osteen Show.

Dave said...

I was about to say what PURITANICOAL just said. These churches will likely not shrink, they will; however, be rendered eternally ineffective!

YOu know, maybe that isn't even the case, they may be effective. Effective in leading people downt he Broad road of Destruction. You know that one that is usaully labled "Evangelical!"

BREUSSE - Thanks so much for mentioning Guinness's PROPHETIC UNTIMELINESS. Great book.

There is a tension for me as an Outreach Pastor who is very committed to the Doctrines of Grace. I have an overwhelming passion to reach my community with the Gospel. I want them ALL to know about Christ and come to hear the Hope that is the Gospel. I want to "get the word out" about the Word. We do use commercials, billboards, banners, etc... Very carefull crafted not to be misleading or man centered. But any marketing expert will also tell you what God told us a long time ago! (Rom 10; 2 Cor 5) The most effective means of getting a message out is "word of mouth" If you want to reach your world with the Hope fo the Gospel - personally proclaim it, in the relationships that exist in your life - "as though God is making is appeal through us."

Frank Martens said...

The sad thing is, there's a lot of church's on this bandwagon that would never deny the Word of God being important or you'd never catch them saying that it's all about marketing, yet their actions show differently.

I know because I attend one.

jeffhunter said...

Check this out…this letter and accompanying brochure was sent out from the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions to every Southern Baptist church in the state.

“Dear Pastor:
Greetings to you in the wonderful name of Jesus!
I am excited about the opportunity to communicate with you about the Purpose Driven Ministries Campaign ’40 Days of Purpose.’
Without a doubt God has been blessing this emphasis. Over 20,000 churches have been on this wonderful journey and have experienced dramatic results of the Holy Spirit’s blessings. Churches in over 60 denominations, of all sizes and locations, have already been blessed with a fresh harvest of changed lives as a direct result of taking this journey.
It is our desire in the Evangelism office of the State Board of Missions of Alabama State Convention to honor and cooperate with what God is already doing through this campaign. As a result we have partnered with Purpose Driven Ministries to offer to Alabama Baptist churches a greatly reduced registration rate of $100.00! This rate is available for all our churches in the State Convention regardless of size. It is our hope that this reduced rate will allow even the smallest of our congregations to experience what can happen when God’s five purposes of evangelism, worship, fellowship, discipleship and ministry are brought together in a healthy balance.
In addition several alumni churches are willing to partner with churches that are just joining the 40 Days Journey. These alumni churches will serve as resources to help answer questions and offer encouragement.
Finally, the Evangelism office has committed to assist 100 churches by sponsoring them at the $100 registration rate. The first 100 churches who respond, will be reimbursed the $100 fee paid to the Purpose Driven Ministries for the campaign registration.
Here is the deal: The registration certificate that is enclosed from the Evangelism office will allow you to register on-line for 40 Days using the special Alabama Baptist code. Once you have registered, we will reimburse the first 100 churches the $100 registration fee. What a deal!
If you are unable to take advantage of this special for the above dates, the reduced rate will be honored for the winter/spring 2006 campaigns. The certificate expires June 30, 2006.
Unbelievable! Our State Convention has resorted to “info-mercials” to get churches and pastors to do this stuff. I remember ten years ago having to contend with a dozen AmWay salesmen in my church. I never thought it could happen…but this is worse. I have to admit I am tempted to jump on board. I just found a certificate in the envelop that said if I respond in the next 24 hours I will get a year’s supply of Avacor for every active deacon in our church…I gotta go!

Unknown said...

reformer wrote:
>These churches will likely not >shrink, they will; however, be >rendered eternally ineffective!

I agree that it's possible to artificially manufacture numbers without the Word & Spirit. "Ineffective" might be generous. 1 Cor. 3:15 says such ministries will someday "burn". If the method is artificial (the "lofty speeech or wisdom" of 1 Cor. 2:1), the results are artificial ("wood, hay, straw" of 1 Cor. 3:12).

