Project Wittenberg

Evangelism and Church Growth
With Special Reference to the Church Growth Movement

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
September 1987
Part I

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- Preface
- Introduction
- The Mission of the Church: Theological Presuppositions
- The Church Growth Movement: A Brief History and Basic Missiological Principles
- An Evaluation with Recommendations
- Conclusion
- Guidelines for Evaluation
- Concluding Word
- Glossary

- Bibliography


During the past four decades most Christian denominations have shown an increasing interest in the mission of the church. The ensuing amount of literature defining the mission of the church and suggesting missiological principles and methodologies for carrying out the great commission of our Lord has been considerable.

In recent years the Church Growth Movement in particular has attracted the attention of Christian denominations throughout the world. As the members of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod have become involved in various aspects of this movement, questions have been raised regarding the compatibility of Church Growth principles with Lutheran confessional doctrine. The Commission on Theology and Church Relations has prepared this study in response to requests for guidance in this area.

The purpose of the study is (1) to present the Scriptural principles of evangelism; (2) to set forth the basic missiological principles of Church Growth as these are taught by some leaders at the Fuller School of World Missions in Pasadena, California; (3) to evaluate these Church Growth principles on the basis of Lutheran doctrine; and, (4) to offer recommendations regarding the use of Church Growth principles by the members of the Synod.

In developing missiological principles writers in the Church Growth Movement have introduced an extensive list of terms, most of them new. To assist the reader unacquainted with Church Growth terminology, the Commission has included a glossary at the end of this report.


From the beginning years of its history to the present The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has been characterized by a strong commitment to mission outreach. The founders of the Synod were instrumental in shaping an early awareness of needs and opportunities for proclaiming the love of God in Christ to the scattered immigrants who entered America in the mid 19th century. Under God's blessing and through the determined efforts of its first pastors and congregations, The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod grew to be one of the largest Protestant church bodies in America by the first decades of this century. In addition to this early thrust, the Synod sought to carry the Gospel to Native Americans in various parts of the Middle West.

By the middle of this century the Synod's concern for the work of evangelism moved it to establish in 1953 a special evangelism department within the Board for Missions in North and South America. The new department's first major thrust in evangelism was the Preaching-Teaching-Reaching missions, which resulted in adult accessions reaching an all-time peak of 35,000 members annually. Lay evangelism workshops were begun in the 1960s, followed by similar workshops for pastors and teachers. More recently, the Board for Mission Services reported to the 1986 convention of the synod that "in the 80s, the emphasis has been on a Lutheran visitation training program, Dialog Evangelism, to train callers and the Witness Workshop style to train all members to witness in their daily lives. In addition, there has been a new interest in evaluation, research, backdoor losses, and the principles of church growth."[1]

In spite of these efforts, however, The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, like numerous other church bodies, has been experiencing a serious decline in membership growth and an increase in "back-door losses" over the past 15 years. The Board for Evangelism Services reported to the 1986 convention that over the last decade and a half "the total 'defections'... have remained at the average of 50,000 communicant members each year. These members are removed from the rosters of congregations because they moved and did not transfer, were excommunicated, joined a church of a different denomination, or just dropped out of the church. Studies by the Parish Services Department indicate that only 58% of the infants we baptize are ever confirmed." This means the loss of 25,000 to 30,000 children annually.[2]

Gains in membership have also been declining. After reaching a peak of 35,000 adults gained annually by Baptism and confirmation, the total dropped to an average of 26,000 during the 70s, and in 1984 stood at 29,575. About 25% of the congregations of the synod do not gain a single adult from the outside each year, and another 12% gain only one. In 1984 the Synod gained one adult from the outside for every 70 communicant members.[3]

The reasons for this decline in membership are varied and complex (e.g., the lack of adequate assimilation, the high mobility of people, low priority of evangelism among pastors and lay people). No doubt also contributing to this trend are more general factors such as the increasing loss of confessional and denominational loyalty, unbiblical forms of ecumenism, universalism in modern theology, the increase of social and political activism, uncertainty regarding the meaning of evangelism, or simply an indifference toward the lost.[4]

To assist the congregations of the Synod as they face the challenges of our modern world and as they use the opportunities God gives them to make disciples of the lost, the 1975 convention of the Synod affirmed the Lutheran understanding of evangelism to be "sharing the Gospel with those who do not yet confess 'Jesus Christ is Lord,' to the end that they, too, may enjoy with us all the benefits of our Lord Jesus Christ." The convention further resolved that a study of the Lutheran understanding of evangelism be continued and that evangelism materials produced by non-Lutheran sources be examined and evaluated.[5]

As a result of these developments the Commission on Theology and Church Relations in 1975 initiated a study of the theology of evangelism with special reference to the doctrine of conversion. Two years later the Commission received an additional request from the English District "to examine the theological presuppositions of the Fuller Church Growth program." Acting on these requests, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations has expanded this report to include both assignments. The purpose of this study is not to evaluate the mass of Church Growth materials appearing on the market at the present time. Nor is it the intention of the Commission to evaluate materials written by Lutherans.

