by Vergil Gerber
“I sat where they sat . . .” the prophet declared (Ezek. 3:15 ). While his circumstances were quite different from those of the contemporary missionary scene, the principle involved is identical.
"I sat where they sat . . ." the prophet declared (Ezek. 3:15 ). While his circumstances were quite different from those of the contemporary missionary scene, the principle involved is identical. Diagnostic research as applied to evangelism and church growth attempts to "sit where they sit" and to analyze with national pastors and churches in many nations the problems and prospects related to fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Ten years ago one would scarcely have imagined that the application of the principles of diagnostic research to the evangelistic task of the church would have created such excitement or produced such widespread and immediate results as we are witnessing today.
The main thrust behind this recent impetus is a new kind of workshop designed to provide practical help to pastors. Its purpose is to lend assistance in analyzing and measuring their efforts against the biblical yardstick and to help them attain long-range permanent evangelistic results in terms of responsible, reproducing church members who in turn produce responsible, reproducing churches.
Permeating missionary thinking for many years was the famous slogan of Oswald J. Smith, "Why should anyone here the gospel twice when everyone has not heard it once." Subconsciously, we equated proclamation ( i. e., hearing) with fulfillment. By and large, fulfillment had rather nebulous and imprecise connotations.
Missionary objectives therefore were frequently expressed in vague generalities. We spoke of reaching people or getting the gospel out. Just what constituted fulfillment was not clear. Many considered making disciples and building the church to be qualitative dimensions of the Great Commission and therefore impossible of precise fulfillment and incapable of measurement. Some believed that the missionary responsibility ended with preaching the gospel. They thought that fulfillment, since it encompasses "spiritual" results, must be left to the Holy Spirit. (quantitatively, missionary reports consisted of things like attendance, hands raised, public professions, decision cards, literature distribution, radio listeners, etc. Whether these were a measurement of missionary fulfillment or not, was open to question.
However, in more recent years we have seen a sharpening of the missionary focus and a careful reexamination of the missionary goal. As diagnostic research began to play a prominent role in the business and professional fields, missionary leaders too recognized the need for a careful measurement and evaluation of missionary activities and of evangelistic objectives.
On September 24-27, 1970, fifty delegates were convened by the Evangelical Committee on Latin America (ECLA) at Elburn, Illinois, to grapple with the implications of a 421- page research study on Latin American Church Growth prepared by William R. Read, Victor M. Monteroso and Harmon A. Johnson and published by William Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, the previous year.
Disturbed by evident failures to produce vigorous church growth as disclosed by the book, these delegates examined their programs related to the evangelization of Latin America. The Consultation produced sobering and significant conclusions.
Among other things, the Elburn Consultation pointed up:
(a) The unlimited opportunities for growth that face the churches in Latin America. (b) The need for missionary church planters who can carry out this important work in conjunction with the national churches. (c) The potential of the missionary contribution to the growth of national churches by training and stimulating national church leaders an the area of diagnostic research.
THE VENEZUELAN EXPERIMENT
Specifically, the Venezuelan Experiment – first in the developing series of evangelism/church growth workshops dedicated to what C. Peter Wagner has called "body evangelism" ("body" places the emphasis upon the goal of evangelism, i.e., the growth of the body of Christ) – was a direct outgrowth of the concerns reflected at Elburn and the subsequent deliberations of the ECLA Committee.
These same disquieting concerns were being expressed by Latin American pastors and church leaders. At the invitation of the president of the United Evangelical Convention of Venezuela in March of 1972, C. Peter Wagner and I met with church and mission leaders in the cities of Caracas and Maracaibo to discuss with them: (a) How do we evaluate evangelistic effectiveness? (b) How do we achieve permanence and growth in terms of church members and churches?
While these leaders recognized the extensive evangelistic efforts of the past which penetrated almost every sector of their nation for Christ, and with evident success in terms of decisions recorded, at the same time they were disturbed by the fact that this statistical success has not been reflected in corresponding permanent results in terms of relating converts to congregations and of planting and multiplying churches.
After much thought and prayer the Venezuelan leaders launched a series of three workshops to be held at one-year intervals. Between the workshops measurable evangelistic goals projected by representatives from Venezuelan churches and denominations during the four days of intensive study and interchange were to be carried out with detailed documentation and reviewed at the next year’s workshop.
The first workshop was held in June, 1972, with 47 pastors, leaders and missionaries from 72 local churches and seven denominations participating. At the invitation of the national convention, the Evangelical Committee on Latin America (EFMA/IFMA) provided a three-man resource team of qualified specialists to conduct the experiment.
The most important emphasis in the workshop was upon the spiritual. Evangelism and church growth are the work of the Holy Spirit. The majority of the plenary sessions, therefore, were devoted to biblical expositions and the theological basis for evangelism and church growth. Permeating every phase of the week’s instruction was the recognition that numerical addition and multiplication in the New Testament are never a substitute for, nor separated from, the spiritual reproduction of new life in the believer and in the church.
The curriculum did, however, zero in .on practical instructions in goal setting, strategy, research techniques, the use of statistics and graphs, etc. Participants were taught how to evaluate past performances and the effectiveness of their individual evangelistic programs; how to graph growth patterns for their own church and/or churches; how to analyze strengths and weaknesses of present activities; how to set measurable goals for the future in faith; how to gather and record statistical information that will contribute to the spiritual health and numerical growth of their churches.
