by James E. Plueddemann
The task of nurturing churches in all cultures is essential and difficult. It demands our best combined efforts.
New ideas have had a powerful effect on the practice of missions in the last 20 years. Few innovations in missions have been as pervasive as theories of church growth, studied and applied by influential missionaries and by thoughtful nationals. The purpose of this article is not to debate the usefulness of specific theories. It assumes their helpfulness and reflects an appreciation and respect for those who have done so much to build the church around the world. My purpose is to encourage a new look at the scope and meaning of the term "church growth."
As new missionaries in Africa my wife and I were challenged by our task. Our job was to help develop a program of Christian education for about 1,200 churches in West Africa. We were assigned to work with one of the fastest growing groups of churches in the world, to help them to develop Sunday schools, youth groups and leadership training. I traveled extensively, assisting in seminars for Sunday school teachers. My wife began to write and edit Christian education materials.
We became aware of books and articles on the subject of church growth and hoped to find help for nurturing churches in another culture. To our puzzlement we found that the nurture of a local church was seldom discussed by missiologists. They spoke almost exclusively to evangelism and church planting.
CONCENTRATE RESOURCES ON RESPONSIVE PEOPLES
We spent many coffee breaks debating mission strategy. One influential church growth concept was that of "responsive peoples." We understood the idea to mean that we should concentrate missionaries among the responsive people and pull them out of the more resistant areas. Missionaries working with Muslims in the north of Nigeria didn’t like this idea. Missionaries from the more Christianized south of Nigeria criticized the missionaries from the north for not being efficient in the stewardship of mission resources.
Preaching the gospel to people who were not ready to come to Christ was not an effective use of missionaries, they said. The parable of the sower was cited to show that sowing on rocky ground was not wise missionary strategy. We noticed that more and more, missionaries from the resistant north were restationed to the south because of the influence of this "responsive peoples" concept.
BY-PASS DEAD CHURCHES
As we continued to read articles on church growth, we learned that missionaries should by-pass dead churches so as not to slow the planting of new churches. But we were afraid that first-generation churches were not maturing, that they, too, were becoming lukewarm churches. The problem was not that immature churches were disinterested in evangelism.
As we visited churches, most of the sermons we heard were evangelistic. How could it be that churches that were growing so fast and preaching evangelistic sermons had such problems with nominal second generation Christians?
We began to realize that the size of the church and the rate of growth were not indicators of spiritual maturity. In a society that was rapidly modernizing, hundreds of people seemed to be attending church for cultural reasons. Internal conviction seemed lacking. Mature national leaders were worried about the spiritual health of their sons and daughters. Were we to by-pass lukewarm churches in order to plant new churches that would soon themselves become lukewarm?
REACH THE HIDDEN PEOPLE
Later we began to read about another trend in church growth. Now the emphasis was not on receptive peoples who had already accepted the gospel, but on un-reached people, "hidden" people. Missionaries from the Muslim north began to quote statistics showing that most of the missionary force was working with already-evangelized people groups. But what about responsive people?
A new debate buzzed during missionary coffee breaks and under many mosquito nets. The assumption was that when 20 percent of a people group became Christians, their growth toward maturity would be almost automatic. Missionaries would only get in the way if they stayed and nurtured the church. Now it seemed missionaries should be pulled out of the more Christianized south, and be reassigned to the unreached Muslim north. But what about the weak, nominal churches? We were uneasy and felt that there was a need for sensitive, behind-the-scenes missionaries to help young churches grow toward maturity.
MEASURE CHURCH GROWTH THROUGH QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS
Another important emphasis in the church growth movement has been the use of quantitative methods for planning and evaluating the effectiveness of church growth. We found that quantitative analysis was a useful tool for missionaries and national leaders to help them reflect on the size of their churches. But predetermined objectives for church growth were not as useful as we had hoped. It was difficult to predetermine goals unless these goals were measurable.
Thus, we emphasized observable goals and did not place enough emphasis on the inner development of the heart. In fact, scientific methods may have allowed us to assume we were successful in planting a strong church, when in fact we could only see external indicators of growth. We found it was difficult to predetermine the work of the Holy Spirit with graph paper. While quantitative church growth methods were helpful in promoting evangelism, they tended to mask the need for internal growth toward maturity.
As we reread the New Testament, we saw that first-century churches seldom went on to maturity in Christ without deep spiritual struggle. The epistles show that the process of inner spiritual growth is not easy or automatic. The apostle Paul spent much of his missionary career teaching new believers, returning again and again to the first churches he planted. He must have sensed that growth toward maturity in Christ was not automatic, even though a large number had chosen to follow Christ. He often sent missionary helpers to assist young growing churches. Paul sent letters to these churches to teach correct doctrine, attitudes, and behavior. He reminded them of his constant prayers and tears. Paul was not content to preach evangelistic sermons, plant a church, and then move on. He was deeply involved in helping churches grow toward maturity.
Scripture suggests several church growth principles. First, evangelism is the first and necessary stage of missionary activity. It is a crucial stage, but only the first stage. Second, growth in size is often unrelated to growth in spiritual depth. Third, growth in quality, instead of being automatic, is rather unusual. These principles are illustrated not only by Scripture, but also by church history.
