Donald McGavran (1897-1990) is widely credited with founding the "church growth movement," which in its day profoundly influenced more evangelical and conservative international Christian missions with a vision of a more effective approach to evangelism. In these latter days of declining churches, the spotlight of church growth has shifted to Europe and the English-speaking world. The challenge is no longer to ignite church growth in places like Africa and Asia but, rather, to save the church from extinction in its old homeland. One of the central issues concerning the church growth movement, however, is what is meant by "church growth" in the first place. It was historically often perceived as being mostly about statistics, that is generating large numbers of converts and increasing the number of believers. Church growth advocates frequently drew on various forms of statistical analysis in their search for the best techniques for increasing conversion rates among targeted populations. It is widely recognized today that statistical growth alone does not necessarily lead to growing churches in a larger sense.
The Church Growth Research Programme of Anglican Church in Great Britain has recently released a report, "From Anecdote to Evidence," that addresses the issues and questions facing British Anglicans concerning church growth. It begins (p. 5) with a brief but helpful consideration of the meaning of the concept of church growth that places statistical growth in a larger context, which also includes growth in "holiness, transformation and commitment of [church] members (growth in depth)," and "the fruit of social righteousness and a transformed society (growth in the outworking of our discipleship)," as well as an "increased number of disciples of Jesus Christ (growth in numbers)." Church growth, that is, involves growth in spiritual depth, numbers, and outreach in ministry.
The real question is, "To what end?" What is the goal of church growth? The report summarizes the answer to this question by noting that,
It is God alone who gives the growth in the church (1 Corinthians 3: 5-9). So growth is not to be fulfilled for its own sake. It is only good growth when it comes through faithfulness to the gospel. Sometimes, in history, the Church has been faithful and not grown; and at other times, it has been unfaithful, but also proved to be relatively popular.Growth, then, is not an end in itself, as it often seemed to be in the old church growth movement. The point is not bigger churches but more faithful ones. The point is not more spiritual churches either. Nor is it more fruitful ministries. The point is discovering that deeper sense of trust in God in Christ that underlies all forms of growth. How do we growth in faith? That is the first and primary question. Church growth grows from faith and is reflected in such things as a deeper spirituality, larger churches, and effective ministries of service and outreach.
There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg quality to growth in faith and the other forms of growth. Faith and a deeper spirituality, in particular, often have a reflexive relationship by which they reinforce each other. The same is often true of ministry and faith as well, as one serves one's faith grows and as one's faith grows one's desire to serve grows. This reflexive relationship is perhaps least clear with statistical growth. It is less clear that "successful" churches (i.e. growing in numbers) are necessarily more faithful ones. All you really need to build a big church is the right demographic situation and a dynamic personality who knows how to attract people. One can say then that church growth, traditionally, has focused on that aspect of growth least likely to lead to growth in faith.