By: W. Charles Arn

Donald McGavran, noted church growth authority, has defined a “Church Growth Principle” as: A universal truth, which, when properly applied…contributes significantly to the growth of the church.. Few subjects have been “hotter” recently than listing and expounding “church growth principles.” Some of the exponents are worth listening to, others are trying the catch the bandwagon. Yet, we have come a long way in five years since church growth has come to the American scene. Our understanding of why churches grow, and the many common characteristics of growing churches continue to expand. Webster defines a “principle” as a rule of action or a governing law of conduct. A “church growth principle,” therefore, suggests a requirement for some type of observable activity that leads to the growth of the church. A principle by definition, exists when it results in action. McGavran’s definition has similar implications: “…a universal truth which, when properly applied contributes significantly to the growth of the church.” So, we can see that one very important consideration in the study of church growth is the proper application of church growth principles…successfully developing one or more workable programs to reach unchurched men and women. The “Systems Approach” has been defined as: “The application of scientific and experimental methods in an orderly and comprehensive way to the achievement of a specified goal.” In simple English, this means: 1) discerning where you are; 2) projecting where you want to
be; and 3) determining how to get there in the most cost/efficient manner. The Systems Approach and Church Growth are unusually compatible from a problem-solving viewpoint. Church Growth has identifiable goals, relevant resources, and a backlog of principles to draw from. The Systems Approach offers a step-by-step method of progressing from where you are, to where you wish to be, using principles, knowledge and resources available. The following systems model is suggested as a practical approach to organizing the human and physical resources of a local church toward an outreach-oriented activity. The model will substantially increase the likelihood of success when a new church growth program is launched. It is, in effect. a systematic way to “find a need and fill it.”


A specific problem (opportunity if you’re a converted possibility thinking must be identified and agreed upon before good problem solving techniques can be applied “Problem Identification” is simply a way of comparing what exists with what is desired. If a congregation task force sees a substantial difference between what exists in a certain area of its outreach ministry and what is desired in that area, the church is on the verge of identifying the problem soon to be solved. The difference between what exists (status quo) and what is desired (ideal) may be in any number of areas in the church’s out reach ministry. It may be with the visitation program, or evening worship attendance, the bus ministry, number of family units attending church, or success in reaching new neighbors. The “problem” must be stated in terms of a specific group of people: “This is our present outreach effectiveness to ‘Group X’; and this is what we believe can and should be in this area.”

One method systems people have found helpful in identifying a specific problem to be solved is the technique of “brainstorming.” A church group task force, for example, would consider all possible areas of the church’s outreach where there may be a difference in the “status quo” and the “ideal.” A group recorder is responsible for noting all areas considered in this free-for-all session. (Remember the rules) all contributions are valid; no negative responses; members should  build on others ideas). After a list of 5-15 items has been generated, group members then rank the items, on their own, according to what they consider to be each item’s relative importance. (#1 highest priority, #2 second, etc.) The average rank for each “problem” is then calculated to give the several problem areas most task force members feel should be addressed.

Once the task force has agreed on the problem to focus on, the next step is to propose a variety of tentative solutions. These suggestions provide insights into the personal preferences of members, relevant church growth principles, and represent a first “rough cut” in identifying a solution.

The strategy of brainstorming is again an effective way of releasing the creative potential of individuals in the group. Several of the most “pregnant” solutions should then be selected for the task force to pursue.


Now that a problem-statement and a tentative solution have been isolated, the second task is to gather any and all information that relates to the problem and proposed solution. This information-
gathering process should be broken into three areas:

A – Information on the target audience to be reached: age, male/female ratio, homogeneous characteristics, religious preferences, social- economic background, income level, educational level, previous exposure and attitude to the church, father’s occupation (mother’s), average family unit size, relevant values and habit patterns, outside influences, or other related areas.

B – Information on people and resources within the church directly involved in implementing the outreach program: number of individuals to be involved, relationship and compatibility with target audience, amount of money available, number of hours and people available, degree of enthusiasm, commitment, training requirements, etc.

C – Information on the proposed new program/solution: financial investment, time projections, personnel required, logistical requirements, etc. Be sure all possible areas of information have been


The task force now begins the job of more closely specifying results of the new outreach program. In Step #3 specific objectives are written for the new program. Objectives are simply statements which say, quite precisely, what observable changes in the target audience are expected to occur as a result of the new program. Three elements make up good objectives and should be built in:

Audience – A specific description of who the target audience is that will be reached by the new program. Remember, this is described as a group of people rather than particular individuals.

Behavior – As a result of the new outreach program, exactly what do you expect to see happen that will indicate success of the program? (It may be that the initial objective of the new program, while outreach oriented, will not always be the target audience becoming Christians or church members; perhaps involvement in an activity or program is the first objective.) Be sure that the objective specifies a measurable behavior change. Even attitude change, if that is one of your objectives, will be reflected by some observable action.

Degree – What is your criteria for determining the success of the program? What proportion of the total audience will exhibit the above behavior before you will be able to call the program “successful?” How much time will it take before this desired behavior is observed? How long will the behavior last?

You will find that there is often more than one objective for a new program. To be sure, objectives should flow in a progression of behavior of the target audience, leading from some initial association with the church or group to accepting Jesus Christ and becoming a responsible church member. One great advantage of specifying behavior in such exact terms is that when the goal is so simply understood we can tell very quickly whether the new program is working successfully or not. And if an outreach program is not successful in making disciples and responsible church members, there is no good reason why it should be continued.


