Observations made in 1936 by Donald Anderson McGavran, a third-generation missionary to India, was later expressed in How Churches Grow (1959) and Understanding Church Growth (Eerdmans, 1970). He was criticized for his ideas.  

McGavran coined the term “church growth” to overcome the negative connotation of evangelism. He requested several American seminaries to start a department focused on church growth. He laid the foundation for the Church Growth Movement. In 1961, Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, established the Institute of Church Growth. In 1965, McGavran became the founding Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission in Pasadena, California. 

A former missionary to Latin America, Peter Wagner popularized Church Growth Movement with his books and seminars. Wagner in Your Church Can Grow (Regal, 1976) wrote:  

“As Jesus looks over His present-day disciples, particularly those whom he is holding responsible as stewards of the resources that should be used for church growth, he must frequently say, ‘O ye of little faith’… Remember, the indispensable condition for a growing church is that it wants to grow… wanting to grow and planning to grow is another way of applying biblical faith.” 

The Institute of American Church growth produced books, films, and seminars developed from McGavran’s insights. Alan Trippett and Arthur Glasser wrote an influential theology of church growth. McGavran in Understanding Church Growth noted: 

“The spread of the Church throughout the world must not be thought of in merely human terms. We are not speaking about multiplication of branches of an American organization… The multiplication of churches nourished on the Bible and full of the Holy Spirit is a sine qua non in carrying out the purposes of God.”  

By the mid-1970s, church growth was a major topic of debate. Rick Warren used the term “church growth” in the early 1980s because it was what everyone knew. He stopped using the phrase around 1986 because there were many things he did not like about the Church Growth Movement. Interestingly enough, McGavran started using the term “effective evangelism” when “church growth” as a term became baggage. It now means different things to different people. 

The apprehensions stemmed from the fact that to church leaders it sounded like: 

  • “a hard-driving North American business, armed with a sheaf of statistics, eager for new take-over” 
  • “carried away by the enthusiasm of pragmatics at the expense of real dependence of God” 
  • “fault does not lie with church growth concepts but in a lust of success on the part of some ministers”  
  • “wave of pragmatism sweeping the church today seems predicated on the idea that artificial technique and human strategy are crucial to the church’s mission.” 

 

Pastors are not wrong in calling church a ministry. Yet, the reality is that the church is also a business. During the first and second centuries, the church was not an organization. The church was not thinking about legal compliances and regulations affecting charities in North America. The church was not managing accounting, audit, annual returns, and managing properties. The IRS, in the USA, automatically recognizes churches as 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. The CRA, in Canada, looks at a church as a religious charity that needs to file an annual T3010. A Senior Pastor ends up managing governance with the church board. So I am left wondering if discussions about how to organize a church in the midst of digital transformation will be viewed by some as “McDonaldization of spirituality.” 


 

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