“Take heed that you not be deceived." Luke 21:8  

Roots of the Church Growth Movement


Notes and links from Susan Conway

Skip down to C. Peter Wagner



C. Donald McGavran's Understanding Church Growth 1. Background: McGavran was born in India of missionary parents and because of the influence of the Student Volunteer Movement returned to India and served in India himself as a Disciple of Christ missionary for 33 years. He is widely understood as the Father of Church Growth. In 1957 he established the Institute of Church Growth in Eugene, Oregon. In 1965 he was asked by Fuller Theological Seminary to establish the School of World Mission.


2. McGavran advocated a return to classical missions with its stress on evangelism and church planting. He believed that, "A chief and irreplaceable purpose of mission is church growth."...."Service is good, but it must never be substituted for finding" the lost and organizing them into communities of faith.


3. He also underscored using the social and behavioral sciences to identify the factors that facilitate and those that impede church growth....


4. Paul: His major book Understanding Church Growth does not primarily focus on Theology (but rather on the social sciences).


5. Although the name of his book is Understanding Church Growth, he focuses mostly on growth and little on the church. He never clearly sets for his theology of the church.


6. There is also a naive understanding of growth. Growth is understood to be intrinsically good and non-growth bad. He fails to realize that weeds sometimes as fast than wheat. The aim of missions is not merely growth but bringing the kingdom of God into the lives of people. When growth becomes the sole criteria for missions, processes of nurturing new Christians and training Christian leaders can frequently be relegated to the periphery.  



D.A. McGavran: "It is God's will that women and men become disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of Christ's church."


Since 1980, basic ChurchGrowth theory has been eclipsed and sometimes submerged and misunderstood due to extra layers of phenomena such as healing ministries, signs and wonders, power evangelism, strategic level warfare, world prayer movements, and new apostolic reformation churches. Yet all of these are built upon the theoretical and theological foundations of a cohesive and coherent missiology known as "Church Growth." 


The persons and movements represented by the post-1980 emphases see themselves consistent with, and true to, the earlier basic "ChurchGrowth" theory. Yet many people today hear and learn about the "post-1980"phenomena without any background understanding of the foundational theory --they are constructing a building with no solid footing.


This course is designed to examine the biblical and theological bases for the main church growth propositions which have been, and continue to be, central to the Church GrowthMovement. Thus this course has a three-fold purpose of:


(1) providing biblical and theological parameters which interface, evaluate, and deepen the insights of the social sciences in relation to Church Growth theory;


(2) understanding, responding to, and furthering the theoretical formulation of basic Church Growth theory; and


(3) exploring new ways to apply theological considerations in developing appropriate Church Growth insights in particular contexts.


Reflection will attempt to interact between the standard loci of systematic theology and the ways in which these themes have been articulated in Church Growth theory. Thus, the course intentionally emphasizes the people, books and ideas that deal with the basic THEORY of Church Growth rather than some of the later post-1980 applications dealt with in other Church Growth courses at FTS.  


Go Make Learners -- Chapter 8

May 5, 2002


 McGavran first published about church growth and group conversions in 1936.


This was about the time that Rebecca West was touring and writing about Yugoslavia. What was H. G. Wells doing? What ideas from what individuals and movements influenced McGavran?



 People Movements and Their Result


In 1933 Bishop J. W. Pickett of the Methodist Church published his Christian Mass Movements in India.[8] Dr. Donald McGavran called it an "epochal book" which "marked a turning point in mission History."[9] By carefully surveying some areas where the church has grown most rapidly, Bishop Pickett was able to demonstrate that virtually all the growth of the churches in India had been by mass movements. A mass movement at that time was defined as a movement which eventually resulted in the turning of a large proportion of the members of a certain caste to become Christians.[10]



8. W. Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India, first published in 1933, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1953).  


