Christian evangelism, both in America and in the Third World, appears to be rounding a curve and entering a third stream. During the fifties and sixties, two streams of evangelism gained international prominence. The first was crusade evangelism, typified by Billy Graham. The second stream was saturation evangelism, which originated with the late Kenneth Strachan of Costa Rica and became a part of the American scene with Key 73.
The third stream of evangelism is called “church growth” and is related to Donald McGavran and his associates. Although Donald McGavran is a household name, so to speak, on the world’s mission fields, his teaching is not widely recognized in the United States as yet. Not until the fall of 1972 did he attempt to apply his growth principles systematically to churches in America. But events since then, most recently the publication of McGavran’s latest book, How to Grow a Church (with Win Am; Regal Books, 1973), have catapulted the church-growth movement into prominence in the United States. Since church growth has clearly become one of the major trends of the times in the church, I would like to try to describe the movement.
McGavran decided to put the two common words “church” and “growth” together and make them a technical term when he became disgusted at the way in which certain theological and missiological liberals had redefined such terms as “missions” and “evangelism” in unbiblical ways. Back around 1955, while a missionary in India, McGavran began to use the phrase “church growth,” filling it with his own meaning. He could not have had an inkling at that time that the term would gain the currency it now has. Among missiologists, one no longer has to stop to define church growth any more than he would have to define General Motors or free enterprise in the business world.
Particularly in America, however, many still have a hazy idea of the meaning of church growth. Some, for example, identify it as the particular view of one man. Donald McGavran is indeed the father of the church-growth movement, but it has become much more than McGavran. He has six close professional colleagues, more than 400 have graduated from his school, and thousands of others have identified with him through books, articles, and seminars. All these consider themselves very much a part of the church-growth movement.
Others identify church growth with one school. The Fuller Seminary School of World Mission and Institute of Church Growth is the institutional center for church-growth research, but church growth has far outgrown Fuller Seminary. Dozens of other seminaries and Bible schools in many countries of the world now list courses in church growth in their catalogs. More will do so in the future.
For some, church growth brings to mind a periodical. These people are among the 8,000 subscribers to the Church Growth Bulletin, which used to be virtually the only source for church-growth articles. Now almost all leading Christian periodicals are carrying church-growth material with increasing frequency.
The key book on church growth is McGavran’s magnum opus, Understanding Church Growth. But the literature has now gone far beyond that. In my own library I have a shelf five feet long labeled “Hard Core Church Growth.” Both Eerdmans and Moody have developed entire lines of church-growth publications, and the William Carey Library was established basically to publish church-growth materials.
Church growth, then, has become much more than a man or a school or a periodical or a book. It has become an entire school of thought that is profoundly influencing missiology and the theology of evangelism. Before looking at its distinctives, however, we would do well to glance at some central areas where church growth holds much in common with other lines of missiology and evangelism:
1. Theologically, church growth is in the conservative evangelical tradition. The typical church-growth advocate is thoroughly committed to the doctrines of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the centrality of the Church, the depravity of man, heaven and hell, and the totality of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). A biblical theological position is the bedrock of church growth.
2. As to the Christian life, church-growth people believe that orthodox doctrine must prove itself in daily living. Evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, the pious life, personal Bible reading and prayer, love for one’s neighbor, the cultural mandate, social service, and all other good and proper Christian qualities are both commended and practiced by church-growth people.
3. The church-growth school holds that men and women without Jesus Christ are eternally lost, and that soul-winning, disciple-making evangelism, and missions are a primary and continuing task of the entire Church.
4. The supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is a crucial part of the theory and practice of all church-growth people. All fully recognize that nothing is accomplished for the Kingdom of God without “power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
These four points have been characteristic of men and women of God throughout the ages. Other contemporary missiological schools of thought would claim them as well.
But the church-growth movement also has some distinctives. Again, these six distinctives are not the exclusive property of church growth. But years of experience have shown that these are the places where the rubber meets the road. They are the issues that have to be debated, even with others who hold the four points above in common with church growth. Evangelicals who disagree with the church-growth school of thought almost invariably do so on one or more of these six distinctives:
1. The proper combination of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the responsibility of man requires church growth. As our Lord, God has made his will clearly known in the Scriptures, and as his servants we do poorly if we do not pay attention. Our Lord, for example, is clearly not pleased with:
• Fishing without catching (Luke 5:4–11).
• An empty banquet table (Luke 14:15–23).
• Sowing without reaping (Matt. 13:3–9).
• A fig tree that bears no figs (Luke 13:6–9).
• Lost sheep that are not brought into the fold (Matt. 18:11–14).
• A lost coin that is sought but not found (Luke 15:8–10).
• Ripe harvests that are not reaped (Matt. 9:36–38).
• Proclamation without response (Matt. 10:14). Or, by extension of these principles, God is not pleased with evangelistic or missionary work that does not result in church growth. In bolder terms, and contrary to some popular missionary literature, God is interested in results, since he is not willing that one man, woman, or child should perish (2 Pet. 3:9).
