Many evangelicals are drawn to the cults, not because of beliefs or doctrine, but because of similar religious sensitivities.
Two recent books apply a strong dose of theological savvy in support of this controversial topic.
A theology of church growth by George Peters and an apology for church growth by Peter Wagner may well revive the church growth movement that was so prominent in the 1970s. A decade ago, this movement swept like a tidal wave from the mission fields into North America. A plethora of church growth books quickly appeared on the subject and its guru, Donald McGavran, retired. “Kingdom theologies” and sociopolitical action slowly nudged church growth out of its former prominence. Except for the committed, it appeared that the movement would quietly slip from evangelical vocabulary much as Evangelism-in-Depth and body life did.
But this is not so. George Peters has written a sound theological study of church growth centered on the Book of Acts. He establishes that church growth is not merely a fad of nineteenth- and twentieth-century evangelicalism, but rather an expression characteristic of the very roots of Christianity. Church growth should be the concern of every generation because it is biblically normative. He has revived the legitimacy of vibrant church growth.
In writing A Theology of Church Growth (Harper & Row, 1981), Peters has drawn upon exacting academic preparation, wide reading in German as well as in English, and decades of theological discipline as a seminary professor. Extensive world travel has further enhanced the perspective his own cross-cultural missionary experience has contributed. The overview of his published A Biblical Theology of Missions (Moody Press, 1972) has given him a balanced perspective that theologians, missiologists, or behavioral scientists often seem to lack
Peters begins by asserting that the Book of Acts is the primary textbook in world evangelism and church growth. In Acts 1:8 the Master has given “His principle directives for this great building program: these directives are gradually unfolded” (p. 16). Peters believes that wherever Acts 1:8 was faithfully discharged, the Holy Spirit enabled a church to be born, and then formed it. He recognizes that church growth takes place in society, yet he ascribes the ultimate cause of church growth to the Holy Spirit.
In Acts, numerical growth is a fact. Nevertheless, quantitative growth can be deceptive for “it may be no more than the mushrooming of a mechanically induced, psychological or social movement, a numerical count, an agglomeration of individuals or groups, an increase of body without the development of muscle and vital organs” (p. 23). Peters gives no comfort in his book to subbiblical views of church growth, whether in politicized ecclesiastical history or in our own day of manipulative behavioral sciences.
Peters concedes that the Bible is not a book about church growth, but about preaching the gospel. The goal is evangelization, but he considers ecclesiocentricity foreign to the Bible. He comes down hard on some of us when he says, “This is an age when church planting, church growth, church expansion, and church multiplication have become evangelical obsessions, when sociology and anthropology have become more dominant in missiology than the Bible and theology, when technology and methodology are better known than the divine moving of the Holy Spirit” (p. 45). All will not agree with Peters, but they will be stimulated to serious reflection on the mission of the church and its relationship to the Spirit and to the kingdom.
The relationship of the kingdom to the church and to the local church is carefully analyzed, for it has become one of the recently revived issues the pastor and missionary must confront. How much time and money should be dedicated to the kingdom’s sociopolitical responsibilities, and how much to evangelism, church planting, and church growth? Peters’s sober treatment of biblical texts leads him to support the present as the church age, but the present age also includes a limited unfolding of the kingdom. His well-organized presentation seems to be a preview of the revived kingdom-church debate that formerly raged in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy early in this century.
As pastors see themselves in “the ends of the earth” rather than in “Jerusalem,” they will also profit by what many tend to dismiss as missionary concerns. This is especially true of what Peters calls areas or parishes of “high potentiality.” This is his unique way of addressing the receptivity to the gospel of a neighborhood, a people, an ethnic grouping, or even a nation overseas. Peters’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit in this age leads him to an almost unbridled optimism concerning the ultimate receptivity to the gospel of people everywhere. Many missiologists appear to depend upon social or political upheavals to initiate readiness for religious change. While Peters recognizes a possible relationship with “high potentiality,” he focuses upon the spiritually whitened harvest fields, which “are not the same as psychological and social moods and circumstances.” High potentiality can be turned into evangelistic results only “by the presence of Christians and/or the Word of God.” The Holy Spirit brings readiness, he says, but it is the Christian’s responsibility to labor.
