If your church isn’t growing, you have no excuse. Scads of books tell you how to bring in the sheaves—church growth is popular stuff.

What has come formally to be labeled the “church growth” movement started in the 1950s by concentrating on foreign missions. Its objective, according to its founder, Donald McGavran, was “to make more effective the propagation of the gospel and the multiplication of churches on new ground.” By the early seventies, American church leaders began to see how the principles and strategies developed for the Third World could apply to churches in the U.S. The church-growth movement in general has been new, bold, and in many ways successful. It is easy to take pot shots at anything new, bold, and successful; many have. This article, however, is a critique of what seem to be basic premises underlying what has developed in the movement—not to debunk the research or theories of anyone, but to help shape our awareness of church growth and to guide in the application of such research and ideas in our churches. We will look at the church, at growth, at the scientific basis of church growth, and at basic purposes.

The Church

When they say “the church,” church-growth people mean two things. Paul wrote to local bodies of Christ’s followers in Ephesus, Corinth, Rome; he also spoke of the entire body of Christians transcending time and place. So, church growth works on two levels. The church (universal) grows as people commit themselves to Jesus Christ. One’s commitment to Christ is fleshed out by participation with a local church—the body of Christ in a particular place.

So evangelism—inviting people to join the church (universal)—is rightly fulfilled by inviting people to join a church. The tragedy of an “evangelism only” movement like “Here’s Life, America” is that apparently only a tiny fraction of those making “decisions” for Christ ever joined a church. Of course, as our Lord taught, even 100 souls are of infinite value. Still, we need to ask ourselves: Why not reach 200 and make sure we are not doing things that limit us to 100?

Christianity is a personal thing, but it is also corporate. Going to church does not make someone a Christian; but it is the proper environment for the worship, spiritual growth, fellowship, and ministry of one who has become a Christian. Our concept of evangelism must broaden beyond doctrinal statements and “born again” terminology to promote life commitment to Christ, involving commitment to a church.

There are two major pitfalls to avoid. The first is “churchianity”—the idea that church attendance is sufficient for salvation. In church growth efforts, we must be careful to preach Christ, not First Church. To have people join the local church without joining the church (universal) through faith in Christ is even more tragic than the inverse. The second pitfall is pride. It is wrong for Pastor A to push church growth because he wants his church to be bigger than Pastor B’s church. The only kingdom we should build is that of Jesus Christ.

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Churches are not supposed to dwindle and die. They should grow. Scripture abounds with analogies of plants growing, and buildings being built, and cups running over. Only the most acidic cynic would decry the growth of the church. But what does growth mean? A 12-year-old has grown a lot since he was 5. He is taller, heavier, and he may even know what the capital of Michigan is. He may know enough to sit and nod politely when adults are talking.

Churches grow in a lot of ways, too. They include more people; they build new buildings; they add programs; members become more active in community life; they give more to missions; they grow more Christlike.

The scientists of church growth focus on numerical growth. This is partly because, as a science, church growth must deal with measurable growth. It is also a reaction to some attitudes present in the church 20 years ago, and which have continued. One of these attitudes is what Donald McGavran calls a “remnant theology,” which, in Peter Wagner’s words, takes “a certain satisfaction in being a minority despised by unbelievers. They consider their unattractiveness a virtue and enjoy being described as ‘separate from the world’.” To proponents of “remnant theology,” numerical church growth indicates that a church is catering to the world rather than following the commands of Christ. But too often this has been used to rationalize lethargy, and a church’s failure to follow the commands of Christ.

Another attitude might be called a “seed-sowing theology.” This says it is not our business to get results: that is up to God. We just preach the Word and trust that it won’t return void. McGavran, in Understanding Church Growth, challenges this. The Great Commission in Matthew, rightly translated, says, “Go … and make disciples from every nation …” We serve a God who finds people. We are his agents in this finding. To “send the light” and not to “bring them in” is not being fully faithful.

