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Written by David Snapper, December 9, 1996 Since Al Mulder wrote Reflections in response to my CTJ article, The Unfulfilled Expectations of Church Growth. Let this reply to Al be an echo.


Since Al Mulder was gracious in recording that I made a sacrificial commitment to this research, let the record show that Al Mulder, Dirk Hart, and others, were fully cooperative in providing all the statistics that I requested from their data base. Let it be known, as well, that Al Mulder's Reflections is a gracious critique of my research, and that I am gratified that the work merits such attention. In truth, I had expected, one year ago, that only a handful of people would ever read my dissertation. To this date I have received requests for more than 70 copies of the entire dissertation. Further, the Expectations has been summarized and distributed in at least two additional forums.

The good-heartedness and patience of Al Mulder notwithstanding, a response to his Reflections is in order. Essentially I am grateful for his willingness to read my dissertation and Expectations and to write his own Reflections. While this reply to Reflections contains points of disagreement between Al Mulder's assessment and my own, let the reader know that I have the deepest respect for his unwavering commitment to serving the Lord's kingdom.

It is my hope that Reflections and this response will not distract the reader from the original dissertation and the CTJ summary. The points under discussion here are rather peripheral, not the main thrust of those documents.

My response follows the sequence of Al Mulder's comments:

Negative Premise[]

Al Mulder begins: "Unfortunately starting with a negative premise is less than helpful ("The research underlying this report rests on the premise that Church Growth principles, as proclaimed by specialists, have been either incorrect or wrongly applied to CRC NCDs," p.6), and the manner in which he refers to church growth proponents is less than gracious (for example, "Carl F. George . . . sounding like a circus barker, proclaimed a patented elixir for church growth...," p.3)."

[Citation convention: All quotes that I make from Al Mulder's Reflections have no page numbers because my copy has no page numbers. When Al uses page numbers in Reflections, he refers to my Expectations as re-numbered in his own reprint.]

[Terminology convention: NCD refers to any new ministry intended to result in an independent church. Al seems to be thinking primarily of CRHM's NCDs. Approximately 51 of the 136 Subject Congregations were CRHM NCDs.]

I respond: Al finds that there is a "negative premise" underlying my research. This is an appropriate comment, for Al is partly correct. As I will show, the negative premise is not my own, but derives from his own articles and from CRHM's policy.

First, the "negative premise" originated in C. Peter Wagner's claim that "something has gone wrong" when a congregation does not reach 200 members within two years of organization. That quote is incorporated in CRHM's Guidelines for New Church Development (GNCD). GNCD's own testimony is that something has gone wrong - the primary negative assessment. Since most (about 85%) CRHM NCDs do not attain 200 members within two (or ten) years, one must conclude, based on CRHM's GNCD, that something has gone wrong with most NCDs. Second, considering the "Dead Baby" quip and several other passages from GNCD, one must conclude that CRHM expects its congregations to reach 200 members to be considered successful - though, in fact, 85% are not successful.

The negative premise, therefore, is drawn from quotes within CRHM's GNCD.

And if I think that Carl George sounds like a circus barker it is because the facts demonstrate that church growth in the CRC NCD does not correspond with the high-sounding promises of Carl George and others.

Wrong Characterizations of CRHM[]

Al Mulder feels that I overstate the case and misrepresented CRHM in several areas, including the following five:

1. That numbers are the sine qua non of church growth success[]

I am pleased that Al Mulder indicates that this is not the case. It was not my intention to wrongly characterize CRHM in this connection. But isn't it true that a church growing rapidly is considered to be successful? Of course, it is. That's why I took Al Mulder's phrase that membership growth is "the simplest measure of church effectiveness" (GNCD, p. B43) as a parallel to my term sine qua non.

I thought that I had faithfully restated CRHM's position in GNCD at that point. I'd like to know what Al Mulder uses, instead of numbers, to calibrate success.

2. Al Mulder is uncomfortable that I used the terms failure and success to characterize crossing the 200-Barrier.[]

The term failure is stark and pointed, but I see no other suitable term. The quantifiable mark of success is 200 members in morning worship. One of two realities is applicable: a congregation either does, or does not, attain 200 members. Funding decisions are made on the basis of numbers and growth. The defunding of a ministry cannot help but be known as a failure. In fact, Al Mulder writes that 20% of a recent group of CRHM NCDs were terminated early. That is failure; anything less explicit is circumlocution.

3. 200-Barrier exaggerations[]

Al Mulder objects to my: "exaggeration of the '200 barrier' issue to something far beyond what Home Missions said or intended (p.2)"

I respectfully disagree at two levels. First, the factual level is this: Among the exact quotations substantiating my statement is this, drawn from GNCD, page E30: "An important goal in the overall CRHM vision for new-church development (NCD) is that many new churches will break the 200-Barrier as a result of effectively seeking the lost and discipling the found." (See page 5 of the dissertation.)

