I start this post with a caveat: I believe in the historical understanding of Church Growth, marked by evangelism that necessarily resulted in disciples in the local church. I affirm, for example, the words of church growth writers Donald McGavran and Win Arn from the 1970s: “. . . we deceive ourselves if we believe that a person who has made a decision for Christ, who has prayed, ‘I accept Jesus Christ into my life,’ has truly become a disciple. We must make sure that he or she really follows Christ, really lives as a disciple. . . . We do well to use the more biblical concept of disciple and to evaluate our effectiveness in that context.”
On the other hand, I also think it’s wise to be aware of these cautions about church growth:
- It’s possible to grow a crowd, but not a church. A group of people who gather on Sunday are not automatically a New Testament church – even if the word “church” is in their name.
- Growth is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. A crowd might increase even when the gospel is not preached. Higher numbers might be the product of God’s work, but they’re not a guarantee.
- Growth resulting only from transferring members can be deceptive. Of course, transferring one’s membership to another congregation is exactly the right move in some cases. Churches that grow only through that means, though, are often lulled to sleep evangelistically.
- Even when the church is growing, evangelism without discipleship is not fully biblical church growth. Making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20) includes not only reaching non-believers, but also equipping believers to carry out the work of the gospel (Eph. 4:11-12).
- Likewise, discipleship without evangelism is not fully biblical church growth. My generation focused more on evangelism (though we didn’t do it well), to the neglect of discipleship. I fear that the young generation today is overcorrecting our omission by emphasizing discipleship to the neglect of evangelism.
- Church growth attendance numbers are not enough. I’m not opposed to numerical evaluation; in fact, I think we don’t ask enough numerical questions. Attendance matters, but so does the number of attenders who genuinely model Christ. And the number who share their faith and invest in believers. And the number who are growing in their spiritual disciplines and serving in the church. And the number of members we send out to take the gospel around the world. And the number of parents who are teaching their children the Word of God. And, I could go on and on. . . . Accountability matters, and numbers are one means to move in that direction.
What are your thoughts?
 Donald A. McGavran and Winfield C. Arn, Ten Steps for Church Growth (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), 52-53.