The second cycle of the Venezuelan experiment is now well under way. The second workshop in Venezuela is history. We now have sufficient statistical evidence to evaluate the first year’s performances with a considerable degree of accuracy. As those who returned the second time shared what God had been doing during the year, they discovered that their combined goal of 3,963 members by 1975 had almost been realized in the first year! During the year of intensive evangelism they had increased their total membership from 2,181 to 3,687.
INVITATIONS FROM OTHER COUNTRIES
Reports of the pilot workshop in Venezuela struck such an immediate, responsive chord in other countries that even a preliminary evaluation of its effectiveness was not possible before requests began to come in and arrangements were made for similar experiments elsewhere.
It also became evident that an evaluation tool was urgently needed. A practical how-to-do-it Manual For Evangelism/Church Growth was prepared and published in English by William Carey Library in February, 1973. The first edition of 5,000 sold out within three months time. Meanwhile, requests for translation of the Manual came from twelve language areas and four continents. Within six months the handbook was out in Spanish 1 and French 2 and available for use in several of the workshops last summer (1973 ). By early 1974 it should also be available in Portuguese, French/Creole, Indonesian, Tagalog, and Swahili with other language editions in various stages of preparation.
APPLICATION OF PRINCIPLES
The workshops provide a tailor-made vehicle for the application of the principles of diagnostic research. Delegates come to the workshop to discuss the growth and to measure the effectiveness of their own churches in relation to the evangelistic mandate. They start with the New Testament yardstick as the primary instrument for measurement. The imperative of the Great Commission to make disciples is the basic dimension from which these measurements are made. Acts 2:41-47 gives the qualitative dimension of a disciple and enumerates the steps in his relationship to the local church.
The Book of Acts then traces on the scriptural graph the origins and growth of the first century churches in which, from the very beginning, clear structures emerge into an organized church at Jerusalem with all the characteristics of what Beyerhaus and Lefever call "responsible selfhood" (qualitative measurements) and from which dynamic, living cells multiply into hundreds of congregations in Asia, Europe, Africa, and around the world (quantitative measurements).
Participants are then shown the practical value of a simple graph. They are taught how to plot the numerical growth of their own churches on a graph.
It is a most rewarding experience to see a pastor, with limited academic training, suddenly beam as though turned on like a light bulb. For the first time he comprehends how a line on a graph can tell a story. He sees his own church and his own ministry in picture form. And immediately he becomes excited as he identifies the "ups and downs" and is able to diagnose the "why" of each change in course.
"I know what happened in 1965," exclaimed one Haitian pastor as he looked at the decline on the graph he had just drawn. "We discontinued the aggressive program of evangelism we had had prior to that point." Another volunteered that the upturn in his graph was due to a new program of training the leaders in his church to assume responsibility for all phases of the church, including a dynamic program of outreach into the community. This kind of exercise took the threat out of sharing and made an invaluable contribution to the men who participated.
From these quantitative dimensions he is able to make qualitative evaluations and to understand the factors that have hindered or helped his church to grow. "I always thought statistics were for missionaries to report home about," confessed one African pastor. "Now I see them as something very vital to the growth of my own church."
"Our fellows came away with real encouragement and enthusiasm," a missionary in the Ivory Coast wrote home to his mission headquarters. "If nothing else was gained (and there was), the blessing gained from sitting down with others facing similar joys, problems and obstacles as ours and analyzing our work together was well worth it. Our fellows heard reports of how others faced their problems realistically and then launched out by faith. And how the Lord gave them abundant fruit as a result. This was really good for our pastors and for us missionaries."
PROJECTIONS IN FAITH
But the most exciting thing about these workshops comes on the last day. They are not set up simply as a series of lectures followed by an academic exercise. Their goal is to change the evangelistic course for congregations and denominations represented. On the final day participants spend time in prayer, in examination of their performance in the past and in discussing the possibilities for the future. Then they set clown careful, prayerful, realistic goals for the next five years. These are definite and measurable in terms of the number of new members to be added to the churches and the number of new congregations to be planted.
The representative of a small but virile denomination in Kenya, East Africa, at the close of the workshop enthusiastically volunteered, "By the help of God we are hoping to start 27 new churches in the next five years. That’s more than double the number we have right now. And we are going to make it, too!" The seven denominations represented at the Kenya workshop determined by God’s help to bring 1,480 new churches into being during that period.
"When we looked at the growth patterns of our churches from 1967 to 1972, we were all convinced that it was far short of what God expected of us," a Conservative Baptist missionary from Africa reported. "We’re on the threshold of a real movement of the Spirit of God on our field." No wonder the pastors of his denomination projected a 333 percent growth in church membership in the next five years!
These workshops have had their roots in the decade past, but their fruits will be seen in the decade to come. "The realization of these goals could mark a new era of unprecedented expansion," a Christian and Missionary Alliance missionary in Colombia anticipated.
It would of course be presumptuous to predict what these workshops and the practical application of diagnostic research might mean in the decade ahead. But one thing is certain: enthusiasm for body evangelism workshops has only begun to catch fire. "Church growth thinking has found increasing acceptance among missionaries and national leaders as it has been developed and taught in the last decade," observed Dr. Wayne Weld following the Colombian workshop. "Now it is being applied at the grassroots level. As it takes hold of Christians on the growing edge of the church, we can expect to see an explosion in evangelism in the next few years. These workshops in country after country may well be one of the most significant means God uses for the mobilization of the church in the 1970s."
1. Publisher: Editorial Libertador, Apartado 1331, Maracaibo, Venezuela.
2. Publisher: Centre de Publications Evangeliques, B. P. 8900, Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
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