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Bishop: The Big Sort

Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart isn’t a great book. I’d hesitate to call it a good book. But the chapter he devotes to Donald McGavran, Rick Warren, and explorations of the Homogeneous Unit Principle in the Church Growth movement is well worth the time it would take to track down this book at your local public library and read the 21-page chapter titled Religion: The Missionary and the Megachurch.

Bishop’s book is narrower and easier to read than Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but it more or less documents the same basic cultural shift: about 1965 something happened in the United States and evidence began to surface that people had lost faith in traditional institutions: political parties, mainline churches, fraternal organizations, trade unions, and yes, bowling leagues. Now forty years later the mass of free agents created in the two generations after this shift have/are reorganizing themselves in new ways that bode ill/well for the distant future depending on your point of view. The reference points that this narrative interpolates are all from the social sciences: experiments in psychology labs, surveys, and data mining from pools of existing or byproduct data.

For someone like me with a background in mathematics and harder sciences this stuff makes me a bit queasy when it calls itself “science.” It just isn’t. As Ian Shoales once said: “If taking surveys is so scientific, where’s the control group?” But I digress.

Donald McGavran is of course the father of the modern Church Growth movement. He was a more or less failed missionary in India when he heard from Bishop J. Waskom Pickett the story of Ditt, a man from the Chuhra caste in Punjab, who became a Christian, and through whose efforts in his family, village, and caste converted most of his caste between the 1870s and about 1915. The realization that this sort of social-network-borne evangelism worked transformed missionary practices, in Bishop’s story, from being centered in missionary schools and hospitals that were primarily outposts of a kind of religious colonialism to being centered in “peoples.”

McGavran brought this idea home to Fuller Theological Seminary, codified it in the language of the social sciences, and it gelled as the Church Growth movement. Bishop also tells the story of how this idea came to Warren, and how it serves as a prime example (for Bishop) of how it created the modern megachurch, both as something with a strong internal identity and (more importantly to Bishop) as an identity separate from the outside world.

Bishop (spoiler alert!) is a political liberal, and tells the story of the transformation of missionary work from services (schools and hospitals) to evangelism in the language of modern theological liberals, by casting it as Public Protestantism (social services, good works) vs. Private Protestantism (evangelism, good theology). As such he has kind of a tin ear for the conservative elements of the narrative; so when he refers to theological conservatives thinking evangelism is “the better way to make the world a better place” it’s clear that he’s stuck in his own frame of reference and as such doesn’t understand anything that doesn’t make sense in that context.

I mean after all everybody knows that theological conservatives aren’t primarily concerned with making the world a better place.

It’s helpful to have this background on paper when hearing contemporary discussions of “purpose-driven churches” and the Church Growth movement generally; its critics are so rooted in their own point of view it’s sometimes hard to tell what they’re so upset about. E.g. when Paul Washer engages in this sort of vague hyperbole

What does Jerusalem have to do with Rome? And what do we have to do with all these modern day social sciences that were actually created as a protest against the Word of God? And why is it that evangelism and missions and so called church growth is more shaped by the anthropologist, the sociologist and the Wall Street student who is up on every cultural trend? [link]

It’s helpful to have some idea what he’s talking about.


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