The purpose of this document is to provide, first of all, a summary statement of the Biblical and confessional presuppositions--from a positive and negative point of view--which have formed the basis of the Synod's evangelism and mission programs. This section is not intended to be an evaluation of Church Growth principles. Secondly, the Commission intends to present an examination of the fundamental missiological principles of Church Growth as these are set forth in the writings of Donald McGavran and other writers who have been involved in Church Growth at the Fuller School of World Missions in Pasadena, California. Finally, the document concludes with a series of statements and guidelines for a discerning evaluation and use of Church Growth principles.


According to the Scriptures the Christian church has one objective in all of its mission efforts--to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. A disciple in the early Christian church was simply a Christian (Acts 11:26; 16:1; 18:27). Apart from its technical usage in the Gospels chiefly to refer to the twelve apostles, the term "disciple" in the New Testament occurs predominantly as a reference to believers in Christ.[6] This term is not used to distinguish between new converts and followers of Jesus who may have been more mature in the faith or who had come to be known as more responsible members of the Christian community.

The means by which the church is to accomplish its purpose is also clearly stated in the Bible. The task of making disciples is to be done by baptizing and by teaching (Matt. 28:19-20). Luke describes the content of the message to be taught when he states: "This is what is written ... repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47). The preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins suggests the use of both Law and Gospel in making disciples, since it is only by the Law that sins are recognized and confessed and it is the Gospel alone that works conversion.

But the church's responsibility does not end when disciples have been gathered into the church. It has the commission also to "teach all things which Christ has commanded." The present participle didaskontes in Matt. 28:20 implies that "Christian instruction is to be a continuous process... with a view to enabling disciples to walk worthily of their vocation."[7] A disciple is described in the Scriptures as one who is committed to the Savior, is willing to take up the cross and follow Him (Luke 14:26-27), continues in Christ's Word (John 8:31-32), bears much fruit (John 15:8), loves fellow human beings, and thus gives evidence of discipleship. (John 13:35) The church has the responsibility, therefore, to lead and nurture its members in their life of discipleship by teaching them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), including especially such central doctrines as Law and Gospel, justification and sanctification, Christology and soteriology, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Moreover, since Christians are not renewed completely but are still burdened with a sinful nature, the church has the responsibility not only to incite and motivate its members to take seriously the Lord's commission to confess His name before those who have not heard the Good News, but it also has the task to admonish, exhort, and even prod the lax and indifferent.[8]

In recent times some within the Christian community have argued that the church's mission must be expanded to include social and political aims. That is, instead of concentrating its attention on making disciples of all nations through the proclamation of the Gospel, the church should become involved in the social, economic, and political struggles of the underprivileged and oppressed in their efforts to seek justice and equal rights. This view must be rejected as contrary to the central Biblical mandate. To be sure, the Lord has given His church also the task of ministering to the temporal needs of people. But the church's mission efforts must always be to proclaim the Gospel which alone can make lost sinners wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Since the time of the Reformation, Lutherans have believed and confessed that the sacred Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments are the only source and norm of doctrine. They are the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God. Therefore, they are authoritative and absolutely trustworthy in all matters of faith and life as well as history.[9] They are the normative source for the Gospel which is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes. (Rom. 1:16)

As Lutherans seek to evaluate contemporary approaches to carrying out the mission of the church, they must carefully search out what view a given methodology takes regarding Holy Scripture. Any and all attempts to subject the Scriptures to the relativistic principles of the historical-critical method of interpretation, which allows science, philosophy, human history, and culture to sit in judgment over the clear testimony of the Bible, must be rejected. To question the authority of the Bible in this way necessarily also threatens the Gospel which it proclaims. This is ultimately the crucial question: Does the methodology of Bible study employed recognize the Gospel and the sacraments, as these are revealed in the Bible, to be the means of grace which convey to the believer the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation? The answer to this question has a direct bearing on one's understanding of the church's God-given mission.

Scripture clearly states that all human beings are spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. This condition was brought about by the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.[10] The fall has brought with it the total depravity of the whole human race, showing itself in sinful desires, words, and deeds.[11] Even the human will is in bondage to sin.[12]

Human reason considers the doctrine of the total depravity of the human race to be an offense to the dignity of man and contrary to natural instincts which suggest that one can appease the wrath of God and earn salvation by good deeds. Salvation by works has so dominated human thinking that even the Christian church has had to contend with work righteousness in one form or another since its beginning.

The Lutheran church rejects as being contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture all forms of work righteousness which

In their approach to an unbeliever, Lutherans must follow a method which seeks to bring that person to a clear understanding of the fact that all are by nature under the condemnation of the Law because of sin. And since no human being by nature can do or even will anything good and right in the sight of God, all are subject to eternal punishment. When the unconverted individual has been brought to that realization by means of the Law, then the Holy Spirit opens the heart to the proclamation of the Gospel, creates the desire for Christ, and brings the penitent sinner to faith.

