Podcast Episode 27, 48 min
The Unexpected Origins of the Church Growth Movement, with Dr. Gary McIntosh (Ep 27)
The origins of church growth are far different than what most of us have been taught recently, according to Dr. McIntosh.

Gary McIntosh: Recognize the founder of the church growth movement never led, planted, or pastored a church bigger than a hundred himself.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters. Welcome to, Can This Work in a Small Church? My guest today is Dr. Gary McIntosh. He's the author of 26 books and counting, including the recent “Donald A. McGavran, A Biography of the Twentieth Century’s Premier Missiologist.”

That in fact will be the topic of our conversation today. We'll talk about McGavran and his role as the pioneer of the church growth movement. Now, hang on there, don't let that stop you from listening. I know for a lot of small church leaders, including me, just the mention of the words, church growth, is enough to have us running, screaming for the hills because we've been burned so many times by things that have come under that title.

That's why I had Dr. McIntosh on today. He is the premier authority on the origins of the church growth movement. And he lets us know that the origins of church growth are very different than what most of us have been taught. Stick around, hear this. You're going to be encouraged, you're going to be blessed, and you're going to leave with a different understanding about this than you might've had before you started. And stick around until the end. I'll come back with a summary of the content and an answer to the question, Can This Work in a Small Church?

First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be with us on the podcast today. Really, really appreciate your time.

Gary McIntosh: Glad to be here with you to talk a little bit.

Karl Vaters: I’ve heard of your name for so many years because of your astonishingly prolific writing. I don't know how many books you have authored or co-authored. I don't even know if you know. But it seems like there are so, so many of them. And then you and I were guests on a podcast several years ago, I think it was the Sin Boldly podcast with Evan McClanahan, and I so appreciated your take on how our current understanding of church growth is very different than what it was originally intended to be. And I've actually quoted you a couple of times based on that, but I didn't have a podcast at the time, so I just kinda let it go otherwise. And then recently I ran across your biography of Donald McGavran and it really helped me to reframe my understanding of the church growth movement, especially the genesis of the church growth movement in some really important ways, and in ways that I believe will really help other small church leaders. So could you begin by letting us - who was Donald McGavran, for some who maybe have never even heard the name before, although I'm sure most of us have. And why is he so important that you took the time to write his biography?

Gary McIntosh: Karl, it's good to be with you today, and I appreciate the opportunity. Anytime I can talk about Donald McGavran, I like to talk about him. I did know him a little bit. I wasn't very close to him, but I did get to know him just slightly back in the 1980s when he was - oh my goodness, he would have been in his 80’s at that time, probably about 86 when I first met him. But Donald McGavran is a person who has been called the father of the modern church growth movemen, and he came from a missionary family. Both his mother and father and his wife's parents were missionariesin India. In fact, McGavran traces his lineage all the way back to 1854 in India when his grandparents went there as missionaries. So he was born in India, the central provinces area of India, in let's see, 1893. And he grew up there for about the first 10 years of his life. His father was an evangelist missionary there. When McGavran was around 10, he had two sisters and a brother and they were getting to the point where homeschooling wasn't sufficient for them, and so his parents decided to come back to the U.S. so the kids could get better education opportunities. And so McGavran went to basically middle school and high school here in the United States. And then he went to Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, for his college years. That's where he met his wife, Mary, and he graduated from Butler in 1920.

After he graduated from college at Butler University, while he was there in his senior year, he attended a Christmas conference by the student volunteer movement, and there he was challenged to commit his life to full-time service for Jesus Christ. And at that point in time, he made a commitment to Christ and to full-time missions work.

He went then to Yale university for a couple of years, got a degree, a Bachelor of Divinity Degree in education. Then he went back to Indianapolis and spent a year getting a Master of Arts in missions. Graduating in 1923, he and his wife also had married shortly before that, and in 1923 he and his wife went to India as missionaries. They were destined to spend the next 31 years in the central provinces of India, working as missionaries. The last 17 years of his time there, he worked as an evangelist, and it was during that 17 years that he did research and developed some theories on evangelism and church planting that eventually, when he came to the United States and started teaching, those theories eventually became known as church growth thought or church growth theory.

