CGM: What Does it Look Like?


Okay, it’s time to get back on the spiritual side of things.  Hopefully that won’t be too big of a jolt for the 10 people reading every day.


I’ve been doing a bit of research on this church network that my wife recently joined and wants me to be a part of.  Anyone following me knows I have some concerns and issues regarding this and I’m going to explore some of those.  But I feel like I need to at least give just a bit of background here before launching off. 

My very own brother lives in Forest Park, California and attends the real and genuine Saddleback Community Church and has for a few years.  He has only fairly recently gotten involved in a small group and he really, really likes it.  His own church background has been fairly nominal, at best, so this really is quite a step for him.  He got baptized there in their giant marble fountain/pool and posted some pictures on his website.


FTN has never come right out and said it, but it’s pretty obvious he is part of a church that has similar CGM leanings.  I’ve always wondered what sort of church he attended, and it’s come into a lot better focus.  I can see why he would like it, especially with the music.  I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Autumn might actually be part of the praise/worship team that leads the good folks in the worship center music.


My sister actually does something like this in her church in Washington DC.  It is a much smaller storefront church with a lot more diversity.  I think she’s the only white girl on the stage!  At least I have pictures of her up there singing with a group and it looks strikingly similar to what I see at Saddleback East.  However her songs are much more traditional…traditional for a predominately black church.  So new to her but not so much for most of the congregation.  Her church, while having some of the trappings, is not CGM.


Willow Creek is the Midwestern version of Saddleback in Illinois and the two have actually shared and flipped staff around a time or two.  The teaching minister who used to work at Willow Creek now works for Rick Warren.


I refer to them collectively as CGM or Church Growth Movement churches.  Everything about these churches is designed for growth.  Growth is not a bad thing.  Jesus did say, “Go and make disciples from all nations.” right?  And getting people to come to church has been something that folks have struggled with ever since there have been churches, right?


Sort of.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  I want to come back to the present before delving more deeply into the first century.


How does one recognize a CGM church?


I read one account that sort of compared it to identifying when someone was pitching Amway.  Look for the Franklin organizer, look for the teaching tapes, and listen to the slogans and how they talk.


Recognizing a CGM church is much easier because Rick Warren has his book The Purpose Driven Church and has trained some 300,000 ministers on exactly how to do what he did.  And it seems these churches follow his program pretty…er…religiously.


These churches seem to thrive in the suburbs, especially among the white folk.  The black churches are much more resilient to the CGM movement because they already do it loud, proud and with a crowd.  Close relationships are indigenous to the black community because their history of oppression is much more recent.  But the white community is searching for meaning amongst their opulence and wealth.  Enter CGM.


When you see the CGM church, people will not be wearing suits, ties and dresses.  This is because the polling CGM churches have done indicate that people don’t like to dress up.  So it is important that Unchurched Harry be as comfortable as possible.  Next, when you enter the building through the main entrance you will be greeted by what is best described as a greeter gauntlet.  Scores of folks standing by the door with greeter name tags will eagerly welcome all old and newcomers.


The next thing you may notice is the loud music.  Within the large worship center there will be a very well lighted stage.  On that stage there will be various electric guitars, a drum set, keyboard and a few singers.  Behind them will be one or more large projection screens with the words to the music.  No organs or hymnals here!  And all of these white people might be clapping and moving to the upbeat music! 




Just kidding.  I have no real objection to any of this, really.  I’ve done this sort of thing before, back when I was with AFC.  Perhaps some of my unease might be from AFC flashbacks.  But back then we didn’t have the projection screens or I’m sure we would have used them.  I’m just painting a picture here. 


The music will go on for quite some time.  Then a pastor or Elder will come out and say a few words about communion, which everyone is invited to do.  Like the Catholics, this is done every week.  Then many more words will be said about the offering.  Prayers will be incorporated into this process, which is as close as we get to a sort of liturgy.  But no prayers done in unison.  All is directed from the stage.


Then the band puts their instruments up, the lights dim, the spotlight comes down and there is the senior pastor.  He’ll stand behind an acrylic podium and give a message.  In your bulletin, you’ll find the usual announcements, plus a piece of paper with his sermon notes.  The notes will have blanks that congregants can fill in as he goes on, point by point and the points and scriptures will be projected upon the big screens.  He’ll go on for 45 minutes to an hour and then he says a prayer, the band plays and that’s it.  Go home.


Actually, there’s the little gift shop where you can buy momentos or even buy a CD of sermons and music.  There’s also a cafe for donuts and coffee if you want before or after the service.


Does this sound a lot like your church?  Then you’re probably attending a CGM church.  There is nothing wrong with all of this any more than I have anything against people who carry around Franklin organizers.  I’m just telling the story.


There are several things you will not see in a CGM church.  You will not see an organ.  You will not see a cross at the front.  You may not see a cross anywhere in the entire church.  There are no acolytes because there are no candles to light.  You won’t see pews or hymnals. 


Again, these are very cosmetic changes.


