This is an article from the June-October 1990 issue: The Passing of a Giant

An Insider’s View of McGavran

An Insider’s View of McGavran

I first encountered McGavran's force of personality at the time his Bridges of God was published in 1955. The phrase "church growth" was not as prominent then as the concept of the people movement. The ripple of interest among missionaries caused by the appearance of that book can only be compared to the impact of Roland Allen's writings, or perhaps those of Watchman Nee. But by contrast, McGavran's ideas were much more specific and thus probably elicited greater fear or favor. Certainly by 1966, when the Church Growth Bulletin had gotten well into circulation, McGavran and the church growth banner were probably more widely discussed than any other subject relating to mission strategy. By 1976, church growth had become a vast and complex subject and in some ways an actual movement.

Missionary Christianity

During those ten years I was not merely a spectator. In 1966, an article of my own on church planting field strategies had caught McGavran's eye. Then, my involvement in the theological education by extension movement reinforced his interest, so that I was invited to join him and Alan Tippett in the second year of Fuller Seminary's new School of World Mission and Institute of Church Growth. My role in that faculty soon became one of seeking a fresh analysis of the story of Christianity from an anthropological and missionary point of view. I attempted to see the entire story from the point of view of the crossing of cultural frontiers and the dynamic response of new peoples to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Differing theological streams often seemed to correspond to cultural traditions, and so even the history of theology was seen in a new light. The Reformation became to some extent a major example of the reaction of a mission field to the Latin and Roman "cultural overhang"--to use a McGavran expression.

Meanwhile, dozens, hundreds and eventually over 1000 missionaries from at least 70 countries passed through my classes, attracted by the magnet of the new mood and the "harvest theology" optimism that characterized McGavran's heartbeat.

In its infancy the movement could be characterized as a passion for winning people to Christ coupled with a concern that this be done on the solid basis of the structured fellowship of the living church, the latter aspect being the distinctive element. An additional "given" was the perception of the human person as a member of a group, the group itself having durable significance. Now in its maturity, the movement has produced church growth writings which today bulk larger than the total books and materials flowing from any other missionary tradition in the past 50 years. The body of terminology and theory is by now much more complex, especially if you could somehow capture the current thinking not yet fully published. In this I think immediately of people like Alan Tippett, Arthur Glasser, C. Peter Wagner, and Charles Kraft, who are only now to the point where their mature reflections can be expressed in published form, all four of whom have major works in the offing.

Sticking With the Facts

McGavran's book Ethnic Reality and the Church (William Carey Library, 1978) may be the capstone of all he has ever done, for its subtitle is Lessons from India. Everything that McGavran has ever written has stayed very close to the empirical facts and a data base. He does not spin out philosophical theories. But no book that he has ever produced is as strictly and as thoroughly monitored by intimately known reality as this which may in many respects be the greatest of all bombshells that he has ever produced.

The nice thing about the church growth movement, in fact, is the closeness it has always maintained to the facts on the field. Some theologians have been rankled by the theoretical and theological implications which surface constantly as practical issues have been dealt with. But no one has ever successfully accused church growth writers of being purely armchair strategists. There is not a pure theologian among them, and speaking now as a church growth exponent, one wonders if there can be any validity to a pure theology. All valid theology must derive from the encounter of the gospel of Christ with the real world. Is the church growth movement one place where the cutting edge of theology ought to be?

The chief drawback of this movement now in its maturity is that the church growth phrase may have almost become too popular for its own good, and some of its best friends may have unwittingly become its greatest enemies. Like many other things, the phrase "church growth" can be hijacked and flown to unintended destinations. As a missionary, one wonders out loud where the domesticated U.S. version of church growth is going. The recurrent cry of those who react by saying that church growth is not as important as the quality of church life certainly have a real point, so long as they finally understand that that is one of McGavran's points as well!

What is "Church Growth?"

Indeed, church growth as a phrase lends itself (and has lent itself) to so many different emphases that by now it is almost always essential to speak more precisely whenever the subject is treated. For example, Tippett suggested the phrase "organic growth" to refer to the various structural and qualitative changes reflected in the internal growth of a congregation apart from the actual addition of new members. Similarly, I have in my writings tried to distinguish between the adding of new members to a congregation ("expansion" growth) and the planting of new congregations ("extension" growth). I have been especially concerned about what I call "bridging" growth, a special case of extension growth which was the classical Pauline task whereby a church was for the first time born within a cultural tradition that had no indigenous church at all, some of these distinctions are indicated in the diagrams below.

Once these various types of growth are distinguished we can ask what, for example, a seminary curriculum looks like through these glasses. I actually tried to do this when speaking recently at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and I discovered to my own surprise that the vast majority of all courses in seminary are designed to equip a person to work for organic growth within existing congregations. However, thanks to the church growth movement, there are now, in fact, some seminaries which offer courses that deal with the expansion growth of existing congregations. But how many seminaries offer a course that teaches very specifically the techniques of establishing completely new congregations (extension growth); or more rarely still, establishing a new congregation, as Paul did (and as Luther did) for the mere onlookers in existing congregations, whose own cultural tradition possessed no indigenous church (bridging growth)?