Artificial results from manufactured methods means the pews (the "building" of 1 Cor. 3:9 or "temple" of 1 Cor. 3:16) are filled with unbelievers who will "burn" because their builders preferred the wisdom of the world rather than the foolishness of Christ (the "gold, silver, precious stones" of 1 Cor. 3:12).

The mere possibility that we could be artificially manufacturing the temple growth should give us pause as to how we interpret that growth. Growth isn't necessarily bad. "Methods" aren't necessarily bad. But making Christ and His Word subservient to the methods and growth can be disastrous.

Daniel said...

"I'm convinced that those who do not get back to the business of preaching the Bible will soon see their churches shrivel and die . . ."

Contrary to a few other opinions, I think you this is an accurate assessment. Accurate that is, if by "church" it is understood that we are not talking about the physical bodies present in the congregation, but the number of actual born again believers. It is my strong conviction that carnal efforts reap carnal results.

Peter Bogert said...

I blogged on your statement about needing a new reformation yesterday. This stuff justs gets worse and worse.

I agree that I hope I live long enough to see change.

P.S. Love the dog. We had a Beagle until he was 18 years old. Great pets.

Brad Huston said...


Great post, very good stuff. Thank you.

Though there is the other side of the coin here: Those who think preaching the Word of God is to use the pulpit solely (or primarily) as a means for telling everyone in the church how horrible is the current state of the church really is, without offering solutions, cheif of which is simply preaching the Gospel and living it out by example.

Rather than writing a huge comment here with specifics, I'll just blog it and wait for you to tear it to shreads :o) Thank you, again.


Efrayim said...


Great post brother! You are at the door! It is exciting to see that level of understanding stated openly and with clarity. May the rest of the purpose of Torah be seen by His people.

Shalom ben Yisrael


Mike said...

Good stuff.

I wonder sometimes, whether in regard to fad- or purpose- or emergent-driven churches if the words of John and Paul (no, the other ones!) are not applicable here:

"They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us." - 1 Jn 2.19

"For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you." - 1 Cor 11.19

(I may be ripping the latter out of context; if so, sorry.)

I understand "us" in John's letter to be the teaching of the apostles, not the local congregation. We need to let these people go and distinguish - not necessarily distance - ourselves from them.

Joe said...

A blogging friend, Jeff at onerandomblogger.blogspot.com/ has an article about a church holding the Eucharist in clown costumes! My only response is, "Why?" Is this the only way His church can reach people?

Jason Robertson said...

Campolo endorses a group like http://www.paperstreet.org.uk/ikon/
-- nuf said. He is preaching to the choir; he is marginalized and un-influencial. But that is just my opinion.

wordsmith said...

wow, what a concept! toss out the brainy, useless stuff that they make you learn in seminary or divinity school, and instead have the would-be pastor take marketing pablum and other "practical" drivel.

boy, does that sound familiar - that's exactly what the progressives did in american education a hundred years ago. get rid of that useless algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, foreign language, grammar, literature, etc. (what do bricklayers and seamstresses need that for, anyhow) and offer practical courses like woodshop, home economics, and "life adjustment." look at the wonders this attitude did for american education: SAT scores have been on the decline since the early 1960's, colleges are offering more remedial courses than ever before, and high school students have no idea who Mark Twain was, when the Civil War occurred, or how to solve a multi-step math problem.

i guess it's a logical consequence that if the culture is dumbed down, the church should follow suit. after all, that is consistent with the emerging/emergent crowd's philosophy.

they forget, however: the Church that marries the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next...

SJ Camp said...

What is very unfortunate today is that those kinds of fads are not just fringe occurrences in evangelicalism; it has ravaged most every denomination today and their affiliated seminaries.

We need a new reformation; but can it ever happen in such a Laodicean time like we live in? Not many men left in leadership today with unshakable biblical convictions that are willing to risk all for Christ and His gospel. The "politics of faith" are to rampant, to charming and to inviting to walk away from.