Present day church growth concepts have helped to focus attention on the unreached peoples and have generated enthusiasm and support for the crucial task of evangelism. But church growth concepts need to be expanded to help us foster maturity in the church around the world.
A NEW LOOK AT CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
Missionaries involved in cross-cultural Christian education face problems with inadequate theory and practice as well. There are many misconceptions about how to promote spiritual maturity in the local church.
In much of Africa, the government allows for Bible knowledge to be taught as a part of the school curriculum. But seldom do we find much connection between a student’s mark on the Bible knowledge exam and his or her Christian living. There seems to be a tacit assumption that if we teach Bible content, in some mysterious way students will become more Christlike. A similar attitude carries over to Sunday schools where Bible facts are taught but are not integrated with Christian living or belief.
Another important educational agency of the church is the baptismal class. Adults attend baptismal classes for about six months. They attend literacy classes at the same time, if they don’t know how to read. The primary emphasis of the baptismal classes is knowledge of Bible doctrine. We assume that knowledge of doctrine will lead to spiritual maturity. Again, we don’t promote enough interaction between doctrine and life.
In a society where typical educational institutions encourage rote memory, it is difficult to stimulate classroom discussions where Scripture is related to real problems of life. In a society where many of the Sunday school teachers are untrained, and some newly literate, we try to produce a "teacher proof" curriculum, thus making it even harder for the teacher to take initiative in relating Bible knowledge to inner spiritual maturity.
The doing of cross-cultural Christian education is also challenging, because by its very nature Christian education must be done by national Christians. Christian nurture is not something we can do to other people. We can only stimulate that growth. Since nurture assumes the existence of a national church, the practice of nurture must be done through the national leadership.
We need to improve our ability not only to promote Christian growth in other cultures, but also to learn better how to do it through national believers. Growth is an inner process and cannot be forced from the outside. We must facilitate growth in a non-manipulative manner. The cross-cultural Christian educator can hinder the qualitative growth of the church by taking too much direct initiative. We have much to learn about fostering spiritual growth without forcing it.
Cross-cultural Christian educators also need to look again at their understanding of how to promote spiritual growth. Culture has a strong influence on how people think and grow. We need to study cultural influences that might promote or hinder spiritual development. The practice of Christian education in other cultures must be better adapted to the way people learn.
A NEW LOOK AT THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION
Theological education is another significant area that needs to be addressed by missiologists. Theological schools around the world are struggling to know how to develop spiritually minded and theologically grounded leaders for the church, leaders who will in turn promote spiritual growth in the laity. Many graduates of theological schools are young and have a difficult time fitting into traditional leadership patterns in the church. Modern schools are not appropriate settings for developing traditional leadership. Yet theological schooling is promoted as a seemingly magical cure for problems in the church. In modernizing societies, the place of schooling is ambivalent. Graduates don’t really fit the traditional qualifications for leadership, but traditional qualifications are being challenged in most of the world.
Professors in many theological schools are frustrated because the schooling does not do enough to encourage students to think critically and reflectively about the relationship between theology and problems in the churches. It is difficult to help students to think biblically about practical and theological problems in the church, yet this is essential.
Theological Education by Extension (TEE) has often been helpful in promoting active reflection in church leaders. It has potential for becoming an even more helpful tool. But in many cases TEE has often become only an alternate means for delivering theological content. More must be done to make TEE a means for promoting critical theological reflection on the concerns of the church.
The answer is not to "de-school" the church, but to bring about renewal in theological education. Theological educators sense this need and are anxious to improve the model of pastoral development.
People concerned with the cross-cultural nurture of the church face a dilemma. There is evidence to suggest that the church in much of the world is weak, even if it is big. The study of church growth seems primarily interested in evangelism and starting churches. Evangelism is a much needed emphasis. We need an even greater concern for the vast majority of the world still lost in sin.
But present church growth concepts are not adequate for helping to mature the church. The existing church around the world is facing the same problems faced by New Testament churches. The first love for the Lord is growing cold, and lukewarm Christianity is becoming more widespread.
Who will struggle with this crucial issue? Christian education concepts have not been adequate for the task and need to be rethought. Christian educators have often adopted a mere transmission of Bible facts methodology that will not help to mature the church as it should. Innovations in theological education have not done enough to produce biblically grounded evangelical thinkers who can address the theological and practical problems of a growing church.
The health of the church around the world is at stake. Could we combine our efforts as missiologists and Christian educators to redefine the meaning of church growth? Believers cannot grow unless they have first been born again, and the development of education in the church and in theological schools must contribute to the nurture of new believers. We are all a part of the same process.
One of the rallying cries of modern missions has been, "The evangelization of the world in this generation!" Yet, if we are not able to facilitate the maturation of the church in every culture, we will need to "re-evangelize the world in each generation."
We must broaden our agenda. Would it be possible to bring together groups of experienced cross-cultural thinkers to discuss means for facilitating church maturity? Few missions textbooks or journal articles address this important issue. New missionaries are seldom taught a deeper meaning of church growth. Are we so concerned about debating the need for evangelism and debating the nature of social concern, that we are overlooking an even more important problem?
The task of nurturing churches in all cultures is essential and difficult. It demands our best combined efforts.
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