Biblical Church Growth: A Historical Perspective
Gary L. McIntosh, D.Min., Ph.D.
Professor of Christian Ministry & Leadership
Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
Delivered at the
Biblical Church Growth Conference
May 15, 2014
Good evening. It is nice to be with you tonight to talk just a short while about Biblical Church Growth. Before I begin, I thank Dr. Steve Wilkes and his team for putting this conference together. It is a conference that is needed, and I applaud Dr. Wilkes and his team for the vision and work to bring us all together this evening.
The Church Growth Movement traces its beginning from the publication of Donald McGavran’s book The Bridges of God, which was released in 1955. While the book was inauspicious at the time, just a small paperback released in England, it announced the beginning of what would become a worldwide movement to help churches make disciples.
In the year 2000 the book was listed as one of the 100 Christian Books That Changed the Century, which was published by Fleming H. Revell. One magazine declared it to be the second most influential book in the century.
The movement McGavran started is known as the Church Growth Movement, which was (and some say continues to be) a most influential movement. Unfortunately, it has also been one of the most criticized movements in North American history, as well as around the world.
I have identified exactly twenty-five specific criticisms and/or major issues that were raised in the three decades spanning 1970 and the year 2000. For example, in the 1970s some of the key criticisms declared (1) it is not proper to focus on numerical growth, (2) people movements are not valid, and (3) proponents of Church Growth use faulty exegesis. Criticism shifted a bit in the 1980s and critiques pointed out that Church Growth Thought was (1) based on poor hermeneutics, (2) ecclesial-centered rather than kingdom-centered, and (3) tied too closely to communication theory. As the 1990s dawned, the criticisms focused on marketing, and it was claimed that Church Growth (1) was an accommodation to modernity, (2) allowed unbelievers to set the church’s agenda, and (3) was nothing but marketing technique. If you are interested in exploring more of these criticisms, I point you to my article “A Critique of the Critics,” which can be found in the Journal of Evangelism and Missions spring 2003 issue.
The underlying criticism found in almost all of the critiques could be simply stated: Church Growth is not biblical. In several writings, such criticism was clear. Allow me to present a few examples from the critics.
Interestingly, the first person to appraise the Church Growth Movement’s theology was Robertson J. McQuilkin, president of Columbia Bible College at the time. His evaluation was positive! In his book How Biblical is the Church Growth Movement (Moody 1973), he declared “Is Church Growth thinking biblical thinking? Yes, it is. This is not to say that all the people associated with Church Growth think biblically in all applications and interpretations of the principles. But the underlying presuppositions of the Church Growth Movement rest on a solid theological foundation grounded in the Word of God (1973:62). Later critics were not so kind.
That same year papers presented at the Missionary Study Fellowship convened by the Institute of Mennonite Studies were edited by Wilbert R. Shenk, a widely recognized expert on the history of missions, and published as The Challenge of Church Growth (Harold Press 1973). The book concluded “What the Church Growth School of Thought has given us is a strategy and a set of priorities for mission. The renewed emphasis on church planting as being the central concern of mission is a helpful and necessary corrective. However, McGavran and the Church Growth movement have given us a negligible amount of direction or theological...
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