Evangelism and the Debate over Church Growth

Article excerpt

After fifteen years of major expansion and evangelistic enthusiasm following World War II, mainline Protestant churches in the United States began to "rethink, retool, and restructure" their understanding and practice of evangelism. The emerging social turmoil of the 1960s "challenged the very character of evangelical outreach" and led many church leaders to the claim that the "church should listen more to the world and its social movements of divine justice."(1) Official definitions of mission took pains to point out that Christians could be about the task of mission "without any explicit or self-conscious verbal reference to their being Christian or to the teachings of Christ."(2) This approach evoked a broad spectrum of critical reactions from the diverse constituencies defined as "evangelical," and it was a major factor in the process of restructuring into conservative and liberal groupings analyzed by Robert Wuthnow and others.(3)

One of these critical reactions was the formation of the Institute of Church Growth in Oregon by Donald McCavran, a Disciples of Christ missionary who had served in India from 1923 to 1955. His study there of "Christian mass movements" led him to develop an evangelistic methodology for mission that was quickly to become an influential and controversial theme that continues to figure importantly in the missiological discussion. (4) In 1965, McGavran moved to Pasadena and became the first dean of the School of World Mission-Institute of Church Growth of Fuller Theological Seminary. There, working with Arthur Glasser, David Winter, Charles Kraft, and Alan Tippet, he has inspired and coordinated a movement that has by now generated hundreds of books and dissertations, spawned numerous programs in denominations and parachurch agencies, and stimulated a continuing debate about the theology and practice of mission and evangelism. One cannot discuss evangelism today without engaging the Church Growth Movement.(5)

The fundamental assumption of the Church Growth approach is that God requires church growth, because it is God's purpose that people be found and saved through faith in Jesus Christ, and this only happens in and through the church. "Mission is a divine finding, vast and continuous. The chief and irreplaceable purpose of mission is church growth"(6)--understood unabashedly as numerical growth. Drawing on sociological, cultural, and anthropological analysis, strategies have been developed and implemented that focus upon conversion and the formation of numerically growing churches. Because effectiveness and measurable results are considered an essential part of the mandate (God intends to find, not just to seek), those ways of evangelizing that are most likely to succeed are identified and pursued. The result is a very pragmatic, results-oriented practice of mission, stressing evangelization that does not force people to cross cultural boundaries, does not impose too demanding an understanding of the gospel, and focuses upon the individual benefits of salvation. Such is the biblical mandate as interpreted by Church Growth thinkers: "Since God as revealed in the Bible has assigned the highest priority to bringing men and women into living relationship to Jesus Christ, we may define mission narrowly as an enterpise devoted to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and to persuading men and women to become his disciples and responsible members of his church." (7)

Critics of the Church Growth Movement note that it "contains important elements of truth."(8) There is a broad consensus that it has helpfully forced the discussion to center upon the missionary calling of the church. Certainly there is broad theological support for that focus, at least among Reformed theologians.(9) The Church Growth Movement has stimulated a far-reaching discussion of modern mission strategy. It has criticized the frequent failures of traditional mission efforts to bridge into other cultures sensitively, symbolized by the "mission station" pattern. …