Numerical growth is also important, we are told, because the church in Acts recorded success in numerical terms. “In the New Testament, evangelistic effectiveness is a quality that is constantly measured in quantitative terms,” says Vergil Gerber.

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Certainly we have those great accounts early in Acts where the Lord added to the church 5,000 souls, and again 3,000. But the counting seems to stop there. Christ admonished the church in Ephesus, not because its attendance was down, but because it had left its first love. Paul prayed that the Colossians might walk in a manner “worthy of the Lord,” not that they should move into a new Sunday school building. Paul instructed Timothy not on ways to bring more people in, but on keeping them in, caring for Christians, guarding them from heresy. Somehow, while evangelism is never slighted, church growth does not seem to be primarily a numerical thing in Scripture, even in the few verses early in Acts.

Church-growth specialists say that if a church is healthy it should grow in all ways, and numerical growth will accurately indicate total growth. On the other hand, when a church’s attendance plateaus or plummets, it shows that something is wrong. But what about those churches that do everything right—but nobody comes? And what about those big churches that grow like mad—but you know something is drastically wrong?

The exceptions do not invalidate the rule, they just bend it a bit. We should take care to avoid two rigid extremes. One is “resultiness,” which aims to achieve numerical results without regard to the propriety of the methods. For example, if I am obsessed with getting 300 people to church, I may invite a lion tamer to do his thing some Sunday morning. If we publicized it well, we would get our 300, but it wouldn’t do us much good. So many churches seem to attract members by conducting Sunday morning circuses. They’re bursting at the seams. But are they successful?

A second extreme to avoid is lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit. The Lord has his own timing, and sometimes his ways are far beyond ours. Peter Wagner is right when he disagrees with Christians who “tend to think that the more a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, the less he has to use his mind.” At the same time, however, we should preserve a trace of mystery. John V. Taylor, in The Go-Between God, states it this way: “While we piously repeat the traditional assertion that without the Holy Spirit we can get nowhere in the Christian mission, we seem to press on notwithstanding with our man-made programmes. I have not heard recently of committee business adjourned because those present were still awaiting the arrival of the Spirit of God. I have known projects abandoned for lack of funds, but not for lack of gifts of the Spirit.”

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These two cautions—against resultiness and Spirit blindness—may sound like a return to “remnant theology” and “seed sowing.” They are, in fact, moderations, grabbing the elements of those theologies that temper the excesses of the church-growth movement.


The sciences of anthropology, psychology, and sociology, which dig for truth about man, his mind, and his community, are important to church-growth scholars. It is the scientific nature of church-growth scholarship, however, that forces it to consider only measurable growth and neglect invisible growth in the Spirit. Science, or at least the scientific method we are used to, is phenomenological, objective, based on appearances. A scientist must learn to observe, and not to assume anything his senses do not tell him. A scientist can observe certain patterns and suggest hypotheses, but his body of data is limited to the perceivable and (for the most part) the measurable.

This “phenomenological method” is a valuable discipline in the pursuit of objective truth. But it goes astray when it becomes no longer a method but a doctrine. That is, we err when we begin to believe that man is the sum of his parts, or that a church is just a group of people. It ignores the invisible, the God element. This is the bane of phenomenological psychology. According to some behaviorists, man is just some elaborate machine that responds in certain ways to certain stimuli. This method of study is not all bad—it helps us to explore the intricacies of who we are. But when we treat people as machines, we do wrong.

This “phenomenological error” takes a different form in anthropology and sociology—the idea, “What is, is right.” (Though, actually, there is no right or wrong about it. “What is, is, and that’s all that matters.”) We study the development of man and the community of man and detect certain patterns. For the sake of clear observation, it is important not to clutter up experiments with vague notions of right and wrong. But this experimental attitude has so captured our whole society that we tend to deny all right and wrong. There is only, What is and what will work. Ethics become unmeasurable, unimportant.

