To kick off the blog of church growth modelling it makes sense to try to understand what “church growth” actually is. The church growth modelling project has run since 1995, but to understand the modelling we need to understand what is being modelled.
To give the context, “church” means the Christian church. This is not because I am not interested in other religions, but the motive behind the growth of the Christian church is specific to Christian beliefs. As a result all Christian churches have similar organisational structures and mechanisms that influence that growth.
Firstly, at its simplest, church growth means the numerical growth of the church, the increase in the numbers of people who are part of that church. This could be the whole of the church in the world, in a particular country, or even down to a city. It could also refer to specific denominations, or even a congregation.
In some circles it is deemed a bit inappropriate to talk of numbers, as God is interested in quality, holiness and obedience, rather than just how many may turn up to church. However the great commission demands that the church makes disciples, and if it is to carry out that duty, then it should get bigger! If it stays small we owe it to God and his commission to find out why, as there may be faults in our practices.
Indeed no church wants to stay small. In order to carry out that commission and to bring glory to God it is natural for a church to expect to grow. Denominations have returned statistics of membership since the 19th century. Accounts of church life in earlier times often make references to how many people attended a service, especially when revival was taking place. A quick glance at the revival accounts of Jonathan Edwards, or the journals of John Wesley or George Whitfield, give ample evidence of this. So church growth means growth in numbers.
Secondly, “church growth” took on a more specific meaning in the late 1950’s with the work of Donald McGavran. McGavran had been a missionary in India and had developed theories as to why some churches grew and some didn’t. His central theory led to the concept of people groups as an aid to growth due to a shared language and culture. On his return to the USA he founded the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, California, where he and others have honed these isea into a set of principles. This has come to be known as the Church Growth Movement, taught in seminaries, embodied in methodologies and championed by various churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback in the USA..
This version of church growth is heavily criticised by some Christian groups (do an internet search in church growth movement). I would rather leave my thoughts on that to another post. However I guess the main reason people criticise the church growth movement is that they think it is “all about numbers”. That leads to a third way of looking at church growth which is its spiritual growth. It is not enough for a church to get bigger. Its members need to grow in Christ and holiness. The great commission is not just to make converts but disciples.
My work in the church growth modelling project has to date concentrated on numerical growth. This is not because I think spiritual growth is unimportant but it is much harder to quantify, thus harder to model and understand how it impacts numerical growth except in very general terms. However we are moving in that direction. I will explain more about this, and the nature of modelling, in another post.
My modelling work is also much bigger than the Church Growth Movement, however I respect their work as I value their insights and always try and relate them to those that come out of the modelling. Indeed there are other valuable insights, from sociologists of religion, other forms of social diffusion such as the spread of languages and ideas, and the whole field of epidemiology. On this project we try to use every intelligent analysis to bear light on church growth.
However my favourite area is always that of revival, outpourings of the Holy Spirit. That is when we can see most clearly God at work, in ways that often defy understanding yet are wonderfully exciting. This is the essence of church growth: God increasing his church in numbers and quality through the work of his Spirit so his name is glorified.