Church Growth Movement

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Time Period
1970
Description
The Church Growth Movement emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a network of church consulting firms, conferences, and publications all focused on helping pastors develop strategies to increase the size of their congregations. Books like McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth (1970), Robert Schuller’s Your Church Has Real Possibilities (1974), and C. Peter Wagner’s Your Church Can Grow (1984) helped American evangelicals couple their love for missions with pragmatic marketing strategies. This led to a new emphasis on consumer-oriented church growth and the future boom of "megachurches."
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Narrative
The Church Growth Movement emerged in the 1970s as a network of church consulting firms, conferences, and publications all focused on helping pastors develop strategies to increase the size of their congregations. Though the network was informal and diffused, the gravity of the movement condensed around certain church growth gurus and pastors like Fuller Theological Seminary professor Donald McGavran, his protege C. Peter Wagner, pollster George Barna, and megachurch pastors Robert Schuller and Bill Hybels.

In the 1970s and 1980s, American evangelicals coupled their love for evangelism and missions with a new pragmatism steeped in marketing strategies. The result was a new emphasis on consumer-oriented church growth. While liberal mainline churches produced their own church growth scholarship focused on the social context surrounding their membership decline, conservative evangelicals concentrated on institutional factors that would attract a targeted market and facilitate growth. The emergence of the Church Growth Movement also coincided with the rise of megachurches (congregations larger than 2,000 members), providing both theory and practice for growing large congregations. With the help of Church Growth Movement policies, the 50 megachurches present in 1970 would balloon to 310 by 1990 and 1,250 by 2007.

American church leaders who came to emphasize church growth found their inspiration in the work of two missionaries turned scholars at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner, and the famous possibility-thinking megachurch pastor, Robert Schuller.

McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth (1970) laid the foundation for the Church Growth Movement by encouraging churches to ask themselves four questions: What are the causes of church growth? What are the barriers to church growth? What are the factors that can make Christian faith a movement among populations? And what principles of church growth are reproducible? Media Studies scholar Mara Einstein argued that, in asking these questions, McGavran actually was initiating marketing research, though he did not define it as such. This focus on marketing research, often expressed under different names -- church growth principles, leadership principles, cultural surveying, and seeker strategies -- became the core practice within the Church Growth Movement. McGavran’s work influenced pastors across the country, including American megachurch pastors Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, and Bill Hybels, who all carried out survey work asking the same questions in their respective locales.

McGavran’s foundational text was followed by Robert Schuller’s Your Church Has Real Possibilities (1974) and C. Peter Wagner’s Your Church Can Grow (1984). Wagner served as McGavran’s protege at Fuller Theological Seminary and became the first scholar to hold the Donald A. McGavran Chair of Church Growth at Fuller’s School of World Mission. While Wagner shared McGavran’s emphasis on marketing research, he also had become an ardent supporter of Schuller’s "possibility thinking faith," a combination of Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking, pragmatic marketing research strategies for church growth, and a theology of prosperity that inverted the Protestant Reformation’s theocentric focus in favor of a therapeutic focus on human self-esteem.

In 1988, pollster George Barna released Marketing the Church, rejuvenating the market-research focus of the Church Growth Movement. Influenced by his time at Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek Church, Barna applied the marketing knowledge and experience he had gained while working for Disney to church growth, encouraging churches to market their ministries to potential congregants as successful companies market to consumers. Barna, along with his research company, the Barna Group, has continued to play an influential role in the Church Growth Movement in the 21st century.

Photographs

Robert Schuller portrait- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Hour of Power NL (CC BY 3.0)

C Peter Wagner portrait- from C Peter Wagner Biography by David McConeghy at the Spiritual Warfare Archive (CC BY-SA NC)

Bill Hybels speaking- Flickr- photo by Willow Creek D-CH (CC BY 2.0)

Dr Donald McGavran (left) and Fr Hannum- Hathi Trust- from The Living Church, vol 177 (1978)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Wen Reagan

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