Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Ministry (DMin)



First Advisor

Gregg Borror, DMin

Second Advisor

Karen Claassen, DMin

Third Advisor

Leonard I. Sweet, PhD


Congregational growth remains a dominant model for pastoral ministry in a USAmerican, United Methodist context today. Yet producing sustained growth has proven to be immensely difficult. Ongoing quantitative and qualitative analysis of cultural attitudes toward Christianity today show that the long-standing vocational emphasis on growth has not proven fruitful.

The claim of this work is that the ongoing problem of church decline is not strategic, but semiotic: the basis for continued congregational decline comes not from faulty planning but from a problematic conflation of growth with improvement. For many, Church Growth is influenced by a definition of human and social development shaped by an Enlightenment ideology of progress and is signified with an image of a rising line, the logical end of which would be the achievement of the kingdom of God.

The primary goal of this work is iconoclastic. Attempts to create lasting change in the church begin not simply by naming new images, but by breaking persistent, problematic images. Part One outlines the current state of congregational decline and scans a fifty-year history of church growth initiatives. Part Two examines the development of an ideology of progress, signified as an ascending line to heaven and examines theological and historical foundations of a faulty understanding of growth. Part Three examines church responses to the ideology of progress, including “ecclesiologies of improvement”, and offers biblical and theological rationale for the insufficiency of improvement as an image for understanding the nature and purpose of the church. Breaking the limitations of the image of the incline will free pastors to rediscover biblical definitions for growth. I conclude with alternative images worthy of further research.

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