Pastors in many countries show remarkable interest in church growth. Last year I participated in 12 church-growth workshops in eight countries: Senegal, Guinea, Japan, Upper Volta, Gabon, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. While these workshops were very similar in nature, each one was very individual in character and results. Here are a few of the highlights:

At the request of the National Evangelical Church, the Communist government of Guinea—generally considered closed to Western missionaries—issued special visas for us to conduct this training program for pastors. Of the 93 pastors in the country, 40 were selected to participate. As they compared their growth with the model of the first church in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts, one of their concerns became the proportionately high number of professing Christians who are never baptized and never become a responsible, reproducing part of the visible body of Christ.

“I am appalled,” said one pastor, “that of the nearly 18,000 Christians in Guinea, 77 percent have never been baptized. This certainly is not what we see in the New Testament.”

“Our goals,” said another pastor, “have somehow gotten out of focus. This workshop has helped us to see them in their true biblical perspective.”

At the request of the National Committee for the Billy Graham Crusades, we were asked to meet with pastors for a two-day workshop in four cities in Japan, to prepare their churches for an effective strategy of evangelism that would result in “fruit that remains” in their churches long after the crusades ended.

Paul Ariga, drawing from his Buddhist background, led these pastors to focus their attention on entire households. His biblical expositions on “household evangelism” in the New Testament, and his personal understanding of the make-up and fabric of Japanese society, were extremely helpful. One pastor in Hiroshima told how a blind man and his extended family were all saved together—23 people interrelated in the family web—who quite possibly would never have been won in any other way.

Said one pastor at the end of that session, “It seems to me that in our great crusades of the past we have limited our focus by concentrating only on individuals—taking them out of their family settings and removing them from their household relationships.”

Two problems surfaced in the sessions in Upper Volta. One was the widening gap between the so-called Christian community (those who make professions of faith) and the number of baptized believers. “It’s comparatively easy to get people to declare themselves as ‘Christians’ here in Africa,” said one pastor, “but very difficult to get them to commit themselves to the church through baptism.”

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The second problem was that of “district” membership rather than membership in a particular local church. “It’s easy to evade responsibility this way,” commented a pastor. “On Sundays they go to the market in the city rather than remain with the local believers. And there is no way of following them up. They excuse themselves by saying they belong to the ‘district.’ Lack of membership rolls on a local church level is a critical problem.”

One missionary commented after that workshop, “This week you helped us to sort out our priorities and gave us some pegs on which to hang our programs.”

The supposed bottom line to hindrances to growth of the church surfaced during the week in Gabon. It revealed a two-fold lack: money and manpower. Churches generally are not able to pay their pastors even the minimum wage, making it necessary for them to supplement their income. At retirement age (55) they receive more from the government than they earned previously from the church. Government grants also provide generous subsidies for students to study in the university. One pastor’s son, who was seriously considering the ministry, decided against it in lieu of his government stipend of about $800 per month to study abroad. “We’re losing all our young men with potential to secular employment,” complained one pastor.

A second observation revealed that, taking into account the retirement factor, with the closing of one of the Bible schools and at the present rate of attrition, in 12 years there will be no ordained pastors at all. As the men continued to wrestle with this issue, two urgent needs became evident: first, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12); second, to train pastor-teachers for this primary task of “equipping the saints.” The pastor is still the key to the growth of the church.

In Salta, Argentina, pastors and missionaries from seven denominations discussed the obstacles to growth in Northern Argentina. José Gonzalez, pastor of the largest church in the city, said: “To a large degree the problem is with me. I’m the biggest obstacle. Sure, [other] obstacles are very real, but they are things I can do something about. And they depend to a large extent on my attitude. Once I have the right attitude, I won’t be throwing the blame on my congregation.”

In Buenos Aires, one missionary admitted his negative attitude toward church growth. “I expected that all we would talk about was statistical analysis. However, the more we delved into the Word, the more I became convicted. As we studied together, I began to see these analytical tools as something that could help me. This week has greatly enriched my life and vision.”

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Participants in the workshop in Chile came mainly from the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Southern Baptists, and the Gospel Mission of South America. Their combined membership statistics for the 41 local churches showed growth by 57.5 percent in the last five years and by 53.7 percent from 1970 to 1975. Their faith projections for the next five years reflected an increase of 8,090 members (from 4,696 to 12,786) plus 74 new churches. The Christian and Missionary Alliance pastors met for two days following the workshop to plan their strategy for holding a workshop in every one of their churches in the next year.

The combined membership for the 28 local churches participating from six denominations in Peru grew from 1,910 ten years ago to 5,195 at the end of 1979. They projected an increase in the next five years of over 15,000 members, plus starting of 99 new churches by the end of 1984.

At the close, Carlos Torres, coordinator for the workshop, announced: “I must confess that, up until this workshop. I really didn’t see too much value in statistics. The whole idea of numerical church growth seemed not only a waste of time, but actually a form of carnal pride. But this week God has opened my eyes to what statistical analysis can do. This week has been one of the most profitable experiences of my life and I thoroughly recommend that you go back to conduct similar workshops in your own churches.” Carlos Garcia, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lima, said, “You know, I didn’t plan to come to this workshop, and especially to stay through the week, but this has been an enrichment in my life I never expected.”

