The once-controversial church-growth movement has matured and found widespread, if not whole-hearted, acceptance.

Ten years ago, J. Randall Petersen had his doubts about “church growth.” Writing in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, he questioned the movement’s emphasis on numbers, its use of social sciences, and its goals for the church (“ ‘Church Growth’: A Limitation of Numbers,” CT, March 27, 1981, p. 18).

Times have changed.

Today Petersen is involved in starting Hope United Methodist Church, in Voorhees, New Jersey—a church founded and developed through a variety of church-growth principles and practices. To gather its congregation, Hope Church used a telemarketing campaign to invite community members to its services. Meeting in an elementary school, its 220 worshipers sing contemporary choruses and watch dramatic vignettes that highlight the morning’s message, all designed by pastor Jeffrey Bills as “entry-level church” for a baby-boomer crowd.

Petersen had misgivings about the telephone approach. And he is still uneasy with some church-growth ideas. But it worked, he admits, and he now describes the phone campaign—one of church growth’s latest techniques—as merely “a device to reach people, to accomplish what we would want to do through one means or another.”

Petersen is not alone in his pragmatic embrace of church-growth thinking. After a wave of church-growth bashing in the seventies, many of the movement’s ideas have become virtual givens in today’s discussions of church vitality. Demographic charts and membership-projection graphs have found their way into pastors’ studies and board meetings in churches of almost every description. Outright critics are now hard to find. Even mainline denominations, once virulent in their condemnations, are talking in terms that echo church-growth language (even if they shun the term itself). The change in attitudes reflects both the recognition by church leaders of the movement’s real contributions, and the refinement of church-growth ideas by its own practitioners.

Sanctified Science

The church-growth movement, as it came to be known, emerged in North America some 20 years ago from the writings of the late Donald McGavran. For 30 years a missionary in India, McGavran had wondered why some mission churches grew and others did not. His first conclusions, published in the 1950s, became well known in missions circles. But it wasn’t until his magnum opus, Understanding Church Growth, was published by Eerdmans in 1970 that the topic began to attract the attention of North American churches.

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Described by leading author and speaker C. Peter Wagner as “simultaneously a theological conviction and an applied science,” McGavran’s vision of church growth held as its overarching concern Christ’s commission of Matthew 28:19, to “make disciples of all nations.” McGavran believed that God wanted Christians not only to search for the lost, but to find them. As a result, he said, churches would grow—in measurable terms.

It was the measurable component of church growth that quickly came to characterize the image, if not the heart, of the movement—and draw criticism. Numbers, such as listings of the country’s largest and fastest-growing churches and Sunday schools, became its main commodity. In spite of its leaders’ insistence on separating principle from practice, and description from prescription, church growth was soon marked by strong pragmatism, to the exclusion, said its critics, of dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Still, as much controversy as church growth generated, its ideas gained support, especially among evangelical leaders.

“The acceptance [of the church-growth movement] shouldn’t surprise us,” says John Stackhouse, who teaches modern Christianity at the University of Manitoba. “The history of evangelicalism in North America shows that it is quite technique-oriented. Evangelicals are willing to innovate in a way that surprises Christians of other stripes, who tend to see evangelicals as conservative in every respect. In fact, they are not at all conservative when it comes to the practice of Christianity, and especially evangelism,” says Stackhouse, who cites Charles Finney and Billy Graham as examples.

What is more surprising, he says, is the initial hesitation about and suspicion of church growth. Perhaps one explanation lies in the collective psyche of evangelicals, who saw themselves as the “faithful remnant,” standing against the culture—and the cultural acumen of church growth. Only gradually did evangelicals become the “successful mainstream,” Stackhouse says. In other words, evangelicals have grown comfortable with success. “ ‘Now we have the big churches,’ they say, as once it was the mainlines who symbolized success.”

Mainline Mindset

Ironically, the mainlines’ huge membership losses have prompted denominational leaders to take a second look at church growth. Herb Miller, executive director of the National Evangelistic Association, which connects evangelism and church-growth work in mainline denominations, says those churches’ mindsets have changed “radically” in the past 15 years.

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In his consulting work, Miller now finds almost 25 percent of the pastors are positive about church-growth ideas, about 50 percent are interested, and the remaining 25 percent are “anti-church growth.” Previously, he says, perhaps only 5 percent of the pastors were favorable and 20 percent were interested, while the rest were strongly opposed to the ideas.

Miller points to several factors for the change of attitude. One is the pervasiveness of church-growth literature. Another is the endorsement of the movement by mainline churchmen, especially Methodist church expert Lyle Schaller. But a third factor is the decline of the denominations themselves. Financial desperation has had a “sobering and painful effect” at the top of the structures, Miller says. And while denominational leadership may not hold the theological convictions of church growth, it has seen a connection between the number of people in the pews and the number of dollars in the collection plate.

