Church Health Literature Review (Part 3)

(Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2)

THE ORGANIC-MISSIONAL APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH

With reference to the last point above, indeed one of the criticisms levelled against church health teaching, especially the principle approach, is that it is too much focussed on the church body.  Charles Van Eggen remarks that seven out of NCD’s eight quality characteristics, the possible exception being “need-oriented evangelism”, are concerned almost exclusively with the internal life of the church.1  Ed Stetzer, who propounds a missional matrix of christology, ecclesiology and missiology, comments that the Church Health Movement focuses largely on ecclesiology in order to grow.  Hence, Stetzer argues, “by emphasizing ecclesiology, with a limited Christology and an absent missiology, the Church Health Movement stepped outside of the scriptural and theological foundation leading to blindness to the world outside the church walls.”2  That is to say, if missions or the Great Commission is not the focus and pursuit of the church the latter cannot be deemed to be healthy.

This is where the organic-missional approach to church health needs to be seriously considered.  The primary proponent of this approach is Neil Cole who wrote Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens.3  The purpose of “organic churches” is to multiply healthy disciples, leaders, churches and movements,4 and this multiplication can happen anywhere and everywhere.5  They endeavour to accomplish their purpose by emphasising on the health and the natural means of reproducing the foregoing.[end_notes]Ibid, 23[/efn_note]  Cole argues for the organic nature of the Kingdom of God.6  He uses the agricultural-setting parables of Jesus as his Scriptural basis for organic churches: the sower7 (Mk 4:3-20), the growing seed8 (Mk 4:26-29), and the mustard seed[end_note]Ibid, 97-98[/efn_note] (Mk 4:30-32).

As far as the organic nature of the church is concerned Schwarz and Cole are in agreement.  How they apply that biblical truth, however, differ.  Schwarz would say that we need to produce a healthy environment for the church to grow.9  Cole would say we need to produce the right DNA at every level: the individual disciple, small groups, church and movement so that growth and reproduction take place.10

The stress on the organic nature of the church may at first appear to be the overriding characteristic in Cole’s idea of the church because of the name given to it, namely “the organic church”.  However, the missional aspect of his idea of church cannot be glossed over as secondary.  Missions is at the very heart or thrust of the organic church.11  Indeed his understanding of the DNA of the church is made up of Divine truth, Nurturing relationships and Apostolic mission.12  This DNA may also be seen as Cole’s short list of characteristics of a healthy church, and missions is not only one of three critical components it is also the outward thrust for the church.

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis And The Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything13 has similarities with Cole’s Organic Church.  The trellis refers to the structures and programmes that support the ministry of the church.  The vine essentially refers to the people who are part of the Body of Christ or who will eventually be incorporated into His Body.  Marshall and Payne write, “This is what the growing of the vine really is: it is individual, born-again believers, grafted into Christ by his word and Spirit, and drawn into mutually edifying fellowship with one another.”14  In essence The Trellis and the Vine is the authors’ argument for the church to make paramount disciple-making.  “Church health” is not a term they use, but it would be right to say that in their view when a church gives attention to the vine work of making disciples the church will be healthy.  Their follow up book The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Disciple Making15 provides a detailed roadmap for churches who wish to embark on this journey.  The two key things that such churches must do is one, to develop a culture of making disciples16 and two, multiplying gospel growth through training co-workers.17

It seems odd that while the title of the book is The Trellis and the Vine, nothing significant is said about the trellis.  When the trellis is mentioned it is written with a negative view—that churches have allowed structures, programmes, polity, management and the like to stifle disciple-making.18

Cole’s Organic Church has a better balance, to use Marshall’s and Payne’s imagery, of the trellis and the vine.  Cole writes, “Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible, and internal rather than external.”19  He goes on to draw an imagery from the exoskeleton and endoskeleton of the human body.  He writes, “The structure should not be seen, yet the results of it should be evident throughout the body.  Organization must be secondary to life and must exist to help support the organic life of the body.”20  The church as a living spiritual organism must inevitably be organised.  However, the structures must not dominate the church’s missional purpose of making disciples but to serve it. 

 

CONCLUSION

Each individual approach to church health, principle, biblical and organic-missional, is insufficient to provide us with a comprehensive study and understanding of church health.  The three approaches should be woven together if we are to have a better grasp about what constitutes a healthy church and how we are to measure it.  The student of church health must begin by studying what the Bible says about the church—what it is and what it is to do, as the advocates of the biblical approach would counsel us.  What the Bible says must form the foundation for any definition and set of characteristics of a healthy church.

However, simply knowing what the Bible says about the church is, by itself, insufficient to determine the health of a church.  The latter needs to be analysed, and the process of analysis should include the use of social science research tools. This is one aspect that the principle approach to church health has to offer.  To be certain, the areas to be “measured” are not simply from an organisational aspect, collections and attendance at worship services.  What the Bible says about the life and calling of the church must be our guide.  In this sense the commitment and effectiveness of a church to its missional calling and the Lord’s commission to make disciples, that the organic-missional approach stresses, must play a prominent part in the assessment of the health of a church.

