by Tom Zimmerman
Europe’s church planters, for the most part frustrated (except for some notable exceptions among the Pentecostals), are looking for clues to the future in such diverse places as Willow Creek in suburban Chicago and in Lima, Peru.
Europe’s church planters, for the most part frustrated (except for some notable exceptions among the Pentecostals), are looking for clues to the future in such diverse places as Willow Creek in suburban Chicago and in Lima, Peru. It’s not that they haven’t studied and tried to use Donald McGavran’s classic church growth methods. But in Vienna, Austria, where I work, I have found that those church growth principles simply don’t fit. When I tried to figure out why, I had to look again at some of the basic assumptions. In that connection, I asked several questions:
1. What is true church growth? Are the philosophies and methods of the so-called “church growth movement” universally applicable?
2. How does the more recent megachurch style of church growth being promoted in the U.S. apply to Europe?
3. If the core techniques of the church growth movement don’t work in Europe, what does? Are there any examples of rapidly growing churches in Europe? What can we learn from them?
INTERACTION WITH THE THEORY
Typically, church growth exponents (McGavran, Wagner, Arn, et. al.) have challenged us to think about growth patterns in church attendance, Sunday school attendance, and membership. Because you can chart these numbers, you can establish a church’s growth rate. Although this has been the lightning rod of the movement, many people are decrying what they believe is an excessive emphasis on numbers.
To cite one example, James Plueddemann has noted that numbers alone don’t tell the whole story; qualitative development is also important: things like commitment and devotion to Christ, godliness, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. These signs of maturity are also part of church growth.1
The church growth movement, to be fair, also speaks about qualitative and administrative growth. But these aspects of growth have been treated too lightly. As a church planter, I want to help our young church grow numerically, knowing this will best occur when the national leaders are progressing in their commitment (qualitative growth) and abilities (administrative growth). For this to happen, we need an increased commitment to such growth. We also need to find culturally relevant methods that don’t focus exclusively on “the numbers game.”
In Europe, we are particularly sensitive to the emphasis that’s placed on responsive areas and people. In North America, this theory advocates thorough research of possible target areas. In a cross-cultural ministry, we are supposed to target only those people who have demonstrated, or promise to demonstrate, a high degree of receptivity toward the gospel.2 Other less responsive groups are to be “held lightly.” This means we should commit only limited personnel and funds toward people who seem numerically “less promising.”
If we follow this logic exclusively, we will not make much of an effort to reach many of the world’s unreached groups.3 Most ministries in Europe would be curtailed, because, compared to parts of Africa and Latin America, Europeans have been much less responsive.4
In my experience, it is precisely the less responsive groups that require a more intensive investment of time and money, if we are to gain substantial fruit. For example, years of ministry to Muslims seemed virtually fruitless, yet now we are seeing some progress, although not explosive growth.
One of the foundational church growth theories is the homogeneous unit principle, which means ministering to people of similar backgrounds, classes, languages, and interests.
I object to the common application of this principle. Many of those working in urban areas have said this theory is not applicable there, because cities by their very nature are heterogeneous and constantly changing. According to DuBose, churches built on the homogeneous unit are incapable of coping with urban change.5
Too often churches have been told to reach only their own kind, lest they alienate their current members. However, a number of growingchurches have shown that a rigid adherence to this theory is unnecessary.6 While the “homogeneous” church generally may grow faster, the church that strictly follows this idea may lose out in Christian character development and in fellowship.
EVALUATION IN EUROPE
Missionaries in Europe have tried to use various church growth methods, despite the fact that the classic theory seems ill-suited to European culture. In contrast to the pragmatic, results-oriented North American missionary culture, many Europeans place a higher value on authenticity and inner depth. Historically, the evangelical churches and denominations have not been large. But in the smallness of their churches European believers have discovered they can be faithful and pleasing to God.
The limited usefulness of the homogeneous unit principle in Europe is also clear. Rarely are there enough interested people from one target group to start a thriving evangelical church. Many of the existing churches purposely choose to avoid homogeneity, so that they can appeal to a broader spectrum of society.
Rapidly growing American mega-churches have attracted considerable interest in Europe.7 It is now possible to look at a number of them and draw out some common factors. Virtually all of them have a strong pastor who is skilled in motivational preaching and organization. These churches have mastered large-group techniques and offer exciting worship services with outstanding music, drama, and contemporary messages. Most of them provide small groups for those seeking deeper levels of fellowship.8 One of the most prominent examples of a church like this is Willow Creek (cited above), located in an affluent suburb northwest of Chicago.
The question for missionaries in Europe is, Can the American megachurch model be used in Europe? As a church planter in Paris commented, “The Willow Creek model is limited, as so much of it is based on reaching the yuppies of the Midwest. The problem is, Paris doesn’t really have yuppies, at least not in the concentration to warrant targeting only them.”
Another megachurch model has developed in Lima, Peru, under the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The basic premise was to plant a large “cathedral” church from the outset.9 Once the congregation reaches 250 members, a building for 1,000 people is built in a prime, highly visible location. Daughter churches are not started until this building is filled. The result has been rapid growth and success in establishing numerous megachurches. Lima is different than Europe, but there may be some church growth principles that could apply in Europe.
