McGavran and Church Growth


“Church Growth” has gotten a bad rap!

Several years ago I was at a large conference in Denver sponsored by Leadership Network. In front of hundreds of leaders from around the nation, a leading evangelical figure lashed out at “church growth” and characterized it as the fountainhead of all that was wrong with the present-day Church in North America.

I approached him personally afterwards and asked him where in the writings of Donald McGavran—the “father” of the Church Growth Movement—would I find any of the the things he so aggressively castigated. And which aspect of the field of missiology, of which “church growth” theory has played an integral part, would he find anything close to what he was pummeling. He responded with a blank stare.

“Church growth” have become in recent years a grab-all punching bag for anyone who wants to take shots at the church that is, particularly the mega, number-crunching, market oriented, shallow, seeker-sensitive, institutional forms of Christianity that the Protestant movement in the Western world has deemed to be paradigms of “success.”

In reality, Church Growth—as defined and taught by Donald A. McGavran—is far from what has been popularized in North America. This school of study and practice has been one of the most important and influential missiological forces in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly in the developing world. Today, unbeknownst to most, such missiology is a major underpinning of those movements around the globe that are cutting new ground for the Christian movement in unreached people groups and among the major blocks that remain resistant to the good news of Jesus, i.e., other major world religions, the secular, and the animistic. In many ways, the emerging church in the West applies and lives out the missiological insights articulated by McGavran several generations earlier.

In his seminal works, The Bridges of God and later Understanding Church, McGavran provided groundbreaking insights and a framework to understand the redemptive purposes of God. Such understanding has stood the test of time and culture. Granted, there are refinements that that years have brought, such as a clearer differentiation between church and kingdom, but on the whole, the seminal theory that McGavran advanced—based on his 30 years of field work in India—continues to ring true today.

Eddie Gibbs, who hold the McGavran chair of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it this way:

“Unfortunately, as the Church Growth movement became popular in North America, it focused on technique, and we lost sight of the profound insights of Donald McGavran.

His early writing was pushing people out of their secure mission stations to build the bridges of God into the society around them and to sensitively birth faith communities within their cultural context …

My hope is that the Church Growth movement is still to come into its own. The Americanization of it corrupted it, but McGavran is still right! He was a child of his age, and he got some things wrong. He defined mission too narrowly, and he too closely identified church and kingdom. But he grasped this idea that you’ve got to be a movement, to be on the move. And he understood the need to think in terms of sociological maps, not just geographical ones.”

4 Responses to “McGavran and Church Growth”

  1. McGavran and Church Growth - US Church List Says:

    [...] via: Sam Metcalf’s Blog » Under The Iceberg | [...]

  2. andrew jones Says:

    very true. Maybe we should bring McG’s writings back to life a bit more.

    i think something similar is happening with missiologists like L. Newbiggen and the emerging church.

  3. Keith Says:

    I have relied on McGavran’s writing and keen missiological thinking for more than 15 years in various countries of ministry. I’ve also seen it be warped into a slick marketing package or a narrow way to assess ministry ‘success’.

    McGavran himself wrote in his later years that he regretted the term “Church Growth” and preferred “Church Multiplication Movements”. That’s the term I’ve closely identified with over the years. My personal calling is to facilitate church multiplication movements worldwide. By ‘church’ McGavran meant Church – big C, as in the Body of Christ for that people group. Not one local church.

    When I train mission leaders using McGavran’s principles without referring to them as “church growth”, I get a very good response. But you’re right Sam, there’s an alergy out there to the term “church growth”.

    I believe that McGavran’s thoughts are completely relevent to us overseas today as well as for the Emerging church movement (we are both being missional). It’s all about joining God in His redemptive work in a way that takes culture, Gospel, and Christian community into context.

    Keep up the fight to free McGavran from the specter of Church Growth.

  4. What’s wrong with Church Growth? » Steve Addison’s blog » World Changers Says:

    [...] Excellent post by Sam Metcalf on Donald McGavaran, “father” of the Church Growth Movement: McGavran and Church Growth [...]

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