You also won’t see children, as those are taken care of elsewhere in the building.  I do have some objections to this, sort of.  On one hand, it’s nice to be rid of them for 90 minutes, but on the other I’m concerned about their learning about worship by actually doing it.  Not there’s any liturgy to learn here anyway.  But that just struck me as a bit odd. 


You will not see a choir.  Only the best singers get to be on stage and in the light, which is why I’m betting Autumn is involved right up there.  No small thing when you remember that there is a talent pool of possibly a thousand or more regular attenders.


All of things are done very deliberately and purposefully.  Afterall, if you’re going to do something with purpose, there’s a right way to do these things.  The odd thing is that attenders to these services might be a bit offended with what I’ve written here, even though I’ve tried to not be offensive.  The reason is that in each community these things pop up in, they see themselves as being the mavericks.  They are the ones doing things differently than everyone else.  They are the ones playing the loud music and using the fancy technology unlike anyone else around them.  They are the ones not bogged down with dogma and doctrine.  They are the ones who are preaching the Biblical message of Christ.  They are the ones with the true vision of reaching the entire world with the gospel.  They are the ones with the courage to step out in faith and build bigger and bigger churches so that no one will ever be turned away.  They joke about how other churches look at them.  They sort of wear the kookish or cultish label with a measure of pride.  They see themselves as the real radicals and part of a huge movement.  A revival.


Shades of AFC.


I have to admit that I admire their collective zeal.  And it is quite contagious, which is a big part of what makes these churches work. 


I’ll quit for now, as this is probably the high water mark for not being offensive.  But CGMers take heart because I’m going to a place that will uniformly draw offense from those in more traditionally orthodox outfits as well.



8 Responses to “CGM: What Does it Look Like?”

  1. 2amsomewhere Says:

    My wife’s best friend and her husband go to such a church. I refer to it as the First Church of the Big Screen Hymnal.

    From someone who grew up with a rigorous instruction in catechism and verse memorization and a reserved worship environment (LCMS), it’s a little too flashy for me.


  2. FTN Says:

    Well, in case you are wondering.

    I do go to a sizeable church, but I wouldn’t categorize it quite as CGM (although you might, at first glance). There are many similarities, but our church actually makes an effort NOT to be a “Willow Creek.” And it is somewhat different. (And much smaller, actually.)

    We do have a choir. Anyone can join, even if you are tone-deaf.

    We do have a cross on stage and on the church building. Although strangely enough, I do hear there have been disputes about the lack of crosses. Because obviously, God isn’t there unless we have large planks of wood everywhere in the building, right?

    No gift shop. We do have some free donuts, but they are often gone before I get to them. Bummer.

    I do, in fact, carry a Franklin organizer. But I only carry it to work every day. I’ve never taken it to church with me. I take a Bible with me to church. Because that’s what we use at church. The Bible. We even have extras in the pews to give away to anyone that might not have one.

    My children are in a separate area of the building, and the teachers do a WONDERFUL job of teaching them about God and Jesus. I’m amazed at what my kids know at such a young age. They sing on stage in a preschool kids’ choir every couple of months, also. So they do get to be a part of “grown-up” worship from time to time.

    And I’m not offended by what you wrote. In fact, I’ve had many conversations with close friends (and even members of the church staff) that are occasionally disillusioned with the purposeful model. Oftentimes, I am, as well. I know my church isn’t perfect. It’s evolving, as any healthy church would be. Anytime a church becomes “corporate,” I get annoyed. When you have such a big group of people, it can easily lean towards being a production. And we try to guard against that, to give the spirit room to… move.

    Once again, though, church shouldn’t be just about an hour on Sunday morning. There is SO much more to it than that.

    My church wasn’t huge when I joined. In the 8 years I’ve been there, it’s more than tripled in size. If I were new, I don’t know how comfortable I’d be in a church that big.

    The most interesting part to me in this discussion, is that the most important thing should be worshiping and preaching the message of Jesus Christ. Yet somehow we make this an argument between hymnals and words on a screen? An argument between suits and jeans? An argument about architecture?


    When so many people make these arguments, I sometimes wonder who is REALLY being the “pharisee.”

    I belong to a big church. We aren’t radicals, or doing anything that hasn’t been done before, I’m sure. And we proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the only way to God. It’s not watered down. I think THAT is the most important thing.

  3. Xian Husband Says:

    Interesting post. I’d like to give it a lot of time and discussion, but I’ve got to run to a meeting. So I’ll just make two quick points.

    First of all, you dismiss a lot of these things as merely cosmetic changes. Cosmetic changes sometimes run the deepest because what you are talking about here is church culture. And culture is important. Especially since there are assumptions and teachings and beliefs behind these cultural things that are just subconciously assumed and past on. We rarely take a close look at your culture and say, “Yes, but what does it mean? WHY do we do it? What are we really saying we believe when we do these things?”

    Culture is important.

    Second, you present an interesting dichotomy. On one hand you say that CGM churches, “They are the ones not bogged down with dogma and doctrine,” and then in the next sentence say, “They are the ones who are preaching the Biblical message of Christ.”