And so that's a quick overview. He left the mission field in 1954, between 1954 and 1960 he traveled the world doing studies of growing and declining churches in many countries of the world, probably the most traveled missionary of his time.

1960, he founded a small school, Northwest Christian college in Eugene, Oregon, where he taught his church growth ideas to missionaries who were home on furlough. He did that for four years. And then at age 67, Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, was looking to start a school of missions and they tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to bring his small school from Eugene, Oregon, down to Pasadena, and he did that in September of 1965. He turned 68 in December that year. He founded the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. That school of world mission was destined to be the world's renowned school of missions for about 40 years. It's not what it used to be today. In fact, it no longer exists in the same form. Anyway, he was teaching these theories of evangelism and church planting that he coined the term church growth, which we can talk about if you want. But basically his theories of church growth were, How can we win people to faith in Christ, get them baptized, get them into a church where they're serving Christ and growing in their faith.

Karl Vaters: So many things about your biography of McGavran was helpful to me, two of them you've mentioned already, that I was aware of - but when you read it and you see it in print, for some reason it just kind of registered with me a little more - and that some people may not know. When we think of the term church growth, when we think of the pioneer of the church growth movement, when we think of the Church Growth Institute at Fuller, most people probably think of, Well, it's an American thing, and it was probably some young whippersnapper, and it turns out it came from a long-term missionary in some of the most difficult mission fields on earth, and it didn't begin until he was at what most people would consider past retirement age.

So it came out of a place of real depth, real maturity and real mission-mindedness. It wasn't about trying to be cool or hip. And especially when it's from Southern California, everybody thinks it's just, oh, it's just this crazy California idea. It didn't even begin here. It started in Indiana, moved to Eugene, Oregon. And then a guy in his late sixties coins the term. I mean, everything about its genesis is the opposite of, I think, what most of us would have in our mind about where that started from.

Gary McIntosh: That's right. And another interesting fact is McGavran did not want to even teach his ideas to American pastors.

Karl Vaters: Yes. That was one of the real surprises that I read in your book. Walk me through that.

Gary McIntosh: He was a missionary and his heart was for the international peoples around the world, and particularly places where the church was not abundant, you know, where the witness for Christ was not available. And he saw the United States as a place that had lots of good Bible based evangelistic churches. And so he knew that the Christian witness had a great foundation here in the United States -North America, in general - while other countries had very, very few Bible believing churches or points of evangelist outreach and church planting. So his heart was always for the lost and particularly the lost in other countries who didn't have readily available to them a gospel witness. So when he started the school of world mission, the requirements were that you had to have three years cross-cultural ministry experience, and you had to be fluent in another language other than English. Well, that pretty much ruled out every American pastor.

Karl Vaters: Most of us, yeah.

Gary McIntosh: I know in 1986, I tried to go there to work on a PhD and I couldn't get in. And the reason I couldn't get in was because I didn't have three years cross-cultural experience and I didn't have fluency in another language. Eventually they let me in, but it was like 20 years later, 25 years later, they let me in. But the joke used to be that Fuller called it the School of World mMissions, but people from America couldn't get in so we weren't part of the world.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, it was our payback for calling the baseball championships the World Series when it's just American teams, or North American teams anyway, we can't forget the Blue Jays.

Gary McIntosh: But what happened was there was an associate pastor at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, which is just across the freeway from the Fuller Seminary campus, and he heard about some of these insights that were being taught in the School of World Mission, and he thought that they were applicable to the American context and the professors at the Fuller School of World Mission said, well, it'll all depend on what McGavran says. So they went and talked to McGavran and he said, Well, I guess it'll be okay.

Karl Vaters: From my understanding of it, and correct me if I misread it, it wasn't just simply that you required another language and so on, and that he had come from a missionary outside of the U S standpoint, but he was really reluctant to allow… Because he was somewhat suspicious of what would happen if these principles were filtered through an American lens. Did I get that correctly? And if so, correct where I'm wrong on that.

