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Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views

Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views

by Paul E. Engle, Gary L. McIntosh

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Gaining form and momentum over the second half of the 20th century, the Church Growth movement has become an enormous shaping force on the Western church today. You may love it, you may hate it, but you can’t deny its impact. But what exactly is Church Growth? In what ways has the movement actually brought growth to the church, and how effective has it been in


Gaining form and momentum over the second half of the 20th century, the Church Growth movement has become an enormous shaping force on the Western church today. You may love it, you may hate it, but you can’t deny its impact. But what exactly is Church Growth? In what ways has the movement actually brought growth to the church, and how effective has it been in doing so? What are its strengths and weaknesses? This timely book addresses such questions. After providing a richly informative history and overview, it explores—in a first-ever roundtable of their leading voices—five main perspectives, both pro and con, on the classic Church Growth movement: • Effective Evangelism View (Elmer Towns) • Gospel in Our Culture View (Craig Van Gelder) • Centrist View (Charles Van Engen) • Reformist View (Gailyn Van Rheenan) • Renewal View (Howard Snyder) As in other Counterpoints books, each view is first presented by its proponent, then critiqued by his co-contributors. The book concludes with reflections by three seasoned pastors who have grappled with the practical implications of Church Growth. The interactive and fair-minded nature of the Counterpoints format allows the reader to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each view and draw informed, personal conclusions. The Counterpoints series provides a forum for comparison and critique of different views on issues important to Christians. Counterpoints books address two categories: Church Life and Exploring Theology. Complete your library with other books in the Counterpoints series.

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Publication date:
Counterpoints: Church Life
Sold by:
Zondervan Publishing
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Evaluating the Church Growth Movement

Five Views
By Paul E. Engle


Copyright © 2004 Gary L. McIntosh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-24110-3


When you hear the term church growth, what words or phrases come to mind? You may think of megachurches, small groups, numbers, contemporary worship, marketing, or a host of other concepts that have occasionally been promoted as popular church-growth theory.

In contrast, you may identify the term church growth with effective evangelism, church planting, church extension, making disciples, church multiplication, or other aspects of outreach that seek to win people to Christ and enlist them as responsible members of his church.

These differing perceptions of the term church growth, and the emotions that arise from them, clearly point to misunderstanding and disagreement regarding the term, as well as the movement. Church growth is one of those ideas that cause us to draw lines in the sand. We are either for an emphasis on church growth or against it. There seems to be little neutral ground. Donald McGavran, the father of the modern Church Growth movement, recognized early on the divisive nature of Church Growth thought in a letter to his wife, written from Costa Rica on September 8, 1961: "It is clear that emphasizing the growth of the churches divides the camp. It is really a divisive topic. How strange when all are presumably disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ." Dr. McGavran's words still ring true today. Church Growth continues to divide the camp, as the five viewpoints expressed in this book will demonstrate.


There is agreement, however, among Church Growth critics and adherents alike that the Church Growth movement has made significant contributions to the mission of the church, contributions that cannot be ignored. For instance, one early critic of the movement believes its major contribution is in "clarifying of the mission of the church and focusing mission activity on the responsive." Other critics add that the movement has provided a "strategy and a set of priorities for mission"; "a militant, optimistic, and forward-looking approach to the missionary enterprise"; and a way to "make us all aware of peoplehood and its human diversity as a tool in world evangelization." Another critic suggests two major theological contributions of the Church Growth movement: "The first contribution is the theological clarification that the growth of the Church is not something that should be simply an overflow of the life of the Church. Rather, growth must be something that is intentional and embraced at the purpose level of the Church. [The] second contribution is the clarification and development of the Church's understanding of the leadership qualities and characteristics necessary to catalyze and mobilize a group of Christians."

Advocates of Church Growth thought suggest that the movement has contributed even more to the advancement of Christ's mission in the world. One Church Growth advocate writes, "The Church Growth Movement emerged in the service of a powerful theological vision: to fulfill the ancient promise to Abraham, and to fulfill Christ's Great Commission, by reaching the lost people, and peoples, of the earth." He then lists twenty specific contributions from the Church Growth school that have impacted church ministry, particularly evangelism. For example, the first five major contributions can be described as networks, receptivity, indigenous forms, new units, and people groups. Church Growth has taught us:

1. The gospel spreads most contagiously, not between strangers, nor by mass evangelism, nor through mass media, but along the lines of the kinship and friendship networks of credible Christians, especially new Christians.

2. The gospel spreads more easily to persons and peoples who are in a receptive season of their lives, and Church Growth research has discovered many indicators of likely receptive people.