Our church-growth team included Tokunboh Adeyemo in Africa, Paul Ariga, in Japan, and Daniel Sanchez and Irland Azevedo in Latin America. The fruit of these workshops over the years is seen in the fact that Azevedo’s First Baptist Church of São Paulo, Brazil, has planted ten daughter churches in that city since 1976, when the first workshop was held there.

VERGIL GERBERMr. Gerber is director of ministries for Evangelical Missions Information Service. Wheaton, Illinois.

Countering The Criticisms

Numerical church growth is a vital issue. Mr. Petersen says “counting seems to stop” in Acts with the 3,000 and the 5,000 who were added to the church. Not at all. We see numerical growth in such phrases as “daily,” “multitudes,” “a great company,” “many,” and “all the residents of Lydda.” We find it also in such Pauline expressions as: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”; “not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved”; “as grace extends to more and more people” (1 Cor. 9:22; 10:33; 2 Cor. 4:15).

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I vigorously disagree that church-growth scholarship neglects invisible growth in the Spirit. This has never been true of the church-growth movement. We do highlight charitable growth, but only in order to make full, or “bed growth,” visible.

I respectfully disclaim the charge that church-growth science “makes some of the same mistakes” as those who deny ethical absolutes, and that “there is only what is and what will work.” We have long pointed out the dangers of the “experimental attitude.” I did this in my book, Bridges of God, first published in 1955.

Another important issue is the “homogeneous unit principle.” We do not say that it is wrong “to merge people of different cultures into the same church.” We say that when they first leave their non-Christian faith, it is much more possible for them to become Christian without abandoning their ethnic identity. That is all.

I regret that Mr. Petersen criticizes church-growth thinking by quoting a scholar from the Fuller School of Psychology, because that school is not representative of what we teach.

Finally, I appeal for sweet reasonableness, not charge and countercharge. For example, I don’t think the church-growth movement is reactionary—no more than the renewal movement is. Let’s stop calling names.

DONALD MCGAVRANMr. McGavran is senior professor of missions at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

Wielding A Scalpel, Not An Ax

J. Randall Petersen has done his homework and he is listening—sympathetically, honestly, perceptively. What he hears leads him to ask some important questions. Three stand out:

1. What is meant by church growth? He rightly questions the extent of the New Testament emphasis on numerical growth, even in Acts. While not backing off from the importance of winning many, he reminds us that growth has many facets and that these are not antithetical to evangelism. “Church growth” has meant too many things. It needs a more comprehensive, biblically based definition.

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2. How do the scientific method and behavioral sciences relate to church-growth theory? Mr. Petersen welcomes the contributions of sociology and anthropology but he sounds a serious warning: Has the scientific method, based on observing past phenomena, moved from being a method (or component of a method) to being a doctrine? For example: Does Scripture really support (or allow for) the application of the homogeneous unit principle? Is the decision to be made by sociology or Scripture? His conclusion detracts from neither the authority of Scripture nor the use of the scientific method. He only pleads: “Keep a trace of mystery.” The Holy Spirit may often use a method and a timing that could not be predicted from past experience.

3. What is the purpose of the church? In effect, Mr. Petersen charges that church-growth theory commits the reductionist fallacy in claiming that the church exists for evangelism. While many would deny this extreme, the issue is crucial. Although evangelism is an essential part, it is not the whole and certainly not a segmented priority. Worship, fellowship, and evangelism together comprise the purpose, function, and dynamic of the church. To compartmentalize and prioritize them implies that each can exist without the others. It also can lead to the frustration of not knowing when one qualifies to move from one stage to the next. In reality, each of these dimensions is an integral part of a composite purpose of the church, which together provide the kind of supernatural dynamic that was demonstrated by the Thessalonian church.

Resistance to the church-growth movement seems to increase as application of its principles come closer to home. Perhaps we are more prepared to accept the “peoples” concept for other cultures and assume that America is or should be a melting pot. Why is there this reluctance? Are church-growth principles not true universal? Are they not equally applicable in all social, political, and economic settings and at all stages of church development in an area? If Scripture really teaches and requires them, they would have to be applied universally. But has this been proven? Perhaps they should be thought of as being compatible with Scripture (like Bible colleges), with conditioning factors determining their application.

Further, if “all truth is God’s truth,” the behavioral sciences should be useful in evangelism strategy. But there must remain a “mystery” about the nature of the church and how it grows, something about it that cannot always be predicted and that never can be programmed. Overenthusiasm for two decades of church-growth insights may have made the movement most vulnerable at this point.

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That the church-growth movement may be reactionary (like most great movements) is not a problem; that it may lack perspective and that some of its premises may be invalid are flaws that can diminish its impact and repel those who urgently need its contribution. It may seem to some that at times he uses an axe instead of a scalpel, but Mr. Petersen has courageously performed an operation that could begin a much-needed healing. As Gamaliel said, “If this counsel … be of men, it will come to naught: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.” That is equally true of church-growth counsel, and of Randall Petersen’s.

TERRY C. HULBERTMr. Hulbert is dean of Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions, Columbia, South Carolina.

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