Church Growth Literature Review (Part 2)

(Click here for Part 1)

DIVERSIFICATION OF CHURCH GROWTH TEACHING

In 1982 Wagner invited John Wimber to teach the course MC510: Signs, Wonders and Church Growth at Fuller’s School of World Mission.  As a result of Wimber’s influence Wagner’s views on the work of the Holy Spirit, like spiritual gifts, began to shift.  His shift moved even further in the following years through the influence of people like Cindy Jacobs and Chuck Pierce.  While Wagner was still focussed on church growth, he was, however, looking at other factors of church growth that were not under the classical Church Growth radar like spiritual gifts, prayer and spiritual warfare.  In the revised third edition of Understanding Church Growth (1990) (done with the consent of McGavran) Wagner added a whole new chapter on “Divine Healing and Church Growth”.1 

In Church Growth State of the Art (1986) there was a whole section consisting of four chapters on “Church Growth and the Holy Spirit”.2  One chapter was on the supernatural anointing of the Holy Spirit for ministry and another was on the importance of power encounter for church growth.  The latter chapter being a contribution by John Wimber. 

While Wagner’s shift did not in itself precipitate the diversification of church growth teaching, it however, left an open field for new ideas about church growth to be introduced3 by practitioners (pastors) demographers and church consultants.4  Gary McIntosh has drawn a helpful chart showing the various sub-branches of what he calls the “Popular Church Growth prong”: (1) Systems Research, (2) Survey Research, (3) Polling Research and (4) Anecdotal Research (Stories of Growing Churches).5

Many books published during this time were about principles and strategies for numerical church growth.  They were mostly written from the perspective of the church as an organisation (albeit a biblical, living, spiritual organism). 

The following is a  sampling of such publications. Carl F. George’s How to Break Growth Barriers (1993).6  The basic thesis of his book is that if a pastor is to lead his church to growth he needs to move from being a shepherd to that of a rancher.  In other words, instead of being the primary caregiver the pastor needs to develop others to care for the members of church and do the work of ministry.  Gary L. McIntosh’s One Size Doesn’t Fit All (1999).7  He says that the size of a church determines how it “does church” including how it is structured, the role of the pastor, how decisions are made, and the strategies it deploys to overcome obstacles and grow the church. 

From a more business approach George Barna wrote a highly controversial book called Marketing the Church .8  It was about using the marketing tools of the business world to reach out and to win a church’s target group.  McIntosh comments, “This marketing emphasis effectively turned many people away from the popular notion of church growth, and caused a reaction toward a new paradigm of church health in the mid 1990s.”9

Then there were the books that proposed models of what churches ought to be and do so that they may grow and fulfil the Great Commission mandate. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church (1995)10 was one of the first books that provided a balanced approach (The 5-Purposes) to grow a church.  It detailed a process (The Life Development Process) depicted by the baseball diamond and a plan to move people from Community to Core.  It also incorporated the HUP (although he does not attribute to it) by describing Saddleback’s target group, aka Saddleback Sam and Samantha.  

 

CONCLUSION

As I draw the review of church growth literature to a conclusion, I return to the three questions I posed at the beginning of the article.  First, is church growth teaching to be defined by and limited to McGavran’s and Wagner’s views during the classical Church Growth period?  Advocates of CGM are adamant that church growth teaching must employ “as its initial frame of reference the foundational work done by Donald McGavran and his colleagues.”13  While I concur with this, I believe it would be limiting the usefulness of Church Growth teaching if it did not allow for additional structures to be built on that foundation.  A case in point would be Wagner’s “discoveries” in the healing-prayer-spiritual warfare factor of church growth.14  He was disappointed that McGavran and others did not see that it was very much a part of and concerned the Church Growth field and agenda.  Church health teaching falls in the same vein (I will pick up this thread again when I answer the third and final question).

The second question I posed was: what are the irreducible principles for church growth?  From the review of church growth literature, I believe they would be:

  1. Quantitative and Qualitative Growth.  Churches commissioned by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 must grow both numerically and in spiritual maturity.
  2. Research and Analysis.  Research must be done to learn (a) about the people the church is attempting to reach with the Gospel, (b) the best means to reach this specific group of people, and (c) the hindrances to the growth of the church, and
  3. Strategic Planning.  Determine the best strategies to be deployed based on the research and analysis to accomplish the purpose of the church with the use of planning and programming.15

However, to say that the above three principles of church growth are foundational does not mean that they are exhaustive.  Upon these foundational principles of church growth I believe there should be an openness to allow for other well-tested tenets of church growth to be added to them.  These would include the contributions of specific subjects such as church leadership, spiritual gifts and ministry strategies as they are applied in the church growth context. 

Finally, what influence did church growth teaching have on the later development of church health teaching?  Church health teaching came about as a response to church growth teaching, whether as a correction in relation to some of the misgivings of the latter or as a development of the latter.  The bottom line is that we cannot separate the two.  Church health is a necessary factor for church growth.  The growth of a church, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, is dependent on the health of the church.  I will look further into this as I review church health literature in a subsequent article.

 

Church Growth Literature Review (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

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

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