Evangelism according to the Church Growth model has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. The Church Growth philosophy of Donald McGavran and others has certainly worked at producing numbers. Most megachurches in North and South America, along with rapid church-growth movements in the developing world, rest upon the “homogeneous unit principle” of Church Growth theory. The concept says quite plainly that people want to be with those who are like them, so a church that wants to grow will lean into a unifying principle of homogeneity.
In his landmark book Understanding Church Growth (1980 edition before Peter Wagner drastically altered the book in subsequent editions), McGavran endorsed human divisions as natural and therefore helpful tools for fomenting rapid church-growth movements. He wrote, “In most cases of the arrested growth of the Church, men are deterred not so much by the offense of the cross as by nonbiblical offenses. Nothing in the Bible, for instance, requires that in becoming a Christian a believer must cross linguistic, racial and class barriers.”
In other words, the Church Growth movement rests upon building churches of people who are alike. It leans into a principle of homogeneity that unites and attracts (key word!) all those who look, act or think in keeping with whatever principle binds those individuals together.
What does this product look like? Examples include upper-middle class churches filled with people who either are upper-middle class or who want to be; millennial churches filled with young adults who only allow other young adults to take public or leading roles; and right-wing churches whose messages and sentiments align neatly with conservative, Republican values.
This might sound like a natural and healthy way to grow churches. Where’s the problem? The first shortcoming is theological. Despite McGavran’s defense of Church Growth methodology, the New Testament clearly disagrees with his position. Just spend a little time in Ephesians 2:11-22 for starters. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14). Christ didn’t die so that we could remain in our homogeneous comfort zones. He died to bring all humanity together. Shouldn’t the church reflect the reconciling work of Jesus? If a church is united by anything other than Jesus’ death on the cross, then that church has more in common with the Judaizers of the first century than with the church of Jesus.
The second shortcoming is the fruit of the movement itself. The Church Growth movement shares culpability in some of the world’s worst ethnic hatred, violence, and even genocide. Prior to 1994, Rwanda was considered the most Christian nation in all of Africa. Hutu churches and Tutsi churches enjoyed great success at reaching their compatriots. What they didn’t enjoy was true racial and ethnic unity. The church of Jesus Christ, which should have boldly led them out of their homogenizing tendencies, instead reinforced those boundaries—all for the sake of numerical success.
A quick look around the United States today might cause one to wonder if the church is liable for the most openly divisive and toxic atmosphere in this country for generations. Many megachurches and powerful church leaders, having become accustomed to the trappings of power and the outward success of their Church Growth methods, preach a gospel heavily drenched in the beliefs of conservative politics. This right-wing message works for those with a particular view of their nation-state and produces a homogeneous unit that attracts like-minded people in accordance with McGavran’s Church Growth philosophy.
So how might evangelism work differently? Is there an effective way that doesn’t produce division? Can we find a Spirit-filled path that produces Christ’s new humanity rather than one that embraces fleshly partitions?
Ironically, I find that McGavran himself pointed us in the right direction. In his earlier work, Bridges of God, he laid out a theologically and practically sound pattern for evangelism. Based on his own experience in India, he intimately knew the stratification that can exist in a society. McGavran wrote,
Every nation is made up of various layers or strata of society. In many nations each stratum is clearly separated from every other. The individuals in each stratum marry chiefly, if not solely, with each other. Their intimate life is therefore limited to their own society, that is, to their own people. They may work with others, buy from and sell to individuals of other societies; but their intimate life is wrapped up with the individuals of their own people. . . When (these) start becoming Christians, this touches their very lives.
McGavran went on to make his plea: We must stream across the bridges of society for the sake of the gospel. When a bridge is crossed, people on that island or in that stratum of society will most easily share their faith with their own people. This is natural! It’s normal and good that a new convert will reach their own people with the good news of Jesus. I’m not arguing against this.
I’m disappointed, however, that Christian leaders are complacent to stay on their islands and not lead their churches across new bridges. Fleeting success may come to those who are stationary, but such recalcitrance does long-term damage to the mission of Jesus.
Crossing a bridge requires something uncomfortable. In order to stream across a bridge for Jesus, you must build a relationship with someone who is different from you. It’s disruptive to your cozy life, but this is the work of the church as modeled by Jesus. You must be the one who crosses a bridge for the sake of the gospel.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do all your friends vote as you do?
- Do your primary relationships all come from the same ethnic or social backgrounds?
- Do you spend your free time with individuals who see the world the same as you?
- Do all your intimate friends and acquaintances already know Jesus and feel comfortable in church?
If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, then it’s time you discovered a new kind of evangelism. It’s actually not new. This is the effective evangelism of the gospel that crosses barriers and brings people together through the reconciling work of Jesus. Start crossing some bridges for Jesus.
Jason Locke is the preaching minister for the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California. He has been in full-time ministry since 1994, serving first as a church-planter in Prague, Czech Republic, and later as a university pastor at West Virginia University. Jason has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee Technological University and has advanced degrees from Abilene Christian University, including an MDiv and DMin. Jason has been married to Julie since 1992. They have two sons, Jericho and Jacob.