Connecting Faith and Life

Robertson McQuilkin: Church Growth Movement

The Church Growth Movement (CGM) has been in the thick of much praise, debate, controversy, study, and research since its appearance in the missiological arena during the middle of the twentieth century. Although one could argue that the movement’s glory days are in the past, ‘Church Growth’ still remains as a relevant issue. The supporters as well as critics have written quite exhaustively on the mission theory and principles followed by the movement. A plethora of books, research studies and articles are available on this subject. J. Robertson McQuilkin’s Measuring the Church Growth Movement : How Biblical is it? hit the market in the early 1970s. This book primarily addresses the concerns, apprehensions and opposition raised by some of the mission minded evangelicals about the CGM. McQuilkin served as a missionary in Japan for more than a decade before joining the staff team of the Columbia Training Institute. This book combines his practical knowledge and competent scholarship in Christian missions. Moreover, many see the author as an outsider to the movement, which ensures some level of objectivity in analysis.

The purpose of the book is clearly set forth in the introduction – To biblically evaluate the major theological presuppositions of the CGM. Consequently, McQuilkin selects five of the major presuppositions of the CGM and discusses them in detail in five separate chapters. The presuppositions are related to the following areas: Numbers – Is numerical growth a most crucial task of missions? Selectivity – Is it right for the Church to concentrate on the responsive elements of society? Conversion – Are people movement conversions valid? Science – Are Anthropological studies legitimate for evangelism? Prophesy – Will large growth result from using church growth principles and techniques? The members of the CGM answer affirmatively to each of the above mentioned questions. However, some evangelicals are apprehensive about these presuppositions.

McQuilkin argues that the Bible itself should be in functional control when we adopt, modify, or reject any of the ideas advocated by people associated with the CGM. Thus, right at the beginning of the book, he sets up a methodology for biblically examining the presuppositions. McQuilkin’s approach is interesting. Instead of searching proof-texts in the Scripture either to support or reject the views, he employs hermeneutical principles normally used for building a Bible doctrine. He writes, “When we speak of bringing Church Growth theses under the authority of the Word of God, we are looking for three distinct kinds of validity: first, those matters which are clearly prescribed in Scripture; then, matters which, thought not clearly prescribed, are required because of clear biblical principle; and finally, those areas which lack such authority, having been derived from human experience and insight, but which are nevertheless compatible, with biblical teaching.”

Therefore, the presuppositions are examined based on the following three questions: Is all scriptural teaching on the subject of Church growth reflected in each presupposition? Are the extra-biblical contributions in harmony with Scripture, and are they held to a secondary status without divine authority? Are the biblical emphases maintained?

The author follows a clear structure in his book. In each chapter, first, the presupposition is stated. Second, the disputable points are discussed. Third, the theological issue involved is isolated. Fourth, the weaknesses and dangers of the presupposition are discussed. After a thorough and separate analysis of the five presuppositions, McQuilkin, in the concluding section of the book attempts to answer the primary question, How biblical is the CGM? According to him, none of the presuppositions, rightly understood, need be in conflict with biblical teaching. However, he writes, “Only two (numbers and selectivity) were seen to flow directly from biblical mandate, two more (conversion and science) seemed to be well derived from biblical principle, and one (prophesy) was seen to be extra-biblical, lacking both mandate and principle for validation. Yet even this was not seen to be intrinsically antithetic to biblical theology.”

Thus, McQuilkin makes his verdict very clear – the CGM is utterly biblical.
I have selected two issues from the book for reflection and review in the following sections:

Numerical Growth – Is numerical growth a most crucial task of missions?
The chapter on numerical growth has valuable insights. The CGM advocates maintain that numerical growth is a most crucial task in missions. The liberals outrightly reject this stating that the role of the Church in today’s world is not to add people into the Church but to work for the development of new humanity. Some evangelicals also have a problem with this presupposition. They observe that an obsession with numerical growth would eventually lead to the admission of spiritually weak or nominal Christians into the Church. Similarly, many believe that the mission of the Church is to share the gospel and not be occupied with results.

