I started out in Christian ministry in the 1980s. It was the era of the Walkman, acid wash jeans, Miami Vice, Chernobyl, and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It was also the period that the Church Growth Movement exploded across the world.
Today, I have as much trouble explaining the influence of the CGM as I do defending the appeal of acid wash jeans or apologizing for enjoying the Cosby Show. The CGM became the dominant paradigm for evangelical ministers right across the world. It spawned a whole network of church consulting firms, conferences, and publications all dedicated to helping pastors develop strategies to increase the size of their congregations. Church Growth theory was everywhere.
In the practical ministry subjects I took at seminary we were required to read books like Donald McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth, Kennon Callahan’s Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, and C. Peter Wagner’s Your Church Can Grow. We were schooled in how to couple our idealistic love for the church with pragmatic marketing strategies. We were taught that McGavran was right when he wrote, “A chief and irreplaceable purpose of mission is church growth.”
Numerical growth was understood to be intrinsically good and non-growth bad. The CGM utilized the social and behavioral sciences to identify the factors that facilitate and those that impede church growth. Its proponents didn’t focus much on theology at all. They drew heavily from the fields of management, marketing, pop psychology, and communications.
All this led to an extraordinary emphasis on consumer-oriented church growth which in turn produced a new kind of Christian community, the megachurch.
There were various elements to Church Growth theory, including an emphasis on strong, visionary leadership, the development of a range of services to meet the needs and expectations of its potential members, and intensive evangelism/recruitment training for church members. But two of the central planks of Church Growth theory are today considered to be deeply concerning. Indeed these two aspects of the CGM are seen as contributing to the racial tensions facing society today.
CONCERNING STRATEGY 1: THE HOMOGENOUS UNIT PRINCIPLE
Donald McGavran identified what he termed the homogenous unit principle (HUT) as a central tenet in his model. He wrote, “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” McGavran was obsessed with conversions and growth. It was his observation that racially and socially diverse congregations wouldn’t grow because they turn off visitors who would feel awkward in such a setting. He claimed that conversions were more likely to occur when there is a minimum of social dislocation.
The HUT was an attempt to make it easier for newcomers to fit into the church of their choice and, as McGavran put it, “allow their decisions for Christ to be religious rather than social decisions.”
Another CGM proponent, George Hunter put it this way, “A strategic American church will continually work to locate and reach out to kinsmen (sic), and especially to the friends of active Christians and new converts. The church will also encourage its members to make new friends in the community continually. People are more receptive when they are approached by authentic Christians from within their own social network.”
What this did was to entrench lines of social demarcation within the church. We were being told we needed White churches for White people because that’s how the church would grow.
When questioned about the socially corrosive effect of this strategy, McGavran was unrepentant, “Multiplying churches of one kind of people is not a backward step. It is an essential step forward. There is no other way in which the multitudinous pieces of the human mosaic can become Christian.”
Derek Vreeland, a pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, recently wrote an article for Missio Alliance in which he confessed the way the HUP had contributed to his own isolation from issues of racial justice, “I did little in my church to advocate for racial reconciliation because I had subscribed to the homogeneous unit principle, a missiological theory that trapped my theological imagination in a White middle-class world.”
Vreeland went on to say, “While McGavran may not have intended to infuse missional zeal with racist tendencies, his widely accepted theory has provided the framework for predominantly White churches to grow without much contact with brothers and sisters in Christ of another race. White isolation has prevented many White Christians from coming up close to the struggle of Black Christians.”
CONCERNING STRATEGY 2: THE PRIORITY OF EVANGELISM
As mentioned earlier, the CGM was ultra focused on attendance and decisions for Christ. Their emphasis on evangelism was laudable, but another concerning aspect of their thinking was the way proponents underscored the distinction between evangelism and “social action.”
This was often couched in terms of “arranging the church’s priorities in the biblical order.” By this they meant that personal (individual) commitment to Christ was the primary priority for the church. This was followed by the secondary priority of membership in the church. The third priority was “mobilization to the work of Christ in the world”, which was determined to be evangelism. After that, if there was time, the church could engage in some “social service”, which meant social activities and charitable work. But, Church Growth theory made clear that evangelism holds a priority over social involvement.
What churches had no business doing, according to Donald McGavran, was “social action.” Social activities and charitable work might be useful for engaging with your neighborhood and its needs, but the work of social justice was discouraged. His associate Peter Wagner wrote, “To the degree that socially involved churches become engaged in social action… they can expect church growth to diminish.”
This codified the belief that evangelism and social justice sat on two opposing ends of a see-saw. When one rose, the other dropped. And the CGM weren’t going to allow the priority of evangelism to be diminished in any way.
The White isolation Derek Vreeland wrote about wasn’t only the lack of physical proximity to Black sisters and brothers, but a kind of philosophical-political isolation from the effects of racism. Evangelicals would decry racism in theory, but their emphasis on evangelism to the exclusion of social justice precluded them from engaging in the work of anti-racism.
Learning Anti Racism
I doubt many people are reading McGavran or Wagner these days. The CGM isn’t as popular as it once was. The stridently evangelistic church that resulted from the CGM has taken a few hits lately. There has been a steady stream of leadership scandals involving high profile evangelicals. Also, the evangelical church’s alignment with Trumpism and hard right politics has tarnished their reputation. But aside from those internal problems, the culture around them has changed. As Tim Keller writes, “The United States is slowly running out of traditionally-minded Americans to be converted, and conservative Protestants on the whole are unwilling or unable to reach the highly secular and culturally different.”
After half a century of church growth training, the American church is smaller as a percentage of the population than ever. By it’s own measure (numerical growth), the CGM hasn’t succeeded.
But the insidious ideas mentioned above – the HUP and the prioritization of evangelism over social justice – continue to be residual assumptions by many church leaders. Derwin Gray points out that only 13.7% of churches in America are considered multiethnic. This means that 86.3 % of churches are still homogenous.
I don’t think McGavran and his cohort were intentionally racist. I don’t think I’d call the CGM a racist movement in itself. But we can’t overlook the way its principles contributed to White isolation and racial ignorance. As Ibram X Kendi has said, “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist’.” As Derek Vreeland has confessed, those of us schooled by Church Growth theory need to make intentional steps to become anti-racist. He describes the steps he needed to take to break out of his ignorance about racism and injustice. They were:
- Embrace a fuller understanding of the gospel
- Listen to the stories told by people of a different race
- Bear the burdens of the racially oppressed
- Pray prayer of lament and cry out for justice
- Advocate for racial justice
Derwin Gray tells church leaders to simply open their eyes. Noting that most local churches are ten times more segregated than the neighborhoods they are in and twenty times more segregated than the nearby schools, he says, “I coach church planters to look at the ethnic diversity of schools and neighborhoods they are near. This will be an indicator how ethnically diverse their congregation can become.”
Many of us have a lot of unlearning to do.
Here are a few books to get us started:
- “How to Heal Our Racial Divide” by Derwin Gray
- “The Christian Imagination” by Willie James Jennings
- “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism” by Jemar Tisby
- “Exclusion and Embrace” by Miroslav Volf
- “The Heart of Racial Justice” by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson
- “Fortune” by Lisa Sharon Harper
- “White Lies” by Daniel Hill.