2. What is the mission of the Church in the world? Church growth says that among the many good things God expects his Church to do in the world, a primary and irreplaceable task is to preach the Gospel to every creature, persuade men and women to become faithful disciples of Christ, and incorporate them as responsible members of his Church. When true disciples are made, there is church growth. But notice some refinements:
• The focus on the human responsibility in making disciples should not be overly individualized. The task is the task of the Church as a body, and individuals best function as members of the body. Goals are measured according to what is accomplished by the body as a whole.
• Numerical church membership growth is not the only task of the Church. But biblically it does have a very high priority, and God is glorified when new members are added to the Church.
• Ultimately, evangelistic effectiveness must be measured in terms of disciples, not merely decisions. Evangelistic reporting should, but rarely does, reflect this principle.
3. Clear objectives are necessary if the Church is to fulfill its mission in the world, and thus obey its Lord. God’s will as to missiological and evangelistic goals can and must be discerned from Scripture, articulated in plain terms, and subsequently used to measure achievements. In view of this, there is no need for Christians to work under a shadow of doubt as to whether they can really know what God’s objective is. Recourse to the “mysterious working of God’s Spirit” is often a thinly disguised rationalization of evangelistic failure, couched in pious terms.
No command of Jesus is clearer in this regard than the Great Commission. Careful exegesis of Matthew 28:19, 20 reveals that God’s imperative is to make disciples. Disciples are tangible, identifiable, countable people, and whenever a true disciple is made, church growth occurs. Objectives that deviate from or fall short of the ultimate objective of making disciples are, to the degree they do so, inferior, and in need of correction.
4. Sound, effective strategy must be developed as a means of accomplishing the biblical objectives mentioned above. Improved strategy will, other things being equal, result in more fruitful evangelistic work, and thus be more pleasing to God. Far from reflecting lack of spirituality, well-honed strategy is a mark of maturity and competence in God’s work. Efficiency needs to be stressed, since resources are limited and God is unhappy when invested resources do not bring intended results. The Parable of the Talents warns us that servants who fail to use their Lord’s resources productively are considered “wicked and slothful” (Matt. 25:26). Does this not apply to evangelists?
5. The social and behavioral sciences can contribute much to missionary strategy. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other related disciplines have made us aware, for example, of such valuable principles as:
• People movements. We now know that in many—if not most—circumstances, multi-individual interdependent conversions are the most productive vehicle for making disciples.
• The power encounter. Anthropologists have shown that a vital step in the conversion process of many peoples, particularly animists and followers of the occult, is a test of power between God and the evil spirits, known as the power encounter.
• Dynamics of innovation. Missionaries can be trained to avoid blunders as they try to introduce new ideas and practices into the culture in which they are working.
• Indigeneity. We now know that true indigeneity goes much deeper than self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches. Proper indigeneity can make the difference between a church that is effective in discipling an entire people and one that is sealed off and relatively impotent.
• Ethnotheology. A new discipline that combines the insights of anthropology with sound biblical theology is being developed with the goal of better communicating to peoples at home and abroad God’s plan of salvation.
6. Research is essential for optimum church growth. Sound evangelistic strategy must be based on facts, not on vague hopes or wishes or promises. Church growth is skeptical of promotional material and success stories if the facts of the case are not clearly presented. Research into the dynamics of the growth of churches in all countries of the world attempts to penetrate foggy thinking and make known the true state of affairs. For example, church-growth research has led to:
• A recognition of the resistance-receptivity axis. We now know that some peoples are more receptive to the Gospel at a particular time than other peoples. This is a key church-growth principle. Resistant peoples must be neither neglected nor abandoned, but sound evangelistic strategy will concentrate available resources on receptive peoples.
• A ruthlessly objective attitude toward evangelistic methods. Methods simply cannot be “canned” in Lower Zax, for example, and exported to Mamba Bamba Church growth diligently seeks to locate, describe, and analyze, for each time and place, the methods that God has blessed and those he has not blessed.
• A discovery of the crucial importance of structures throughout missionary history. The concept of the relation between modalities (the parish church) and sodalities (voluntary societies of Christians) is proving to be an invaluable aid to missionary strategy, particularly now that missionary societies are proliferating in the Third World.
Church growth believes that unfruitfulness is a curable disease. The remedies are diagnostic research, prescriptive treatment, and strategic care.
Three moods characterize all church-growth advocates, I have found, and these can therefore be said to be moods of the movement in general:
Obedience. Full obedience to the Word of God and the will of God is essential. No apologies at all are made for whatever unswerving obedience might involve.
Pragmatism. Church-growth people do not hesitate to use whatever means God provides to do the best possible job in reaching the goals. They are not very much interested in what should bring unbelievers to Christ, but they are acutely interested in what does, in fact, bring unbelievers to Christ.
Optimism. Christ said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” There is no warrant to be gloomy in Christian work. We are ultimately on the winning side. If God be for us, who can be against us?
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