The story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is neither a myth nor an allegory. It is the divinely inspired account of an actual historical occurrence which resulted in the fact that all humanity came under the condemning wrath of God.[13] The redemption of the world, therefore, required a Savior who was both God and a human being. It was necessary for Him to be a true man in order that He might take humanity's place under the Law. He had to be God in order that His every act would have infinite value.[14] In eternity God Himself provided the solution for the world's lost condition by planning to send His only begotten Son to be the world's Savior. While remaining God, in full possession of His divine nature, Jesus assumed human nature, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Christ's work of redemption consisted in this that as a true human being He voluntarily placed Himself under the law of God in order that He might fulfill it in the stead of the human race. He then suffered and died, facing for the whole world the wrath of God, as the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Rom. 8:3).[15] Any claim that it is immoral to hold that the merits of Christ are now imputed to sinners must be regarded as a repudiation of the clear teachings of Scripture.[16]

As a result of Christ's perfect life and His sacrificial death on the cross, God has reconciled the world to Himself, "not counting men's sin against them" (2 Cor. 5:19). God's wrath has been appeased. His justice has been satisfied. Sin has been atoned for. All mankind has been redeemed. The church now has the privilege and the responsibility to offer this invitation to all the world: "Be reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:20)

The Lutheran church believes and confesses that salvation is solely by grace, for the sake of Christ, through faith. We must, therefore, reject any view of the mission of the church which

God brought the church into existence when He created Adam and Eve in His own image and established a blissful relationship with them in the garden of Eden (Gen. 1:26-31). When that relationship was destroyed by Adam and Eve who willingly sinned, it was God who took steps to restore that relationship with the entire world by sending His Son to live a perfect life in the sinner's stead and to die on the cross. Having ascended into heaven, Christ now rules as "head over everything for the church, which is his body" (Eph. 1:22-23; cf. 5:23-24). As the Lord who has redeemed us, He now enables us to live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him. In short, the ascended Lord and Savior is the One who through the Holy Spirit now builds, protects, and preserves His church.[17]

What the Scriptures say about the Lordship of Christ has important implications for the mission of the church. The church fails to understand its mission if it thinks of itself chiefly as a human organization rather than as the body of Christ.

Lutherans, therefore, reject

As it carries out its important mission, the church must recognize that conversion is more than a cosmetic change in one's lifestyle. It is more than a feeling of guilt or even disgust at one's sin, followed by a pious resolve to reform one's life. It is more than an emotional religious experience aroused within the sinner who is brought face to face with the wrath of God and the eternal consequences of transgressing the divine law. It is more than subscription to certain doctrines and truths of Holy Scripture. Scripture describes conversion as a radical change in one's relation to God, a change so fundamental that the convert is called "a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). Conversion is described as deliverance from the power of darkness and transference to the kingdom of Christ, a change in status from children of wrath to children of God who live under His grace.[18] In Acts 11:21 and 15:7 conversion is equated with coming to faith in Christ.

The Lutheran church has always found it important to emphasize that conversion, in the strictest sense of the word, occurs instantaneously. There is no middle state between conversion and non-conversion. While the preparation for conversion may extend over a longer period of time, conversion itself takes place the moment when the Holy Spirit kindles a spark of faith in the heart of the sinner or awakens in a person a desire for the grace of God in Christ.[19] Terms such as regeneration, vivification, illumination, and repentance are synonyms of conversion rather than steps in a process which finally results in conversion.

It should also be remembered that Scripture at times uses the term conversion in a wider sense to designate the daily contrition and repentance which continues throughout the life of the believer (Matt. 18:3). But a sharp distinction is maintained between the initial conversion when a person becomes a Christian and the daily repentance of a child of God. (Cf. Rom. 6:1-14; 1 Pet. 2:25) it; The Biblical doctrine of conversion has important implications for evangelism. First, when dealing with an unconverted person the witness must know that such an individual cannot in any way cooperate in conversion. It is folly, therefore, to think that the unconverted can decide on their own to become Christians. The unconverted have neither the desire nor the spiritual strength to make such a decision.

Second, since the purpose of evangelism is the salvation of sinners, Christian witnesses must to the best of their ability become aware of the spiritual condition of those to whom they are speaking. One cannot assume that a person is "open to the Gospel" just because of a good reputation in the community, obedience to the laws of the land, or a willingness to associate with church members. The witness must not therefore be afraid to speak of sin and its eternal consequences when dealing with a person who appears to be unconcerned about sin and feels no need of a Savior.

Third, the witness must not press people to reach a specific level of contrition before offering the comfort of the Gospel. Such a synergistic- pietistic practice may cause the witness to treat a weak Christian, just new in the faith, as one who is not yet converted, and thus bring about unnecessary distress and even despair. A faith which is weak is still a saving faith.[20]

Finally, a witness should not press for a commitment from someone who is not a Christian. It is important, therefore, that the witness have a correct understanding of the nature of faith. Scripture describes faith in the following manner: (1) Saving faith is essentially the reliance of the heart on the promises of grace set forth in the Gospel. It is the hand of the alarmed sinner appropriating to oneself the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross. (2) The faith which justifies, state the Lutheran Confessions, is "no mere historical knowledge." "To avoid the impression that it is merely knowledge," they continue, "we add that to have faith means to want and to accept the promised offer of forgiveness of sins and justification."[21]

That faith involves the will has important implications for the mission of the church. As noted above, saving faith is no mere historical knowledge. Nor is it the bare ability to repeat the truths set forth in Scripture. Rather, it is desiring and appropriating to oneself the forgiveness of sins offered and communicated by the Gospel.