Crossing the 200-Barrier truly is "an important goal" as reported in GNCD. It is for this reason that many CRHM pastors were sent to the "How to Break the 200-Barrier" conferences held by the Fuller Institute for Church Growth. Why Al Mulder withdraws from this well-known and recognized hurdle for NCDs is not clear to me.

On a different level we all can agree that "200" might be 190 or 210, or maybe 175. We're not being fussy about the exact number. But that is irrelevant anyway. The fact is that congregations which do not reach 200 are normally found closer to 130 members - that huge gap between expectation and reality is the great concern which should be addressed.

4. Dead Babies[]

Al Mulder objects to: "David Snapper's exegesis of a Peter Wagner quip about having babies versus raising the dead".

The full quip is this: "It's easier to have a baby than to raise the dead." No matter how one exegetes such a remark, it has no place in evaluating Christian ministries. On the other hand, once one gets past the grotesqueness, the point is sadly accurate: congregations which do not grow rapidly from the start or which are not successful in evangelism (a live baby), rarely come to life. In that limited sense the metaphor is acceptable.

What is particularly offensive about the image is the ease in which it can be said: "It's easier to have a baby...." The truth is it probably is easier to terminate a floundering ministry than to make a new start. But the new "babies" have, in the past at least, been statistically as prone to stagnation and ultimate termination - failure - as those which would be abandoned.

5. Budget Proportions[]

Al Mulder adds a note: "NCD ministry, while expensive, represents about 60% of the total CRHM budget."

Agreed. And I assume that Al Mulder means that the large budget of CRHM does more than plant new congregations. Agreed and understood.


Al Mulder moves from his sense of wrong characterizations of CRHM to a point about counting members of an NCD.

Al Mulder states: "The very things that church growth proponents appear to espouse, and that David Snapper is constrained to criticize, and that Home Missions attempts to reframe rightly, are the very things we all look at just the same! How many members do you/we have?"

In fact, I agree completely that membership counting is essential, and is the valid measure of membership growth and one indicator of effectiveness. Nowhere in the dissertation or the summary did I (nor do I) minimize the importance of counting. In fact, I spent hundreds of hours with a database and spreadsheet doing nothing but counting and measuring. It was McGavran who called for the scientific study of the church; I stated explicitly that I hope to develop a quantitative (counting) technique for answering McGavran. So, I am surprised by the disapproval. I love to count and graph and chart.

Conclusions that do not follow from the research[]

Al Mulder alleges that some conclusions are unsupported by the research: "It also appears that on various key points David Snapper's research does not support his conclusions. This may be explained in part by the fact that his project is more a study of new-church size than of new-church development."

When Al Mulder writes of development in distinction from size, I suppose he is saying that the research work dealt with tangible data, such as numbers of people, rather than with the intangibles spiritual growth or influence on a community. One must concede that analytical research on that kind of development would necessarily be subjective and even speculative.

I do not yield to the two points which he alleges are not drawn directly from factual statistical support. This is a substantive concern, a matter of reporting credibility, and one which I cannot ignore. Therefore (and I regret having to phrase it this way), it is the other way around: Al's criticism here is leveled at straw men - targets without substance.

Al continues with his first allegation of an unsubstantiated claim: 1. "...most new and emerging churches with whom CRHM now is in funding partnership were started after 1985. What may be true of the subject congregations is not necessarily true of new churches started today."

Al declares that my claims do not follow from my research. While what Al Mulder reports here is probably factually accurate, it was not a subject of nor is it relevant to my research. As the reader reviews either the dissertation or the Expectations, it will not be possible to find a sentence in which I make any claims about the present funding status of congregations. Why Al Mulder interjects this into the dissertation and summary is not evident.

Al Mulder Continues: 2. "David Snapper observed that 'clearly, for most (subject) congregations, higher evangelism rates are not associated with successful (numerical) growth' (p.11). However, the comparison is based on statistics for the period of 1987 to 1993, at which time the subject congregations on average were 10 or more years old. I also would point out that although the size of a congregation is not a reliable indicator either of growth through evangelism or of overall ministry effectiveness, the age of the congregation frequently is."

Again, Al Mulder reconstructs the topic to allege that my report does not follow from my research. Here, Al claims that because a congregation evangelizes more people in its earlier years than in its later years, my reporting does not follow from my data. The fact is quite different: I made no study of and made no report of the matter. Al is refuting a point that was never considered in the database, did not appear in the dissertation, and which certainly was not included in the summary.

