Book review – Evaluating the church growth movement : 5 views

This is an important book for me to have read. Throughout the book, several references are made to common misunderstandings of the church growth movement. The problem is that people like me associate it with megachurches and seeker-sensitive services and don’t know the historical roots.

This book starts with a good historical sketch to correct such misunderstandings. The movement has its roots, as you may know, in the missiology of Donald McGavran (1897-1990), a Disciples of Christ missionary in India. (I’m surprised to learn that the founder was a Restorationist when the result today is nothing like the primitive church!)

He seemed to be reacting against the social gospel priority and believed that the main business of mission was to ‘save the lost’. (Helping them in their poverty and suffering etc was something of a second priority, which is one of many problems I think I have with McGavran.)

To maximise conversions, he investigated which churches grew and why. He then stated principles from these of how to reach people in a particular culture.

For him, discipleship meant simply conversion; ‘perfecting’ had the sense of growing in Christ and it was another second priority for him – and another point on which I strongly disagree with him. It’s interesting to note that his sense of the word ‘discipleship’ is opposite to the way it’s used in Anabaptist circles, where it is code for much more than conversion – the whole life process of bringing everything under Christ.

After the historical sketch, this book brings together five different perspectives on church growth – two of them very sympathetic, one of them ‘reformist’ and two of them critical. I have a lot in common with the two critics – Howard Snyder, from a ‘renewal’ perspective (I think his ecclesiology is excellent) and Craig Van Gelder using Lesslie Newbigin’s work for a ‘gospel and culture’ perspective.

But what I am shocked to realise is that some of the other movements that I sympathise with actually have roots or alliances in the church growth movement.

1. Vineyard movement – John Wimber came out of these circles and his friend Peter Wagner was McGavran’s successor as spokesman for the movement.

2. New house church movement – the saturation church planting and similar stuff in the ministry of Wolfgang Simson and Tony and Felicity Dale seems to use some of the same language and theology of the movement, even if it is mostly a reaction against the dominant ecclesiology of the megachurch side of it. They may be just as much in the McGavran tradition as the megachurches.

3. Emerging missional church – for example, as represented by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in Australia. I’ve just picked up my copy of Shaping of Things To Come, and there’s a quote on the back from Eddie Gibbs – Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth. And then there’s the section on the homogeneous unit principle p. 52, taken straight from McGavran. Target a people group, you could put it as. (Reading back over it – and remembering how disappointed I was when I first read it – I am pleasantly surprised to see that they do regard heterogenous churches that bring together Jew and Greek so to speak, are the ultimate aim. HUP is just a missional strategy. So maybe emerging missional church has taken the best part of the church growth movement.)

The sort of criticisms that emerge of the movement are expected ones that I agree with. Most importantly, is an emphasis on numbers when numbers in the New Testament are a side effect of faithfulness and power in the Holy Spirit.

Significant also is the pragmatism that looks to ‘what works’ and then tries to justify it with Scripture.

I think I’m going to come away from this book with a better understanding of what’s going on in evangelicalism today.

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