This is not to suggest, however, that the unconverted person has an inner ability to desire Christ, to seek Him, to "open the door" to Him, or even to cease resisting the Holy Spirit's invitation. Nor does it suggest that faith can be defined as a commitment to obey and serve the Lord. While Lutherans believe that the commitment to dedicate one's life to the Savior will certainly follow faith, commitment is not a part of the essence of faith itself. It is instead a result or fruit of faith which belongs in the sphere of sanctification rather than justification.

It is precisely in the area of conversion that the Lutheran method of witnessing will differ from the method employed by many of those who view conversion as a process through which God moves the sinner from the state of spiritual death to life in Christ. According to this latter view, the process begins with regeneration, when God by the direct and immediate operation of the Holy Spirit 1) awakens from spiritual death, 2) implants new spiritual life in the sinner, and 3) gives a new life that moves in a Godward direction. In this first step a person is passive. But in the following two steps the individual is expected to be active, that is, in indicating a willingness to repent and in making the decision of faith.

Since the Scriptures teach that conversion occurs solely by the grace of God and at that moment when the Holy Spirit through the means of grace kindles faith in the heart of the sinner, Lutherans reject the view

The Lutheran church emphasizes the necessity of the means of grace. The Smalcald Articles make the emphatic statement: "We should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil."[22]

The Lutheran church has also emphasized that the means of grace not only hold before the sinner the prospect of forgiveness, but they actually proclaim and confer the grace of God in Christ. The Gospel assures us that whenever and wherever this message of reconciliation is read or heard or is in any way communicated, the Holy Spirit is actively seeking to create faith in human hearts and to communicate to them the forgiveness of sins. The Gospel is more than a dead hand holding out to the sinner the grace of God. It is a creative message containing God's almighty power, working to change the will of the sinner and to turn the person to God in repentance and faith. The Lutheran church believes and confesses that this Gospel is the main thrust of the entire Scripture. Every- thing in Scripture serves this theme.

This basic principle has important implications for the church as it carries out its mission. When Christians understand the centrality of the Gospel, they will know that the Law was never intended to show sinners the way to salvation. Rather, the purpose of the Law is to bring the human race to a knowledge of its sinfulness and lost condition so that it will recognize its need of a Savior and repent. The Christian witness will also realize that the Gospel was never intended to confront the penitent sinner with commands or threats or even calls for obedience. Its purpose is instead to give God's grace and forgiveness. The Lutheran church, therefore, rejects any tendency to confuse Law and Gospel

In the Old Testament the priests were a special class set apart from the people to serve as mediators. Their task was to appear before God in the peoples' behalf, to intercede for them, and to make sacrifices for their sins. The New Testament teaches, however, that as a result of Jesus Christ's high priestly work all Christians are priests.[23] All believers have direct access to the throne of God because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In obedience to God, they have the privilege and responsibility to "offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."[24] Among the sacrifices which Christians are urged to bring are such services in the church as proclaiming the Gospel, teaching, exhorting, giving, showing leadership, performing acts of mercy.[25]

To the entire church, God's "royal priesthood," Christ has given the office or power of the keys,[26] that is, the power to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer and distribute the sacraments.[27] This means that as priests all Christians have the responsibility to participate in the work of the church.

That all Christians are priests does not mean, however, that Christians are pastors. God in His wisdom has instituted the office of the public ministry for the public administration of the priestly rights and privileges which all believers possess.[28] That is, God has established the pastoral office "to exercise the rights of the spiritual priesthood in public office in the name of the congregation."[29] The Scriptures call the incumbents of the office of the public ministry by such names as pastor, teacher, evangelist, overseer (bishop), and elder, terms which themselves describe the important functions which the holders of the office of the public ministry perform in behalf of the congregation (that is, publicly).[30] The task of preaching and administering the sacraments cannot be carried out by the congregation as a body, lest confusion, disorder, and strife result.

While pastors have the authority to administer the office of the keys publicly, it should be remembered that they do so in behalf of the congregation(s) they serve by virtue of the "call" which they have received from God through the congregation(s). No one is to assume this authority, by himself, without a regular call.[31] It should also be emphasized here that the act of calling a pastor does not relieve the congregation of its responsibility to participate in the mission of the church. Christians must guard against the misconception present among some which sees the pastor as taking care of the spiritual needs of the congregation, while the lay men and women concern themselves exclusively with the church's temporal affairs.[32]

The Lutheran church, recognizing that both the priesthood of believers and the one who holds the pastoral office have important functions to fulfill in carrying out the mission of the church,[33] rejects all tendencies to confuse them by failing

At the time of their conversion and Baptism, God in His grace endows Christians with the gift of His Holy Spirit so that they know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, trust in Him, and receive the forgiveness of sins. With the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, they have the assurance of everlasting life. In Christ they are "marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit" (Eph. 1:13; cf. Gal. 4:6-7; 2 Cor. 5:4-5; Rom. 8:26, 38-39). Depending on the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are enabled to produce the fruits of the Spirit, showing love to their neighbors, compassion toward those who are in need of their help, patience with others in their weaknesses, and peace even toward those who may despise and reject them. (Gal. 5:22-23)

