Part of the interest in my research concerns the correlation between a church’s health and its growth, especially in view of the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20). This article is a review of literature on the subject of church growth.
The literature review shows two distinct phases in the development of church growth teaching. The first phase was the classical Church Growth period1 led by its founder Donald A. McGavran and his successor C. Peter Wagner. McGavran’s publication of The Bridges of God in 1955 birthed the Church Growth Movement (CGM). The second phase began around 1988 when Wagner moved into other areas of interests. While his new interests were still in relation to the subject of church growth, they were nonetheless perceived as detours from classical Church Growth teaching.2 When he retired from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2001 it left CGM leaderless and rudderless. As a result, the teaching on church growth that was already evolving became even more diversified. Thom S. Rainer’s The Book of Church Growth (1993) provides a very helpful overview of the history and diversification in church growth teaching.3 For a more detailed and personal account of these changes in church growth teaching one may read Wagner’s fascinating memoirs Wrestling with Alligators, Prophets, and Theologians (2010).
While this article is a review of church growth literature it does so with three questions in mind: First, is church growth teaching to be defined by and limited to McGavran’s and Wagner’s views during the classical Church Growth period? Second, what are the irreducible principles of church growth? Finally, what influence did church growth teaching have on the later development of church health teaching?
THE CLASSICAL CHURCH GROWTH TEACHING
Innumerable books on CGM teaching were published during the heyday of the movement from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. The most important books to consider would be those by McGavran as the founder of the movement and Wagner who succeeded him as its leader and chief spokesman.
As previously mentioned the publication of The Bridges of God (1955) birthed the CGM, but it was McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth (1970) that spelt out his mature thinking on the theology, sociology and methodology of Church Growth.4 Wagner said, “Understanding Church Growth is one of those classics which has become the indispensable foundational text for an academic field. No one can claim to be a serious student of church growth who has not read and absorbed the content of Understanding Church Growth.”5
The most persuasive point of McGavran’s book is that God wants lost people found. The church cannot be content with just searching (Search Theology6) but to win the lost to Christ (Harvest Theology7). Hence, evangelism is critically important and must have absolute priority over any other activity of the church. In God’s schema it is His will for the church to grow numerically, for this would mean lost people are found.
In order to accomplish this evangelistic growth to the greatest effect, McGavran posits that the church should invest the greatest amount of its resources to the most (or more) receptive people (Theory of Receptivity8). The way to determine who the receptive people are and what the best means are to reach them is through research, including the gathering and analysis of statistical data (Social Science Research9). With the necessary information a church is then able to strategise (for example, by building bridges to receptive people) and to set goals to grow the church (Planning and Goal Setting10).
McGavran’s church growth principles are derived from well researched data of growing and non-growing churches in the mission field such as Ghana, South Korea and India.11 He quotes studies that he or others had done.12 Backed by such serious studies it is hard to ignore the findings, conclusions and principles of Church Growth teaching.
In Church Growth and the Whole Gospel (1981) Wagner writes to elaborate and defend the tenets of CGM. For example, he defends the priority of the evangelistic mandate vis-à-vis the cultural mandate.13 Another concerns the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP). It was not the most important tenet of CGM teaching but it became the most controversial. McGavran observed that “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”14 Wagner defends the principle by saying that “McGavran’s statement is descriptive, not normative. It is phenomenological, not theological. …Secondly, McGavran’s statement relates to discipling, not perfecting. It is a principle of evangelism, not Christian nurture.”15 If HUP is accurate, it then provides the church with a useful key for “effective implementation of the evangelistic mandate.”16
In a later book Strategies for Church Growth (1987) Wagner starts by revisiting some of the basic church growth principles. He explains how the advocates of CGM understand the terms commonly used in Christian circles. For example, what does “make disciples” mean? Wagner says that “The raw material of making disciples in the Great Commission sense is unbelievers who need to commit their lives to Christ for the first time. The raw material of modern ‘disciple making’ is Christians who need to be helped along the continuing road of Christian discipleship.”17 Hence, he argues, “If we concentrate on church growth, we get to the heart of the Great Commission. The more we evangelize and the more disciples we make, the more churches will be multiplied and grow. And this is why, in planning strategies, we aim for church growth.”18
In other words, “making disciples” or winning the lost through evangelism is the goal of church growth and developing and carrying out strategies to accomplish this goal is critical to its success. We can, therefore, understand why planning strategies is one of the hallmarks of CGM teaching. Much of the book Strategies for Church Growth focuses on the importance as well as the practical steps to develop these strategies.
Understandably, Church Growth teaching during the classical era was not without its detractors. I have already mentioned some of the criticisms such as those against the HUP,19 the priority of evangelism, and the emphasis on numerical growth. Perhaps, the chief criticism against church growth teaching is that it lacked a solid theological foundation. Despite the attempts of CGM to address this issue, strong criticisms were levelled against Church Growth theology or lack thereof. This is seen in the strong discussion generated in Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (2004). For example, Craig Van Gelder charges that establishing church growth principles by simply listing some biblical texts does not mean that theology is done.20 Also, Gailyn Van Rheenen questions whether one should even be doing theology “with Church Growth eyes”. He contends that biblical theology should form the lens through which cultural and contextual issues and praxis are viewed.21