SGM: “New Testament” Church, Or Modern-Day Corporation?

June 1, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

From time to time, folks have come around here and made statements about how being part of a Sovereign Grace Ministries congregation is the closest thing you can get to experiencing the “New Testament church.”  I’m not sure if that’s because they believe that C.J. Mahaney is a true apostle (many SGM members do think so), or if they “have all things in common,” or what, exactly, but SGM seems to have done a good job of convincing folks that their “family of churches” is run in a way that most closely aligns with the churches of the Bible.

But really, it seems to me that SGM is run much more like a big corporation than the church at Corinth…more like McDonald’s than Macedonia.

SGM has a franchise approach to building churches.

And I believe this approach is deliberate, or, as they’d say in SGMville, intentional.

I mean, think about how a church plant works. SGM does not just send out a pastor or two to a new location, where they start from the ground up, gathering people from the new community to form the congregation.

No, it’s my understanding that they find several willing families who are already completely sold out to the SGM way of doing things.  These families have been conditioned to view church planting as missionary work.  Nevermind that SGM church plants typically take place in already-church-saturated whitebread suburbs – SGM teaches that planting more SGM churches is how they “spread the Gospel.”

So from the “sending” church, leaders find families who are so totally sold out to SGM that they have bought into the idea of promoting SGM as “missions work.”  These families then endure a pretty stringent “vetting” process to determine if they are up to the task.  The group of church planting families bond together in planning meetings, through the shared hardships of selling homes, quitting or switching jobs, and leaving all their other friends and family in the area.

By the time the new church opens its doors for its first meeting, the group of “sent” families is already a tight little community, with a shared history, the knowledge that they were considered “good enough” for the high privilege of being sent in the first place, and the shared experiences of the relocation process.  Moreover, as strangers in a strange land, so to speak, they’ve become even more dependent on their SGM circle of friends for community.

Their loyalty to the SGM brand is as high as it could get.  They see the new church as “spreading the Gospel.”  They simply cannot risk alienating anyone IN the new church, since those folks are basically all they have.  So even if there would be problems, they can’t acknowledge them in the slightest.  Then their loyalty is affirmed through the natural satisfaction that comes from working hard on something with a group, and watching that thing succeed and grow.

And then…what does an outsider, a visitor, see, when he arrives at the new church plant?

He doesn’t see what is typical of a non-SGM new church.  If someone attends a “normal” non-SGM new church, he will see a bunch of other strangers, possibly some folks that he already knows from the community, many of whom are still basically strangers to one another.

But if he goes to a new SGM church, he’ll walk into the midst of an extremely tight, VERY bonded community, a community from another geographical location, typically with no real connections to the city (suburb) where they are now.

If this hypothetical visitor likes what he sees at the new SGM church, what is he going to do?

Well, because of the nature of human psychology, he will work at fitting in to the status quo.  He will look to the church’s established members and model himself, his behavior and his attitudes, after them. He will take on the group’s values.  Frequently within SGM, visitors are already somewhat sold out to the SGM way, having researched the “family of churches” ahead of time or having been ministered to by CJ’s or Josh’s writings, or an SGM conference or SGM music. So they’ll be even more primed to want to fit in and assimilate.

In an SGM church plant, there is almost NO WAY for the new SGM church to reflect anything but SGM culture.  The group of founding families has brought with them all the cultural mores from their previous location, and the visitors who get added to the group are simply prone to mimic and copy what’s aleady going on in the group that they want to join.  If you trace back all the church plants around the country, they all have roots in CLC. Members from CLC got sent to other church plants, which in turn sent their own people out to other locations…and so on, and so on. 

So with the way that SGM plants churches, they are assured of strong brand identity.   The families who are “sent” will have extremely high brand loyalty, particularly for practical reasons – because of the bonding experiences of having gone through the same relocation pains as the others in the group, and because they NEED the group, since otherwise they’d be total strangers in a brand-new place.  These families will then influence any NEW families far more strongly than the visitors would influence the “sent” group.  In other words, the people in the new community become assimilated and absorb SGM’s culture, rather than the other way around.