As His children Christians have the promise that God through His Holy Spirit will work in them both the will and the ability to be His instruments in bringing the message of salvation to a dying world (Phil. 2:13). To that end He gives Christians gifts of grace, skills and aptitudes which enable them to perform this important service. Among the gifts which God gives His church is the ability to witness for Christ, to teach in a manner that communicates the Gospel, to exhort and encourage the weak, to show mercy to the needy, to demonstrate generosity, and to love others. (Rom. 12:3-8)

It is important that Christians not only recognize the gifts and graces which God has given them, but that they use these gifts as faithful stewards (1 Pet. 4:10), since God will require an accounting of them. (Luke 16:2)

In his commentary on 1 Pet. 4:10 Luther remarks: The Gospel wants everyone to be the other person's servant and, in addition, to see that he remains in the gift which he has received, which God has given him, that is, in the position to which he has been called. God does not want a master to serve his servant, the maid to be a lady, a prince to serve the beggar. For He does not want to destroy the government. But the apostle means that one person should serve the other person spiritually from the heart...

God did not give us all equal grace. Therefore everyone should pay attention to his qualifications, to the kind of gift given to him. When he is aware of this, he should use his gift in the service of his neighbor... God has poured out varied gifts among his people. They should be directed to only one end, namely, that one person should serve the other person with them, especially those who are in authority, whether with preaching or with another office.[34]

In view of the absence of a promise from God, however, the church today cannot rightly expect God to give Christians all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the book of Acts and in other books of the New Testament. In fact, the apostle's point in 1 Corinthians 12,[35] as well as in Romans 12, is that the dispersement of diverse gifts remains solely a divine prerogative and choice, according to God's wise purposes. Thus, in apostolic times miracles were performed by the apostles and other leaders in the church in order to meet specific needs. In Acts 8:4-7 they are described as signs semeia, which accompanied the preaching of Philip as he proclaimed Christ. St. Paul calls the "signs, wonders, and miracles" which accompanied his preaching "the things that mark an apostle" (2 Cor. 12:12). According to Acts 10:46 and Acts 11:18-19, "speaking in tongues" apparently was a sign given by the Holy Spirit to indicate that the Gospel was intended also for the Gentiles. In any case, these passages cannot be interpreted to mean that the absence of any particular gift in the Christian's life today must be viewed as evidence of a person's lack of faith or of failure to reach an advanced level of sanctification. It is enough to accept in faith and thanksgiving that the Holy Spirit, when and where He pleases, supplies His people individually and corporately with His varied gifts in all their fullness and richness. (Is. 11:2)

The Lutheran Confessions do not address specifically the special gifts which the Holy Spirit gave to the congregation at Corinth (1 Cor. 12:4-11). However, they assist us in making a crucial distinction when considering the question of special endowments of the Holy Spirit. They clearly state that in matters of salvation "we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament."[36] They go on to emphasize strongly that men of God such as Moses, the prophets, and John the Baptist who received gifts from the Holy Spirit, received them only after God had given them a previous word of promise. Thus, the gifts from the Holy Spirit must be clearly distinguished from the means of grace.[37]

In view of the above considerations, it is therefore contrary to the Scriptures and dangerous to the salvation of people

If a congregation is to serve the Lord with gladness, both Law and Gospel are needed. However, each must be applied in keeping with its God-given purpose and function. Members need to be reminded of their indifference and frequent failure to take God's will seriously and of their need of forgiveness. The Law is also needed to show all Christians what their responsibilities are to Christ and the lost world.

But only the Gospel can move the child of God to serve willingly and effectively. It alone assures us that our past failures have been forgiven, and it reminds us of the Savior's continued presence in grace with His church until the end of time. The Gospel guarantees the future of the church since the church belongs to God. Through the Gospel He not only builds the church. He also preserves and protects it. And, He has given the church the task to proclaim the Gospel, endowing it with gifts of grace. These are the promises which move the Christian witness to engage in the task of evangelism. Bible study, therefore, becomes a prerequisite in any program of evangelism, for the Gospel which the Scriptures reveal constitutes both the message of the church and the means by which it is moved to carry out its mission.

But if the Gospel is both the message and the motivation, does the congregation really need strategies? In recent years as interest in mission outreach has intensified, congregations have developed methods and elaborate strategies for evangelism. This development has given rise to the concern that, as more attention is focused on methods and strategies, less emphasis might possibly be placed on the Gospel and the sacraments as the only means by which the Holy Spirit builds His church.

In response to this concern it must be remembered first of all that, while the Lutheran church has never regarded strategies as means of grace, it has found them to be useful in carrying out its mission program. In themselves, strategies must not be thought of as contrary to the Scriptures.

