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CGM 001

continued: CGM history 

While his books in those early years had little impact on mission, in the 50’s and 60’s McGavran was working with the United Christian Missionary Society. It was when he visited Latin America, the Philippines, Thailand and the Caribbean to carry out survey work that he wrote: "I had to adjust church growth theory to make it valid in each new population and for all populations.

The Indian colour was replaced by a global way of thinking. During the years 1960-1970, we systematized the concepts and principles of the church growth movement and fitted them to five continents, to all in fact except North America." In 1961 under the leadership of McGavran the CGM came into being as the Institute of Church Growth, at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. Later the organisation was integrated into Fuller Theological Seminary as the Fuller School of World Mission in Pasadena, California.

McGavran, with the immense contributions of C. Peter Wagner, George Hunter, Alan Tippett and others, embarked on the task of dealing with some of the most difficult questions and challenges facing the modern local church, in the belief that sustainable church growth numerically and spiritually was possible.

It was not until 1971 that McGavran’s ideas were fully systematized and published in his book, “Understanding Church Growth” and as a direct result his movement’s insights and principles helped correct the appalling lack of knowledge of church growth in general and the alarming decline in church attendance, the failure of church maintenance strategies and the inability of many churches to be relevant to their culturally changing community.

Two world conferences on evangelism i.e. the Berlin Congress of World Evangelism in 1966 and the 1974 Lausanne Congress of World Evangelism created interest worldwide and many of the interest groups gave Fuller School of World Mission an international opportunity for different denominations to examine their philosophy and strategy for mission.

While the church for many years had been heavily involved in a social gospel and human needs were being met, the church did not enjoy spiritual and numerical growth. McGavran’s missiology differentiated between his principle driven philosophy for church growth and the more social presentation of the gospel.

He highlighted that the CGM’s mission was centred on the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, presenting Him as God and Saviour.  In this presentation of the Gospel message, the CGM revealed their non-universalistic beliefs, teaching the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the inclusivity of the world’s population as potential recipients.The key motivation of McGavran’s message was the salvation of souls and then their discipleship needs which he called “perfection”.

With the advancement of education and the development of social sciences in the 20th and 21st century Western world, the appearance of a Christian movement able to use the social sciences which were not exclusive to them was inevitable.

The CCGM was not about the need for good analytical re-assessment of all the traditional church strategies which had a level of effectiveness in other generations; rather it was inaugurated to deliver classical church growth principles which could grow vibrant, numerically strong and spiritually alive churches in local communities.

McGavran wrote his book “Understanding Church Growth”[3] amidst  growing confusion, distorted opinion and a declining church. It is at this point that the greatest critics are to be found and the five main critical interpretations of the CGM’s missiology need to be included here for clarity’s sake as they will also come into play at different times during the development of this dissertation, challenging not only the CGM but ultimately Saddleback.

Research has revealed that there are at least five main approaches which have formed distinct theological and missiological positions with regards to the CGM; these will be briefly stated here. Firstly, there is the “Reformist view”[4] taught by Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, who argues that the CGM assumes theological understanding but ineffectively employs it “to analyse culture, determine strategy and perceive history”.

Secondly, there is the “Gospel and Our Culture” view [5] propounded by Dr.Graig Van Gelder, professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, who holds that the CGM lacks a sufficient ecclesiology to be able to engage effectively with modern culture. Thirdly, the “Centrist view”[6]understands the CGM as being founded on an “evangelistically focused and a missiologically applied theory”.

This view was the conclusion of a doctoral dissertation entitled “The Growth of the True Church” by Arthur F. Glasser, a Professor of Biblical Theology at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena.Fourthly, Dr. Howard Snyder confirms that the “Renewal view” [7]of the CGM is based on the assumption that the movement is founded on a biblical vision of the church as the vital community of the kingdom of God. Snyder challenges that assumption.

Fifthly, the “Effective Evangelism View” simply promotes the view that the CGM effectively “confronts and penetrates the culture with the gospel”.  Dr Elmer Towns, a respected author of 70 books on the subject of church growth, holds to this position.These five positions represent the various attitudes, both positive and negative, of the CGM. These attitudes reflect the nature of the challenge the CGM would have to overcome, in its desire to be relevant to the modern 21st century declining church.

McGavran wrote to give clarity to the CGM’s mission theology, mission theory and mission practice, hoping to overcome the various missiological attitudes. He believed that the three do not exist exclusively of each other but were an integrated whole, “theology influencing theory and practice, practice colouring theology and theory, and theory guiding both practice and theology”.

McGavran clearly believed that “the theory and theology of mission is what is in dispute”[9] in church circles today and needs to be quickly addressed.The five views on the CGM have in many different ways stimulated the debate. In the 1970’s the debates were over “people movements, strategy and numerical growth”;[10] by the 1980’s the key issue for the CGM was “hermeneutics of church growth, persuasion, business practices and communication theory”.

By the 1990’s the CGM’s understanding of “seeker sensitivity, meeting felt needs, and again the principles of church marketing” [12]was challenged. These were on going debates and would continue into new generations of the Church.The CGM, with its distinctive and fresh missiological thinking, offered an opportunity of hope to many failing and declining traditional churches. “No growth”, “slow growth”, “maintenance ministry” had been keywords used to describe the condition of the traditional Western church in general and the American church in particular.

While many church leaders in various denominations had their particular reservations regarding the CGM, some were prepared to listen to what the CGM was saying. A report written by the American Lutheran Church reflects something of how the CGM was being received.

There seemed to be at least three approaches to the CGM, which helps one understand how some of the mainline denominations approached the movement and its teaching.Firstly there were those who suggested that if the CGM meant a re-awakening in Christian Churches to the Lord’s will and that if His Church grows by winning the lost and confirming them in His truth, then there is no decision to make but to listen to what the CGM is proposing.

Secondly, if by using the term Church Growth Movement one means a rapidly gathering body of data and resulting suggestions for improving efficiency of our structures, tools and methods of Gospel outreach, then it seems that one should eclectically choose what will serve our theological position and our field of ministry.

There was a third view which suggested that if we use the term Church Growth Movement we should mean a religious entity with specific principles; our association with the CGM would then be predicated by an absolute unanimity rooted in scripture.[13] In the light of the CGM’s missiological teaching, many different denominations could easily hold to their own theological emphasis while incorporating the CGM’s contextual principles for church growth.

Lutherans, Pentecostals, Methodists, United Reform, Baptists and Romans Catholics are a few of the denominations who seriously considered what the CGM was suggesting. The obvious conclusion is that the CGM’s missiology becomes a means to carry church growth principles into any given context.

While other historic movements which have influenced the direction of the church theologically and experientially have been heavily criticised e.g. the ecumenical and the charismatic movements, it can be justifiably argued that the CGM is neither unfavourable, nor hostile to historic Christianity, nor is it divisive theologically in its missiological and contextual emphasis.

But the CGM comes into conflict and is misunderstood concerning its teachings on the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP).While the CGM was trying to establish the point that people of similar backgrounds i.e. culturally and linguistically were a better target for church growth, which is understandable, it seems that the HUP was in fact segregationist, racist and ultimately would divide the church of Jesus Christ.

However given the fact that millions have worshipped in this way for centuries, it causes one to wonder why it should be such a problem for church planting in the 21st century.  McGavran has a clear opinion, and it can be proved in countless situations worldwide, that “people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or cultural barriers”.

From the times of Jesus people have come into the church where there is little or no social difference between themselves and those in the church.  The key issue here is that McGavran was not saying “ If the church is to grow it must follow the Homogeneous Unit way”; on the contrary, what he is suggesting is that most growing churches have narrow target audiences, racially, culturally and linguistically.

[1] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 9.
[2] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 8-9.
[3] McGavran, UCG, Book Title.
[4] Engle & McIntosh, Evaluating The Church Growth Movement, 24.

[5] Engle & McIntosh, ETCGM, 24f.

[6] Engle & McIntosh, ETCGM, 25.

[7] Engle & McIntosh, ETCGM, 25.

[8] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 17.
[9] McGavran, UCG, 16.

[10] Engle & McIntosh, Evaluating The Church Growth Movement, 23.

[11] Engle & McIntosh, ETCGM, 23f.
[12] Engle & McIntosh, ETCGM, 23-25.

[13] The Missouri Lutheran Church: Commission on Theology and Church Relations, September   


    Part 1, Synod debate on “Evangelism and Church Growth Movement.”

[14]  Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 46.

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