Good post Phil.
“Taking Heaven by Storm”
2 Cor. 4:5-7

Hooser said...

Mark Driscoll (in his book Radical Reformission) has some good thoughts on the subject.

He uses some diagrams:
Culture+Church-Gospel=Liberalism &

I think these are useful for gauging where we are. What the fad driven church seems to be doing is the middle one. They want to be relevant to the culture, and bring people into the church, but to do so, they castrate the gospel, and produce liberalism.

What Paul did at Mars Hill, what those in Church history such as Prudentius (a scholar) did, and what those at Mars Hill Church seem to be doing is aquainting themselves well enough with the culture to detect the dead ends that people have reached depending in other saviors. Pragmatism, secularism, spiritualism, and the rest have answers that satisfy for a while, but Christ has the only solid answer. The gospel is the only healthy fulfillment and answer to all the questions at the dead ends of culture. Paul percieved that the Athenians were deeply religious, but religiosity will only get you so far. All these Christian marketing gurus need to realize that they are simply bowing to the same idol that so many others do, and that it will fail them as well. Christianity will be marketed perfectly as itself to those who need it and want to hear it, and it will be a stumbling block to those who don't.

SoccerReformer said...

Some guys on the DC sports talk were talking tonight about Osteen's church moving into the big sports arena in Houston, laughing about whether there would be obstructed-view tickets sold if church continued to attract capacity crowds.

And why are people so afraid to say that EVANGELICALISM - however you can honestly define that in 2005 - is DEAD.

I don't say that the Gospel is dead of course. There are some lampstands burning - but a discernible movement of mainstream Gospel-preaching churches really is not to be found - not if you are discerning about appraising the content of those churches. They have pushed true churches out of the mainstream.

I just think we need to face it and get on with the work of building the Kingdom by preaching the Gospel.

The necessary polemic and doctrinal material re "a new Reformation" are already in abundance (Wells, MacArthur, Sproul, Piper etc.). What needs to be "done" is preach the Gospel, and present our bodies as living sacrifices. I wouldn't call it a Reformation, but simply the work of the remnant.

AuthenticTruth said...

I have grown so weary of this whole “marketing-the-church” nonsense. The church has spent entirely too much time studying business models rather than abiding by the biblical principles for the church. For over well over a decade, the evangelical church has listened to the message parroted by the church growth experts that we must be relevant to the culture, that we need to cater to everyone’s “felt” needs and conduct surveys to discover the preferences of the culture. They claimed that this was the only way we were going to reach the culture of today. It is interesting that according to Barna, while the population has increased by only 15%, the number of “unchurched” has actually increased a whopping 92% since 1991. You would think that Barna would learn from his own statistics.

There is an interesting statement in Barna’s article; “Stirring worship music won’t attract them because worship isn’t even on their radar screen. More comfortable pews cannot compete with the easy chair or the bed that already serve the unchurched person well. Church events cannot effectively compete with what the world has to offer.” Yet we keep hearing things today about participatory worship that the seekers can participate in and experience?

The church that I previously attended began using the seeker-sensitive approach. I raised concerns with one of the pastors, questioning him about how far they were following the Willow Creek philosophy. His reply was that they wanted to be sensitive to seekers without going the whole “seeker-sensitive” route. Over time I began observing that more and more of this philosophy was being integrated into their ministry. Now, according to their own admission on their web site, they are “seeker-sensitive", cutting-edge”. By the way, as Frank Martens commented about his church not denying the Word of God, this church that I attended also had a solid statement of faith. They also would never admit to watering down the truth.

By the way, this church experienced explosive growth. But we need to understand that there is both healthy and unhealthy growth. Cancer is a growth, but a very deadly growth indeed!

Mat said...

An intersting read. But I though the living Spirit of God was the one who changed lives?

SJ Camp said...

