[Series I] The Theory and Practice of Church Growth

The Theory and Practice of Church Growth

A Paper Presented at the Asian Mission Conference on the
<Theology and Practice of Holistic Mission> organized and co-sponsored by Partnership in Mission – Asia (PIM-Asia) and the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) of Trinity Theological College in Singapore, 6th –10th December 2003,
at the Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

Written By HONG, Young-Gi (Ph.D.)
The Senior Pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.


  The Twentieth Century Protestant Christianity can be characterized as the decline of Western Christianity and the upsurge of non-Western Christianity. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Europeans dominated the Christendom by constituting approximately 70.6 percent of the world’s Christian population. By the end of the Twentieth Century, the European percentage of world Christianity had dropped to 28 percent (Robert, 2000: 50). Influenced by the waves of secularization, many churches in the west failed to provide the meaningful transcendent experiences of God to the people.

  The center of gravity of Christianity has moved from the western to the non-western world. For the first time in church history in the 1980’s, the number of Christians in the non-Western world began to exceed the number of Christians in the Western world. Churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now sending thousands of missionaries to other regions and countries, while the decline and disorientation of the churches in the West has already been a matter of mounting concern (Shenk, 2001: 98).

  One noteworthy feature of Twentieth Century Christianity is the emergence and development of charismatic spirituality advocated by the Pentecostal movement. The Pentecostal movement was “a religion made to travel”, in the words of Harvy Cox (1995: 102), and it has become the largest Christian movement today (Dempster, Klaus, and Petersen, 1999). The identity of the Pentecostal movement is the mission movement by the power of the Holy Spirit (Hong, 2001), and the future of the movement will lie in its understanding of the depth and width of the work of the Holy Spirit. The indigenous charismatic spirituality that could not be embraced by the institutional and theological framework of the Western Christianity has sprouted in many non-Western churches.

  The Twentieth Century Christianity is also characterized by the development of the worldwide mission movements. Many students mission movement, such as CCC, IVF, and YWAM, emerged and institutional mission organizations, such as WCC, WEF, and INFEMIT, have developed. However, we cannot ignore one very significant movement that has profound missiological implications, Church Growth movements advocated by Donald McGavran. The Church Growth movements will be remembered as one of the conspicuous characters of the Twentieth Century mission. The purpose of this paper is to suggest the theory and practical models of Church Growth for further reflection on this topic.


Summary on Modern Development of Church Growth

  Christianity in the non-Western world manifests mainly conservative and indigenous theological orientation. Church Growth follows the theological position of evangelicalism by its stress on personal conversion experience and evangelism. The history and theology of Church Growth Movement can be found in many publications (e.g. Rainer, 1993; Staylor, 1991). Here I want to present a summary to understand Church Growth.

  The concept of Church Growth coined by Donald McGavran implies the priority of mission in church growth. McGavran commenced the Church Growth movement with the realization that liberal mission theology distorted the priority of evangelism in the mission fields and that many mission societies produced little mission results in spite of their input of enormous resources. With doubts about the previous mission methodology in mind, McGavran realized that mission efforts should pay off in winning souls. He defined Church Growth as “effective evangelism”, and emphasized the importance of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. He laid the theoretical foundation of Church Growth by publishing Understanding Church Growth (McGavran, 1970), later known by the Magna Carta of the Church Growth movements.

  Many pupils of McGavran, such as Peter Wagner, Win Arn, Eddie Gibbs, Lyle Schaller, Elmer Towns, and Tom Rainer, developed the church growth theory in the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. It was Peter Wagner who popularized the Church Growth movement. The main locus of Church Growth movement moved from the mission fields back to the local churches. To analyze the causes of the growth or decline of the church was the main concern of Church Growth advocates. The most widely accepted formal definition of Church Growth is the one that is written into the constitution of the North American Society for Church (Wagner, 1989: 114): Church growth is that discipline which investigates the nature, expansion, planting, multiplication, function, and health of Christian churches as they relate to the effective implementation of God’s commission to “make disciples of all peoples” (Mt. 28:18-20).

The main strategies of church growth developed by McGavran and his pupils are as follows:

(1) The priority of numerical church growth: In the times of Donald McGavran, evangelism had been a low priority for the missionaries. Pastoral care, Bible study, and social services were more important than evangelism. So Church Growth movement regards numerical growth through evangelism as the primary concern. However, McGavran also made sure that numerical growth is not the sole goal of growth and should be complemented by good spiritual care.

