Statistics indicate that new churches are “more effective at winning people to Christ.” Church planting has become a very popular way of reaching certain areas, communities, and people groups. The Church Growth Movement has had a significant contribution to this trend. Although there have been some positive results, there have also been several drawbacks. As such, we need to carefully consider what growth should look like in our churches.
We will accomplish this task in several ways. First, we will explore the purpose of the Church, a synopsis of globalization, define culture, and differentiate between multicultural and cross-cultural ministries. Next, we will dissect strengths and weaknesses of the Church Growth Movement and suggest an alternative view of growth in church planting. Finally, we will recommend several practices that will help us to fulfill the Great Commission and plant healthy, cross-cultural churches.
THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH
Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”
The Great Commission plays an integral role in shaping the identity of the Church. Jesus’ words to his disciples set the agenda for their ministry and what shape it will take for future disciples, as well. In fact, it is what many reference as the beginning point for understanding our mission as the Church in the world. We are a sent people.
The nature of the Church has always been missional. We are to be disciple-makers. Those welcome to enter the Kingdom of God will be from all nations, not just a particular group. In fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, God will make Abraham’s children (those born through faith) to be a blessing to all nations. Through Christ Jesus, a descendent of Abraham and Head of the Church, the Church is also empowered to bless all peoples. The Kingdom transcends culture, ethnicity, and nationality. It is diversity in unity, gathered together as the very Body of Christ.
The Great Commission, as such, has two ways that the Church will inevitably grow as it lives out this missional orientation: quantitative and qualitative growth. In other words, the Church will naturally grow numerically (quantitative) as people are reached with the Good News and respond in repentance. “Making disciples” indicates that we are called to proclaim the Gospel among those who have not yet heard (the nations) about Jesus.
Secondly, discipleship is not simply about numbers. Discipleship is also about growing in a deepening relationship with Jesus (qualitative). This will be evidenced by the person’s obedience to God’s call to also be disciple-makers, teaching others everything that Christ has taught us! Thus, “growth” will be cyclical, both quantitative and qualitative. These two must be held in creative tension. To focus on one without the other is to become stagnant and ineffective in living out the Great Commission!
In taking the Great Commission seriously, a truly missional church plant will look at qualitative and quantitative growth together. And, furthermore, it will be a congregation that increasingly reflects the call to be a blessing to all nations. In other words, it will be a cross-cultural congregation (in as much is possible given its context). This will undoubtedly call for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and creativity to live this out effectively.
GLOBALIZATION AND THE GLOCAL CHURCH
The world, in some sense, is becoming smaller. Nearly everyone on a daily basis is confronted by the realities of globalization. Oliver Philips notes, “Every village, community, school, town, institution, and place of employment brings us face-to-face with the reality that these countries have become a salad bowl of minority groups, languages, and cultures.” A “glocal” church refers to a church that is more and more reflecting this trend of rising diversity. Impacting and engaging a global world is no longer only done only through mission trips but is also done in the local community.
The borders that previously divided us (time, space, geography) are becoming less and less a barrier due to advances in technology. Travel is cheaper and faster, making world travel more accessible. Internet, computers, and phones make communication across great expanses of space possible and instant. Civil unrest forces many to move from their homes into foreign lands. The result is increased connectivity and communication with a variety of cultures that are greatly diverse.
The emphasis on relativism, tolerance, and personal experience in the post-modern culture has helped sustain and increase this trend. Many are no longer satisfied reading the accounts of missionaries, business people, and dignitaries concerning other cultures. Rather, an increased number of individuals, especially within the American context, are willing and able to experience new cultures for themselves. Thus, interaction across a vast array of cultures is increasingly the norm.
Globalization creates significant challenges for us all, including the Church. We increasingly have to learn cross-cultural communication. We learn new languages, customs, and beliefs. This can be stressful and stretching. In some sense, such change can even be perceived as threatening our identity. However, globalization also provides a rich harvest field. The world is no longer simply “out there.” It’s in our own backyard! And, we need workers to send out because the “fields are white with harvest.” The Church has a tremendous opportunity before us!
It is important to realize that culture goes beyond ethnicity, though it does not exclude it. Charles Gailey and Howard Culbertson define it as such: “Culture means the customs, ways of thinking, and material products of individual societal groups.” Thus, various cultures can exist even in places of homogenous ethnicity. Culture can distinguish age groups, socio-economic groups, regional groups, educational groups, to name a few. One need only think about the “worship wars” that have occurred in churches to see the clash of cultures.