3. The gospel spreads more naturally among a people through their language, and the indigenous forms of their culture, than through alien languages or cultural forms.

4. "First generation" groups, classes, choirs, congregations, churches, and ministries, and other new units, are more reproductive than old established units.

5. Apostolic ministry is more effective when we target people groups than when we target political units or geographical areas.

While critics and adherents will no doubt continue to debate the specific contributions of the Church Growth movement, most would agree that the "church-growth movement is extraordinarily influential and significant within American churches today. At its best, it should be applauded. Where it is not at its best, it requires criticism so that it might be."

A simple way to summarize the current views on Church Growth is as follows: Some people love it. Others dislike it. Many simply misunderstand it. Understanding Church Growth, of course, is more complex than such a simplistic summary, which is why this book has been written. To make certain we all begin on the same page, it will be helpful to look at a brief historical sketch of the Church Growth movement, particularly as it has developed in North America.


Church growth has occurred throughout the Christian era, of course, and is not really new or modern. Even contemporary Church Growth thought had a precursor, in the thought of the Dutch missiologist Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). Voetius believed that the "first goal of mission is the conversion of the heathen; the second, the planting of churches; and the highest, the glory of God." These three goals comprise a condensed version of today's Church Growth movement. The particular expression of Church Growth theory and theology under discussion in this book, however, first crystallized in the mind of Donald A. McGavran, during the years 1930 to 1955.


Donald Anderson McGavran was born in Damoh, India, on December 15, 1897. MacGavran was a third-generation missionary; by 1954, his family had served a total of 279 years in India. He attended Butler University (B.A., 1920), Yale Divinity School (B.D., 1922), the former College of Mission in Indianapolis (M.A., 1923), and following two terms in India, Columbia University (Ph.D., 1936).

When Donald McGavran went to India as a missionary in 1923, he worked primarily as an educator under appointment of the United Christian Missionary Society of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1929, he became director of religious education for his mission before returning to the United States to work on his Ph.D. at Columbia University. After his return to India, he was elected field secretary in 1932 and was placed in charge of administering the denomination's entire India mission.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the stirrings of what would eventually become Church Growth thought began to develop in McGavran's mind. Several forerunners contributed to McGavran's developing insights, such as William Carey, Roland Allen, and Kenneth Scott Latourette. The most direct influence, however, was J. Waskom Pickett, of whom McGavran was fond of saying, "I lit my candle at Pickett's fire."

Pickett and McGavran were both influenced by the ministry of John R. Mott and the student volunteer movement. In 1886, Dwight L. Moody led a missionary awakening at Mount Hermon, Massachusetts, which resulted in one hundred students dedicating themselves to missionary service and the founding of the student volunteer movement. The slogan "The evangelization of the world in this generation" became a watchword for missions during the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a senior at Butler University, McGavran attended the student volunteer convention at Des Moines, Iowa, during the Christmas season of 1919. Describing that event, he wrote, "There it became clear to me that God was calling me to be a missionary, that he was commanding me to carry out the Great Commission. Doing just that has ever since been the ruling purpose of my life. True, I have from time to time swerved from that purpose but never for long. That decision lies at the root of the church-growth movement."

Pickett served in India for forty-six years as pastor, editor, publisher, secretary of Christian councils, and bishop in the Methodist Church. Reflecting how John R. Mott influenced him to look for results, he writes, "Acting on advice given to me by the great missionary statesman, John R. Mott, I had determined to challenge every assumption that I could recognize as underlying the work of my Church in India, not to prove any of them wrong, but to find out, if I could, whether they seemed to be right or wrong as indicated by their results."

In 1928, Pickett was asked by the National Christian Council of India, Burma, and Ceylon to make an extensive study of Christian mass movements in India. The study required the development of research instruments, testing, and study of ten representative areas. The results were published in Christian Mass Movements in India. McGavran read Pickett's book, enthusiastically endorsed it, and recommended to his mission headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, that they employ the services of Pickett to study why similar mass movements to Christ were not happening in their ministry area of mid-India. As supervisor of eighty missionaries, five hospitals, several high schools and primary schools, evangelistic efforts, and a leprosy home, McGavran had become deeply concerned that after several decades of work, his mission had only about thirty small churches, all of which were experiencing little growth. At the same time, he saw "people movements" taking place in scattered areas of India, in which thousands of people in groups, rather than as individuals, were coming to Christ. He wondered why his denomination's churches were growing at the rate of only 1 percent a year, while other churches were seeing much higher rates of conversions to Christ. Pickett was appointed to do the study; McGavran assisted him and became the chief architect of the study in Madhya Pradesh. The results of the study were published under the title Christian Missions in Mid-India, which was later revised to Church Growth and Group Conversion.