The Lutheran church has always maintained that specific strategies for missions are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. The church is at liberty, therefore, to determine how it will organize its mission program. However, congregations should be advised to follow a few basic principles in this regard:



The Church Growth Movement has been called "the most influential development of the 1970s" on the American religious scene. Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, it is a movement which cannot be ignored. In less than a decade and a half its influence has been felt in many Christian denominations. It has had an impact also on many clergy in The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod because it is regarded by many pastors and congregations as an effective attempt to find a solution to a serious problem in their midst--a lack of enthusiasm for evangelism and a lack of skill in inspiring God's people to take the great commission seriously.

Church Growth leaders usually credit Donald A. McGavran with having founded the movement, although they acknowledge also the contributions made by others such as C. Peter Wagner, Alan R. Tippett, George Hunter, Winfield Arn, and Vergil Gerber. McGavran was a third generation missionary in India for more than thirty years, serving under the sponsorship of the United Christian Missionary Society (Disciples of Christ). While in India he was deeply troubled by the apparent lack of success which many missionaries, in spite of their faithful efforts, experienced. He asked: "What does make churches grow? More importantly, what makes many churches stop growing? How is it possible for Christians to come out of ripe harvest fields empty handed?"

After returning to the United States, he became a professor at the College of Missions in Indianapolis. It was there in 1957 that McGavran conceived a plan to found the Institute of Church Growth. The Institute was established in 1960 and began operating the following year on the campus of Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. In 1965 the Institute was moved to the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where McGavran was the founding dean of the Fuller Seminary School of World Missions. The time for the move seemed to be ripe since a new interest in missions was spreading through the country, sparked in part by the Berlin Congress on World Evangelism held in 1966 and the International Congress of World Evangelism convened at Lausanne in 1974.

As interest in Church Growth increased, representatives from a variety of denominations enrolled at the Fuller School of World Missions. They then returned home to adapt these principles to the theological stance of their particular denomination. As a result, Church Growth materials today present are presented to the Christian world in many different forms, depending on the theological presuppositions of their authors.

Church Growth is a technical term chosen by McGavran to describe the mission of the church as he came to understand it after many years on the mission field. In contrast to the more liberal definition which in recent years had equated evangelism with social programs, McGavran sought to center evangelism in Christ as God and Savior. By choosing the term Church Growth he wanted also to emphasize the fact that the mission of the church included not only the proclamation of the Gospel but also persuading the lost to make a decision for Christ and working to get them to become responsible members of the body of Christ.

The goal and objective of Church Growth is the salvation of the lost. McGavran is interested not only in searching for the lost but also in finding them and restoring them to the fold. He asks the basic question: "How can we most effectively reach the lost in the many cultures of this earth and integrate them into the work of the church?" To attain these objectives, McGavran and other Church Growth leaders have developed a number of missiological principles according to which the movement operates.

Missiological Principles

The expression "Church Growth principle" has been defined as "a worldwide truth which, when properly applied, along with other principles, contributes significantly to the growth of the church. "[43] Church Growth theorists distinguish carefully between a principle and a method. While principles are accepted by most Church Growth advocates and become axiomatic, methods and strategies vary with circumstances in a local community or church.

The objective of this section is to present a number of the more basic and generally accepted Church Growth principles, and to do so as objectively as possible.[44]

Donald McGavran and Win Arn state: "Scripture is the major source of Church Growth thinking. The New Testament is a series of Church Growth documents. The Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Epistles were written by missionaries for missionaries. They were written by Church Growth people to Church Growth people to help the church grow."[45]

Church Growth subscribes to principles such as the following: the Bible is the church's final authority; people outside of Christ are lost; the heavenly Father wants all to be saved; Christ is the only way of salvation; obedience to the leadings of the Holy Spirit is a major factor in the growth of the church; praying specifically for the conversion of the lost is a major factor in the growth of the church; and, the church is the body of Christ through which God has chosen to disciple all nations.[46]

While the Bible is the chief source of missiological principles, Church Growth practitioners also use other sources of knowledge in the service of the Gospel--geography, anthropology, sociology, psychology and many other fields. Church Growth believes that God in His providence has given also these to the church for its use. If they are used "in line with biblical principles," and if God blesses their use, they may become helpful tools in the church's efforts to disciple all nations, cultures, races and people.[47]

This is a key theological principle of the Church Growth Movement. Scripture states: "Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful" (1 Cor. 4:2). In New Testament times faithful stewards were those who used all their resources in order to produce results. Faithfulness consisted in setting goals and accomplishing them.

Church Growth maintains that in keeping with this principle faithfulness to the great commission includes not only sowing the seed of the Gospel but also reaping the harvest, not only searching for the lost in all nations, races, and peoples but also finding them, adding them to the fold, and nurturing them.[48]

Church Growth is critical of the attitude which says: "The church's one task is to proclaim the Gospel. It need not concern itself with results and numbers. They are strictly in the hands of God. He will gather into the fold whom He wills."[49]

McGavran defines the mission of the church as "an enterprise devoted to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, and to persuading men to become His disciples and dependable members of His Church."[50] Evangelism is "to proclaim Jesus Christ as God and Savior, to persuade people to become his disciples and responsible members of his church."[51]

In both of these definitions faithfulness to the great commission includes both proclamation and persuasion. In reply to the question, "Isn't it God's business to persuade?" McGavran and Arn reply: "There is a good biblical basis for assuming that God frequently persuades through us. If we sit quietly in our corner and refuse to persuade, we are actually being disobedient to the Holy Spirit. ... Without persuasion, without intending for people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, evangelism is a thin, anemic substitute for the real thing. Persuasion is an essential part of effective evangelism. "[52]

Church Growth maintains that "God expects his church to do many good things, but these must be arranged in order of priorities.[53] This implies among other things that the church must distinguish between its primary objective, which is to make disciples of all nations, and the means by which this goal is reached.

