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Church Growth Movement

Church Growth Movement

Donald A. McGavran (1897–1990) is considered the founder of the modern Church Growth Movement. McGavran, a third-generation missionary to India for the Disciples of Christ, felt a call to return to India as a missionary while studying law in the United States. Entering Yale Divinity School, he studied under Kenneth Scott Latourette, who documented the history of Christianity as the spread and growth of the church. In the early 1930s a Methodist missionary, J. Wascom Pickett, surveyed Christian mass movements in India. McGavran acknowledged that he "lit his fire at Pickett's candle" and subsequently invested his life in clarifying the most effective ways to reach large numbers of people with the Christian gospel.

The Church Growth Movement arrived in the United States in 1961, when McGavran established the Institute for Church Growth at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. Four years later McGavran and his colleague Alan R. Tippett moved to Pasadena, California, where they launched the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. Over the next fifteen years almost all of the current leaders in this movement were greatly influenced by the teachings and writings of McGavran and Tippett and the team of missiologists they gathered.

Distinctive aspects of the Church Growth Movement include: (1) an emphasis on making disciples over securing decisions; (2) the use of sociological research to analyze data, discern receptivity, set goals, and design strategies; (3) a recognition that context and culture—not ecclesiastical tradition—properly determine the methods employed; (4) an acceptance of the fact that people most naturally trust and converse with others like themselves (the homogeneous unit principle); (5) an appreciation of the indigenous church as God's instrument for evangelizing all peoples; and (6) an optimism based on case studies from around the world.

During the 1970s denominational leaders began to recognize the movement as a force to be reckoned with. Some saw it as a distortion of true Christianity—a theologically thin numbers game, a lopsided evangelical counter to the social gospel, blatant racism, or a dependence on human strategies rather than on the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, membership losses, especially in mainline denominations, caused a growing awareness that "business as usual" evangelism was no longer bearing fruit. By the end of the 1980s nearly every North American Protestant denomination was restructuring its evangelism, its new church development, and its leadership training efforts to reflect insights and strategies gleaned from the Church Growth Movement.

Additional emphases emerging from the movement include: (1) seeing North America as a mission field; (2) accepting cultural anthropology as a tool for Christian mission; (3) employing computer technology across denominational lines for reaching new groups of people; (4) assisting laity to discover and invest their spiritual gifts for ministry; (5) training people to use their existing social networks for lifestyle evangelism; (6) equipping leaders for the Church Growth Movement through ecumenical networks and teaching churches rather than relying solely on denominational staffs or seminary education; (7) exploring experiences of "power encounter" and "spiritual warfare" as challenges to twentieth-century Western understandings of reality; and (8) uniting the spiritual disciplines of fasting and prayer with strategic planning.

Among the most influential contributors to North American Church Growth Movement literature today are Lyle Schaller, Peter Wagner, Win and Charles Arn, George Hunter, James Engel, Elmer Towns, Flavil Yeakley, Tetsunao Yamamori, Harvey Conn, Dean Hoge, David Roozen, John Vaughn, Kent Hunter, Carl George, Herb Miller, Gary McIntosh, Kennon Callahan, Kirk Hadaway, Bob Logan, Loren Mead, Bill Easum, George Barna, Aubrey Malphurs, Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren.

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Belonging, Religious; Ecumenical Movement; Future of Religion; Mainline Protestantism; Missionary Movements; Popular Religion; Religious Communities; Televangelism.


Hunter, George G. III. To Spread the Power. 1987.

McGavran, Donald A. Understanding Church Growth, rev. 3rd ed. 1990.

Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church. 1995.

Ronald K. Crandall

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