David You Wrote:
"He uses some diagrams:
Culture+Church-Gospel=Liberalism &


Church-Gospel+Culture-Absolute Truth-Sound Doctrine+Postmodernism-Expositional Preaching=The Emergent Church

Acts 20:24

Phil Johnson said...

Note to all commenters:

I deleted a comment because the material wasn't original, and it wasn't attributed.

Please don't cut and paste stuff from the Web into my comments section, especially without giving credit to the original author. A link to the original article is sufficient.

Also, article-length replies are not authentic "comments," even if the content had been original. If you have so much to say that I have to press the "page down" key more than five times to get to the end of your "comment," you should start your own blog, or else apply for posting privileges at one of the team blogs.

In other words, as Bill O'Reilly would say, "No bloviating. That's my job."

Phil Johnson said...


....except for Steve Hays. He can bloviate here any time he wants.

Adjutorium said...

"I deleted a comment because the material wasn't original, and it wasn't attributed."

Good bless you.

Terry Lange said...

Reading about the "Fad driven church" makes me appreciate my own church (Fourth Baptist Church in Plymouth, MN) and men like Peter Masters and others who stand against such foolishness!

Brian said...


One of the things that contributes to the long comments is the technical limitation of your comments section.

Trackbacks allow people to write on their own blog and just send a ping or trackback to your blog. However, your comments do not allow trackbacks so instead of people making an entry on their own blog and tracking back to your entry they write thesis papers in your comments section.

I would suggest you look at haloscan located at http://www.haloscan.com/

Most of the bloggers that have decided to stay on blogger.com at least moved their commenting to haloscan.


Hooser said...


Are you accusing Mars Hill of falling into the
"Church-Gospel+Culture-Absolute Truth-Sound Doctrine+Postmodernism-Expositional Preaching=The Emergent Church".
It wasn't clear to me from what you were saying, but I thought I might be detecting a hint of sarcasm.

Anyways, for what it's worth, Driscoll provides some pretty substantive criticism of the emerging churches in the same book I pulled the diagrams from. As far as I can tell, it seems like the emerging churches want to claim Mars Hill as one of them, but Mars Hill doesn't want to put themselves in that camp.

Paula said...

1 Corinthians 9:22-23
"To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by ALL POSSIBLE MEANS I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I my share in its blessings." (emphasis mine)

God is the creator of the church universal. Sharing the word in India is different from France. It's different in Yugoslavia from Tennessee. But the Gospel never changes. If these churches declare the name of Jesus and teach salvation through Him alone, they do not deserve your attack.

As a former seminary student myself, the reality is that you choose your classes. You choose who to listen to. Hopefully and prayerfully God is where you start. From there, many directions ensue.

It was, after all, Christ who said, "for whoever is not against us is for us." (Mark 9:40)

fontanarenaissanceman said...

yes, some say that these attacks are not fair but, the fad driven church seems to forget that God gives us faith and hope and changes our lives, regenerates us. NOT the marketing team at saddleback...Where is the doctrine of election in all of this huffed up felt needs stuff? The sad fact is that the modern evangellyfish church is useless because they don't equip the truly regenerate, leaving them hungry and lost in the crowd, and in addition these churches lead many people to falsely believe they are saved when clearly they are not, they are just led into playing "religion" on sundays...

Myopic Zeal said...


Excellent thought provoking commentary. I don't entirely agree, and I have posted my thoughts here.


Eyriche Cortez said...

As far as I understand, pastors not only should exegete the Word but also their audience. Pastors act as a bridge from the then and there to the here and now. I agree that there are times that the felt needs are different from the real needs. I believe that we do not make the Bible relevant. It is already relevant. But there are times we fail to communicate to our audience. Thus, we make the Word irrelevant to them. In doing so, we do the Word an injustice. We have to connect the Word to their real needs. We must be "koine" to them, that is, we must speak their language without compromising our message. I think that's what Barna and company are just trying to tell us. I may not agree with everything they said but I agree with the concerns that they aired about the church making itself irrelevant because of the way believers present their message.