Chapter 1:
The History of the Church Growth Movement

Students like Mark have become easy to spot. Mark came to the opening session of my church growth class at seminary and sat conspicuously on the back row. He took in every word I said. By the third class he was asking a plethora of debating questions. Mark was the classic church growth skeptic.

The reward for me as his professor came at the end of the semester. On an evaluation of the class, Mark wrote these words: "Dr. Rainer, I took your class to fulfill a requirement for graduation. I initially had no desire to study church growth. For various reasons my attitude about church growth was very negative. I realize now that my attitude was the result of a lot of misinformation. Though I am not 'sold' on everything about church growth, I do feel very positive about the contributions of the movement. Thanks for 'clearing the air.' "

In the pages that follow, I hope to "clear the air"— to provide information about one of the most exciting developments in twentieth-century Christianity. In this section we will see how the movement began and what precipitated its birth. We will see the distinct eras of church growth and the struggles and victories of each era. We will see a movement that has entered an era of maturity, gaining acceptance in the larger evangelical community. Before we begin the journey, it is necessary to introduce and define some basic terms and concepts.

What Is Church Growth?

Because the words "church growth" are such common names, confusion abounds about the precise meaning of the phrase. When the North American Society for Church Growth wrote its constitution, it included a lengthy definition of church growth:

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" (Matt. 28:18-20). Students of church growth strive to integrate the eternal theological principles of God's Word concerning the expansion of the church with the best insights of contemporary social and behavioral sciences, employing as the initial framework of reference the foundational work done by Donald McGavran.

This definition, though wordy, includes some of the basic tenets of church growth.

Church growth is a discipline. A discipline is a field of study or a system with distinct characteristics. Church growth is accepted around the world as a discipline worthy of recognition. Classes in the field are taught at countless seminaries and Bible colleges and professorships of church growth are increasing in number. Conferences related to the discipline are offered almost every week in places around the world. Church growth consultation has become an established and respected profession. Books directly and indirectly related to church growth could fill a small library.

Church growth is interested in disciple-making. It is not merely a number-counting emphasis. While evangelism, in the sense of making converts, is of vital interest, the heart of church growth is to see those new Christians develop into fruit-bearing disciples of Jesus Christ. Most church growth leaders consider "responsible church membership" to be a barometer for discipleship.

Church growth is founded on God's Word. Both implicitly and explicitly there is a high view of Scripture in the literature emanating from church growth writers. We will discuss this concept further in the chapter dealing with bibliology.

Church growth integrates social and behavioral sciences to help determine how churches grow. For example, demographic studies are one of many church growth tools. While demography is not necessarily a biblical concept, neither is it unbiblical. Any tool or method that is not contrary to the Bible can be used in understanding church growth.

Church growth, as a modern-day movement, began with the work of Donald McGavran in India. His book The Bridges of God, published in 1955, is the "birth certificate" of church growth. We will be studying this man and his vast contributions throughout this book.

Some attempts have been made to simplify the definition of church growth. Wagner, for example, said that "church growth means all that is involved in bringing men and women who do not have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ into fellowship with him and into responsible church membership." While this definition provides a concise description, it fails to mention social and behavioral sciences and the movement's founder, Donald McGavran.

Perhaps, then, we can define church growth without all the verbiage of the first meaning, but with a bit more detail than Wagner's definition: Church growth is that discipline which seeks to understand, through biblical, sociological, historical, and behavioral study, why churches grow or decline. True church growth takes place when "Great Commission" disciples are added and are evidenced by responsible church membership. The discipline began with the foundational work of Donald McGavran.

What Is "The Church Growth Movement"?

The next several chapters will provide a rather detailed history and summary of the Church Growth Movement. For now, a basic definition will introduce the term: The Church Growth Movement includes all the resources of people, institutions, and publications dedicated to expounding the concepts and practicing the principles of church growth, beginning with the foundational work of Donald McGavran in 1955.

In the next chapter we will see several of the factors that precipitated the birth of the movement. We will also look at many of the key persons who influenced McGavran.

What Kind of Growth Is Church Growth?

A church may grow by one or a combination of three sources. Biological growth takes place when babies are born to church members. From a church growth perspective, biological growth is the source of least interest because the newborn is not a disciple of Christ, as evidenced by responsible, fruit-bearing church membership.

Transfer growth occurs when one church grows at the expense of another church. If a person was inactive in his or her former church, or if that person had little opportunity for spiritual growth, transfer growth would be positive by church growth standards. Such a move could result in a greater depth of discipleship for the new member. In contrast many churches whose primary source of growth is by transfer are the beneficiaries of "sheep swapping" that rarely results in more deeply committed Christians.

Conversion growth takes place when a person makes a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That commitment, when evidenced by responsible church membership, is the chief concern of most church growth research and effort.