Gary McIntosh: No, you're right. No, you're right. And let me correct something. I said he was born in 1893. He was actually born in 1897. I was thinking about my own grandpa. I always thought McGavran is like my grandfather, but you're right.

McGavran was an astute observer of culture being a missionary for 31 years and then doing research for another basically six years, you know, he had like 37 years of cross cultural research experience. And he was able to read North American culture. He knew that when he started teaching his church growth theories in the USA, they would be changed, that they would be adapted and maybe used in ways that he would not feel appropriate. Because he knew that America… You know, part of the culture of America, North America, we have a fondness with big things, you know, whether it's Walmart or Costco or mega churches, you know, it doens’t matter. A fondness for big things.

We're a big country. When the founders founded America on the east coast and they looked west, it was a big country. It was totally different than, say, England or Germany or Sweden. Those are small countries and people who immigrated in those early years to what we think of as the United States, they just didn't have as big of visions because those countries didn't have the expanse of opportunity that they found when they came to the new world or to the United States.

So part of the culture of America is this fondness for opportunity for building great things and big things and having big vision and the great vision. McGavran knew when people thought about church growth, they would probably be thinking about large numbers. McGavran wasn't against large numbers, as long as they were large numbers of new believers. I mean, he was all about evangelism and winning people to faith in Christ out of the secular peoples of the world. He wasn't that concerned about building a big church off of transfers. In fact, he was critical of transfer growth. I think he just knew, understanding American culture, some of the deep cultural expectations of things, that once church growth was taught in America, that it would tend to slide towards things that maybe he wasn't that concerned about. His real concern was evangelism.

Karl Vaters: When you tie our attraction to bigness and entrepreneurialism to our individuality as well, all of those are really go counter to his original idea, from what I can tell. So he had this idea that if Americans took it, it would turn it into something. How accurate was he?

Gary McIntosh: Well, I think he was accurate. I think he knew, you know, what was going to happen. But I think at the same time, he was wise enough to realize that wherever you take the gospel, into whatever social contexts around the world, the gospel is able to adapt to any particular cultural milieu, and perhaps that's why the Holy Spirit didn't tell us exactly what the church would look like.

When you look at the scripture, the Holy Spirit says, Well, we should pray, we should preach, we should care, we should love. But it doesn't always… The Holy Spirit stopped short of saying how that would look programmatically. And so the way pastoral care looks, say, in Central India is going to look different than it does, say, in Los Angeles today with the internet and with COVID and all that.

So McGavran was astute to know that, you know, there's going to be cultural adaptations that are appropriate, they are proper. But at the same time, he really wasn't necessarily for mega churches, as an example.

Now, he wasn't against churches as long as they were growing through conversion growth. What he was concerned was if a mega church was growing through transfer growth. And in his heart, when he was in India, he planted 15 churches and those 15 churches had roughly a thousand people in them. Well, just divide a thousand by 15, and they were all less than a hundred people in size. In his mind, church growth was more about the expansion or extension of church growth rather than the enlargement of a single church. I think he would have been more happy with church planting, the extension of maybe smaller churches versus the enlargement of a single church.

Karl Vaters: One of the things that I loved about your framing of his ideas from the beginning was this idea of contextualization. That the truth of the gospel is culturally adaptable in a way that no other religion is. I mean, Judaism and Islam, for instance, don't just carry belief systems with them, they carry a culture with them. There are specific behaviors. There are specific cultural backgrounds that you do everywhere if you are Muslim or if you are Jewish. Whereas the culture of Christianity changes depending on the culture of the place. Obviously there are places where the culture of that place is tied to paganism, and so we don't adapt to those cultures or shouldn't. Not that there haven't been examples of us doing that, but it's understood biblically that that's not the way we do it. But for anything that is simply a cultural norm that isn't tied to paganism or isn't tied to any moral imperative, the truth of the gospel is without question the most culturally adaptable belief system ever, I would say as a Christian, of course, because truth does that. Truth works everywhere.