Through this study, McGavran discovered that of the 145 areas where mission activity was taking place, 134 areas had grown only 11 percent between 1921 and 1931. The churches in those areas were not even conserving their own children in the faith. Yet in the other 11 areas, the church was growing by 100 percent, 150 percent, and even 200 percent a decade. A curiosity arose within McGavran that was to occupy his life and ministry until his death. He wondered why some churches were growing, while others, often just a few miles away, were not. He eventually identified four major questions that were to drive the Church Growth movement:

1. What are the causes of church growth?

2. What are the barriers to church growth?

3. What are the factors that can make the Christian faith a movement among some populations?

4. What principles of church growth are reproducible? During this same time period, McGavran was quietly changing his view of mission and theology. In the formative years of his childhood, mission was held to be carrying out the Great Commission, winning the world for Christ, and saving lost humanity. This was the view McGavran held when he returned to the United States for his higher education. While attending Yale Divinity School, McGavran was introduced to the teachings of the influential Christian professor H. Richard Niebuhr. According to McGavran, Niebuhr "used to say that mission was everything the church does outside its four walls. It was philanthropy, education, medicine, famine relief, evangelism, and world friendship." McGavran espoused this liberal view of mission when he went to the mission field in 1923. As he became involved in education, social work, and evangelism in the real world of India, however, he gradually reverted to the classical view that mission was making disciples of Jesus Christ. Commenting on this change, he wrote, "As my convictions about mission and church growth were being molded in the 1930s and 40s they ran headlong into the thrust that mission is doing many good things in addition to evangelism. I could not accept this way of thinking about missions. These good deeds must, of course, be done, and Christians will do them. I myself was doing many of them. But they must never replace the essential task of mission, discipling the peoples of earth."

As McGavran's theological views turned more conservative, and his studies of church growth increased, he began to fervently encourage his mission and fellow workers to engage in direct evangelism. When his three-year term as mission secretary was up in 1936, he was not reelected. According to McGavran, in effect the mission said to him, "Since you are talking so much about evangelism and church growth, we are going to locate you in a district where you can practice what you preach." It was clearly a demotion, as evangelists worked with the poorly educated and illiterate people. Believing that it was God's leading, however, McGavran accepted his new appointment and spent the next seventeen years trying to start a people movement to Christ among the Satnamis caste. He felt his work was somewhat successful, but no people movement resulted. About one thousand people were won to Christ, fifteen small, village churches were planted, and the Gospels were translated into Chattisgarhee. These years brought about the formation of his Church Growth theory out of the hard realities of missionary service. He was no ivory-tower theoretician!


With his work among the Satnamis coming to a close, McGavran took a vacation in 1951 in the hills north of Takhatpur to begin writing a manuscript titled "How Peoples Become Christian." McGavran hunted for one hour each morning and evening and spent the time in between working on his manuscript. In addition to his own ministry among the Satnamis, McGavran had done on-the-spot studies of growing churches and people movements in several provinces of India for several denominations, and he was eager to share his discoveries with others. The rough draft was completed in 1953, but McGavran thought it was too strictly Indian. During the summer of 1954, the McGavran family went to the United States on furlough. His mission granted a request to route his travel home through Africa so that he could study people movements on that continent.


Excerpted from Evaluating the Church Growth Movement by Paul E. Engle Copyright © 2004 by Gary L. McIntosh. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paul E. Engle, series editor for Counterpoints Church Life, is an ordained minister who served for twenty-two years in pastoral ministry in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois, and Michigan. He is an adjunct teacher in several seminaries in this country and internationally. He serves as associate publisher and executive editor in the Church, Academic, and Ministry Resources team at Zondervan. He and his wife Margie, live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Dr. Gary L. McIntosh teaches at Talbot School of Theology, is a professor of Christian ministry and leadership, leads 20-25 national seminars a year, serves as a church consultant, was president of the American Society of Church Growth in 1995-1996, and has written over 95 articles and 10 books, including Finding Them, The Issachar Factor, Three Generations, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Overcoming the Dark Side, and Staffing Your Church for Growth. He has over 15 years of experience as a pastor and Christian education director. He is a graduate of Colorado Christian University, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, and Fuller Theological Seminary. He is editor of the Church Growth Network newsletter and the Journal of the American Society for Church Growth.

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