[Series III] 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 Missiological Tasks of Church Growth

  The Models of Church Growth are in need of further reflection. It is evident that Church Growth movements have had a great influence on effective evangelism and on world mission. However, it also needs to develop indepth reflection missiologically.


1. Reflection on the Nature of Mission

  Church Growth movements have shown interest in the numbers of converts. Numbers are not just numbers but the numbers of souls that are saved. However, the emphasis on numerical growth has generated misunderstanding or malfunctions of church ministry. For example, misguided idea was developed on the notion that the essence of mission was limited to Church Growth or the quantitative growth of the church. As Eddie Gibbs (1990) pointed out, this may lead to the institutionalization of the church hence, hence growth triumphalism. Church Growth needs to develop interest both in world mission and in the growth of the local congregation. There is a need to continue to reflect on the meaning of mission, while to revitalize the importance of evangelism on what the Church Growth could contribute to world mission.


2. Reflection on the Kingdom of God

Some scholars criticize that the misunderstanding or malfunctions about church growth is due to the lack of ecclesiological reflection. This weak reflection on ecclesiology is caused by unclear treatment on the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Church. Peter Wagner argued that Church Growth should not be confused with self-multiplication or the institutional preservation made by humans. Conversion growth is closest to Kingdom growth. The Kingdom of God should be the theological foci of church growth (Hong, 2000a: 197-198). Such foci will trigger conversion growth, will decrease the idea of local congregationalism, and will strengthen the partnership of mission in symbiosis between the large churches and small churches.

Recommendations : I want to suggest a missiological eschatology for Church Growth that aims to experience the foretaste of the Kingdom to come. Elsewhere I had suggested a holistic mission paradigm that is made up of ten leading characteristics in regard to the coming Kingdom (Hong, 2003c). The ministrial experience of the church is the eschatological foretaste of the Kingdom. It is the mission of the Church to embody the Kingdom characteristics in this world through its various ministries:

  1. Evangelism: all people will acknowledge Jesus as Christ and Lord in the coming eschaton.
  2. Discipleship: all people will obey the sovereignty of God in the coming eschaton.
  3. Healing: no one will be sick or suffering in the coming eschaton.
  4. Gifting ministry: no one will goof around, but all people will serve God with their given responsibility in the coming eschaton.
  5. Worship: all people will praise and worship God to their heart in the coming eschaton.
  6. Unity in diversity: all people will be one-minded in unity regardless of race, gender, and social class in the coming eschaton.
  7. Peace: there will be the world of peace (shalom) without war or conflict in the coming eschaton.
  8. Justice: there will be the world of justice in economic, political, and social areas in the coming eschaton.
  9. Creation set free: all creations will be set free and restored in the coming eschaton.
  10. Love and fellowship: the love of God rule over the kingdom of God.


  The genuine growth of the church will embody the Kingdom characteristics and this will be possible only when the church becomes truly a missionary church. A missionary church will also embrace a self-identity of a pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of God.


3. Reflection on the Research Tools

  The research tools in Church Growth research needs to have more clarification. The development of measuring tools on qualitative growth of the church, and the relationship between social science methodology and theological reflection (the balance between phenomenology and theology) are in need to have indepth examination. The case studies of global church growth should be introduced and theorized.


4. Reflection on an Integrative Theological System

  Church Growth needs to develop a missiology in the framework of Biblical theology (cf. Peters, 1981). We are in need of a comprehensive biblical theology which integrates church growth within a Scriptural canon. We still await the work which could integrate Church Growth with the other theological themes, notably with soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and the doctrine of God (Cotterell, 1990: 168). As Delos Miles (1981: 143) pointed out, Church Growth movements should enlarge its theological focus beyond the current limited scope of ecclesiology.

5. Reflection on Evangelical Social Theology.

  Peter Wagner (1989) suggests that evangelistic mandate has a priority over cultural mandate. Wagner (1989: 102-105) points out the danger of eliticism, the danger of split, the danger of inhumanism, and the danger of social powerlessness as the reasons for social participation prevents the church from growing. However, many evangelicals argue that the relationship between evangelism and social work of the church is not a matter of a linear order of priority. Orlando Costas (1979: 75) argued that the true testing of mission lies in not just the preaching of the Gospel, or discipling, or participating in socio-political issues, but in the way to incorporate these elements as comprehensive, dynamic, and consistent testimony on Church Growth.

  It is noteworthy that many evangelicals have participated in social and political issues more positively during the two decades (cf. Hong, 2002a; Hong, 2003b). The fundamental sound and meaningful basis for Christian interpretation of society and behavior must come from sound theological understanding of Church Growth. Understanding social participation of the church is intertwined with the understanding of the gospel and the mission of the church. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden focused their ministry to the development of the theory and practice of holistic mission (Samuel and Sugden, 2000). Today many churches are influenced by the notion of holistic mission. Church Growth today should stop arguing for the priority between evangelism and social participation and should present the holistic Gospel to advance a Christian vision for society.