Gary McIntosh: Well, I think what happened in America is the term church growth was hijacked. It's very similar, you know, today we say, give me a Kleenex, but you go over to the box and the box maybe says, Puffs. It's not a Kleenex box, but the term Kleenex, which is a actual type of tissue paper, has been hijacked to mean all different kinds of tissue papers.

And I think what happened in America, when the term church growth got very popular in the 1980s, all of a sudden you've got pastors writing books about my story, how I built my church. Well, if a publisher publishes that book, what category are they going to put it? Well, they looked out there and said, Well, that fits under church growth. And then you had people who wrote books on marketing the church. And they said, Well, where do books on marketing the church fit? Oh, that goes under church growth. And then there were books that were written about the church management. Well, where do you put those books? Well, let's put them under church growth.

So I think what happened was when church growth became such a popular term, gradually it picked up baggage, other topics, other ideas that were never in McGavran's mind. McGavran never thought of church growth as management or marketing or advertising. Although he knew that churches had to be managed and churches would advertise, but he never in his mind ever perceived that church growth would be known as marketing or advertising. And that was part of what happened with America. Americans, we tend to grab hold of a word and then we kind of lump everything under it.

And frankly, Karl, the same thing's happening today with the term missional church. Missional has become very popular. Well, now everything's missional. Missional worship, missional youth groups, missional this, missional that. It's like pretty soon the word missional is going to lose any sort of meaning. And that's what happened with church growth. In the seventies here in America and the eighties, church growth was known to be an evangelistic paradigm. But then by the nineties, it morphed into what was known as a marketing paradigm.

Karl Vaters: Right. That's where I was primarily introduced to it, during that era.

Gary McIntosh: And that's where most I would say younger pastors are today, pastors who are, say, in their 50’s, maybe 40’s, have probably been raised at a time when to them church growth was all about marketing the church, or maybe business management principles. But I go further back. I was part of that early group in the seventies that initially connected with the church growth movement. We saw it as a way to understand how to be more fruitful evangelistically. But I think that's part of what happened, you know, as American, like you say, entrepreneurs, American publishing, American marketing, whatever, they adopted or co-opted, I guess you would say, the term church growth.

Karl Vaters: And now a short break to talk about something else.

If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karlvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes.

I love this because so much of this is really counter to what my expectations were in getting into the subject. Maybe the one controversial idea that we haven't touched on yet, so let's dive into it, and probably his most controversial idea, is the idea of the homogenous church principle.

Can you describe what that is and what it has become, and is it different from what he originally said that it was about?

Gary McIntosh: So we got to go back and remember that McGavran was a missionary in India. In India, the caste system, the divisions among peoples, is very rigid. It's rigid today, it was even more rigid in 1923 when he went. So to win a person out of, say, one caste and to get them to worship together with people of another caste was nearly impossible. Normally when a person would become a Christian, they would be kicked out of their family, kicked out of their caste. And what would happen is that the missionaries would bring them to the missionary compound and would train them and raise them.

Well, what happened was that because they were separate from their caste, they had no evangelistic potential to win their own family to faith in Christ. And so McGavran is looking at that and saying, Okay, what is the best way to bring people to faith in Christ? Well, if people in India feel like becoming a Christian means they have to give up their identity as Indians and become American, they won't become a Christian and it won’t because they don't believe in Jesus Christ, but it will be because they don't want to become American. They want to remain Indian, they want to remain part of their people group.

And you know, this was something he noticed about all missionaries. We all know this, that historically when the missionaries went to another country, not only did they take the gospel, but they took their own culture. So when Swedish missionaries would go somewhere, unbeknownst to them they would often be saying kind of subconsciously, believe in Jesus Christ and become Swedish. Or believe in Jesus Christ and become German, or believe in Jesus and become British English. And so McGavran was aware of that, that sometimes people rejected Christianity not because of Jesus, but because they didn't want to become Swedish or they didn't want to become German or American or English or whatever.