(2) Concentration on responsive groups: the principle of receptivity means that in any location and at any point in history certain groups of people become particularly responsive to the Christian message, or particularly unresponsive to it. McGavran suggested that the church should attempt to identify responsive groups and develop an appropriate strategy. Charles Van Engen (1981: 454-514) suggested that the Church should not neglect unresponsive areas, while considering the receptivity of the Gospel.

(3) Recognition of homogenous group and people movement: people movement is an interdependent conversion of homogenous individuals in a group, and differs from mass conversion. This principle highlighted the meaning of community in evangelism, but has also drawn criticisms. The main criticisms are that the power of the Gospel can work across cultural barriers, and that this principle is sociologically correct, but not so theologically. However, it is also valid to say that this principle contributed to evangelism.

(4) The use of secular disciplines in Church Growth research: Church Growth movements are positive about utilizing methodologies from social science. However, the scholars who have studied Church Growth through social science methodology differed in their focus. For example, Dean Kelly (1977, 1978) argued that conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist, Pentecostal and Holiness, and Mormon grew because of their belief system endowed with ultimate meaning in life, absolute value, and strictness that puts emphasis on mission and evangelism. Kelly’s focus was on theological orientation and on religious characteristics of the respective members. Some scholars focused their social research on pastor’s authority and factors in leadership (Tamney and Johnson, 1998; Hong, 2000b). Some social scientists, such as Dean Hodge and David Roozen, Wade Roof, and Kirk Hadaway, attempted to research about contextual and institutional factors of Church Growth (cf. Inskeep, 1993; Roozen and Hadaway, 1993). A wide range of sociological approaches on Church Growth may help to find growth or decline factors on Church.

(5) The Use of Spiritual Power: The Church Growth movements believe that the work of the Holy Spirit is significant in the theory and practice of Church Growth. Concerns about spiritual power surmounted since the 1980s. Peter Wagner launched an open class, <Signs and Wonders and Church Growth>, together with John Wimber, in the Fuller Theological Seminary in 1980 and aroused national concerns and controversies. Since then Wagner researched the field of spiritual warfare by utilizing the excluded “middle zone” of Paul Hiebert (1982). Wagner saw that the Church should bear the fruits of evangelism through spiritual warfare, such as effective prayer movement.

Church Growth, in general, can be classified as four types:

(1) internal growth (qualitative growth); (2) expansion growth (biological growth + transfer growth + conversion growth); (3) extension growth (planting new churches); and (4) bridging growth (planting new churches in different cultures). The emphasis of Church Growth movements is “conversion growth,” not “biological growth” nor “transfer growth,” as the main means of increasing membership through an ongoing program of evangelism and discipleship in a church (cf. Wagner, 1984). I believe that when Church Growth movements commit themselves to conversion growth, some misconceptions about Church Growth may be resolved.

  How is Church Growth different from evangelism? Evangelism is primarily related to conversion growth. Further it touches on issue of biological growth because in a concrete sense the children of believers need to be evangelized. Church Growth analyzes how some churches grow and decline and some churches experience healthy transfer growth. So in this sense, the scope of Church Growth is broader than that of evangelism. However, evangelism is critical in the development of church growth strategy.

  How is church growth different from mission? There have been varied definitions of mission. In a wider sense, mission is “the redemptive ministry of God carried out in the world”. In earlier days, mission was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms (i.e. saving individuals from eternal damnation), or in cultural terms (i.e. introducing people to the blessing of the Christian West), or in ecclesiological categories (i.e. the expansion of the church, or a specific denomination). However since the First World War, the mission of God, Missio Dei, surfaced clearly, and mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God (Bosch, 1992: 389-393). Mission is to establish the kingdom of God over the whole creation (Hong, 2001: 297-298). Therefore, the scope of mission is much broader than of Church Growth. We can place the scope of evangelism, church growth, and mission in the following order:

Mission > Church Growth > Evangelism

  Today Church Growth movements need to revitalize the spirit of Donald McGavran, “Church Growth as effective evangelism”, as many churches today grow by transfer growth. The greatest contributions of Church Growth movements to mission were the increase of concerns for evangelism, passion for the growth of the Church, practical development of mission strategies, and the popular dissimilation of the concept of Church Growth. The principles and meaning of Church Growth will develop through ongoing Biblical reflection and contextual application.


To be Continued…

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