The Origins of Management and Measurement in Missiology

The origins of management and measurement in missiology are shrouded in the veils of history and my own ignorance. It starts very early when people (especially evangelists) begin to correlate certain methods with certain results (either bad or good). We can already see an obvious focus on using right methods to get right results in the Second Great Awakening, the rise of revivalism, and some of the developments of Methodism. However, the introduction of the science of the management, method, and measurement to spiritual / church growth began with a paper presented by Dr. Donald McGavran in 1974 at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne.1 His paper was based on research into why some churches on the mission fields of India grew rapidly, while other churches stagnated or even declined. He made a strong argument for the necessity of cross-cultural missions, the irrelevance of the “mission station”, and emphasized the enormity of the unfinished task of reaching the unreached. McGavran defined the problem and solution of the Great Commandment as follows:

  1. There are places where God has uniquely prepared the populace for rapid growth
  2. There is a significant relationship between methods and church growth.
  3. The resources devoted to mission are limited.
  4. We live in the last days. The time to accomplish the Great Commission is also limited.
  5. Therefore, the resources of the church should be invested in places most amenable to the gospel and use methods that favor the occurrence of rapid church growth.

The formulation of the problem already assumes the management paradigm and the ability to measure success. The paper is based on the numerical growth of certain churches as opposed to other churches. McGavran makes two very simple assumptions. He assumes that the correlation of certain methods with numerical growth means that those methods (in some sense) cause church growth AND that numerical church growth is an appropriate indicator of the accomplishment of the Great Commission. Voila! The Great Commission becomes a classic management problem. How do we achieve our objective (Great Commission) while making the best use of limited time, money, and human resources while maintaining program quality? One of the first steps that McGavran takes is to redefine quality so that it can be measured2.

With this paper, the Church Growth school of missiology (and with it the era of managing mission) entered the mainstream, and promptly took over. The discussion shifted towards methodology (how to accomplish the mission of God). Methodology was judged by its success or failure in producing converts and/or growing churches. Management became an unquestioned paradigm for the most part. Mission agencies increasingly focused on strategy, resource mobilization, and methods / techniques. The historically astute reader will notice that this was not a new development. It is part of the warp and woof of a modern, scientific, deterministic worldview. In essence, this was a continuation of the 2nd Great Awakening’s search for the perfect method (as exemplified by Charles Finney, for example) and the early 20th century sociologists search for the perfect social structure (for example, Max Weber’s “rationalization” of the world, Jacques Ellul’s emphasis on technology).

But there can be no strategy without evaluation. We must be able to see and measure which method works the best, which place is the most amenable to the gospel, and which strategy is the most effective. This (re)raised difficult theological questions. “What is a true church?” “What is a true conversion?” In other words, what do we want to see in a transformed life, church, region? The field of church growth made some simplifying assumptions. McGavran took the position that “discipling” and “perfecting” are two different things, not to be confused. This makes the measurement problem inherent in managing spiritual/church growth disappear because you can just count baptisms.

The school of church growth was not confined to the “foreign” mission field, it also took root in American churches. The “seeker sensitive” movement is a direct outgrowth of the school of church growth. There is no doubt that, judged on its own terms, the school of church growth has often succeeded and has provided some needful correctives to mainstream Christianity.

In the end, the school of church growth, and therefore the management paradigm, has won the battle of ideas in the West. Few indeed are the churches who have not hired a growth or giving consultant. We track indicators and measure results: attendance, giving, focus group discussions. Many lessons have been learned from the foreign mission field that have helped today’s Western churches, Christian organizations, and missions agencies become the largest, richest, most successful in the history of the church. .

So what’s the problem? That’s what we will discuss next time.

1I am indebted to Lesslie Newbigin’s helpful recapitulation of this history in Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Revised edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1995).

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