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McIntosh on Church Growth

Gary L. McIntosh, Biblical Church Growth: How You Can Work with God to Build a Faithful Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003). 191 pages.

“Why do some churches grow and others do not?” asks Gary McIntosh (p. 10). He answers: growing churches cooperate with God as they embody the spiritual dynamics of “life-giving principles” that are rooted in biblical theology. That is a mouthful, and McIntosh unpacks this premise throughout his book. And McIntosh, as an experienced consultant (384 churches studied), resource person (200+ seminars led) and teacher (Biola University since 1986), is equipped to explore it.

The book addresses several problematic perceptions of the Church Growth Movement. On the one hand, many are too focused on the methodological dimensions of growing churches. Churches and their leaders are often more concerned about how churches grow rather than why churches grow. McIntosh points readers to the theological principles that shape methods rather than exploring methods. Though he uses his experience and research to comment on or illustrate with methods, McIntosh concentrates on explaining the principles that will energize and shape methods.

On the other hand, many dismiss the biblical and theological dimensions of the Church Growth Movement. McIntosh grounds each principle (the whys) in the biblical narrative, that is, in the stories of God, Jesus and the early church. More importantly, he probes the theological resources. “Life-giving churches” are reflections and embodiments of the “life-giving” God who was enfleshed in Jesus the “life-giving” Savior and empowers the church through the “life-giving” Spirit. “Church growth,” McIntosh writes, “is a biblical concept, exploding from the life-giving nature of God” (p. 11).

The heart of the book, then, are these “life-giving principles” which give rise to a “life-giving” church. People cooperate with God in building faithful churches when they pursue these principles: right premise (passionate commitment to the authority of God’s Word), right priority (glorifying God as the ultimate goal), right process (discipleship as bringing people to Christ but also folding them into the body and maturing them), right power (trusting in work of the Holy Spirit), right pastor (faithful leadership in cooperation with God), right people (worshippers who invest in effective ministry), right philosophy (incarnational cultural relevance), right plan (focused on clearly defined groups of responsive people), and right procedure (simple organizational systems). McIntosh dedicates a chapter to each principle. The principle is clearly articulated, biblically grounded, and pragmatically illustrated. Each chapter contains a helpful “smart move” box that suggests a practical task in order to assess the principle in the context of a local church (that is, McIntosh provides a “how” in the context of the “whys”). The final chapter, “Mix It Right,” also provides in summary form some helpful strategies for implementing the “whys.”

Three fundamental perspectives, it seems to me, form the framework for these principles. First, McIntosh devotes considerable attention to their biblical character. His starting point is the nature of God as one who gives life and promises life to his people, but also expects his people to be conduits of his “life-giving” (bearing fruit). In the light God’s life-giving nature, McIntosh explores the biblical narrative from creation to the ministry of Jesus to the ministry of the early church to seek out the “life-giving” principles embedded in the story of God’s history with his people.

Second, the Great Commission is the centerpiece of the Church Growth Movement—it is the “heart of the Church Growth Movement” (p. 69). One of the most helpful chapters is his discussion of discipleship in the context of Matthew 28:18-20. Discipleship involves not simply evangelism, but also assimilation (baptismal bonding) and education (maturation). Discipleship is a process of moving “from believing to bonding to maturing” (p. 70). Building “life-giving churches,” then, is part of the mandate of the Great Commission—it is not mere evangelism. Through this discussion McIntosh effectively roots the goals and motives of the Church Growth Movement in the Great Commission.

Third, the cooperation of disciples is a necessary component of building “life-giving churches.” Disciples must respond to the call of the Great Commission. Church growth is a cooperative venture between disciples and the Holy Spirit. Though church leaders will seek out effective techniques and strategies, they must ultimately depend upon the power of the Spirit. Disciples are not manipulative marketers, but tools of the Spirit. God builds churches through faithful people, and McIntosh’s book is an exploration of the principles that faithful people seek to embody in their churches. Churches grow because God grows them in cooperation with a faithful people who seek growth through biblical principles. Where churches grow without these principles, they houses built on sand, and where churches embody these principles (not necessarily specific strategies), churches will grow (though McIntosh acknowledges that it is possible for a faithful church not to experience numerical growth).

Before you read your next “how-to” book on church growth, you need to read this one. Theology comes first, then method. Understanding the “why” of church growth is more fundamental than pursuing the “hows.” This book advances our understanding of the “whys” and provides a theological frame for approaching Church Growth as a biblical-theological concern.

First appeared in Church Growth Magazine (2003).


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