Thursday, Mar. 2, 2006 Posted: 12:43:16PM EST
In 1974, I served as a student missionary to Japan. I
lived with a Southern Baptist missionary couple in their home in Nagasaki.
One day, while rummaging through the missionary’s library, I picked up an
old copy of HIS, a Christian student magazine published by InterVarsity
As I thumbed through its pages, a picture of a
fascinating older man with a goatee and sparkling eyes caught my attention.
The article’s subtitle said something like “Why is this man dangerous?" As I
sat there and read the article on Donald McGavran, I had no idea that it
would dramatically impact the direction of my ministry as much as an earlier
encounter with W.A. Criswell had.
The article described how McGavran, a missionary born in India, had spent
his ministry studying what makes churches grow. His years of research
ultimately led him to write The Bridges Of God in 1955 and a dozen more
books on growing churches that are considered classics today.
Just as God used W.A. Criswell to sharpen the focus of my life mission from
ministry in general to being a pastor, God used the writings of Donald
McGavran to sharpen my focus from pastoring an already established church to
planting the church that I would pastor. Like Paul declared in Romans 15:20,
“It has always been my ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was not
known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
McGavran brilliantly challenged the conventional wisdom of his day about
what made churches grow. With a biblical basis and simply but passionate
logic, McGavran pointed out that God wants his church to grow; he wants his
lost sheep found!
The issues raised by McGavran seemed especially relevant to me as I observed
the painfully slow growth of churches in Japan. I made a list of eight
questions that I wanted to find the answers to:
• How much of what churches do is really biblical?
• How much of what we do is just cultural?
• Why do some churches grow and others die on the vine?
• What causes a growing church to stop growing, plateau, and then decline?
• Are there common factors found in every growing church?
• Are there principles that will work in every culture?
• What are the barriers to growth?
• What are the conventional myths about growing churches that aren’t true
anymore (or never were)?
To design the right strategy you must ask the right questions
The day I read the McGavran article, I felt God direct me to invest the rest
of my life discovering the principles - biblical, cultural, and leadership
principles - that produce healthy, growing churches. It was the beginning of
a life-long study.
In 1979, while finishing my final year at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in
Fort Worth, Texas, I decided to do an independent study of the 100 largest
churches in the United States at that time. First, I had to identify these
churches, which was no small task. I was working as a grader for Dr. Roy
Fish, professor of evangelism at Southwestern. My study confirmed what I
already knew from Criswell’s ministry: Healthy, large churches are led by
pastors who have been there a long time. Others I found by searching through
denominational annuals and Christian magazines.