Because it has been around so long, many people are ignorant of the beginnings of what we call “The Church Growth Movement.” David McGavran is widely recognized as the father of the movement. A third-generation missionary to India, McGavran wrote a book called “The Bridges of God,” which was originally published in 1955. The book was an exploration in understanding the way people come to faith in Christ. It attempted to discern sociological factors that affected receptivity to the Gospel among non-believers. In 1965 Dr. McGavran expanded his influence and founded The School of Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.
McGavran had a great passion for the Great Commission and seeing people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. His desire was to show through statistical research that the missional approach of the day, mission stations, were ineffective in reaching people for Christ. A “Mission Station” was an approach used by western missionaries in foreign lands to create a base of operations where converts to the faith were separated from their cultural identity. They were taught English, they were dressed in western clothing, and they were required to turn their backs on the culture of their birth. McGavran’s research was an attempt to demonstrate that people could be reached in culturally appropriate ways, and in his return to the United States, he sought to apply these principles here.
As time progressed, the Church Growth Movement’s direction birthed a philosophy known as “Seeker Sensitive.” It was formulated out of a number of fast-growing Mega-Churches across the country. These leaders took McGavran’s principles and applied them in a move to separate themselves from what the world saw as “offensive” as it related to the church. Crosses were removed and language about blood, sin, and judgment was avoided. A shift also took place that would bring the world to the church. Programs and services were offered with excellence to bring people to the campuses. The message of God’s love took center stage because that is what people wanted to hear. McGavran’s principle of being culturally appropriate drifted into catering to cultural desires in order to attract people.
This phenomenon of attracting thousands of people to these Mega-Churches led to many books where Mega-Church leaders sought to explain the secret to their success. However, a vast number of these books simply outlined specific approaches that worked for those churches. In 2012 Ed Stetzer wrote an article for Christianity Today entitled, “What’s the Deal with the Church Growth Movement.” In this article he stated, “The Church Growth Movement went astray when it became oversimplified into a series of formulas for church growth.”
So, what should be our response to church growth? There are a few biblically based principles which we should keep in mind as we seek to rethink church growth:
The Lord is Responsible for Transformation:
Scripture is clear about the Lord’s role in salvation. In John 6:44 Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” In I Corinthians 3:7 the Apostle Paul said, “So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” In both of these instances, the subject matter is related to the transformation of an individual from spiritual death to life. Certainly, the Lord has chosen to use His people as workers in His field, but the work of transformation belongs to Him alone.
Obedience is Our Calling:
The Lord’s work in transformation is not an excuse for laziness on the part of His people. We have been called into a partnership with the Lord. But knowing our role is imperative. In Mark 4:26-29 Jesus communicates what has become known as the Parable of the Sower. In this agrarian lesson on crop development the planter plays a role, and the soil plays a role. Both are needed to produce a harvest. The spiritual application makes us aware that we have a role in the transformational process, but that role is spreading the seed. The Lord’s role is bringing life out of death. Our role is to be obedient and trust the Lord with the results.
Numbers do not Reflect Transformation:This is true for the masses and for the few. A small number of people is not spiritually superior to a large number of people and vice versa. The key is how people are developing in their surrender to Christ as Lord. This is not about behavior modification. It is about change wrought from the inside out. As salvation is the work of the Lord, discipleship is the work of the Church. In Matthew 28:19 the Lord Jesus commands His disciples, and subsequently the Church, to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” This does not mean to make Christians, that’s the Lord’s job. It means to provide nurture and instruction of new believers so they will become more like Jesus. This is THE task the Church has been commissioned to accomplish.
Depend upon the Lord in All Things:There is no replacing a thriving relationship with the Lord. No matter how many ministries you have, or how excellent they may be, dependence on the Lord is key. Because we serve the Lord’s Church, the Lord must set the direction! And the Lord leads through a people surrendered to Him. Moses was recognized as Israel’s greatest prophet. In Exodus 33:1-3 the Lord told the Hebrews He would fulfill for them the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but He would not go with them. But Moses responded in Exodus 33:15, “If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us from here.” This is the relational dependence the Lord desires from all of us.
If we keep these principles close, we will find fulfillment in a ministry based on the Lord, not on comparing ourselves to others.
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