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Book Review – Stealing Sheep

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I did not know what to expect from Stealing Sheep. The book was recommended to me and I purchased it sight-unseen. All I knew of its content was the subtitle: “The Church’s Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth.” I assumed this was a book written by an author opposed to the church growth movement who would be offering one more proof as to why this movement was unbiblical.

William Chadwick is no opponent of the church growth movement. Instead, he is one of its many advocates and one who proudly admits that he has studied “under the likes of C. Peter Wagner, Lyle Schaller, John Wimber, Rick Warren, Charles Kraft, Eddie Gibbs, Roberta Hestenes and Bill Hybels” (page 9). He writes, “In my pastoral career I have successfully implemented the tools of church growth to help churches grow significantly, and I have been involved with the church growth movement since the late 1970” (page 9). He writes glowingly about Donald McGavran and the other founders of the church growth movement, showing that he has read them in depth and has understood them. He believes in the roots of this movement, stating on page 128, “Make no mistake about it. The church growth movement had one focus: conversion growth.” He does pause to critique three of McGavran’s principles: the Maximization Principle, Transfer of Resources principle and the Numerical Growth principle.

From that insider perspective, Chadwick writes about the dark side of church growth. Having done extensive research and having examined the fruits of his own early ministry, the author came to the startling revelation that the church growth movement has succeeded far better in pulling believers from other, smaller churches than in reaching the lost. “Great effort is being expended, but few are actually turning to Christ for the first time. Instead, the faithful are mostly just changing churches” (from the back cover).

The statistics are startling. It has long since become common knowledge that while there are many more megachurches in the United States than in days past, there are no more Christians. Obviously the only way to account for this is to realize that people are moving from small churches into these megachurches. And why wouldn’t they? Megachurches offer excitement, quality of music and programming depth that small churches can only dream about. The large churches have a great advantage in our consumeristic culture where we demand that our needs be met. Just as WalMart has put far too many mom and pop shops out of business, so megachurches have closed the doors of many small, faithful churches. The author’s research found that over 90 percent of the members at some of the largest churches in America have arrived from other churches. When we consider that some of these churches have 8,000 members and that the average church in America has only 100, we can see how this transfer growth has decimated other bodies.

The real blame for allowing this quantity of transfer growth has to be assigned to the pastors who allow it to happen and who sometimes actively seek it. Chadwick shares some shocking stories about pastors who seem only too content to pad their own church’s membership with people drawn from other churches. He writes about jealousy related to membership numbers. He is frank and honest, sharing many mistakes from his own ministry that must surely cause him great shame.

The book wraps up with criteria for what he considers legitimate reasons to transfer churches. He also encourages churches in the same vicinity to sign covenants with each other that they will not accept members from the other bodies except under certain well-defined circumstances.

There is one strange mis-step in this book. While Chadwick is quite hard on the Roman Catholic Church, considering it one that is no longer biblically orthodox, at the same time he writes about a friend who is a Greek Orthodox pastor and helps this man slow his transfer growth. The very problems he points out with the Roman Catholic Church are the ones he praises with the Greek Orthodox. I would also have liked to see the author spend a bit more time on legitimate reasons to leave churches. For example, what if one feels he is not growing within a church? What if he feels the worship is unbiblical? What about points of doctrine that are “secondary” but still important? Are these legitimate reasons to leave a church? Some more discussion would have been welcome.

This is a very interesting book and one that should be read by all pastors, especially those involved in the church growth movement. This movement places vast importance on numbers and it is important that churches ensure they are doing their best to grow the “kingdom count” rather than simply increase their membership numbers. I give it my recommendation.

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