Implications on Church Growth in the Asian Context

  I suggested in the introduction that the center of gravity of Christianity has moved from the western to non-western world. I believe that Asian churches may be the center. So I want to finally reflect on the growth of the Asian churches in the future. Asia has the largest population in the world (sixty percent of the total), but the percentage of Christians is the lowest (8%). However, the growth of Asian Christianity since the 1960s is most rapid and very striking, as compared with other continents (cf. Johnstone, 1998: 109-116). The following figure shows the growth rate of the Christian population in each continent since 1960 (The 1960 total is taken as the starting base, 100) (<Figure 4>).

<Figure 4> The Growth of Christendom by Continent 1960-2010 (Percentage)

  It is projected that World Christian population will double in 50 years (1960-2010). Christian population has grown faster in Africa and Asia, where the growth has been five-fold, slightly faster in South America (Brierley, 1998: 39). The fact is that Asian churches are growing. For example, Korean Protestant population increased from 600,000 in 1960 to 87,600,000 in 1995. It is estimated that Chinese Protestant population increased three millions in 1980 to over 40 millions in 2003 (Chan, 2003). The phenomenal growth of Asian Christianity has also implications and tasks for world Christianity. Here I want to suggest a few critical issues, though there will, of course, be many issues relating to the development of Asian churches.

  First, there is a need for the development of Asian spirituality and Church leadership. Where major traditional religions (e.g. Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism) are prevalent among the Asian people, religious persecution still takes place today. Asian churches need to develop spirituality to confront religious persecution. As Asian churches today are facing with increasing amount of religious persecution and we can deal with religious persecution with our spiritual solidity. Asian churches are also facing with issues of increasing number of nominal Christians (Hong, 1999; Gibbs, 1993). It implies that the spiritual state of Asian churches is in threat in spite of their growth. We need to develop the dynamic spirituality of the Holy Spirit Movement to revitalize the nominal Christians.

  Spirituality is the crucial matter of Church leadership. Asian churches need to learn and develop the spirituality and leadership of Asian Christian leaders, such as Vinay Samuel and David Yong Gi Cho had done. For example, we can study the Fourth Dimension Spirituality advanced by Rev. David Yong Gi Cho. Cho (2003) suggests that the Third Dimension (time, space, and material) is ruled by the Fourth Dimension and the spiritual tools of the Fourth Dimension that hover over and change the Third Dimension are thinking, dreams and visions, faith, prayer, and words. We need to learn and study more these spiritual principles from Dr. Cho (cf. Cho, 1984).

  We need to pay attention to the advice of Vinay Samuel who has modeled Christian leadership in Asia. Samuel (2003) suggests the need to develop entrepreneurial leaders and transformational leaders for the healthy growth of the Asian churches:

I believe Church leaders can model transformational leadership not only for the church but also For other areas of life, particularly areas that affect the daily life of people…Much of Asia is still unevangelised. While we have seen great church growth in the past fifty years, it has been confined to few nations and there is yet no strong evidence that it is a sustainable growth. The challenge to develop leaders for church growth in the 21st century is the key challenge for this first decade of the century. We need to build entrepreneurial leaders and transformational leaders. We need to replicate the successful models we have grown. We need to ensure that growth is both extensive and intensive.

  As Samuel suggests, leadership development will be the most crucial task for the future of Asian Christianity. We need spiritual leaders who have sound theological mind and scholars who have passionate pastoral mind.

  Second, there is a need for effective networking among Asian churches, which will contribute to the development of Asian churches. For example, in the future, the Mega-Church Model of the Korean church may possibly influence the Chinese churches, as China become more open. China does not have enough pastors, and the Mega-Church phenomenon may be an economic way of doing massive teachings. Chinese churches can learn something more when they reflect on the past of the Mega-church Model. The Korean church will be challenged by the suffering spirituality developed by the Chinese church. The communication and dialogue of the Asian churches will make Asian churches more dynamic, and increase their influence on the world Christendom. Asian churches need to share their Christian spirituality and leadership that can enrich the world churches. Globalization will affect the migration of Asians and communication systems. This implies that the theory and practice of Church Growth in Asia will influence the universal churches.

  The networking of Asian churches may contribute to the new theory and practice of Church Growth. The experience of the growth of the Chinese churches may not suit the current church growth theory (cf. Chan and Yamamori, 2000). We have to study the new phenomenon of Church Growth to come up with a new theory. Therefore, I want to propose to inaugurate an Asian Society for Church Growth (ASCG) for more effective research and networking. ASCG can network organizations and church leaders and scholars altogether who are interested in the growth of the body of the Lord in Asia. ASCG will have to study the phenomenal growth of church growth in Asia with the reflection on holistic mission. It will also have to develop suitable models for Church Growth in Asia. We already have American Society for Church Growth, British Association for Church Growth, European Association for Church Growth, and Korean Society for Church Growth. ASCG may develop later into the International Society for Church Growth (ISCG). I believe that ASCG and Christian leaders with spirituality and scholarship can carry out the Missiological Tasks of Church Growth that I suggested in earlier section.

  Currently environment for church growth is not too promising. The trends of modernity and globalization are affecting the churches today (Hong, 2002b; Hong, 2003a). They may be obstacles or opportunities for Christian mission and that depends on Church leadership with spirituality and creativity. Asian churches should not be discouraged while marching toward the Kingdom of God and bearing the hope of Church Growth. It is my earnest prayer that Asian churches as well as the world churches will continue to grow so that the glory of God will be manifested.


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