MEGACHURCHES IN EUROPE?
To help us figure out if either the North American or Latin American megachurch models could work in Europe, we need to address three issues:
1. Repeatability. If megachurches are difficult to reproduce, even in North America, would they work in Europe?
2. Land and building availability. Most European settings would not be suitable for megachurch buildings.
3. Optimal church size. What size church best fosters growth? Do European believers prefer big churches? Or, are there cultural reasons for establishing a network of small, multiplying congregations? According to my Austrian friends, they not only feel most at home when the church has from 40 to 80 believers, but they also believe growth will best occur in churches of that size.
WHAT WORKS IN EUROPE?
If we in Europe see serious problems with accepted church growth wisdom, and with the mega-church models, we have to ask ourselves, What will work? Compared to other parts of the world, Europe has not seen explosive church growth, but there are some examples from which we can learn.
In the past 30 years, Pentecostal churches have demonstrated some of the most dramatic growth in Europe. In Scandinavia, they are virtually the only growing evangelical churches. In Italy, the Assemblies of God outnumbers all other Protestant churches combined.10 Likewise, there has been phenomenal growth among the Gypsies.11
Two largely unknown examples of church growth have occurred in Belgium, a country often pictured as highly resistant to the gospel. Following World War I, the Belgian Gospel Mission saw rapid church growth by establishing 50 churches between 1920 and 1935. Europeans and some Americans did most of the work. George Winston, whose father was part of that movement, says the growth cannot be attributed to any particular method, but to the unusual openness of the people in the difficult times right after World War I.
However, after World War II people’s attitudes hardened. Says Winston: “I used to sell 20 New Testaments a day in a public square in Brussels, but after the war I couldn’t sell 20 New Testaments in the same square in a whole year.”
In more recent times, a chain of Brethren church-es has been established under the ministry of a Canadian missionary, Richard Haverkamp. An outspoken, dynamic leader, Haverkamp helped these churches to multiply rapidly through the extensive use of small groups for evangelism and discipleship. The churches have followed the cell-group approach to start daughter churches. Over an 11-year period, 22 churches started in this way.
In Austria, the best example of church growth is found among the so-called TUGA churches, which sprang from the Tulpengasse church planted in the early 1970s. In 20 years this network of churches has grown from a handful of believers in one fledgling church to about 800 believers in nine churches. They continue to grow through small groups for evangelism and discipleship. They tend to start daughter churches when they reach 100 members.
Certain sociological factors, such as political and economic upheaval, which God has used to affect the receptivity of Europeans to the gospel, are not ours to create. However, there are certain strategies we can adapt to help us achieve church growth in Europe.
Given Europe’s culture, it appears that small groups for evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship are essential for consistent growth. We can learn from the techniques used by a number of megachurches in this regard.
Most of our European evangelical churches are quite small. In the years to come, we need to determine the optimal church size for a given culture. We have to continue to appreciate the Europeans’ more philosophical approach to life, lest we overwhelm them in our desire to achieve huge churches. Quality to them is equally as valuable as quantity.
Non-Pentecostals also need to examine the strengths of the Pentecostal churches, which include such things as an emphasis on praise-style music in worship, aggressive, every-member witnessing, opportunities for public testimonies, prayer, and contemporary preaching.
1. James E. Plueddemann, “Needed: an enlarged view of church growth,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January, 1987, pp. 32-38.
2. The underlying assumption is that the number of missionaries and evangelists—and the amount of money to spend—is limited. Therefore, those people who will respond to the gospel in the greatest numbers should be evangelized first.
3. Plueddemann (op. cit.) accurately states that the church has a responsibility to reach all people, not just those who are most likely to respond in large numbers.
4. For example, Austria has a poor track record according to numerical responses. Austrians are a rather nonresponsive people. That doesn’t mean we should abandon Austria. Church planting is progressing more slowly in Europe, but we do see growth in leadership development, concern for the environment, and Christian maturity.
5. DuBose cited examples of American innter cities, where neighborhoods rapidly changed from working-class white to welfare-class black or Hispanic neighborhoods.
6. One example is Willow Creek Community Church, Barrington, Ill., which started with a clearly defined target group, the mid-30s yuppies. Now the church is reaching out to other people that don’t fit the first group, with ministries to the addicted and thehomeless.
7. I define a megachurch as one with more than 1,000 members.
8. John Vaughan, “Megamyths,” Christianity Today, March 5, 1990, p. 4.
9. John Maust, “Urban evangelism works in Lima, Peru,” Pulse, November, 1982, pp. 1-4.
10. Roger Hedlund, “Why Pentecostal churches are growing faster in Italy,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Spring, 1972, pp. 129-136.
11. “The story of how within 30 years an indigenous church has become a reality among the Gypsies,” Pulse, January, 1983, pp. 1-6. The Worldwide Evangelical Gypsy Mission in 1983 had 1,200 preachers in Europe.
EMQ, Vo. 27, No. 4, pp. 396-401. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.