The Apostolic Congregation -- Review

THE APOSTOLIC CONGREGATION: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation. By George G. Hunter III; Foreword by Gary L. McIntosh. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. xxii + 141 pp.

Every church asks the question – should we grow? And if so, how should we grow? If we go to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the answer would appear to be obvious. Churches are called upon to grow by making and baptizing disciples. The issue is, of course, much more complex than a simple reference to the Great Commission. There are questions about method and message. Who should be reached? If someone is not reached are, they lost?

Christianity has been since its inception a missionary religion. At first it was the extension of a sect of Judaism, but in time it took on a life of its own. The church grew and expanded and has reached most corners of the earth, and some observers/participants in that growth have asked the question – how has this occurred? Are there patterns that can be discerned that would be useful in other contexts?

The modern study of church growth is the brainchild of the late Donald McGavran, a Disciples of Christ missionary to India, and later the founder of the Institute of Church Growth, first at Northwest Christian College (my alma mater) and later at Fuller Seminary (my other alma mater), where the Institute of Church Growth became part of the newly launched School of World Mission. While in India, McGavran discovered principles that led to effective evangelism, principles that were later developed and passed on in an American context. One of the most controversial elements in this discussion was the homogeneous principle. In an American context it was often used to justify the idea of flocking – as in birds of a feather flock together, and thus social and cultural barriers were not challenged in the name of church growth. Whether or not this was McGavran’s intent, that was the message that came across to many, a message that was either embraced or rejected.

George Hunter, a professor of church growth at Asbury Seminary, is a longtime advocate for church growth theory, and in his latest book, The Apostolic Congregation, he attempts to reintroduce the concept to a new generation. There is much to commend in the book. Although he suggests that critics of church growth objected to the movement’s use of the social sciences to map out effective evangelism, I do believe that this hasn’t been at the forefront of the criticism. The criticism, which has theological foundations, has been on the attempt to downplay social justice as part of the gospel.

McGavran, as Hunter, interprets him, insisted that evangelism was and is the main business of the church – and by this McGavran not only meant proclaiming the gospel, but also successfully discipling people into congregations, with a focus on conversion growth. McGavran offered four paradigms – internal, expansion, extension, and bridging growth. Hunter suggests that two more paradigms of growth have been added in recent years – catalytic and proliferation growth. What this analysis did was remind us that all growth is not the same. Some churches grow simply through birth rate (or decline due to the same). Others grow through the recycling of saints, and others by making new converts. While all growth might be welcomed, discipling new converts (not just the children of members) is of the highest value.

As he lays out his ideas to a new generation, we are taken though the need to recognize the importance of relevance – both cultural and emotional, the efforts that work – such as small groups – in expanding the church and welcoming people into the community. He talks about outreach efforts – such as recovery groups – and even the importance of social conscience. But, churches should focus on the communities that they are best equipped to evangelize. That is, try to reach people who are receptive. This is where social analysis is helpful. Know your community and know how best to speak to that community. To put it more spiritually, know where the Holy Spirit is already at work. He also discusses the importance of introducing change – and how one might do it – writing and living by mission statements and doing strategic planning. And, if your church is ready to really do major strategic planning, one can prepare for this simply by engaging in what he calls “break through projects.” They can be anything, usually something inexpensive to one’s church building, that gets the people thinking about the future.

No matter how it’s put, Hunter’s point is simple. The church is called to make disciples, and thus grow. We can only do this, if we let go of our fears and sense of discomfort. He closes the book with this sentence:
If we ever decide that our fears or discomfort will no longer restrain us from reaching lost people who need to be found, Christianity will become a contagious movement across the land (p. 123).

As an introduction or reintroduction to church growth theory, this is a helpful and up-to-date resource. The problem is one of audience. Abingdon is a Methodist publisher, so one might think this book is addressed to mainline Protestant churches, such an assumption would be wrong. Mainline churches are really only tangentially considered. More often than not they are the butts of the criticism – because they have lost their evangelistic ardor – and the positive examples of growth are almost all evangelical, and often conservative evangelicals. This could easily have been published by Zondervan.

As for Mainline churches – and more liberal Christian forms – Hunter makes brief reference to the work of Martha Grace Reese, but doesn’t really engage her work or analysis – which suggests that one reason why mainliners resist evangelism is that they see it as being hardcore and intrusive. And Hunter’s continuous use of the word “lost” to refer to non-churched people won’t help that conversation. He speaks of missional churches and emergent ones, but again only in passing and not necessarily in positive tones. As for Diana Butler Bass’s explorations of vital, growing mainline churches, whose message is different from Hunter’s, alas no mention is made. Indeed, Hunter seems to keep in the air that false dichotomy between great commission and great commandment.

Is the book useful? Probably so, but if you are mainline, liberal, or even moderate, you’ll want to keep the author’s more conservative/evangelical orientation in mind. That is what I had to do, in order to overcome fits of frustration.

**Note -- my copy has a different cover.


Anonymous said…
I have real problems with his title given the budding movement from both California and Florida which claims to be an Apostolic Reformation which combines the old Charismatic Shepherding Movement and Dominion Theology.

Too much of Church Growth is Sociology 101 and works even if the person is not a Christian because of that fact.
Anonymous said…
"works even if the person is not a Christian"

Awesome! Why waste our time on Christians? Doesn't the Catholic church have dibs on the unsatisfied ones anyway? David Mc
It should be expected that if certain methods work in expanding the Christian movement, that they would be useful in other settings as well. The church growth movement has made great use of business and marketing models -- that work for toothpaste as well as religious groups.

And that is okay, of course, but . . .

The point is well taken though that the term "apostolic" is being used in some rather problematic ways.
Steve said…
Didn't Bonhoeffer warn us about modern efforts of selling the gospel as though it were a loaf of bread?

(Sorry, I just got around to reading this post!)

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