Exceptions To The Rule

At the same time, the church-growth movement itself has matured, fine-tuning its formulas and abandoning some of its early excesses. And it has learned to articulate its principles more clearly.

“It used to be set in stone [by church-growth leaders] that every church should be a growing church,” says Schaller, a church planner for more than 30 years. “But they will now admit that there are many congregations which legitimately serve a niche of society—such as central cities or rural America—that may not grow numerically.”

Even one of the most controversial tenets of church growth, the homogeneous unit principle, has undergone some change. McGavran wrote, “People like to become Christians without crossing significant linguistic, ethnic, or cultural barriers.” Arriving in the wake of the sixties’ civil-rights battles, McGavran’s observation (and indeed he labeled it as such) was denounced. Though he insisted it was not a prescription, others misinterpreted the principle to mean growth of a nonhomogeneous group was impossible, or that any homogeneous group would grow. The idea still draws heated criticism.

But by now, says Schaller, there are numerous exceptions to the rule. Many churches now contain several diverse congregations, he says, characterized by different worship styles, ethnic groupings, and even languages. “The idea of choice has superseded the homogeneous unit principle.”

Other progress has come as second and third generations of church-growth leaders have picked up the seminal ideas of McGavran and Wagner and immersed them in congregational life. “We had to communicate them to the public on a daily basis,” says Miller, and in so doing learned to communicate in a way that “made more theological sense.”

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Yet perhaps the greatest amendment to church-growth thinking is the addition of 2 Corinthians 10:4—“the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds”—to the movement’s list of favorite verses. Wagner, who with McGavran shaped the movement in its early years, is quick to admit to an overemphasis of numbers in the past. But today, Wagner says the future of church growth lies in its ability to ride what he calls the “Third Wave” of the Holy Spirit.

“I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the church-growth principles we’ve developed, or the evangelistic techniques we’re using. Yet somehow they don’t seem to work,” Wagner says. He points to the fact that in spite of church growth’s advances in the eighties, the percentage of American adults attending church has remained almost the same (about 45 percent), while Protestant church membership has actually declined.

“Maybe something else is needed so these principles we’ve been diligently working on will have better effect out in the marketplace,” Wagner says. “The real battle is now a spiritual battle, and as we are learning how to fight and win those battles, we are going to open the way for evangelistic techniques to have a much greater influence on our society than we’ve seen before.”

Large Numbers

Still, new attitudes have not displaced number crunching from the church-growth agenda. In fact, computerized data bases have made it possible “for us to turn out more numbers in an afternoon than we could previously generate in days,” Wagner says.

Telemarketing campaigns put to work “the law of large numbers,” as Norman Whan of Church Growth Development International puts it, to plant and grow churches: Call 20,000 people, contact 2,000 unchurched, and 200 will attend your church on a given Sunday. Since February 1986, Whan’s The Phone’s for You! program has helped plant or grow almost 7,000 churches, including Hope United Methodist, which made 21,000 calls last fall.

Most prominent on the contemporary church-growth scene is the “meta-church” model developed by Carl George, director of the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth. This approach, patterned after the world’s largest church, Full Gospel Central Church in Seoul, allows for virtually unlimited growth, says George (see “Meta-church: Cells + Celebration”). He predicts the continuing emergence of megachurches such as Seoul’s Full Gospel, with its 180,000 weekly worshipers, and Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, with 12,000 attenders.

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In spite of its public-relations victories, church growth still finds itself struggling, like an ecclesiastical Rodney Dangerfield, for a measure of respect. Suspicions aroused during its early years have been difficult to lay to rest. Even McGavran, the father of the movement, admitted shortly before he died last year that because the term church growth had became so loaded with unfavorable baggage, he had not used it for two years, preferring instead to speak of “effective evangelism.”

The movement is also still able to rankle the church establishment. Local pastors, while willing to borrow a technique or two, are just as likely to say “we tried it and it didn’t work,” when asked about church growth. The movement’s leaders’ criticism of denominational structures and traditional seminary education is stronger than it has ever been, as it looks for leaders for its new church models.

But perhaps church growth’s greatest challenge in North America comes from research that shows that more than 80 percent of all the growth taking place in growing churches comes through transfer, not conversion. The statistic strikes at the heart of McGavran’s brainchild, now come of age. Whether by computer or spiritual power, the church-growth movement must improve on those numbers. For if it does not, it will stand to lose the credibility and acceptance it has worked so long to gain.

By Ken Sidey.

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