No less important in this discussion is Peters’s treatment of the Holy Spirit and the way in which he relates to all of humanity. How does he work in general history, in Israel, and in the church? Basic to Peters’s understanding of these relationships is the Heilsgeschichtliche theological principle: because of the Spirit working in history, the world is not a madhouse, but an arena—a battlefield between the forces of light and darkness—where the final outcome is assured. At the Parousia, the return of Christ, Satan will be destroyed, and Christ’s victory will liberate the world from exploitation, oppression, and religious bondage.
Upon these theological foundations, and because the church is God’s church, Peters moves into church growth as God’s primary means to reach the world. Four pillars comprise the remaining substantive chapters relating to the growth of the church. The first pillar considers the fitness of the church as a qualitative community (Acts 1–5). Pillar two examines the need for an “adequate and serviceable” church structure for growth (Acts 6–7). The third pillar involves several chapters concerning the multiple functions of the church both “inwardly” and “outwardly” (Acts 8–12). Here, his 13 principles of church growth become the heart of his study. Pillar four concludes with the focus of the church upon world evangelization (Acts 13–28).
This book contains a wealth of serious theological reflection accompanied by abundant biblical texts. It will, in all likelihood, become required reading for church growth pastors as well as pastoral and missionary-oriented students.
Peter wagner has likewise studied the major critiques that have confronted the church growth movement over the past decade. His is a mature treatment of contemporary issues that he skillfully simplifies by drawing upon his experience in classroom and communications. Church Growth and the Whole Gospel attempts to enter into serious discussion with detractors of the church growth movement, and brings up to date Donald McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth of a decade ago. This book clearly establishes Wagner as McGavran’s successor and the leader of the contemporary church growth movement.
Church Growth and the Whole Gospel could be subtitled “How My Mind Has Changed” or “A Contemporary Apologetic for the Church Growth Movement.” It contains a subtle but distinct reaffirmation of Donald McGavran’s basic principles in a popular, yet developed perspective. A reader’s enthusiasm for the book grows as he enters into the substance of Wagner’s argument.
Evangelicals are newly interested in the kingdom—probably stimulated by the World Council of Churches’ Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of Melbourne 1980. Wagner begins his study of the acute issues confronting every minister and missionary by carefully reflecting on the kingdom. He observes that “kingdom theology” in its various forms sustains the social or horizontal dimension of the gospel among many evangelicals.
He goes on to add a much-needed stress on the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28 in which the first recorded command was given to mankind: creation was to be treated as God himself would treat it. On the twin bases of the kingdom and the cultural mandate, Wagner concludes, “No one can be a kingdom person without loving one’s neighbor. No Christian can please God without fulfilling the cultural mandate” (pp. 12–13).
Wagner points out the dangers of “selective obedience.” He finds that some read the Scripture with “sociopolitical eyes” only, and then neglect the miraculous and supernatural signs of the kingdom represented by the healing and exorcisms of Jesus recorded in the Gospels (Luke 7:21–22). Others read the Scriptures without giving due attention to the present manifestation of the kingdom in anticipation of its literal fulfillment.
From the vantage point of the kingdom and cultural mandate, Wagner examines objections raised to the church growth movement. One major objection considered asserts that God wants his kingdom to grow; it is nowhere stated in Scripture that God wants his church to grow, for this is an ecclesiocentric, not a Christ-centered, idea. All church growth, Wagner recognizes, is not necessarily kingdom growth—because of the tares—but church growth is a penultimate task while kingdom growth is the ultimate task.
Wagner moves briskly and helpfully from priorities influencing the financial support of missions to sociopolitical change, from discipling to ethical awareness, from homogeneity to racism, from the United Presbyterian Church to Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority, from Jim Wallis of Sojourners to smoking as a social issue. Wagner investigates deep truths in popular terms, making them available and interesting to layman as well as pastor. Though many will disagree on some details, as I do, all will agree he has done a good job in confronting contemporary issues. He has interacted with both evangelical and nonevangelical critics of the church growth movement, and has renewed its biblical credibility.
If Peters and Wagner keep it up, the church growth movement will challenge believers not only in this generation, but also in the next.
Arthur P. Johnston is professor of world mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is author of The Battle for World Evangelism (Tyndale, 1978).
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