Sacred acts such as worship on Sundays, studying God's Word, social action, Christian fellowship, nurturing in Christian living, and even verbal witnessing, important and God-pleasing as these are, must not become ends in themselves. According to Church Growth advocates, these activities are not the church's primary objective. Even the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and Bible study are not the ultimate goals of the church. The church's ultimate mission is to bring lost children back to the Father's house.[54]

Church Growth also distinguishes sharply between discipling and perfecting or nurturing. According to C. Peter Wagner, discipling takes place when the church goes, baptizes, and teaches the prospect to be obedient to Jesus as Lord and Savior. He rejects the opinion that discipling includes training the convert in Christian living. He also cautions against "loading the initial proclamation of the Gospel with too much ethical content lest you give the impression that salvation is by works."[55] Law is important in one's approach to the unbeliever, but the person being approached with the Gospel should be asked to repent only of those sins of which the Holy Spirit has already convicted that person.

Is building the church man's work or God's? In replying to this question, McGavran and Arn quote the apostle Paul who wrote: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Cor. 3:6). They then add: "When a church grows, God has given the increase. Yet man has planted, watered, and nurtured. God has given these tasks into men's hands; they are man's responsibility."[56]

A distinctive feature of Church Growth is that it places great emphasis on human responsibility so that the lost are to be found and returned to the Father's house. Leaders of the movement are very critical of pastors and congregations who are indifferent toward the lost, unimpressed by Biblical and theological arguments for Church Growth, and have learned to rationalize their lethargy by glorying in littleness.[57] C. Peter Wagner says that there are two indispensable axioms of church growth:

Church Growth urges pastors to mobilize the laity and to motivate them to become active in the mission of the church. "The church is the Body of Christ, and the responsible member IS a part of that Body. ... A responsible member would be acutely aware of the unchurched and unsaved, those who live without knowing Jesus Christ or his power, joy, forgiveness and love."[59]

Church Growth leaders insist that "Church Growth is not optional; it is commanded by God."[60]

According to Church Growth practitioners, spiritual gifts play a very significant role in the mission of the church: 1) They underscore the important fact that the Holy Spirit is active in building the church since He is the Giver of spiritual gifts. 2) They emphasize human responsibility in carrying out the great commission of our Lord. 3) They highlight the important fact that Christians do not witness for Christ on their own initiative and by their own strength, but they are enabled by the Holy Spirit who equips them with spiritual gifts. 4) They clearly imply that Church Growth is a task in which all members of the church can and should participate.[61]

C. Peter Wagner has been called "the most articulate spokesman for the use of spiritual gifts in evangelism."[62] According to Wagner, activating and mobilizing lay people for Church Growth became feasible in the late 1960s with a general awakening throughout American churches to the Biblical teaching on spiritual gifts.[63]

In view of the fact that Christians often find it difficult to recognize the gifts which the Holy Spirit has given them, Wagner suggests five ways for discovering one's gifts: 1) explore the possibilities; 2) experiment with as many as possible; 3) examine your feelings; 4) evaluate your effectiveness; and 5) expect confirmation from the body.[64]

Church Growth leaders speak of a high view of the church. It is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, made up of true Christians who not only believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but who are expected to mature and become responsible members of the Christian community. The church is a necessary part of God's plan for the salvation and discipling of men and nations.[65]

Furthermore, the church is a visible entity made up of countable people. There is nothing particularly spiritual in not counting them. In fact, as discerning Christians our business is to know everything possible about the body. The church needs to be described accurately, even scientifically, for this aids Christians in becoming good stewards of the grace of God and effective communicators of the Gospel of Christ."[66] It needs to measure "the different rates of growth, describing the different parts of the Body, and discovering why one part of the Body is growing better than another."[67] "When a church sees itself accurately and realizes its growth potential, the Body grows."[68]

Church Growth advocates have conducted research in numerous foreign countries as well as in America and have come to the conclusion that the fields are white for the harvest. They have found missions particularly successful in Africa, Korea, Indonesia, and South America. They feel that even in America many people are ready and waiting to be won for Christ.