    Yet Christ himself said to Pilate in John 18 “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And, of course, in other places he said that it is the TRUTH that will said us free. The Spirit will lead us into all Truth. Etc. Jesus used the word “Truth” a lot, because that was what He was about.

    What you are describing is what I’ve heard R.C. Sproul talk about before. He says that, in his opinion, we are living in the most anti-intellectual age of the church ever. Humans were created with a straight path from the brain to the heart — what you really believe in your mind becomes what you act on from your heart. Today, we want to bypass the brain and thinking and stuff like Truth and doctrine, and go straight to the heart. But it doesn’t work that way. We are transformed, says Paul, not by emotion, but by the renewing of our minds. It is EXACTLY in what we teach and believe that we are changed.

    Truth matters. So doctrine (what we teach) and dogma (the facts we believe) are at the very heart of everything. You cannot teach “the Biblical message of Christ” without it. Not really. Not truthfully. Not faithfully. Not in accordance with what He Himself taught.

    But teaching stuff as actual facts that have to be understood and really believed — saying that THIS is Truth while THAT is falsehood — is hard. Because it requires actual depth of study. And it is also inherently exclusive. This is Truth, so nothing else is. Which means people have to actually make choices about what they will believe, and so you will automatically have less people coming to Church, and so you pull in less $$$.

  4. Deb Says:

    I go to Saddleback Church and about the only thing I can say is Jesus changed a lot of traditions in his time and wasn’t too popular. I can’t speak for everyone who attends my church, but I personally spend considerable time in Bible study. It’s really what the individual does on their own with their spiritual life. I wouldn’t rely on a church for what is rightly my responsibility. Just because there is a choir and an organ in the little church on the hill, doesn’t mean they are more spiritual. As a child, I was abused in a small church. As a young adult I joined another “small” church and that ended up being a toxic faith. Size means nothing to me anymore. I go to church to praise the Lord. I think it’s great to see all the people there, but what’s in their hearts is between them and the Lord.

  5. Digger Jones Says:

    2amsomehwere, I can sort of relate as most folks who grow up in traditional Midwest mainline churches will find the loud and more emotional climate of a CGM church challenging. The mainling churches have long and proud histories. It’s unfortunate that most seem too ready to abandon their roots.

    Thank you for clarifying, FTN. FYI, the Franklin organizer is a tell for Amway not CGM. You wouldn’t happen to be looking to “go diamond” would you? You’re obviously doing well where you are and if yopu’re happy where you are and are well fed, there’s little that’s going to pull you out. But your thinking might be challenged.

    XH, Jesus said *I* am the Truth! When He testifies about the truth He is testifying about Himself. It’s so obvious, only a theologian would miss it. I do have a post in the works about worship, and what that means so that is something to think about. You make a good case about the message mostly being driven by a purpose designed to put butts in seats and bring in more cash. You and I can agree that this is NOT consistent with what Christ taught because we are not unchurched “seekers” who have little Bible background.

    Thanks for stopping in, Deb! It’s good that you have found a hunger for the Word. The Bible is God’s gift to us and that is where you will find your answers. I do have issues with the Wal-Mart-ization of Christianity, but am grateful that people are beginning to dig into their faith. There are a lot of people who have suffered hurt at the hands of institutional Christianity.

    The question is this: Did Jesus come down from Heaven, suffer on a cross and get raised from the dead in order to establish an institution? Was the church meant to be this big political, corporate cash cow that it is today?


  6. Xian Husband Says:

    It’s not horribly fair to assume that I *missed* that. I mentioned that Christ talked about Truth a lot. And He did. In a lot of contexts. So to say that when He was summing up His life by saying “for this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the Truth” all He was talking about was Himself is a bit limiting. When in the context of His entire ministry. Yes, it all comes back to Him and is tied to Him, but He talked about a lot more than just His messiahship and His coming death. He also talked about morality and the Spirit and church and worship. He talked about a lot. And He used the word “Truth” with it.

  7. satisfiedhousewife Says:

    Ugh…..just reading this made me sick. I am so sick of modern churchianity. I’m convinced it’s not true Christianity. It’s an imitation knock off. I guess I’m just ranting now though, sorry….

    My church is a lot like this. I can’t stand it. It’s all centered around humanism: self-aborbed, what’s in-it-for-me, imitate the world’s ways, and be man-pleasers instead of God pleasers, keeping with worldly fashions and trends, and making the “unchurched” comfortable.

    Just the formula to grieve the Holy Spirit away….

    Just MO though, not that it matters. Really, it only matters what God thinks.

    I wonder just what He thinks of all this anyway…. I think if we are to examine it in the light of the early church patterns, as well as our deepest motives (sometimes that can only be revealed by prayer and deep internal examination through the eyes of God) we might see the truth of the matter.

    Does it center around God, or around man? Hmmmmm….

  8. Relationship « Reality & Redemption Says:

    […] is within a community where there are several church groups fighting over the same consumers.  The CGM churches employed superior research and marketing and are now getting more people than the older […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: