by Phil A. Newton


While struggling with the entrenched stubborn­ness of a county seat town church, I decided that if I couldn’t beat them, I would grow around them.  The Church Growth Movement (CGM) was my ticket to success. After attending conferences on church growth and enrolling in Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program in church growth, I had a new vision for my church. I began to apply some of the growth techniques that eventuated in increased atten­dance. I was elated!

With attendance on the rise, I had finally become a church growth pastor. I could check off Peter Wagner’s “Vital Sign Number One of a healthy, growing church . . .a pastor who is a possibility thinker and whose dynamic leadership has been used to catalyze the entire church into action for growth.” 1  That was me!  Well, almost.   Since a sizeable portion of the church had no intention of moving  “into action for growth,” maybe I had not quite arrived.  But I intended to do so!

Eventually, I resigned that church in preparation for moving to Memphis to plant a church.  The stark reality of the church’s poor health glared back at me.  Upon my resignation, the old guard quickly moved in to grab control of the church.  Though temporarily muffled by being out-numbered, they had not been transformed by the application of the gospel.  Most of those added to the church during my tenure abruptly left for other churches.  The church continued with business as usual, showing no signs of spiritual vitality.

I had been duped under the guise of church growth. Lacking theological clarity, I failed to distinguish between church growth and church health, not grasping that unless there is spiritual vitality and biblical refor­mation,  more numbers  are meaningless- even  detri­mental.  I fell for the common tendency to excuse the church’s poor health in favor of substituting increased numbers.  In spite of the “growth,” deeply rooted spiri­tual problems remained, with the church no better off.

So, what is the proper response to the Church Growth Movement?  Do we need to throw out everything asso­ciated with it?  Absolutely not; many observations by its proponents have stimulated needed changes in churches. For instance, Thom Rainer has some very helpful material regarding church membership. A critical com­ponent to growth, he emphasizes  “high-expectation membership” that includes evidence of conversion, required membership class, adherence to the church’s doctrine, and signing a church covenant.2    Others in the CGM point out the need for maintaining good worship and bible study facilities and safe children’s areas. There’s a difference between unbiblical pragmatism as the means for growing the church and practicality when it comes to issues of church life.3

Instead of wholesale dismissal of everything smattering of church growth, Christian leaders must apply a dis­cerning, theological eye to the total church life.  While some CGM thinking amounts to good, common sense, still other aspects pose a danger for the church from which discerning leaders must steer clear.  The Church Growth Movement of the 21st century changes faces, literature, and language yet it’s still the same pragma­tism of the 20th century, dressed in modern garb. Christian leaders must evaluate church growth in light of the sufficiency of the gospel.



Some church leaders know little of the CGM’s begin­nings. Charles Chaney explained of the Church Growth Movement: “It is related to Donald McGavran’s life and ministry.” 4 The CGM began out of McGavran’s mission field observations of what worked to cause churches in India to grow. Carefully noting his observations, he later wrote, “Unquestionably the best sources of understand­ing of growth are the men and women who saw it hap­pen.” 5   In other words, sociological observations and investigations laid the foundation for the CGM.  That is borne out in Wagner’s definition of the CGM.

The science that investigates the nature, function, and health of Christian churches as they relate specifically to the effective implementation of God’s Commission to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28: 19). Church growth is simulta­neously a theological conviction and an applied science, striving to combine the eternal principles of God’s Word with the best insights of con­ temporary social and behavioral sciences, employing as its initial frame 0f reference the foundational work done by Donald McGavran and his colleagues.6

Wagner followed McGavran as chief spokesman of the CGM. His sociologically-dominated church growth principles, built on McGavran’s observa­tions, set the stage for a barrage of more of the same. Having studied under Wagner, I found it interesting that Paul Roberts, in his review of Gary Mcintosh’s Biblical Church Growth, observes the same fault-line in Wagner’s position and many other CGM practitioners. Roberts wrote, “Although Mcintosh sincerely desires to lay a biblical founda­tion for the principles upon which his church growth methodology is intended to rest, it would appear his methodological pragmatism usually trumps his ecclesiology.” Further, he writes, “In  my estima­tion, this is an unavoidable consequence of trying to find a foundation after the sociologically driven methodology has already been decided upon.”7 In reality, the CGM is first a sociological science and only secondarily a “theological conviction,” which gives insight to the foundation of the Movement. Perhaps the a-theological condition of many Churches and their leaders has opened the church’s arms to sociological principles trumping theological verities.

Wagner’s specification of the CGM relating to McGavran and his colleagues is critical in under­ standing it as a movement. Mcintosh distinguishes the CGM from mere church growth. “There is a technical understanding of Church Growth and a popular understanding of church growth. From a technical view, Church Growth refers precisely to the principles and theories that arose from the foun­dational insights of Donald McGavran. Yet from a popular perspective, Church. growth refers to any­ thing that purports to help grow a church.”8  He concurs with Wagner and Chaney about McGavran’s preeminence in the CGM. Mcintosh defends against critics by pointing out that ah array of non-CGM thinkers, such as George Barna, has been lumped in with the Movement. He calls for differentiating “between core Church Growth Thought and popular church growth practice.”9 Unless one is a student of the CGM, that request may be difficult to achieve.

While expressing his esteem for McGavran and calling for a return to the original purpose of the CGM, Rainer simplifies the definition for church growth, calling it “a results-oriented term. . . Church growth is simply evangelism that results in the growth of the church.” 10  He points out that McGavran insisted, “the soteriological aspects of the Great Commission must be understood ecclesiologically,” adding, “Evangelism and church growth cannot be separated.”  He further inter­prets McGavran’s emphasis to be on evangelism rather than on “total numerical growth,” with growth as the nat­ural product of evangelism rather than formative aim. 11

While  Rainer’s clarification  is much appreciated  and needed, the reality is that the CGM spawned a plethora of  church growth ideas rooted in sociology, not theolo­gy, and that continue to shape evangelical, mainline, and quasi-evangelical  churches.   With the best of inten­tions, McGavran,  Wagner,  and other framers of  the CGM chose sociology over theology in forming many church growth principles . Though confessing bibli­cal inerrancy, like so many other evangelicals of our day, they turned away from the sufficiency of Scripture, choosing instead clever marketing techniques, highly pol­ished programs, corporate manage­ment style, and felt-need preaching. 12



With McGavran’s death in 1990, and Wagner fading as chief spokesman due to his Third Wave movement involvement, 13 no one person  articulates the  CGM’s position .  Sonny Tucker explains that it is currently fragmented:  “No unified  Church Growth Movement  is in existence today.  The theological and philosophical diversity that exists among those claiming to be in church growth represent too broad of a spectrum to be housed in one movement.” 14  He warns that much of the current church growth practice  emphasizes  “growth” instead of  “conversion growth,” insisting that this has veered far from McGavran’s position.   Instead of one unified CGM, Tucker identifies five major streams of church growth in our day.

    1. “McGavran Church Growth with a Global Focus,” relying “on the social sciences, pragma­tism, and contextualization ,” (though not above Scripture) to reach the lost outside North America.
    2. “McGavran Church Growth with an American Focus,” characterized as more “seeker sensitive” than “seeker driven.”
    3. “American Popular Church Growth,” stressing pragmatism over Scripture with “the foundation of their methodology . . .the felt needs of the un­ churched, not the biblical mandate to evangelize.”
    4. “The Third Wave Church Growth Movement,” with adherents purporting “power encounters to be a standard solution strategy model rather than a unique solution strategy model” for evangelism and missiology (e.g. John Wimber and the Vineyard movement).
    5. “American Neo-Orthodox Church Growth,”­ “that stream of church growth thinking that is neo­ orthodox rather than conservative evangelical in its doctrine.” 15


    Church growth has kaleidoscopic dimensions.

    Countless churches continue to focus their ministries on Rick Warren’s popular, The Purpose Driven Church.16  Riding the wave of his 40-day programs, churches have built their work around the relation­ ships fostered during program imple­mentation.   Warren’s initial philoso­phy of ministry followed Robert Schuller’s well-known church growth principle,  “Find a need and fill it.” Warren honed  Schuller’s principle into the seeker-sensitive approach to total church life.  He writes, “Jesus often met a felt need in order to establish a beachhead for evangelism in a person’s life.”17  And with regard to Christ’s teaching, “He scratched where people itched.” 18  Consequently, as people flocked to Christ they will flock to our churches, if we follow this princi­ple. However, Warren neglects to mention that the very ones flocking to Him later left Him when they began to understand the demands of the gospel (cf. John 6). 19 Paul warned Timothy about accommodating itching ears in his preaching (2 Tim. 4:1-4). The seeker-sensi­tive model may add numbers but does it do so accord­ing to Scripture?

    Kennon Callahan, in Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, rightly critiques the homogeneous unit principle of church growth.  McGavran explained it as “simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteris­tic in common.” 20    Though without  addressing how Christ has broken down the barriers between all men through His death (Eph. 2: 11-22), Callahan points out the faulty practice of focusing the church’s ministry on one homogeneous group while neglecting to pursue oth­ers.  He writes, “One reason I stand so strongly against the principle of homogeneity  as the primary source of church growth is that it invites the attitude that the art of church growth is that of reaching out to people who are essentially acceptable.” 21  Still, he fails to center the church’s ministry on the preached Word, choosing instead to stress missional objectives aimed at relieving specific hurts in people’s lives as the means to church growth: “When a local congregation is effective in delivering concrete help to a specific hurt or hope, it is likely to be sought out by people in the community who have other hurts and hopes.” 22  In identifying his “twelve keys,” biblical exposition is noticeably absent, as is church discipline and regenerate membership. 23 As Thabiti Anyabwile explains, “Callahan actually rele­gates the gospel and the true mission of the church to secondary status.”  He adds, “While he at times inserts statements suggesting that the programs are efforts to build relationships so that Christ may be shared, the weight of his recommendations falls on the importance of “competent programs” and not on faithfulness to proclaiming the biblical gospel.”24

    Thriving Churches in the Twenty­ First Century: 10 Life-Giving Systems for Vibrant Ministry , pro­vides some excellent observations of the “societal quakes” that affect our day. Authors Mcintosh and Reeves examine the current trends of cultural change, and then plot a course for churches to pursue toward growth.   They point out, “Although the transforming power of the biblical mes­sage and the urgency of Christ’s mandate to make disci­ples does not change, the situations in which they are proclaimed  and the ways they are articulated, commu­nicated,  taught,  and acted upon may change and vary.”25    Although  rightly  acknowledging  the unchang­ing message of Christ, many of their proposals suggest, perhaps unwittingly, a hedging on the sufficiency of this message.  This shows up in the way they call for nar­rowing ministry focus. Rather than referring to the homogeneous unit principle,  they promote the same princi­ple without using the objectionable terminology.   “To find its place in an era of diversity, a church will have to shift from a broad focus to a narrow focus.  A target niche will not necessarily be governed by, as in the past, doctrinal nuances but by associations with groups with whom one resonates.”   Critically, they write,  “Leaders of the last generation typically shied away from target­ing specific audiences, taking instead a one-size-fits-all approach.   Leaders in our new generations will need to be more sensitive to the specific group(s) of people they have chosen to reach and among whom to minister.” 26 It’s still the homogeneous unit principle of church growth championed by McGavran and Wagner. 27  It’s still offensive to the biblical gospel and the church that is “neither Jew nor Greek. ..neither slave nor freeman . . .neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 4:28).

    Mcintosh and Reeves also explain that “sequential thinking . . .is gradually being replaced by nonsequential thinking.” 28   They add, “Indeed, for churches seeking to reach today’s new audiences, structured, three-point sermons may not be the best way to communicate. Instead, using narrative, drama, or visual approaches may be more effective in communicating spiritual truths.” 29  Their recommendation gently tip-toes around Paul’s identification of the preaching of the cross as the means that God uses to bring all people groups to Christ (1 Cor. 1:18-25). It is worth pointing out that, though drama was a big part of first century Roman life, Paul stuck to the preaching of the gospel.  He did not tell Timothy, “make sure that you utilize excellent drama,” but rather, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Certainly, that is not to suggest a monolithic  approach to exposition. Styles vary with personalities and cultural settings, but the passionate exposition of  God’s Word through the power of the Holy Spirit remains irreplaceable for gospel ministry  and growing healthy churches.

    When James Emery White writes, “Seeker sensitivity has nothing to do with changing the church’s message, just the church’s manners,” he expresses what many in the CGM truly believe. 30  However, when the church’s worship, preaching, and ministry is shaped by sensitivi­ty to “seekers,” then can one be sure that the church is directed by the authority of Scripture?  “Seekers” (a misnomer according to Romans 3: 11) refers to those who are unbelievers albeit interested in the Christian faith. But Scripture teaches that any true interest on the part of an unbeliever can only be due to the work of the Spirit through the Word (1 Cor. 2:1-10).  Dare the church, then, lower its standards, water down its mes­sage, and forego teaching doctrine because these might be offensive to the unregenerate people we want to accommodate? Will we not stifle this work of the Spirit if we accommodate the preferences of unbelievers rather than preach the Word?

  1. White acknowledges that God must be worshiped in spirit and in truth, yet adds, “The idea of cultural relevance can also be applied to worship, for it is about offering forms of expression that are meaningful to the worshiper.” 31  But, the unregenerate “seeker” cannot worship in spirit and in truth because he is not alive in his spirit (Eph. 2:1-3). Worship is about humbly honor­ing the living God, not providing a meaningful experi­ence for the worshiper.  Accommodating him, in order to provide a more acceptable form of worship, inevitably leads to an anemic church.  If growth takes place in the midst of an anemic church, then what kind of growth is it? Will it stand the test of trials and adver­sity? Will such a church demonstrate holiness, faithful­ ness, and obedience as God’s people? 



    I realize that I have only sampled a small portion of CGM material. Yet even so, though repackaged  for 2l5t century audiences, the basic concepts hammered  out by McGavran and Wagner remain intact.  It is still a move­ment shaped more by sociology than theology.   So, how are we to respond to the Church Growth Movement?First, unless a CGM writer has denied the gospel, then let us make sure that we treat him as a brother.  He may be in error regarding some important issues yet still a brother whom we must love and exhort.  Second, let us faithfully appraise every church growth principle, pro­ gram, and idea in light of God’s Word.  Make sure that Scripture rather than the latest marketing strategy regu­ lates your total ministry.  Third, let us guard against pragmatism creeping into our ministries by allowing experience to become the criteria for approval rather than the revelation of God.  Fourth, let us pray for the church’s growth, not only by adding genuine believers, but growth in holiness, missionary passion, obedience, and faithfulness to the gospel. Finally, let us give atten­ tion to the church’s health and the proclamation of the gospel, realizing that Christ has promised to build His Church (Matt. 16:18).

    Phil A. Newton (D. Min.) ispastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of the recent books, Elders in Congregational Life (Kregel) and The Way of Faith (Founders Press).


    1 C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow: Se!’en Vital Signs of a Healthy Church (Ventura, Cal.: Regal Books, 1984, revised edition), 63.

    2 Thom S. Rainer, High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers,  1999), 49-65.

    3 See my essay, “The Pastor and Church Growth: How to Deal with the Modern Problem of Pragmatism,” in John Armstrong, editor, Reforming Pastoral Minist1y: Challengesfor Minist1y in Postmodern Times, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2001), 263-280.

    4 Steve Wilkes, “Interview with Dr. Charles Chaney,” Journal of Evangelism and Missions, vol. 2, Spring 2003, 64.

    5 Donald McGavran,  Understanding Clzurch Growth, Fully Revised, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,  1980 revision of  1970 edition), 145.

    1. 6. Peter Wagner, editor with Win Arn and Elmer Towns, Church Growth: State of the Art, (Wheaton, : Tyndale House Publishers, 1988), 284.

    7 Paul Roberts, “Biblical Church Growth,” a review, IX Marks website,, linked to

    http:/ IArticle_Display_Page/O,,PTID3 l4526

    %7CCHID5980, p. 2; accessed 16 May 2007.

    8 Gary Mcintosh, “A Critique of the Critics,” Journal of Evangelism and Missions, vol. 2, Spring 2003, 47.

    9 Ibid., 47, 49.

    10 Thom Rainer, “Assessing the Church Growth Movement,” Journal of Evangelism and Missions, vol. 2, Spring 2003, 54, 57-59.

    11 Ibid., 55.

    12 See the following that offer critiques of some aspects of the CGM: Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: the Megaclmrch Movement Flirts with Modernity, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993); David Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,  1993); Michael Scott Horton, ed., Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992); John Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998).

    13 Third Wave is a term coined by Wagner in 1983 to identify the third wave of Pentecostalism, focusing on signs and wonders as normative for evangel­ ism. He approvingly wrote the foreward for John Wimber’s Power Evangelism, (San Francisco: Harper & Row,  1986) that gave the Third Wave Movement prominence.

    14 Sonny Tucker, “The Fragmentation of the Post-McGavran Church Growth Movement,” Journal of Evangelism and Missions 2 (Spring 2003): 32. 15 Ibid., 27-32.

    16 Rick Warren, The Puipose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  1995).

    17 Ibid., 219.

    18 Ibid., 224.

    19 See Armstrong, Reforming Pastoral Minist1y, 266-271.

    20 Understanding Churclz Growth, 95.

    21 Kennon L. Callahan, Twelve Keys to 011 Effective Church, (Somerset, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 3.

    22 Ibid., 4.

    23 Contra Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, expanded edition (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004).

    24 Thabiti Anyabwile, “Twelve Keys to an Effective Church”-a review, website:

    http:/ IArticle_Display _Page/O, ,PTID31452

    %7CCHID5980, p. 2; accessed 16 May 2007.

    25 Gary L. Mcintosh & R. Daniel Reeves,  Thriving Churches in the Twenty­ First Ce11t111y: 10 Life-Giving Systemsfor Vibrant Minist1y, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 24, 15.

    26 Ibid., 26-27.

    27 Wagner,  Your Church Can Grow, 127 writes, “The fifth vital sign of a healthy, growing church is that its membership is composed of basically one kind of people.” This follows McGavran’s observation in Understanding Church Growth, 223, “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.” The fact is, men do not like to become Christians at all apart from the revelatory and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 2:1-7; 4:17-19; Rom. 3:9-18). The gospel is antithetical to the natural mind (1 Cor. 2: 14).

    28 Mcintosh & Reeves, 29.

    29 Ibid., 30.

    30 James Emery White, Rethinking the Church: A Challenge to Creative Redesign in an Age of Transition.

    31 Ibid., 103.