Today’s world has shrunk into a very small place. In fewer hours than it used to take to travel from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., it is now possible to travel from Philadelphia to Singapore, Zambia, or Argentina. One world has come into being. The concept of many equal nations is rapidly pushing out the concept of civilized and savage peoples. If the population of east Africa is suffering from an enormous famine, it ought not to be so. If 4,000 or 5,000 are killed in Mexico City by a great earthquake, this is something which should lead all nations of the world to pour resources into Mexico. This is certainly not the world in which David Livingstone and William Carey lived. Hundreds of thousands of students from Asia and Africa flood into Europe and America, and almost equal numbers of European and American students travel in other countries as part of their education. The tidal wave of secularism which has swept Western countries is inclined in a patronizing fashion to grant that all religions have some truth in them, but the idea of world evangelization is held to be fanatically Christian.
As Christians look out on this kind of a world, they too, are powerfully moved toward rectifying the physical conditions which produce famine, illiteracy and disease. They, too, feel a great urge to wipe out injustice and oppression. Although the media speak very little about the tremendous oppressions carried out by Marxist governments scattered throughout the world, they focus enormous attention on South Africa. Government after government brings pressure on the South African government to change its ways. Enthusiasts for social justice exclaim, “Of what use is it to make men and women Christian if they are being treated unfairly by powerful members of their populations?” Here in North America also the need for Christians to take vigorous action against the terrible oppressions suffered by blacks and the moderate oppressions suffered by minorities claims a great deal of attention.
It is important to remember that the Kingdom of God is one in which the King—Lord Jesus—is recognized. Where the King is not recognized, the Kingdom of God cannot exist.
One thinks immediately of COCU, Churches of Christ Uniting. When it was first launched, it held that the appealing idea that six or seven of the largest denominations would unite, thus forming one great church with at least 35 million members. Structural unity is held to be more economical. The resulting church is held to be much more powerful. It will, it is argued, be able to do God’s will much more effectively than a church which consists of many denominations. This concept of one structurally united church has become the main drive in the lives of many Christians and many congregations. Whether they win others to Christ or not, they are going to unite. Two weak churches are going to become one strong church. The United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the United Presbyterian Church are three notable illustrations of this movement. In India, where this movement has been greatly promoted by the Episcopalian Church, two great united churches have resulted—the Church of North India and the Church of South India. Both of these believe in apostolic succession, i.e., the historical episcopate, and both are ardent Episcopal Churches.
What does the church growth movement say to this other great movement in today’s denominations? It says two things. First, it grants that in many circumstances structural unity does produce a more efficient and ecumenical organization. It also notes that in many cases the structurally united church is much less concerned with world evangelization that it was in the days before the several denominations united. It calls attention to the diminishing effectiveness of united churches in all outreach. They are so concerned with maintaining internal unity that their outreach efforts are sadly diminished.
Second, the church growth movement would maintain that no evidence indicates that a structurally united church is more effective evangelistically than one church made up of many somewhat different denominations. It would hold that each denomination is a different branch. This one has 15 leaves on it, that one has 1500. This one bears white grapes, that one bears purple grapes. As long as each branch is firmly rooted in the vine, as long as each branch believes on Jesus Christ as God and one Savior and the Bible as the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God, what it holds in regard to baptism or the amount of organization needed or other aspects of church organization and opinion can be tolerated. This branch, like the Anglican Church, may indeed believe in apostolic succession. That branch, like the Southern Baptists, may not. The body of Christ, the Church, has many parts as dissimilar as hands and head. Yet they are all parts of the body.
Furthermore, the church growth movement would say where structural unity advances the church, by all means promote it. But never substitute it for the work which is so clearly commanded by God—namely, effective evangelism. Structural unity is like many other good causes. They should be carried out, but none of them should ever be substituted for matheteusate panta ta ethne. None should be substituted for finding the lost and bringing them back to the Father’s house.
The second important concept dealt with in this lecture is the theological considerations which affect the church growth movement. It is vitally important to realize that the church growth movement has often been criticized on theological grounds. Such criticism has come from both the right and the left. Those on the right have maintained that it paid far too little attention to correct doctrine, infilling of the Holy Spirit, prayer, revival, and the active Christian life. Critics from the left maintained that church growth seemed to be unaware of the physical hunger in the world, the rank injustice which permeates all society, and the terrible oppressions which have kept whole races in an illiterate and scarcely human condition. Critics of the left have maintained that church growth theology—if it had any—was concerned with mere numbers.