Church-growth science makes some of the same mistakes. Churches become not organisms, woven in mystery by an invisible God, but groups of people who claim to believe the same things and like to get together every week or so. H. Newton Malony writes in Fuller Theological Seminary’s Theology, News, and Notes, “Churches should be looked upon as if they were organizations. They are not unique entities simply because they are religious bodies. They are more like Western Airlines than a heavenly choir. More like Hartford Insurance Company than the Kingdom of God. Churches are organizations in that they too are intentionally created, rationally designed groups of persons organized to meet a human need.”

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I couldn’t disagree more. The church is an organism, not an organization. It was established by Jesus Christ, not invented by corporate wizards. The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all, the Israel of God.

Here, too, in this phenomenological, scientific way of seeing, the “homogeneous unit principle” of the church-growth school rears its head. It is an observable fact that people tend to gather together with people of their own culture (race, economic level, social stratum, etc.). Recognizing that people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers, church-growth scientists say it won’t work to merge people of different cultures into the same church, so we shouldn’t try it. Others, reading the Bible’s strong language about Jew-Gentile relations (all one in Christ), say that such merging may defy observable facts, but that it is right because God said so.

Rufus Jones, former director of the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society, has been a particularly vocal opponent of the homogeneous unit principle. He asks: “Is not the church a demonstration of how racial and social prejudice and bigotry can be broken down when people submit themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ?” Jones does not oppose the use of science to make our evangelism more effective. He opposes drawing our ideas of right or wrong from science (what is). “Sociology informs us,” he says, “that if we follow the teaching of the Bible, the church will not grow. Our answer should be that we should never put the word of sociologists above the Word of God. The Bible, not sociology, is our authority.” Bigger numbers in the church may or may not be good, but doing what is ethically right and obeying God is always good.

Another result of the “phenomenological error of church growth is that people become merely objects of evangelism and then evangelizers themselves—a means to accomplish the task. One Christian leader, quoted in an early Church Growth Bulletin, supported the emphasis on numbers by saying, “The fewer Christians there are, the fewer potential witnesses for Christ.” This may be true, but it gives one the feeling that the church is some kind of assembly line and that merely by becoming Christians all Christians are especially effective as witnesses for Christ.

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An interesting development in church-growth literature of late has been a reemphasis on people. The movement can get too task oriented and neglect people. And when people are neglected, they complain and go home and the system stops working well. So church-growth people, noticing this tragedy, urge pastors not to ignore people. Be more people oriented, they say now, so we can better accomplish the task. Once again, people are a means to an end. We are not the glories of God’s creation, bearing his image, thus deserving dignity; we are rather teachers and workers and bodies in pews.

Science is not bad, but it is limited. We need to employ science wherever we can to understand the works of God better. But we must also understand that the paths of God are untraceable. His wisdom is so deep that science can only follow it so far before it must come up for air.


Church-growth people are big on purpose. For any organization to succeed, it must know what it wants to do, how it will do it, and how well it has done. Purpose; method; evaluation: that is good advice for churches that plod along, doing what they do because they have always done it—but they’re not sure why.

What then is the ultimate purpose or goal of the church? That is so fundamental a question that it is surprising we don’t ask it more often. George Hunter wrote in the Church Growth Bulletin, “It is evangelism. It is the heart of our mission. The church exists for this purpose and becomes merely a religious club without it.” Vergil Gerber has written, “Unless pastor and people literally burn with incendiary mission purpose, the church’s very reason for being will be extinguished.” H. Newton Malony wrote, “The church meets human needs. If it did not, it would cease to exist. It would have no further reason for being … the church is in the grace business. It supplies grace to a needy world. This is its mission.”

