Church Growth Movement

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Longstanding interest in missions and evangelism have served to open the Mennonite church in North America to the modern church growth movement, which teaches that church growth can be planned through sociological principles. It began in 1955 when India missionary Donald McGavran published The bridges of God. Later, McGavran established the chair of church growth at the School of World Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. In 1981, Peter Wagner replaced McGavran at Fuller Seminary.

McGavran, Wagner, and their colleagues in this field brought ferment into thinking about church growth worldwide. Some issues Mennonites pondered included: Might rapid growth erode Mennonite peace and discipleship commitments? Might a reliance on sociological principles distort the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit? Might an emphasis on receptive people sabotage faithful witness among those who are nonreceptive?

The homogenous principle of church growth suggests that churches grow most rapidly among a similar kind of people. Here the movement encountered a theological thunderbolt, for some fear this is a sellout to racism. In the late 1980s the movement shifted to emphasize the need for a congregation to include all the people living within its community. During the 1980s, the movement included an appreciation for signs and wonders as an encouragement to church growth. Attention to these was commonplace in some Mennonite communities, e.g., Indonesia, but they were new for most North American Mennonites.

Most of the larger Mennonite denominations in North America were influenced by the church growth movement. For example, in 1985 the Mennonite Church (MC) adopted ten-year goals which included a commitment to doubling the size of the denomination. Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, established its Center for Evangelism and Church Planting in 1983. One year later, the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, established its Center for Training in Missions/Evangelism. Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, also offers courses on church growth in the context of its Mission Training Center.

See also Ethnicity


Bartel, Floyd G. A New Look at Church Growth. Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life, 1979, intended for Mennonite congregations.

Bontrager, Edwin G. and Nathan Showalter. It Can Happen Today: Principles of Church Growth Grom the Book of Acts helpful for congregations or groups considering evangelistic outreach.

Juhnke, James C. A People of Mission: A History of General Conference Mennonite Overseas Missions. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1979.:  40, 120, 252.

Kraus, C. Norman. Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980.

Mennonite Brethren Herald (18 October 1985), special issue.

Mission Focus 4 (1976): 1-8; vol. 5 (1977): 9-10; vol. 7 (1979): 21-26; and the bibliography in vol. 12 (1984): 70.

Schmidt, Henry J. Witness of a Third Way. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1986.

Shenk, Wilbert R., ed., Exploring Church Growth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.

Shenk, Wilbert R., ed., The Challenge of Church Growth. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1973.

Smucker, John I. "Church Discipline and Church Growth." D.Min thesis, New York Theological Seminary, 1976, a study of the creative tension between Anabaptist commitments to Biblical discipleship and commitment to evangelism and church growth.

Stoll, Dale. Church Planting, From Seed Time to Harvest. Elkhart, Ind.: MBM; Newton: GCMC, 1986, a handbook for church planters.

Wagner, C. Peter. Our Kind of People: the Ethical Dimensions of Church Growth in America. Atlanta: John Knox, 1979, a response to the criticisms about racism and ethnic divisions.

Warkentin, Elmo H.  "Planning for Church Growth," in The Church in Mission, ed. A. J. Klassen. Fresno: MB Board of Christian Literature, 1967: 361-80.

Author(s) David W Shenk
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Shenk, David W. "Church Growth Movement." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2022.

APA style

Shenk, David W. (1989). Church Growth Movement. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 152-153. All rights reserved.

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