McGavran and Arn have written: "Today we stand on the edge of the greatest expansion of the church the world has ever seen. To those reared on large doses of pessimism, hearing every Sunday about the post-Christian era or the indifference of people to Christ, this stance may seem unduly optimistic. Yet the facts clearly indicate that the church is expanding greatly and will continue to do so.[69]

They base their optimism on promises such as Matt. 16:18 where Jesus says, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." They confidently assert: "God is not going if to be defeated! Jesus Christ is not powerless! The arm of the Lord is not weak! God is the Father Almighty! The church of Jesus Christ has abundant resources and excellencies. It is now evidencing strengths and goodness and kindness such as no other organization even dreams about."[70]

McGavran urges Christians not to assume that slow growth is necessarily good growth or that rapid growth should be regarded as more or less suspicious and disreputable.[71]

Church Growth leaders contend that America is not the melting pot that it is often thought to be in which different races, cultures, and classes readily blend together to form a unity with common; goals, interests, customs, and even language. Instead, a community in today's world is a "mosaic of many different kinds of people."[72]

These different groups of people in a given geographical area have been called "homogeneous units" in Church Growth literature. They are groups with some common characteristic or bond which ties them together. It may be culture, race, language, or even political ideals. That common bond may at times also cause them to be "people conscious," that is, make them think of themselves as a separate entity with the result that they classify themselves as "we" and all others as "they. " Thus they become isolated from others in the community.[73]

Church Growth advocates have concluded from their research I that men and women in these homogeneous units usually prefer to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.[74] When there are marked differences of color, stature, income, cleanliness, and education present, people understand the Gospel better when it is presented by their own kind of people. They prefer to join churches whose members look, talk, and act like they do.[75]

Church Growth practitioners suggest that as the church seeks to present the Gospel to these culturally different groups it should recognize the need for establishing a different kind of church in each homogeneous unit so that each group will be able to worship God in its own way and in accord with its unique culture. It is felt that the more each group develops its own indigenous kind of worship the more open it will become to the Gospel.[76]

Church Growth literature indicates that the homogeneous unit principle remains one of the most controversial elements of the Church Growth Movement, but it is generally recognized that this principle is still one of the most useful and valuable contributions of Church Growth to world evangelism.

According to this principle, a church which plans to evangelize a given area or community should begin by taking the following two steps: 1) seek out a homogeneous unit where people are bound together by some common bond and then endeavor to understand their unique characteristics; and 2) plot them on what has come to be known as the Resistance-Receptivity Axis. This is a chart which visualizes those who have been found to be more receptive to the Gospel as opposed to those people who give evidence of showing some resistance.[77]

Church Growth theorists suggest that the more receptive prospects will usually be 1) visitors to your church, 2) new arrivals in the community, 3) new arrivals who respond to the church's invitation, 4) those who have felt needs which the church can meet, and 5) friends of new converts. Among the less receptive and even more resistant will usually be 1) those who have maintained no contact with the church over a period of time, 2) long term residents of the community, 3) new arrivals in the community who apparently, are indifferent to the church, 4) people with no felt need which the church can meet, and 5) more distant relatives and mere acquaintances of new converts.[78]

The School of World Missions at Fuller suggests that the church should spend most of its time and labor among those who appear to be the most receptive, but it should not neglect those who resist. "Sudden ripenings, far from being unusual, are common," says in; McGavran.[79] C. Peter Wagner claims that the Resistance-Receptivity Axis has become one of Church Growths most useful tools[80].

Church Growth advocates contend that the Scriptures themselves teach the necessity of wise planning. The book of Proverbs describes a wise man as one who looks ahead (14:8). When he makes a decision, he does so on the basis of facts (18:13). When faced with a problem, he seeks the counsel of others (15:22). He depends on God to help him (16:9). He acknowledges that while human beings make plans, it is God who determines the final outcome (16:1). Only the fool refuses to give up plans when they do not work (13:19). Finally, the intelligent man is open to new ideas. (18:15)

Wise planning, according to Church Growth practitioners, is not only Biblical, but it is also essential if the church is to carry out the great commission as God intended. Good planning requires that one know the facts. This implies analyzing the existing situation in a congregation, setting up goals and objectives, developing a strategy which will outline what a congregation should do to meet its goal, and finally, evaluating the results to determine whether the church is "moving ahead."

Peter Wagner encourages congregations to be very pragmatic. Strategies must be developed that will be compatible with the local situation and that will work. When a strategy or method is not effective, it should be abandoned and a new one developed.

The term "Church Growth eyes" has been defined as "a characteristic of Christians who have achieved an ability to see the possibilities for growth and to apply appropriate strategies to gain maximum results for Christ and His Church."[81]

According to Church Growth advocates, if a person has Church Growth eyes, he will 1) see the world from God's perspective, knowing that God loves the world and wants His lost children "brought back to the Father's house." He will 2) see the hand of God working in the world. He will recognize that the Gospel is succeeding. The church is growing. There is reason for optimism. He will 3) take seriously the responsibility which God has placed on the church "to make disciples of all nations." He will 4) recognize that some mission fields are more fruitful than others and will ask: "Why is the Holy Spirit blessing one and not the other? Is part of the problem laxity, indifference, or even failure on the part of the pastor and the congregation to communicate the Gospel clearly?" Finally, he will 5) see the need for developing effective strategies for Church Growth.[82]

These are some of the more important missiological principles that have been suggested by Church Growth practitioners. However, it should be remembered, they point out, that new principles are constantly being discovered as churches spread the Gospel in new ways and find that God is blessing their efforts.


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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