But these answers aren’t true. At the very least, they are lopsided. The church’s main purpose is not evangelism. Look at the Bible. Certainly there are many verses telling us to tell others of our rebirth—but that is not the main thread in the fabric of the church’s purpose. What did Jesus say when asked to name the greatest commandment in the Law? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (LB). “Love your neighbor” took second place. But nothing, absolutely nothing else counted, unless it fitted into these two because ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ ”

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Read Jesus’ prayer in John 17. He prayed first for the disciples’ relationship to God; second, for their unity; third, for their outreach. What are the themes of Ephesians and Colossians, those manuals on church life? What about Revelation, the eternal letter to all churches? What is the purpose of the church? It is the glory of God. That is why we worship. That is why we fellowship. That is why we evangelize. Church growth is not all important: God’s glory is. This does not slight the importance of evangelism. It merely sets it in the context of a whole church life—worship, fellowship, witness. This concept is not foreign to the church-growth movement, but some have overlooked it in their rush to get the job done. The God who finds people seeks people to worship him. This is the startling implication of John 4:23. But are we truly fulfilling our purpose when, in our zeal to get more people into the church, we are too busy, too preoccupied, to worship God ourselves?

Some people seem to have the idea that many churches are now social clubs—ingrown—and the only remedy is a renewal of mission. I suggest that a better remedy for a “social club” church is a renewal of worship. The people of God have always been characterized by their worship of the true Lord. The church is primarily a worshiping community, and true worship erupts in blessing for the worshiper and mission to the world. A church that worships—that really seeks to please God—will have fellowship with each other in God, not just in tuna casseroles and softball. That same worship will be a witness to the world. Proper fellowship will also be a witness to the world.

When evangelism is the ultimate goal, all sorts of mistakes can be committed in order to get people saved. The church becomes a business organization; Christians become salesmen. Will it work? becomes a much more important question than, Will it please God? Sunday morning becomes a variety show. People complain because the church isn’t growing enough. Pastors leave; churches split; people hurt. Extremes, yes. But these all happen so easily when evangelism and church growth become the number one priority. Let’s put evangelism in its place—a very, very important place—but not above worship and fellowship.

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The church-growth movement is reactionary. In a number of ways, it has sought to rectify the missions of earlier times. The homogeneous unit principle, the emphasis on numbers, the misuse of science—all have been framed in antithesis to colonialism, inefficiency, closed-mindedness, and a multitude of other things. The problem I see with the church-growth movement in general is its lack of perspective. When all is seen in antithesis to the past, one can invent all sorts of opposite extremes. Thus, the homogeneous unit principle, which arose in answer to the racism of colonial missions (“become like us in order to join the church”), can support a whole new racism of strict segregation.

We desperately need perspective on these matters. Scholars from all sides have had a heyday misunderstanding each other, and that has occasioned considerable controversy. But we cannot go on like this. If we need to discard pet terms and phrases so we can understand each other better—so be it. If we need to understate our cases, let us do so. We must learn to discern. Valuable insights can be learned from church-growth principles. A glimmer of wisdom can be caught from the homogeneous unit principle and refashioned into a brilliant success in the local church. An idea long held may be perceived as making no sense, and church-growth experts seen as really having a better idea. Emulation of the ten biggest churches in America may not be desirable, while seeing the people on one block come to Christ is. Some theories of the church-growth people may be adopted, and others rejected. There are such options.

Many who like the church-growth movement like it too much—they live or die by it and carry its insights too far. Many who dislike the church-growth movement don’t know it well enough to have the right to dislike it—they have never set foot in the stream. Their objections often grow out of misunderstandings and false impressions. Both diehard disciples and ignorant iconoclasts need discernment, perspective, dialogue, wisdom, and love.

This is not to suggest that all we should do is sit around and talk while the task awaits accomplishment. But what task? Worship? Edification? Evangelism? Where? Who should do it and how? It helps to count the cost of building the barn before starting construction.

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Max DePree, in Theology, News, and Notes, gives wise direction: “First, we should ask ourselves why we are in business. Second, what, therefore, do we want to do? Third, in what manner are we going to do what it is we’ve decided to do?” And I would like to suggest that we let quantity be the consequence.

Because of CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s vital concern for evangelism and church growth, the editors sought comments on Randy Petersen’s essay from a number of persons who have been heavily involved in church-growth ministries. Donald McGavran’s experience in India and subsequent studies pioneered the church-growth movement. Terry Hulbert and Vergil Gerber have taught seminars in many countries.

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