After the anticipated results of the program are established, the next step is to determine the best methods for reaching these objectives…and the target audience. (It’s amazing how many of us
still jump head first into “methods” without having any of the above information.)

At this point, each congregation and task force must analyze and account for its own unique strengths and situation. Because each pastor is different, and each congregation is different, and each
target audience is different, specific methods of outreach must build on the unique character of the church and requirements of the situation.

The information gathered during Step #2 of this process will be extremely valuable in determining methods that have the greatest potential for success.

The value of a clear and deep understanding of Church Growth principles, at this point, is critical. While many techniques may be available to a “methods shopper,” few, if any, are guaranteed to be successful whenever and wherever applied. The successful matching of people with tasks to meet needs that produce growth is what Church Growth people call finding your “evangelistic mix.” (See books such as TEN STEPS FOR CHURCH GROWTH. Harper & Row, and DESIGN FOR CHURCH GROWTH, Broadman, for additional discussion in this area.)

Specifying methods to reach a new group of people through the church requires a creative vision as well as pragmatic analysis of the best, most cost/effective possibilities available. The strengths, gifts, and special interests of the laity involved ail are important considerations.


To this point we have dealt with four important areas We have identified the problems we wish to solve. We have established a tentative solution(s) to the problem. We have specified the measurable results we expect, and the methods we will use to achieve these results. In the Systems Approach, the task force now focuses its attention on organizing management for the development and testing of a prototype of the new program. A prototype is defined as “an original model for testing, used to determine adaptations and changes required on the final product.” In the field of science and technology, planners know well the value of testing a product or process before it is put into full-scale operation. It is also true in the church that potential waste of time, money, and resources are often discovered at the prototype level and can be corrected before the entire program is in full swing. Three things must be considered in organizing management for prototype development

1 – Task assignments: Specific jobs/activities and individuals responsible for overseeing these tasks are to be clearly understood.

2 – Time lines: Time requirements for each task to complete the prototype must be determined and posted. The individual tasks and each corresponding timeline, becomes the principal management tool for completing the jobs and prototype on schedule.

3 – Communication channels: Problems and wasted time can be avoided when proper communication lines exist. The communication system considers who needs information, where and how they will get the information, and what information needs to be communicated when.


Normally in testing prototypes a random sample of the target audience is used for try out of parts or all of the program. Careful records should be kept in each phase of the tryout to determine if events are going as they had been expected. Are the specified procedures being followed? Is the audience behaving in a way that was anticipated?

Evaluation of the prototype begins to ask what changes need to be made to correct for differences between what was expected and what actually occurred? A handy tool for evaluating results is given below:

Evaluation specifically measures each one of the objectives of the new program established in step -#3. Were the audience characteristics that were observed actually the same as those anticipated? Did the actual behavior the group correspond to the expected behavior for each objective? Was this behavior shown to the degree expected? Finally, on the basis of this information, what changes seem to be required?

In examining the results of the prototype test two questions need to be asked:

1 – Was the prototype test valid? That is, does it appear that the behavior observed in the test can be generalized to the entire target group?

2 – Did the evaluation of the prototype generate sufficient data to make decisions from? Or is additional testing required?

There are many times when it is not practical to establish a prototype in this purest sense of the word before the actual program begins. An alternative to selecting a sample of the target audience and testing the entire program is to launch the new program with the understanding that it is, in itself, a prototype. What this means is that the program will be carried out in its proposed form, with strict evaluation date being kept. As the program continues actual results are compared with the protected results and analyzed in a similar manner.

It is sometimes difficult to make changes in a program (and the longer a program exists, the harder it is to change) when evaluation shows that results are not satisfactory. It is just that change, however, that must be made if the success of the program–reaching people for Christ and the Church–is the final criterion. Effective evangelism is the “bottom line” by which any outreach program or effort can be  measured.


The final stage of developing a new outreach program in a local church presents two possible options. It begins with the question “Are you satisfied with the results of the prototype test?” If the answer is “Yes,” or “Yes, with these changes,” the final step is not difficult. Measures are taken to expand the program, in its present or modified form, on a large scale basis. Implementing the program will more extensively incorporate church members and go “full steam” into the operation of the program.

One word of caution.. ongoing evaluation of the program, even after prototype testing, is essential. “After six months or one year, how many people have been won to Christ and the church through this program?” Accountability must always be present. If the response to the question “Are we satisfied with the results of the prototype?” is “No,” then the next question is, “Which specific area are we dissatisfied with?”, and “What can be done to correct the problems?” Where, in the above seven steps, should we return in order to rectify the problem? Are the objectives inappropriate? Are the methods unsatisfactory? Was more time needed in certain areas? Perhaps the test was not precise.

One distinct advantage of this systematic, step-by-step method of problem-solving is in such a “recycling” process. If the results are not satisfactory, then each step can be back-tracked to analyze how it affects the success/failure of the program.

The systems approach is a valuable, proven, scientific tool for problem solving. However, it should be emphasized that a critically important support to these scientific procedures, is the immeasurable power of prayer for each other, the church, the people outside the church-and the common bond of strength in Christ, to do His work. A strong and winning combination is when God’s power is supported with the resources given to His people, in forming a united effort to reach lost people for His Church. Together, in this supportive relationship, any church can have a dramatic impact on the men and women in its communities and neighborhoods for Jesus Christ.

(The above material appeared in an issue of Church Growth; America.)

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