9. Preface to J. W. Pickett, A. L. Warnshuis, G. H. Singh, & D. A. McGavran, Church Growth and Group Conversion, first published in 1936, South Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1973), p. vii. Back to text  


10. Dr. McGavran explains that the term "mass movement" "fails completely to indicate that the movement (a) is not one of mere mass, but always of a people (tribe, caste, or clan); (b) usually enlarges by conversion of small, well-instructed groups; and (c) achieves large numbers only over a period of years." Church Growth and Group Conversion, 1973, p. 4. ssays/Authors/k/KoesterLaw/KoesterLaw.rtf+%22church+growth+and+group+convers ion%22&hl=en This is the html version of the file http://www.wls.wels.net/library/Essays/Authors/k/KoesterLaw/KoesterLaw.rtf.  


McGavran did not grow in his concern in a vacuum. He writes,  

While God has granted me a part in the process, I neither invented church growth nor am solely responsible for it. Indeed, I owe my interest in church growth to a great Methodist bishop, Jarrell Waskom Pickett. In 1934, he kindled my concern that the Church grow. I lit my candle at his fire.3  

During the 1930's, '40's, and early '50's McGavran was hammering out his principles of church growth. During this period he was also visiting other missionaries and learning from their successes and failures. In 1954 he visited seven African nations and tested his insights under African conditions.


In 1955, McGavran published a book entitled The Bridges of God.  It was an expansion of an earlier work, Church Growth and Group Conversion (1936) and explained the principles he had been developing while a missionary in India. He wrote a second book that year, How Churches Grow. Both books were widely read, but had little impact on missions.


Between 1956 and 1960 McGavran worked for the United Christian Missionary Society. He was sent to Latin America, the Philippines, Thailand, and the Caribbean to survey the Society's churches in those lands. He writes,  

I had to adjust church growth theory to make it valid in each new populationand for all populations. The Indian color was replaced by a global way ofthinking. During the years 1960 to 1970, we systematized the concepts andprinciples of the church growth movement and fitted them to five continents,to all, in fact, except North America.4  

In 1961 McGavran began an "Institute for Church Growth" at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. This organization moved to Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, and there McGavran became the Founding Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission.


During the 1960's McGavran's ideas were systematized and in 1970 his findings were published in Understanding Church Growth " which many regard as the foundation of the church growth movement."5


Today, missionaries from allover the world and from all denominations study at Fuller School of World Missions and learn to apply Church Growth Principles in their particular situation.


The Church Growth Movement was aimed at church growth in foreign countries. But thoughts of applying it to American churches were always on the minds of some. During the late 1950's when McGavran was teaching in Seminaries of the Christian Church, his students preparing for the American ministry frequently said to him, "The principles you teach apply here."


He replied, "Yes, they do, but how they apply you will have to work out."6


 In1963 while at the Institute of Church Growth at Eugene, Ore. McGavran planned to add an American Division, headed by an American minister of church growth convictions, but the plan did not mature. 


The conscious effort to apply church growth thinking to America was stimulated by a Pastor Charles Miller, a staff member of Pasadena's Lake Avenue Congregational Church. In 1972 he asked a member of his church, C.Peter Wagner, who was teaching with McGavran at Fuller, to organize a course for local Pastors applying church growth principles to American churches. He and McGavran co-taught the course, and what started out as an experiment, led to a whole new movement that could be called "The American Church Growth Movement."


One man who attended that first class in 1972 is today the center of the American thrust of Church Growth thinking. He is Win Arn, who founded The Institute for American Church Growth. This Institute, and its counterpart in Canada, the Institute for Canadian Church Growth, produce films and seminars that reach all areas of the North America.


In addition to organizations that are direct spin-offs from the Fuller group, other independent church growth organizations have sprung up across the country. These groups have allied themselves with the Church Growth movement in general, and their contributions to church growth research also find their way into the large resource pool in Pasadena.. Two of these are the National Church Growth Research Center in Washington, D.C., and the Yokefellow institute of Richmond, Indiana. The latter organization is headed by Lyle Schaller, one of the more prolific writers on church growth and planning. 


The four names mentioned so far form the core men of the church growth movement.


Donald McGavran is the father of the movement.

C. Peter Wagner is its systematician.

Win Arn has introduced America to church growth principles.

And Lyle Schaller, not really connected with the roots of the movement, is a guru of church planning whose advice is respected by those who are at the root of the Movement.

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