During the 1980’s evangelicals embarked on the church growth movement in an attempt to apply social sciences to achieve growing numbers of Christians and churches. The idea was controversial from the start, but the church growth movement had a huge impact that continues to reverberate. Although many have pushed back against the emphasis on numbers, countering with the need for qualitative growth as well, and the term “church growth” is no longer in vogue, the legacy of the church growth movement is a continuing urgency to foster and guide Christian movements of conversion and institutional expansion.

Today I was reading an economist writing about development theory, and I was struck by the parallels between people who want to promote and control growth — whether economic or spiritual — on a large scale. William Easterly writes on “The Anarchy of Success“:

Humans are suckers for finding patterns where none really exist, like seeing the shapes of lions and giraffes in the clouds. It wasn’t that economists had no explanations of what causes growth. On the contrary, we had too many. One survey of the field counted no fewer than 145 separate factors that had been found to be associated with growth. But most of these patterns were spurious, because they failed to hold up when other researchers tried to replicate them. Economists can say something useful about economic success, but we have to clear away a lot of false overconfidence before we get to that point.

Growth and development whether in spiritual or economic terms has been thoroughly studied and we have principles and formulas up the yin yang, but are we the wiser for all the research and theorizing? Does real change, whether in spiritual or economic terms, come from engagement with people in the grit, decisions, and paradoxes of real life? If so, what we need is not endless futile and misguided attempts to control the process but more freedom and opportunity for growth to emerge from below (whether economic or spiritual).

Easterly finishes,

Perhaps prosperity is not after all designed from above; perhaps it emerges from below, from the independent actions of many individuals who figure out their own paths.

Here is a different version of this quote in my words as a follower of Jesus,

Perhaps the growth of God’s people in the world is not designed or controlled by people in supposed positions of influence; perhaps it emerges from below, from the actions of many individuals who figure out their own paths in concert with the Spirit of God working in them.

Andrew Gray

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