Although we typically define culture by ethnicity or race, it is important that we have a broader perspective of culture. Everything that we do in the Church is in some way needing to be contextualized within the framework of several cultures, even if all of the congregants are American. As such, every local church is in some way a multicultural church. In order to communicate the Gospel fully and appropriately, it is imperative that leaders learn to speak the “language” of the various cultures represented in the congregation.
MULTI-CULTURAL VERSUS CROSS-CULTURAL
Diversity of cultures in a congregation does not equate into cross-cultural ministry. There are many congregations that can be labeled as “multi-cultural.” There may be a wide variety of cultures represented in the people of the church, including ethnicity. However, those cultures may be creating insulation from intersecting with the surrounding cultures. Like water mixing with oil, people may be attending the same church yet not integrating and partnering with one another. In these instances, the church has yet to become cross-cultural.
Darrell Whiteman tells the story concerning two groups that claimed to be Christian, divided by ethnic differences.
On April 6, 1994, at 8:30 in the evening, two missiles shot down an airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, killing all aboard. Hutu extremists used the event to unleash their preplanned horrendous genocide, which began to unfold in the nation of Rwanda in central Africa where 80-90% of the population were [sic] Christians. Two ethnic groups, the Bahutu and Watusi, speaking a common Kinyarwanda language, and with a harmonious history of hundreds of years living together in a symbiotic relationship, suddenly turned on each other in a blood bath.
Ethnic, national, and tribal allegiances trumped these two tribes’ commitment to Christ. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident within the Church.
Kansas City is a great example where homogenous churches frequently exist. Although the racial tensions that plagued the city during the Civil Rights movement are not as pronounced, the segregation that was once mandated is still attested to each Sunday morning. A large portion of churches are predominantly black or white. A much smaller portion has been successful in being integrated together. Likewise, many churches in the suburbs or inner city tend to be homogenous socio-economically and ethnically, as well.
The image of the Body of Christ found in 1 Corinthians gives us a hint how diversity working in unity is a reflection of the Triune God. Although there are many different parts, they are working in unity together. When one part of the Body is unhealthy, sick, or hurt, the whole Body suffers as a result. The parts of the Body are entirely interconnected. The diversity of the many parts is necessary for the proper functioning of a healthy Body. The Church must consider this when working with a multitude of cultures in the same context. It is not good enough to simply be in the same place, but we must be partnering together as the Body of Christ sent out into the world.
CHURCH GROWTH MOVEMENT MODEL
The Church Growth Movement (CGM) has recognized the evangelistic need in our communities and world. Given that we are increasingly in a post-Christian context, our world desperately needs the light of Jesus. Church planting initiatives and other models of growth have been offered as a way to reach as many individuals as possible with the Gospel. Undoubtedly, this is a serious need that the Christian community must address.
McIntosh comments on Donald McGavrin’s, founder of the Church Growth model, understanding of Church Growth:
Evangelism… was an input term meaning that the lost should be won to Christ and then baptized and brought into the church. The result was an output term: Church Growth! As coined by McGavran, Church Growth is simply the expected result of being obedient to the Great Commission. Church Growth was, and is, effective evangelism.
Thus, “getting people saved” is the impetus and goal of evangelism in the CGM. That is not to say McGavrin was not concerned with discipleship, but it was not his primary focus.
CGM views church growth as the natural result of living out the Great Commission. This is achieved through the proclamation of the Gospel. Although good works or social works are important, these fall far short of the goal of missions. For McGavrin, effective evangelism emphasizes three points:
God wants his lost children found and enfolded… Responsible research into the causes and barriers to church growth must be conducted… Taking the initiative to set goals and develop bold strategies to win people to Christ and to plant new churches must be the practical results of meaningful conviction and research.
By all means, according to McGavrin, reaching the unreached is the very heart and purpose of God. As a result, it must be the heart and purpose of the Church. And, it must be done intentionally and by whatever means are most effective in a particular context.
By contextualizing evangelism and doing so boldly, the result can be numerically rewarding. Speaking in a language and form that is accessible provides natural bridges for the host culture to enter into the Gospel story. These cultural bridges enable the Gospel story to be socially embodied within the culture. This emphasis within CGM has dramatically changed the way we approach evangelism. Through intentional planning and research, we continue to refine the way we communicate to a culture. This has thoroughly become part of our modus operandi. One need only think about Gallup or George Barna’s work. We often look to them to see “trends” in the larger culture and how we might address them.
This is not an entirely bad thing. We are able to adapt quicker with the culture and address the needs therein. The Church can learn to listen to what the culture is saying and how it is being said. It provides a starting place for ministering to the world in which we find ourselves. And, it helps us to think intentionally about how we might engage our context by providing dialogue.