He basically said, we've got to divest the gospel of Jesus Christ with these superfluous - if I can say that right - superfluous ideas that people need to accept Jesus Christ based on Jesus Christ alone for salvation, not all this extracultural baggage. So he said people like to become Christians without crossing barriers, and in those barriers, he included barriers of race and culture and economics and things like that. And essentially what he meant was what we see in Acts 15. When the gospel was first taken from the Jewish people to the Gentiles, the Jewish people wanted to put onto the Gentiles some of their own Jewish cultural beliefs.

If your listeners will go back and read that again, you know, Paul comes back, Barnabas comes back and they had this big discussion. The context of the passage seems to indicate they had an argument. The Gentiles had now come to faith, what kind of expectations are the Jews going to put on them? Eventually they decided that they won't put extra-biblical expectations on the Gentiles, except they said, you know, don't eat food offered to idols or don't drink blood. I can't remember the whole passage.

Karl Vaters: Which some theologians believe was a compromise from what they really wanted to do.

Gary McIntosh: So, McGavran is saying, Okay, if we're going to win people to faith in Christ, we need to present the gospel of salvation, the death, burial, resurrection of Christ, and call people the belief in Jesus Christ apart from expecting them to take on any particular cultural expectations like change your clothes and dress like a European, or learn English, or give up your hunting culture and become a farming culture, or something like that.

McGavran is looking at this as a principle to help more people come to faith, to remove the external extras that we add to the gospel culturally. Now, when he came to America and presented this principle, because of our history of racism and slavery in America, everybody read that homogeneous unit principle through the lens of slavery and racism here in America, and there was huge reactions against it. Now, the crazy thing here, and this is in my biography, I know you read it, McGavran and his wife had spent 31 years of their long lives ministering to black people, dark skinned people in India. And even in the United States, they attended black churches. They went to church. The only time they didn't is when they were elderly, they eventually joined Lake Avenue Congregation which was close to their home. And the reason they joined it is because they needed to have a church that had a great care system for elderly people that they needed. But up until that time, they always attended Black churches in the United States. They were about as far from anything that you could think of as racist as there is.

Karl Vaters: My take on it, just to simplify it for my own simple brain was, it appears to me that his original statement was we should not require them to cross caste or racial barriers in order to become Christian, and that became interpreted as we should not allow them to cross caste or racial barriers and keep them in. What was supposed to be freeing and removing of a requirement, we interpreted in some circles in America as putting a racial component onto it. That was exactly the opposite of what his original intention was.

Gary McIntosh: Yes. Right. You're exactly right. I tell people the homogeneous unit principle in McGavran's mind was a principle of inclusion, not exclusion. He was trying to figure out how can I bring more people to Christ, more people into the church. And he says, Let’s don't put extra-biblical requirements on the gospel. We wouldn't say to a person, You have to become, you know, you believe in Christ and then you have to do this.

Now, in his mind, he believed in brotherhood, he believed in ecumenism. He believed that churches ought to demonstrate a multi-ethnic congregation, as long as the cultural context was that way. In Southern California, for instance, where we have a huge multiethnic environment, he would say, Yes, the church ought to reflect that multi-ethnicity in the church, but he didn't want to make that a requirement of belief for a person to receive Christ.

Now in his mind, once a person believed and the Holy Spirit filled their life, that gradually people then would come face to face with their sin, with their biases and that gradually through the Holy Spirit they would grow in their faith and become less racist, less concerned about those things. It's a very complex thing, and I know this isn't giving justice to it today, but hopefully it'll help a little bit.

Karl Vaters: Well, you've provided far more nuance for it than we usually hear so I very, very much appreciate that. Can we get back to…Do you think the church can get back to some of the original ways that Donald McGavran defined church growth? Can we get back to it? Should we try? If so, how would we get back to it? And if not, what should we do instead? There's a multi-layered question for you.

Gary McIntosh: Well, I think the church growth movement was successful. I think the way we see it being successful at least one way is that a lot of the principles and a lot of the concepts that were taught are just understood today naturally.