Where Christ is Not Named

Naturally the average seminary student upon graduating would prefer to go to work where there is already a well-established church. Who then will start the new churches? Is the Southern Baptist Home Board's Division of Mission the only agency in America that knows how-- really knows how--to establish new non-English speaking congregations by the hundreds and thousands?

The appalling fact is that the situation is no better overseas. The average new missionary would also like to go where there are already believers, and the average mission agency today patterns its proportionate emphasis much along the lines of the seminary. Most missionaries are occupied in tasks that would classify as organic church growth, and perhaps quite a few in expansion church growth, but very few in extension church growth even though the force of the church growth movement has brought into prominence in the last ten years the category of the "church-planting missionary." But I estimate at the most nine percent of American missionaries are at all related to the unique function which distinguished Paul's career--the opening of the door for the gospel into a new culture where there is not yet any indigenous church--the category I have called bridging growth.

Urbanization Problems

Lest I be accused of an over-specialized interest (in view of the fact that I have left a school of generalized church growth to found an institution focused exclusively on bridging growth) let me hasten to say how much I applaud and approve and consider absolutely essential a continued and relentless study of the true requirements of the organic, expansion and extension growth processes. Let one example suffice:

In the past 100 years, the United States has gone from a rural to an urban nation, and the communicant population has moved from something like five percent in congregations of 500 or more to maybe 50-80 percent in congregations of 500 or more, depending upon the church group you study. Furthermore, the wealthiest, most vocal--the leading members--of the denominations today are denizens of the large urban congregations, and the Schuller syndrome has now heralded what may be the largest single trend in the history of American Christianity, the New Testament itself being revised to fit. Someone has put it, "The California version now reads,'Where two or three thousand are gathered together, there am I in the midst of them.'"

Is this the logical outcome of church growth thinking? It all depends! If expansion growth were the only valued measurement, we would have to say yes. But one of the serious unsolved problems which fairly shouts for the attention of everyone, including church growth thinkers, is the simple fact that anonymity may increase with the size of a congregation and perhaps even succeed in outbalancing the other benefits of large congregations. It's like saying, "If three children in a family are nice, are thirty better?" Internal ministry and accountability, formal or informal, tend seriously to suffer in the large church. The tell-tale early symptom of the disease being the need to wear name tags!

A second challenge to church growth thinking growing out of the phenomenon of urbanization is the distinction McGavran helpfully draws between transfer growth and conversion growth. It may not be that every super-church will be as indefatigably determined as Schuller's is in reaching the truly unchurched. What a refreshing surprise to hear that one pastor of a California super-church virtually commanded a thousand of his people, who had been warming pews and soaking up high quality Bible teaching for three or more years, to kindly leave and let others take their places so that they might be able now to contribute to the dozens of little struggling churches that are many times the victims of the raiding power of what are often unhealthy super-churches.

In other words, unless church growth thinkers, by whatever name, can diagnose the endemic problems of almost every church with more than 500 members, and come up with organic growth solutions, it is a self- defeating process to go out in extension and bridging growth and plant new churches anywhere in the world since urbanization is today virtually an irreversible planetary trend.

However, in the meantime, the most profound and ineradicable stirring in McGavran's heart is nevertheless clearly akin to that of the apostle and of his Lord who came that "those who sit in darkness should see a great light." Paul went to the regions beyond,"where Christ had not yet been named," a perspective which ultimately and inevitably forces to our attention not merely the statistics of the vast global growth of the Christian church, but the highest priority of the regions beyond the fringes of presently penetrated social groups. Will the phrase "church growth," by the force of its etymology alone, maintain this movement true to that stirring of McGavran's heart? I think not! Just as penicillin was once a potent and magnificent drug but now harmful bacteria have learned to gobble it up without being truly affected, so church growth as a phrase can very easily become no more than a fancy new way to express the enduring corporate selfishness of a local church, of an ambitious pastor, of a denominational office. Yet we cannot decry this. Paul in his prison epistle to the Philippians was determined to rejoice whenever Christ was preached, whatever the motives. But to restrain ourselves from a wholesale condemnation of the proliferation of new interest across America today in church growth is not all God asks of us. Paul could restrain himself from condemning those who stood in the pulpit rejoicing in his continued imprisonment which gave them opportunity for prominence, but he yielded to no restraints in his unrelenting zeal for the regions beyond.

Follow the Lord of the harvest

Thus church growth, despite all McGavran has poured of his very life's blood into that phrase, may well become another theological term that has been highjacked to an unintended destination like missionary, mission, evangelism, salvation, etc. Far better to know McGavran, and to follow him. Let us look beyond him to the Lord of the harvest, who clearly calls us out of ourselves, beyond our own growth or anything related to us, and just as clearly warns that any person or people or nation or congregation or denomination that seeks only to save itself, even by church growth, will lose its life. McGavran's kind of church growth goes beyond.


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