However, within the American context, this has developed into the “seeker sensitive” model, which often comes under intense scrutiny. Opposition to the “seeker sensitive” approach is generally based upon an aversion to approaching worshippers as consumers. In other words, the church becomes a McDonald’s vendor of spirituality in which people are consumed with self. The result is an affirmation of the dominant culture and a self-seeking emphasis that tends to blind us to the plight of others. The result is evangelism that does not promote or produce very deep disciples.
This is a significant issue in fulfilling the Great Commission, which includes all nations. In an increasingly globalized world, ethnocentricity and nationalism can drastically hinder the Gospel for other cultures. Not to mention, churches blinded by their allegiances to their own cultures become deaf to the radical call of the Gospel that transcends culture. Homogenous churches that are entrenched remain homogenous. Although there may be a degree of multicultural ministry happening, progress toward partnering cross-culturally will be hindered.
Homogeneity may not be entirely avoidable in our world. After all, culture revolves around shared stories, beliefs, and values. It is something we can readily identify with others. There is something comforting about speaking our native tongue. However, becoming settled in one’s own culture can significantly limit our ability to be changed and transformed. We really do need the entire Body of Christ! And, more importantly, we need the Holy Spirit to enliven the Gospel message in God’s Church!
Although we need not entirely abandon the good points of the CGM, we may need to significantly modify it in order to provide a more holistic and biblical understanding of “church growth.” We do not want to dismiss the importance of salvation, but we must also not neglect the qualitative aspects of discipleship. Furthermore, discipleship requires us to be engaged cross-culturally if the Church is to engage and transform our increasingly diverse communities.
There is an inherent danger in focusing upon numerical growth, which is much of the focus of CGM research. In a consumer-driven, business-oriented culture, the Church quickly becomes another institution where people are commodities to be found and resources to be used up. Churches that operate on a business model will “compete” in order to survive or thrive.
In looking at alternative ways for the Church to live out its call, Jim Petersen observes the dangers of focusing on numerical growth.
Numerical evaluation of ministry eventually becomes manipulative. It may start out well, but when slump time comes, the temptation is to apply pressure to get people to perform according to our definition of success. When that happens, everything gets turned around. Those being ministered to end up serving the leaders in the accomplishment of their goals, because people are the bottom line in this ‘business.’
In such a system, people are not truly valued apart from their usefulness for accomplishing a church’s goals. “Unproductive” workers tend to be neglected, demoted, or “fired.” The cultural power structures that are often abusive and oppressive in our culture are merely re-affirmed by the Church. In these instances, great harm is done to the Church, the congregants, and the Gospel.
This hardly seems to reflect a God that gives rest to His Creation and invites us into relationship. The first thing humanity sees God doing is resting, not working. God does not seem primarily concerned with productivity. Placing our focus on growth alone can create an idol that does not reflect the Living God we are called to serve. After all, we should be able to distinguish the Church from the Country Club. Christ, not growth, distinguishes us from other organizations!
HOLISTIC GROWTH MODEL
A holistic view of growth should be considered here. The Church Growth Movement has tended to focus on being “seeker sensitive” so as to win as many converts to Christ as possible. This is an admirable goal in many ways, but it can be detrimental to a holistic view of discipleship. Discipleship is not simply about quantitative growth but is also concerned with qualitative growth in the Body of Christ.
In fact, within the Great Commission there is a focus on discipleship, which is done through both proclamation and teaching. In other words, salvation is not the emphasis of the Great Commission. Rather, relationship is the emphasis. It is to be a life-long journey of growing closer to Christ. It begins by hearing the Gospel (preaching) and continues in a deepening of relationship as we learn obedience to Jesus’ commands (teaching).
The question really becomes how we hold both qualitative and quantitative growth in dynamic tension. Emphasizing quantitative growth alone tends to end in spiritually immature believers. The result may be like seed sown on rocky soil. Emphasizing qualitative growth alone tends to conclude in believers that are so “heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Healthy growth in the Church must include both of these working together. Church plants as part of that missional work must heed this as well.
Holistic growth also understands that growth is not the purpose of the Church. Growth is not the telos. The Church’s evangelism and discipleship must be centered upon Christ. If “growth” is our motivation, as mentioned earlier, it can quickly devolve into competition and business marketing strategies. Lasting growth that is reflective of God’s Kingdom will necessarily be empowered by the Holy Spirit and there will be marked transformation and change in the lives of believers and the surrounding community.
Interestingly enough, sometimes numerical growth can decrease in a healthy church. It may not suggest in any way that the church is being unfaithful or failing in its calling. After all, think about what happened with many of Jesus’ followers when he was arrested. Many of them scattered never to return. Others had heard Jesus’ teaching and thought it too difficult to continue to follow and turned away. A growth in Christlikeness does not always equate into numerical rise in attendance, members, or conversions. As such, we must be careful how much stock is placed in such measurements of “success.”