So for instance, most church planters today go out and plant church, whether they know it or not, they're using church growth principles that McGavran came up with, and some of his colleagues, back in the seventies and the eighties. It's funny, but I read a lot of the new book,s, say on the missional church and when I'm reading them, I'm thinking to myself, this is just church growth ideas, but they don't even know it. A lot of these younger pastors don't even know that a lot of the missional writings are church growth principles. Now, the missional church has added to it, and I think some of the missional church writings have tried to become more theological in terms of their expression of some of these ideas. McGavran was a missionary, he was a very practical type of person. McGavran didn't put a lot of theology in his books, in part because he felt like people already had their theology and he just didn't feel like he needed to. For instance, he was a deep man of prayer, but he didn't ever write very much about prayer. And the reason he didn't is because he just assumed that pastors pray, Christians pray, and he thought, Why do I even need to tell them to pray, they’re praying.

Karl Vaters: Plus he introduced a whole new way of thinking to the church and did so late in his life where it's like, I better concentrate just on this because this is a big change and I don't have much time to get it across to everybody. That's my guess anyway.

Gary McIntosh: I think you're right. I think you're right. I think a lot of the principles of church growth are there. They're intuitive to a lot of people today. They don't know really where they came from. You know, the whole thing of the small groups and the expansion of small groups, I hear all the time this idea of to get larger, you have to get smaller. As your church grows, you have to stay small with these small cell groups. Well, where did that come from? It came from McGavran. What's the most effective way of evangelism? It’s through friends and family connections, it's not through large crusades,it's not through door to door knocking and talking, the cold calling on people in the neighborhood.

People come to faith in Christ through family and friends. Well, McGavran wrote about that in his very first book, which was 1955, “The Bridges of God.” And he talked about the bridges of God. Well, who are the bridges? You and me are the bridges to our non-Christian family and friends and work colleagues. So when we talk today about, say, lifestyle evangelism or friendship evangelism, or network evangelism, whatever you want to call it, that's a church growth principle going back to 1955 with McGavran, but nobody knows that.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, absolutely. Kind of piggybacking on that, and so much of what you've said already kind of partially answers this question, but let me ask it directly to see if there's anything else. What would you say are some lessons and encouragement that a small church leader particularly could gain from the principles of Donald McGavran?

I'd love to hear this from you because again, so much of what we… So many small church pastors out there right now, if they see the words church growth on one more book or one more podcast or one more conference, they're just not going because they are so frustrated and discouraged by what you have already called the baggage that's been attached to that term. But as we've already seen from this last half hour or so, so much of what we now see as church growth really wasn't the original intention. I was really encouraged and blessed by the insights from this biography. Is there anything we haven't talked about yet that you think might be a particular encouragement or a lesson for a small church pastor specifically from the teachings and life of Donald McGavran?

Gary McIntosh: I would say recognize that the founder of the church growth movement never led, planted or pastored a church bigger than a hundred himself, and he believed that churches could be faithful, they could be successful, they could be fruitful even as small churches. His concern was more about effectively evangelizing people and getting them connected to the church.

So I would say to the best of your ability, rid yourself of any guilt that you're not a mega church or a larger church. You need to be faithful right where you are. But what that means is you've got to understand your context, you've got to do some research. What is your church like, what's its history like, what are the baggages and the barriers that your church carries or faces. Kind of mixed the metaphors there, didn't I? But what is the history of your church? You know, your church today is where it is because of decisions that were made in the past. So what is that history and how's that impact the church today? And then research the community around your church. Most churches reach people within about a 10 to 20-mile radius or a 10 to 20-minute drive at the most. So what are the unchurched people in your community like? And based on the history of your church and what the people in your community, the unchurched community are like, what does that say about what our ministry needs to look like and how do we need to adapt to be more fruitful in reaching people for Christ?

There is the issue of stewardship. McGavran always talked about stewardship. We have to be stewards of the resources that God has given us. Some have more resources than others, but we all have some resources. Our resources, are our people, our time, the resources of our facilities, resources of our spiritual resources of prayer and worship.