To further clarify that topic of numbers evangelized, this is a summary of what I actually researched. In the area of evangelism effectiveness, I counted the number of converts reported by each Subject Congregation between 1987 and 1993. I then pointed out that, based on published statistics (which may be found in the Yearbooks), the 1995 membership size of a congregation is not predictable from the number of people evangelized during that time period. That is what I did and that is all that I reported in this connection.

Again, why Al fabricates this case is not clear. I have offered the services of my computer and my programmer-research partner to explore data on this topic in the future.

This is the end of my responses to Al Mulder's Reflections.[]

The reader is encouraged not to become overly involved in Al Mulder's Reflections and my reply in this Echo. It will be far more profitable to read the original reports and to focus on the actual content of the research than these skirmishes about details of the report. Further, though my reply to Al Mulder may at times seem brusque, the reader should be aware that this is a formal style, nothing personal. No disrespect is intended. Anyone who knows Al Mulder can only hold him in highest esteem.

Broader Concerns[]

I wish that, rather than this exchange of Reflections and Echo, the reception of the original dissertation and its summary printed in the CTJ had been more positive by CRHM. I regret this process in which my summary was photocopied and distributed and critiqued without my prior knowledge. I can only assume, since I have not heard directly from CRHM, that this process represents some level of disapproval.

Let this, then, be my public statement with respect to CRHM:

First: During the research for the dissertation, as the statistical patterns began to emerge, I realized that this material could be useful for future church planting. I sent CRHM draft copies of the dissertation as it took shape, requesting their comments, criticism, suggestions for improving the product. No such responses came. Later, before the summary, Expectations, was published, a copy went to CRHM, asking for some input. None was forthcoming. I had hoped that it would be given a positive reception and the relevant principles applied to future NCD plantings. I had no desire to make public criticism of Christian Reformed Home Missions, and have studiously tried to exclude any such comments. If criticism is perceived, perhaps it is drawn by inference from the factual data.

Second: I did want to understand why I and Anchor of Hope Church failed to cross the 200-Barrier. Was our experience typical or unusual? Was it my fault? Why was Paul so unsuccessful in Athens while Peter was so successful in Jerusalem? Is NCD in Grand Rapids, MI, truly different from that in Silverdale, WA? Based on answers I found to those personal questions, I wanted to share some positive news with other NCD pastors who had been led to believe that it is: "200 in 2 years or too bad for you!" Many of us needed some encouragement.

Third: The data disclosed that approximately 85% of all CRHM NCD pastors had failed to reach 200 members within five, ten, or twenty, or even thirty years. Their difficulties are enormous, the pressures to perform, overwhelming. But the committed and talented young men and women of NCD households who are on the field now continue to make personal sacrifices for the sake of bringing the Gospel. So, rather than to dwell on the past, let us determine to support and encourage these isolated congregations and too- vulnerable pastors.

??? When's the last time your congregation really invested in another ministry?

Rather than interpret this discussion as disapproval of CRHM, let us recognize that CRHM is the agency which is called upon to send missionaries to locations where few established congregations could establish a ministry - the riskiest, high-stakes communities of the USA and Canada. Let us recognize that casualties will happen - on a regular basis; new congregations in difficult environments will fail - on a regular basis. The fact of failure is NOT caused by CRHM but by the environment.

Fourth: Let it be said that I, personally, am grateful to CRHM for supporting Anchor of Hope CRC during its turbulent first ten years, and that I look forward to reaching our goal of constructing a building on property that CRHM has been holding for us for nearly ten years. With all my energy and conviction, I remain committed to doing all that I know to do to reach my community with the Gospel, and to seeing 200 and more in AHCRC.

The amazing irony is this: Anchor of Hope Church, though it numbers only 100 persons this Sunday, has ministered to at least 400 members and regular visitors in its twelve years. We evangelize and grow at the approximate rate of 25% per year just to maintain 100 members. God has blessed us enormously. Our effectiveness has been better than great. The same is true for many congregations.

Fifth: Most of all, let us thank God for this ministry, for in our very evident weakness we see that God alone is able to raise the dead baby. Paul (2 Corinthians 1) declared that he was so pressured on every side that he felt the sentence of death and despaired of his life. This was to teach him two lessons: (1) to trust God Who raises the dead (2) in conjunction with the prayers of his supporting friends.

Those two themes undergird our concept of outreach ministry: God builds His church and His people must pray. Like Jonah and like Paul, many missionaries have despaired of their survivability. But we can support them in prayer. Won't you communicate your prayerful support to the administrative staff at Christian Reformed Home Missions and to their all-too-fragile congregations? 

David Snapper, pastor
Anchor of Hope CRC