Growth can also be superficial. This is especially important to realize for new churches. A rise in attendance may simply be people transplanting from one church to another. In such cases, the church may not be reaching the community. Others may be excited about getting in on the ground floor of a new work and jump on board searching for adventure. Again, it may suggest we are impacting the community more than we truly are.
The reality is that there is a large degree of turnover in a new church within the first five to ten years. As such, the artificial growth that was first experienced may plateau or even decline, yet the church may be healthy or merely beginning to show the signs of decay that were unnoticed because the church was “doing good.” If the impetus is on numerical growth, people can become disheartened experiencing downward trends.
The Holistic Growth model will also take serious the Great Commission’s emphasis on “all nations.” If we are not consumed with marketing and a business-oriented church, then we will be less worried about demographics. This frees us to emphasize a journey in grace. Growth includes both salvation and sanctification, becoming Christlike. Interestingly enough, as people become more Christlike, they will find their passions drawn back out into the world to serve it as the hands and feet of Christ. In other words, discipleship should lead back into evangelism. It is a cycle that is self-perpetuating. Growing in Christ is both personal and social.
An African proverbs states: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Holistic growth should consider longevity. Establishing new churches is a marathon rather than a sprint. This will be best accomplished through connection with a network of people and resources. As we partner together cross-culturally “the sum [is greater than] their parts.” We multiply our impact when we work together as equal Kingdom partners for mutual transformation.
Any excursion into cross-cultural ministry will be a demanding task that requires intentionality. Cross-cultural ministries require that we be changed, whereas, multi-cultural churches may only require superficial change. To truly make room for the other, we may find ourselves living as “150% persons.” This demands persons accommodating and adapting to cultural norms of other cultures so that communication might happen between people. This may mean a diminishing home in our native culture, but it opens up wonderful possibilities for being transformed as followers of Christ.
Engaging people within their native culture will take time, patience, and a willingness to learn and adapt. As such, we cannot enter into another culture with the Gospel without learning that culture. It takes effort to learn the language and understand the values. Ministering cross-cultural (not merely multiculturally) takes intentional effort and time. As such, we must take the posture of a learner when entering into a new culture, even if it is not a vastly different culture from our own. We begin by listening. And, our ministry must be incarnational.
As we learn the culture, it becomes possible to build bridges to that culture so that the Gospel may be heard in a way that is accessible. This goes beyond searching for numerical growth because it is a relational approach that sees the other as a person not simply a warm body to count. By valuing others cultures, you are valuing the very people to whom you minister. This leads to our next aspect.
It is always easier ministering within the culture you are most familiar. The most effective leadership will be someone that knows the culture and can integrate appropriate cultural forms without compromising the Gospel message. Developing leadership is an absolute necessity for new church works. First, discipling future leaders help you become further acquainted with the culture and they are able to help you navigate the complexities of that culture. Furthermore, they are able to communicate and operate within that culture much more proficiently. The result is that the Gospel is able to be communicated to more people faster. And, further discipleship with others from that culture!
One person cannot hope to reach an entire culture; it must be a community effort. Partnerships and team-based leadership creates a synergistic ministry that is not based upon competition. Rather, it values the gifts that each person brings to the table and how each one has something to contribute! We learn and are strengthened by each other as we minister to a community as the Body of Christ!
Arising out of the development of leadership and learning about the culture and community, church planters must also begin to assess the needs of the community. Again, this should be done in partnership with the community and the leaders. Several needs may come to the attention of the leadership. In this case, it is important to prioritize the level of need and which would be most appropriate to address. Are there needs that are connected? What does the leadership and community understand to be the most pressing issues they face? By beginning to address the vital needs of a community and involving that community in the solution, you create a sense of true partnership in which everyone is engage and contributing.
Community is a necessity for building a real partnership. However, community in a cross-cultural setting can be excruciatingly difficult to develop and maintain. Jim Petersen writes about culture, stating, “Every culture is ethnocentric. Almost all of us think our ways are the best and that others are inferior.” Where this attitude is alive, there can be no true community that is cross-cultural and partnering together. As such, we must also be cautious not to come in with all of the answers and solutions, but must allow the community to make significant contributions. It may be uncomfortable for us. But, our purpose in discipling others is not to make them resemble our culture. We desire for them to resemble Christ.
