Church: Whatever Happened to Church Growth?

A discussion with Dr. Eddie Gibbs

Question: Church growth was a popular idea 15 or 20 years ago. It promised to halt the decline in congregations and turn things around. Why hasn’t it worked?

Dr. Eddie Gibbs: It depends upon the criteria by which you judge whether something has worked or not. If you have a lot of previously churched people, the insights and techniques of church growth were helpful. In the USA we had a wave of returning baby boomers following Watergate and Vietnam. Many of the boomers resisted traditional Christianity but responded to an approach which was contemporary and which fitted their needs and their cultural context. Some church growth insights were helpful in those contexts.

However, I think that with the wisdom of hindsight, the ideas of Donald McGavran, the founder of the church growth movement, were not really heard in the West. His principles were missionary and outreach principles. In North America particularly, they became marketing principles. In other words, how can I increase my slice of the religious market? The principles were misunderstood—even prostituted.

Outside the US, there was no phenomenon of returning baby boomers. So the standard approach was to remove all the barriers we thought would get in the way of people coming to faith. That was okay when you had folks out there who were coming in your direction—were in your aisle of the spiritual options supermarket, so to speak. But that is not where they came from.

Has it worked in terms of turning the tide of church going? Clearly no. In North America, if you believe the marketing figures, which I don’t, between 39 and 43 percent are supposed to be in church on Sunday. But when you change the research methodology and see who is actually there, it is estimated that only between 18 and 25 percent of the population are actually in church.

Q: Do you think it is a mistake to assume genuine church growth is subject to market forces? There is some brilliant marketing of Christianity. But does it misrepresent the “product’“?

EG: It certainly can. If we use marketing techniques to edit the gospel, so that only those aspects which serve our purpose are highlighted, then it is no longer the gospel. There is a tendency to proclaim a gospel that meets people’s needs without challenging their priorities or values. We fill our churches with members that are not disciples. There is little evidence of life transformation, particularly amongst those who are simply at the worship service once a week.

It is only when you separate out the 10 percent who are involved beyond the worship service that you see a significant statistical difference in lifestyle. If it is just the general churchgoing population, there is little difference between them and the population at large when you look at their attitudes on racism, truth telling, divorce and lifestyle in general.

Q: What are we doing wrong?

EG: We have not recognized a profound cultural shift. From the conversion of the Emperor Constantine until the First World War in Europe and the 1960s in America, churches have lived in a “Christendom” framework. Most people were at least notionally Christian. They would come to church for weddings and baptisms and funerals.

Under that umbrella the church was a central institution of society and our strategy in communicating good news was “come to us on our terms, to events where we are in the majority and in power.” Now we are no longer within a Christendom framework. We are in post-Christendom—some would say a neo-pagan society. In that environment you don’t operate in a “come to us” way. But most church leaders are not trained to function in that environment.

Look at the various positions in Ephesians 4:11. This is a pre-Christendom model of leadership that emphasizes the need for missional leadership. It is apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. The pastors and teachers are your settlers—the others are the pioneers. We don’t train pioneers; we train settlers. As Leslie Newbiggin said when he returned from India and settled in Birmingham, we are in a missionary situation but we don’t train missionaries. So we have a chronic shortage of “APE’s”—apostles, prophets and evangelists.

We have to define the church not as a place but as people. Not a gathering but a community. We have got to turn the idea of church inside out.

Q: Is that possible?

EG: Not with the mindset of present leadership. I think we need a recall, just as you have a recall of a defective car model. We need a recall so we can be trained as missionaries.

Q: But you don’t downplay the importance of the local congregation and weekly worship service.

EG: No—not at all. The issue is whether worship finds expression in mission. When worship does not show in witness by word and deed, it becomes spiritual self-indulgence. The worship service is the heart of mission. It is the pit stop in the race.

The church is as much the church in dispersion as it is when we are gathered. Where is it when it is in dispersion? Where God has placed it to be strategic. The task then becomes how can we support God’s people in the locations where God has already placed them?

You never “dismiss” a congregation—you disperse it—and if possible you go with them. Get out of your office and whenever you possibly can, be with the members of the church where God has placed them and see what is going on there.

Q: Do you have any words of advice for pastors who have a crumbling church building, a shrinking congregation and declining income, who do more funerals than baptisms?

EG: They must remember that they are doing a valuable job loving an aging congregation to see them safely to eternity. That is a valid ministry. So, do the traditional things with those folk and do them well.

Second, be careful of change. Most change they have experienced has been for the worse. But remind them that your concern is also for their children and grandchildren. So ask for permission to do new things apart from what is so meaningful for them. Ask them to be intercessors; old saints are great intercessors. You may be surprised. Some of those older folks are young at heart. They may be ready for their final fling in life. As a 67-year-old professor, I am on the steepest learning curve of my life. As I look at the emerging churches across the Western world, my students have become my teachers.


At the time of the interview, Edmund Gibbs was the Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. In conjunction with Ryan K. Bolger, he has published Emerging Churches, a controversial analysis of the challenges to Christianity in the postmodern cultures of Britain and America.

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