Wagner and other church growth proponents use other popular typologies of evangelism and church growth in describing the parameters of the movement. Evangelism and church growth overlap is evident in some of their definitions. One typology uses four different classifications according to the persons who are being evangelized.

"E-0" or "evangelism-zero" takes place when people who are already church members are evangelized. When these people make a commitment to Jesus Christ, evangelism has taken place but the church does not experience quantitative growth.

"E-1" or "evangelism one" is evangelism outside the local church but within the same cultural group. Fewer barriers must be overcome when the gospel is shared with someone of a like culture than in cross-cultural evangelism. Typically, the language, food, custom, and life experiences of the evangelist and the receiver of the gospel message are very similar.

"E-2" or "evangelism two" and "E-3" or "evangelism three" are types of cross-cultural evangelism. The one who evangelizes must reach people in a culture different from his or her own culture. Typically "E-2" evangelism is sharing the gospel in a culture that is different but similar. For example, Americans evangelizing persons from France would be considered "E-2," but Americans evangelizing the Chinese, a more distant culture, would fit the "E-3" category.

Church growth may also be classified into four distinct types of growth. Internal growth is the spiritual maturity of the members. As the individual members of the body mature spiritually through worship, Bible study, prayer, service, and manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, the corporate body grows in strength. In the early years of the Church Growth Movement, quantitative growth was virtually synonymous with church growth. Now writers such as Wagner also include internal or spiritual growth as a church growth category.

Expansion growth is the numerical growth of a local congregation. The type of expansion growth most often mentioned by the Church Growth Movement is conversion growth. Believers move out into the world, win people to Christ, and bring them into church membership.

Extension growth is the church growth term synonymous with church planting. New converts of the same culture as the mother church are gathered into new congregations. "E-1" evangelism can result in extension growth.

Bridging growth is also a form of church planting, but the new converts are from a different culture than the culture of those who are evangelizing. Either "E-2" or "E-3" evangelism could result in bridging growth, depending on the cultural distance of the evangelized from those who are evangelizing.

What is the Difference Between Evangelism and Church Growth?

Depending upon one's understanding of evangelism, the definition of church growth could have significant overlap with evangelism. For example, Lewis Drummond defines evangelism as "a concerted effort to confront the unbeliever with the truth about and claims of Jesus Christ and to challenge him with the view of leading him into repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and, thus, into the fellowship of the church."

While "conversion growth," to use church growth terminology, is the primary goal of evangelism, Drummond's definition also includes "fellowship of the church" as the evidence that the evangelistic process is complete. If such a definition of evangelism is accepted, church growth and evangelism are very similar. Most definitions of evangelism are only concerned with the proclamation of the gospel with the desire to lead someone to Christ. In that sense, evangelism may or may not lead to church growth. The church will experience growth only if conversion takes place and if that conversion leads to fellowship in the church.

Church growth then, in the strictest sense of its definition, is more comprehensive than evangelism. A church may experience growth from evangelism, but it may also grow due to biological growth and to the influx of other Christians. As you listen to and read the materials of church growth advocates, however, you will note an obvious bias for church growth that is also kingdom growth. In that regard, evangelism and church growth are close relatives.

Where Did the Concept of Church Growth Begin?

It is amazing to see how rapidly the concepts of church growth have spread in the last several years. Mainline denominations, once largely critical of the movement, are publishing materials and books promulgating church growth principles. Seminaries are creating professorships and chairs singularly devoted to church growth. The movement has become so eagerly accepted at the local church level that church growth conferences and conventions are well attended.

We must acknowledge that the concepts advocated by the Church Growth Movement are as old as the early church in Acts. To cite 1955 as the "birth" of the movement neglects such major historical events as the spiritual awakenings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the evangelistic contributions of men like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon; the methodological approach of Charles Finney; or the Sunday School movement embraced by the Southern Baptist Convention. These and other factors are significant influences on church growth today. This book, however, specifically focuses on the movement which began with the missionary work of Donald McGavran.

Where then did the movement begin? How did it grow so rapidly and where is the movement headed? In the next several chapters we will answer these and other questions. First, however, we will examine those factors that influenced and precipitated the modern Church Growth Movement.

Suggested Reading for Chapter 1

Rainer, Thom S., ed. Evangelism in the Twenty-First Century. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1989. See especially chapter 3.

Wagner, C. Peter. Leading Your Church to Growth. Ventura, CA: Regal, 1987.

Wagner, C. Peter. Strategies for Church Growth. Ventura, CA: Regal, 1987.

Wagner, C. Peter. Your Church Can Grow. Rev. ed. Glendale, CA: Regal, 1984.

Wagner, C. Peter, ed., with Win Arn and Elmer Towns. Church Growth: State of the Art. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986.

—Book of Church Growth, The