So we have to take responsibility to be good stewards of those resources and to look at our church and decide, you know, what can I do? I can't do everything, but I can do something. So rather than having this woe is me, you know, I can't be the mega church, we've just got to say, Okay, what can I learn from the church growth movement, and how can I apply that in a reasonable way in my context.

Karl, I pastored two churches myself. Both of them were small churches. The biggest church I ever pastored personally was 150 people on Sunday morning. I never felt guilty. There was another church in town that was running 2,000. It was less than a mile away from mine.

But for some reason I never felt guilty that I wasn't that other church. I just realized I had to be the best person I could be, the best pastor I could be, and I had to use my resources that God had given me to the best of the ability that I could and help my church be the most effective they could.

I took from the church growth movement principles like, Okay, if most people come to faith in Christ through friends and family then how can I marshal the friends and, you know, marshal that principle for use in my own church, how can I help my people reach their friends and their family? I didn't worry that I couldn't be 2,000 people. I just tried to figure out how can I use these principles in my church.

And so I'm going to encourage your listeners, as much as possible rid yourself of this guilt. McGavran never said you had to be a mega church, he just said you had to be a church that was winning people to faith in Christ, making disciples. McGavran would not have been happy with a church that wasn't making disciples. As long as they were making disciples meaning new believers are coming to faith in Christ and added to the church, even if it was one or two or three a year, he's happy.

Karl Vaters: You've laid out two truths for me that really struck me and I put them together and it's kind of making me grin.

One, you said the founder of the church growth movement never pastored a church of more than a hundred people. And secondly, before that actually, you said all these church growth folks out there are doing McGavran's principles without even realizing they're following his principles. And then it strikes me as funny because I've heard of pastors who say, Well, how can I learn something from a pastor if their church is smaller than mine, I'm not going to put myself... I've had people…When I get up to speak at conferences, I've watched as large church pastors leave the room because what can I possibly learn from a guy who is pastoring a church of a hundred. They're all using principles that were first promoted by a guy who never pastored a church larger than a hundred people and they don't even realize it. That to me just strikes me as part of God's sense of humor, that that's the way He's put that together.

Gary McIntosh: That's true. Well, McGavran was a missionary, he wasn't a pastor technically, but you're right.

Karl Vaters: But it also goes, of course, to our place of influence. We can even as a smaller congregation in a smaller setting have great influence for the kingdom of God. And at every age of our lives. His greatest era of influence for the world and ongoing today happened in his sixties and seventies.

So there's no time when our potential for influence has gone and there's no size of ministry that is not available for God to use and to have great impact upon the world. So thank you for so much that's here and so many places we could go, but I do want to wrap it up. I want to honor your time, and I have a series of lightning round questions that every single guest is required to answer. So I'm going to give them to you now. Are you ready for this?

Question number one, What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted to it?

Gary McIntosh: The biggest changes in the last few years? Well, I feel the ministry is being a professor and I think the biggest change lately has been to move from face-to-face classes to online. I think every pastor has kind of faced that too. I've adapted like everybody else. You have to learn new technology, you have to invest in new technology. You have to be willing to pivot. Honestly, I'm proud of the church. I know that the church at large is struggling right now.A lot of churches have declining membership and that sort of thing, or declining attendance maybe is a better term. But honestly, when you look at it, the church was pretty flexible. I mean, worldwide the church was pretty flexible and made a lot of changes quickly.

Karl Vaters: I think it's one of those things, we've shown ourselves in the last few years to be more flexible than a lot of us thought we were, so let's not be in a rush to go back to the way things were. Let's learn from that to be even more adaptable and flexible in the future. So that's question number one.

Question number two, Do you know of a free resource, like an app or a website or something, that's helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry?

Gary McIntosh: Well, I'll say this and I'm not saying it just because I'm talking to you, but I think you and some of your books are probably the freshest thing that I've read lately. I really don't listen to a lot of podcasts and I don't frequent a lot of websites and stuff.