This is why SGM is so homogenous.  This is why SGM is so much more of a denomination than actual denominations.  Actually, this is why SGM is more like a franchise than a “family of churches.”

Brand development…brand loyalty…all in the name of the supposed “gospel.”  The “gospel” of SGM.

Interestingly enough, commenter “Unassimilated” posted this today:

What surprised me though, was one of the first steps in qualifying a city for a potential church plant.  Let me say that I am not speaking of the adoption of an existing church, some of the vanity plantings that have taken place, or those that attempted a pre-formation to SGM.

Before the prayer/consideration, and Apocalyptic, sorry, apostolic review, there is some information that is gathered by SGM.  For those that know Tommy H-ll, he is a great guy, and is a man that is simply doing his job as required and directed by his supervisors.


In an attempt to do the most with the resources God has allotted SGM does all that they can to make sure a church plant is successful.  Nothing wrong with that.

Here is where it seems to get, as Kris might say, a bit odd.

If you are SGM, you know your market. The example given to me was that of Jackson Mississippi.

Incomes are too low, education levels vary, and the established churches are a “better fit” for the people of that city.  A median household income $30414.  (Not my words here, a great state if you ask me)

You need more than tithes to keep an SGM church afloat. Lets face it, SGM is not the place for those who are light in the wallet.  I know my spending between books, conferences, donations, and special gifts for one year exceeded $10k.

This did not include tithe, and yes, I just dumped my reward in heaven for those “Gifts” to make a point.

There are patterns to the SGM plants.

The SGM system is more that the local church, it is a product line.  No sense opening an outlet that does not further sales.

Let’s now look at the most recent SGM offerings –

Peoria, Arizona
Median household income $62,458

San Francisco, California
Median household income $65,519

Spokane, Washington
Median family income $66,505

This is just one facet of a demographic.  The US Census has great online resources.

You can try this one as well for religious makeup.

I am aware of the product that the SGM demographic fits into.  I would invite anyone to do his or her own research and see what patterns emerge.

And finally, there’s this, something fascinating that few SGM people probably know (one of my correspondents sent me this info awhile back):

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but, the book, From Good to Great is the one that helped launch the massive reorg at CLC and SGM under Josh and CJ.  It is clear that C.J. used this book’s methodology to reorganize his ‘corporation’ and set SGM’s path for the foreseeable future.  He even utilized the ‘level 5′ leadership team approach:  CJ, Dave Harvey, Josh, Jeff Purswell and Pat Ennis!  It may help to understand some of their workings if you read this outline or the book itself.

One thing that was very interesting is how closely they have guarded their use of this book.  It is definitely not common knowledge that it affected them so much.

A few years ago, Josh included an exclusive “Pastors Only” seminar, at the small group leaders conference, entitled something like, “Taking your Church from Good to Greater”.  It was interesting to see how they used this book to describe the upcoming changes in SGM to their leaders.

I believe they wanted the general population at CLC to never know how much advice they were following from a corporate guru.  While other seminar hand-outs remained available for everyone to read, the hand-out from the “Good to Great” seminar was hastily collected and not made available.  They even deleted that particular seminar (taught by John Loftness) from the choices online where you could order copies of teachings from the leadership conference.  It could be that John brought the book to the awareness of both CJ and Josh.  After all, he was ‘the pastor who loved to encourage men in their careers’

Anyway, just reading an outline of the book gives clues as to the thinking of the pastors.  It’s unfortunate that they’re not more upfront in their treatment of CLC and SGM as a business.

So what do YOU think?  Is depending so much on corporate ways and means an acceptable way to build God’s church?  Is it “Biblical”?  Do we see such strategies in the New Testament?

Is SGM really a “New Testament church,” or is it more like a corporation?

© 2009, Kris. All rights reserved.