I once heard it said, “A church should be born pregnant.” There is a lot of truth in that statement. Again, our motivation is not numerical growth alone. But, a healthy church is a church that reproduces. When planting a church, plant it with the intention of giving birth to future churches. The form will change with the context (i.e., cell groups, traditional churches, mother-daughter churches, etc.). Regardless the vehicle, the message will be transported to more people that have yet to encounter Christ.
This brings me to my final point. Whether we are discussing the purpose of the Church, the need for evangelism and discipleship, understanding growth in the Church, or ministering cross-culturally in partnership, it is imperative that we center everything on the person of Christ. It is God’s mission. Jesus calls us to join in the mission. Christ makes the Church grow and we are the harvesters sent out into the Master’s fields. God is a God of all nations, and we are called to offer the hand of friendship where the world divides based on culture. We proclaim, we teach, we disciple – all because we have received such a rich gift through Christ Jesus. Knowing Christ and reflecting his character and nature back into the world is our primary objective.
Church planting can be a tremendous way for the Church to address the issue of globalization and reaching numerous people of various cultures for Christ and God’s Kingdom. It is one platform for seeing the Kingdom grow in exponential ways. After all, the research indicates that church planting is a very effective way for bringing people into the Church.
However, as we mentioned earlier, church planting based on a certain definitions of growth can tempt us from our primary purpose, which is to glorify Christ. Working from a quantitative model of growth tends to be much more homogenous in the people that it reaches. This nurtures cultural biases rather than challenges the dominant cultural assumptions that are opposed to the Gospel of Christ Jesus. The result is a large amount of people that have the title “Christian” but look little different than our culture.
The Holistic Growth Model is a more appropriate way to approach growth of the Church. It is concerned with discipleship, which is both qualitative and quantitative growth. In other words, God’s Kingdom is not only about “getting saved” but about living in relationship with God. And, we find that as people are discipled, they will in turn evangelize their community. Quantitative growth and qualitative growth are inextricably interconnected.
Evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. A healthy, growing church will have both dynamics at work in their congregation. We are indeed called to reach an unreached world with the Gospel, but we must also teach them everything that Jesus has commanded. Our task is not simply about salvation, but it is concerned with “sanctification” as well. As we engage in both evangelism and discipleship, we will see the cyclical nature of these two pieces. One should naturally lead back into the other. Healthy growth will result when we live these two dynamics out.
Gailey, Charles R., and Howard Culbertson. Discovering Missions. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2007.
Hesselgrave, David J., and Earl J. Blomberg. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: A Guide for Home and Foreign Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980.
Lingenfelter, Sherwood G., and Marvin Keene Mayers. Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. Print.
Nelson, Gary Vincent, and Gordon King. Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders. Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011. Print.
Petersen, Jim. Church Without Walls. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1992.
Sanchez, Daniel Raul, and Ebbie C. Smith. Starting Reproducing Congregations: A Guidebook for Contextual New Church Development. Atlanta, GA: Church Starting Network, 2001.
Sullivan, Bill M. Churches Starting Shurches: A New Church Evangelism Missional Call to Nazarenes Everywhere. Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2001.
Towns, Elmer L., and Gary McIntosh. Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.
Whiteman, Darrell L. “The Role of Ethnicity and Culture in Shaping Western Mission Agency Identity.” Missiology: An International Review XXXIV, no. 1 (2006): 59-70.
 Sullivan, Bill M. Churches Starting Shurches: A New Church Evangelism Missional Call to Nazarenes Everywhere. Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2001. 39.
 Matthew 1:1-2. My translation.
 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
 Hesselgrave, David J., and Earl J. Blomberg. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: A Guide for Home and Foreign Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980. 118-19.
 Sullivan, Bill M. Churches Starting Shurches: A New Church Evangelism Missional Call to Nazarenes Everywhere. Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2001. 81.
 Gailey, Charles R., and Howard Culbertson. Discovering Missions. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2007. 90.
 Whiteman, Darrell L. “The Role of Ethnicity and Culture in Shaping Western Mission Agency Identity.” Missiology: An International Review XXXIV, no. 1 (2006): 59-70. 59.
 Towns, Elmer L., and Gary McIntosh. Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. 15.
 Towns, Elmer L., and Gary McIntosh. Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. 15-16.
 Petersen, Jim. Church Without Walls. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1992. 116.
 Nelson, Gary Vincent, and Gordon King. Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders. Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011. Print. 106.
 Nelson, Gary Vincent, and Gordon King. Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders. Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011. Print. 108.
 Lingenfelter, Sherwood G., and Marvin Keene Mayers. Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. Print. 119.
 Nelson, Gary Vincent, and Gordon King. Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders. Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011. Print. 133-34.
 Petersen, Jim. Church Without Walls. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1992. 142.