Karl Vaters: I had the same question somebody on their podcast asked me this morning, and I told them I've almost stopped listening to podcasts the last couple of years, even while I've started my own.

Gary McIntosh: It's just an issue of time. You mentioned earlier that I do a lot of writing and I've kind of dedicated myself to more writing than other things and I just have so much energy, so much creative juices, and I’ve just got to kind of guard it.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's where my decisions have gone lately too. And I did bring it up in the intro, do you have a count of how many books you have authored or co-authored?

Gary McIntosh: 26 so far. I got 27, I'm working on it today. It is a book for pastors of smaller churches is going. It’s going to be called “Flying Solo.” It’s the idea of pastoring a church by yourself, in the sense of no other paid staff but you.

Karl Vaters: Right. There's a resource we don't have an awful lot of help on so I look forward to that. That will be great.

Gary McIntosh: Somewhere around 70% of all churches are led by one paid pastor part-time or full-time and everything else is volunteer help. So it’s targeted to that group.

Karl Vaters: Great. Lightning round question number three. What's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

Gary McIntosh: If you have a choice between two options, go with the boldest option.

If you're looking at two ministry options, choose the one that's the boldest. If you're looking at two career options, go with the career option that is the boldest option. We typically look back on our life and we don't regret the stuff we tried, we regret the stuff we didn't try. So we might as well go for the boldest thing and trust God in faith to stretch us. I know I did that one time and it made a big difference.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's great. Last question. What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?

Gary McIntosh: Oh my goodness gracious. Funniest, weirdest thing. Oh, I don't know. There's several. The thing that pops into my mind. When I was pastoring one time, I had a young man in the neighborhood who felt like he was a prophet from God. He would come in sometimes and create disturbances in the church. It was really weird. I finally asked him to leave one time and he prophesied against me.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. You’ve got to love the self-appointed prophets, right? Oh my goodness. Especially when you take a look at the Bible, there's not a single prophet in the Bible who wanted to be one. They were all reluctant.

Gary McIntosh: They all got stoned, didn’t they?

Karl Vaters: Exactly. That's probably one of the reasons why they were reluctant. Anybody wants to rush into that territory too quickly right there is suspect in my mind.

Thank you so much for your time, thank you for your advice, thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for demythologizing and helping us to understand some of the misunderstandings about such an important church leader like Donald McGavran. I really appreciate that.

Gary McIntosh: Well, if I can, I would encourage people to get this book. And it's available in paperback, but also in e-book form.

Karl Vaters: I encourage them to get the paperback because you will want to, as I did, underline it and tab it all over the place, and for me the ebook, yes, you can highlight it, but it's not the same to go back to an e-book as it is to go back to a book in print.

So yeah, I read it. It's been almost a year ago since I read it and just got so much out of it and really appreciate the opportunity for this follow-up to talk with you about it. Thank you so much.

Gary McIntosh: I appreciate what you're doing out there.

Karl Vaters: Thank you very much. So can this work in a small church, can we use the ideas initially proposed by Donald McGavran in healthy, smaller congregations without putting even more pressure on pastors to grow numerically?

Yes, we can do that, but we just need to get back to the original intent of McGavran, that it's about evangelism, that it's about growth by conversion, and that it's about discipleship. That it is absolutely not about congregations getting bigger. It's not about putting more pressure on pastors. It's not about only having one kind of person in your church. So much of it is really about having a heart for people, a heart for missions, a heart for your community, understanding its context and putting all of those principles into play as best we can.

If you'd like to become a Patreon partner for as little as $3 a month and help put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most, check out our Patreon link in the show notes. If you want a transcript of this episode, it will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at christianitytoday.com/karlvaters. Find the link in the show notes. This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver. Original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins, Jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of Joyetic.com. Me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.

Pivot is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

June 6, 2022

Join in the conversation about this post on Facebook.

Recent Posts

Read More from Karl

Follow Christianity Today

Free Newsletters