According to McQuilkin, this issue of numbers impinges upon the theology of the Church. In other words, it raises the question, What is the mission of the Church? The author convincingly points out that the Church is called to proclaim the gospel. He argues that though the Church needs to involve itself in social actions and charity work, the primary mission of the Church remains as evangelism. He states, “The evangelistic mandate is the primary responsibility of the Church to the world.”3 McQuilkin considers that the evangelistic thrust promoted by the CGM to be one of its major contributions to the world of missions, which has helped the Church to reaffirm this basic biblical truth amidst the rise of liberal views. Moreover, the author argues that evangelism is not mere proclamation of the gospel but involves persuasion and addition of new members into the family of God. In sum, McQuilkin helps us to see that numerical growth is in fact the logical end of all our evangelistic efforts.

However, he fails to satisfactorily deal with the criticisms raised by the opponents of this presupposition. For instance, the concern about the threat of nominalism is not adequately discussed. Similarly, his emphasis seems to be more on proving from the Scripture the validity of evangelism as the primary task of missions. The issue whether numerical growth is a legitimate definition of evangelism is not sufficiently handled. While concluding the first chapter, McQuilkin adds a word of caution to the followers of the CGM. He writes, “Numerical growth is not everything; it is not the only way to measure vitality, but it is one way.”4 Perhaps, a fair comment to end the discussion.

Selectivity – Is it right for the Church to concentrate on the responsive elements of society? Another issue that intrigued me in the book is the issue related to selectivity. The members of the CGM state that the Church should concentrate on the responsive elements of society. However, some evangelicals in the missionary arena argue that this presupposition contradicts with the nature of mission work seen in the Scripture. They point out that the Holy Spirit alone is the guide, so the missionary’s task is to go where he or she sent and not anticipate harvest. Similarly, they point out that the early church worked mostly amidst resistance. According to McQuilkin, the theological issue surrounding this debate is the doctrine of Salvation. In other words, the question is, is God uniform or selective in His approach to men?

McQuilkin argues that God is selective in his approach to men and has consistently involved his representatives in that same process of selectivity. The author points out several instances from Paul’s missionary journey to show that selectivity is a valid biblical approach to mission. Nevertheless, McQuilkin does not fail to point out the dangers of selectivity. He opines that this principle should not be used in a dogmatic way. Although missionaries should be on the look out for responsive people groups, care should be taken not to totally ignore less responsive groups.

The doctrine of election (selectivity) is a hard one to explain. It is a mystery over which Christians have been debating over the centuries. McQuilkin’s attempt to explain this mystery is far from convincing. He states, “God is selective on the basis of man’s response. To those who respond to the light they receive, more light is given. Those who are resistant have that light reduced or taken away.”5 This may be true in some cases but not always. There are clear instances in the Scripture where we see God pursuing people in spite of continuous rebellion as in the case of Jonah the prophet, Jacob the patriarch, and the people of Israel. How would one explain this phenomenon? We cannot overlook God’s patience and long suffering.

This selectivity principle raises some crucial questions for discussion. How much time is needed to discern whether a people group is responsive or not? How would one measure  response? Does it have to be in numbers?  McQuilkin cites apostle Paul’s missionary example to justify selectivity. This is debatable. I think Paul’s calling and context are very different from that of an unmarked or typical missionary. Paul was an itinerant evangelist type of missionary and his mission model may well suit an itinerant evangelist of our day. What about missionaries who feel that they are specifically called by God to serve a lifetime among a particular people group? The CGM does not give enough considerations to these concerns.

McQuilkin, though an outsider to the CGM, is generally sympathetic in his approach to the movement in his writing. He attempts to remove many of the apprehensions and fears expressed by some of the evangelicals. Perhaps, the author’s intention is to garner support for the movement among the evangelicals. Nevertheless, he does not gloss over or justify all the beliefs and practises of the CGM. He boldly points out the dangers and weaknesses. In this way, he is successful in stimulating the CGM think tank as well for further examination of their presuppositions. For instance, he warns that an uncritical acceptance of Anthropology, sociology and psychology in mission studies is dangerous. He strongly argues that all extrabiblical insights should be carefully evaluated before using them and biblical revelation must remain as the final court of appeal. Similarly, McQuilkin identifies five distinct factors that affect Church Growth, namely weather, seed, sower, soil and sowing.6 He prompts the Church Growth practitioners to seriously include them in their investigations and studies.

Overall, this book is a commendable work. Though brief, it contains important information regarding the major controversies surrounding the CGM. The author’s approach is well balanced and the insights he provides are thought provoking. More importantly, he constructs a good biblical framework for understanding the CGM. The writing is lucid and simple. In sum, McQuilkin’s writing deserves an important place in Church Growth studies.

Reviewed Sam K John

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