Characteristics of Growing Churches

Characteristics of Growing Churches
By Donald McGavran and Win Arn

Note: The following interview of Donald McGavran, considered by many to be the ‘father of the church growth movement’ by Dr. Win Arn is considered a classic in the area of outreach, evangelism and church growth. Many insights are offered that can be incorporated into the growth and evangelism process.

ARN: A study of growing churches indicates that some characteristics in them appear again and again. These do not appear with the same intensity in all situations, yet to some degree each plays a prominent role in growing churches. In this chapter we are not endeavoring to deal in depth with any of these characteristics, but rather to open each for further analysis and discussion.


McGAVRAN Growth goals indicate that the church takes its work seriously. It thinks through its mission and formulates goals with great care. It discusses these goals for weeks, or months before stating them. In the process the church is bound into a certain unity. A decision is not made unless the members of the board, the members of the church, the minister, the various people concerned, are all agreed.

Incidentally, discussions on church growth such as we are having might be the first Stage in the formation of growth goals. It would be a great pity for any group to work through this book and then not set growth goals for its church. After the readers have thought about their church from all these various points of view, it would be natural for them to say, “Under our circumstances, the will of God for us is that we do so and so.”

ARN It is interesting to note that if a church does not have any goals, individual organizations and individual Christians in the church will have their own, though often unstated, goals. The choir pursues its goals, the youth group works toward its goals, the women seek their goals, and the church is pulled in many different directions. Because these forces are pulling different ways, the total church does not move forward. The opposite condition prevails when there is a unity of goals in which all of the various individuals and groups participate. Then all the parts of the church head in the same direction, and it moves forward. It grows!

McGAVRAN A church drifts like an unanchored boat unless it has definite growth goals! An essential part of growth goals is that each member of the church should feel that he has had a share in making them. They should not be in posed from the outside, but should grow up from within, based on the conviction of the members, so they can say, “These arc our goals.”

ARN It appears that the more Christians can pray and talk their goals through, the more they will “own” them. When unity and agreement are reached, more people will work toward goal accomplishment.

McGAVRAN Yes, and goals should be both short-range and long-range. If the goal, for example, is that a church double its numbers or plant several daughter churches, that may very well be the long-range goal. The first short-range goal may be to conduct classes so every body in the church gets well-grounded in the biblical necessity for church growth and sees the need which every man has for Jesus Christ.

ARN It is often a good plan to break down the long- range goals into smaller sub-goals (units); for example, a five-year goal might be broken down into yearly goals, then broken down again into monthly segments. With such a division, progress is easily seen.


ARN Let me illustrate by sharing with you a film, “Charlie Churchman,” that I produced some years ago. In it we satirized a board meeting. This satire showed people coming late, inadequate preparation an agenda dealing with superficialities all of which went on and on and on.

McGAVRA N That sounds painfully familiar.

ARN We photographed the old clock on the wall. We used a cobweb machine and blew gossamers over Charlie and the other board members. The viewers laugh. It is a funny sequence, but the reason they laugh is that there is truth in it. Haven’t we all lived through board meetings that seemed to be eternal?

McGAVRAN A growing church treats meetings of the church as if they were matters of real importance. That means preparation so that the necessary information is on hand and decisions can be made.

ARN So often our church work is carried on in a sloppy, unprepared manner. Churches that are growing utilize time and make meetings count.

McGAVRAN I think that is true. They know where they are going and intend to get there. They feel commissioned by God to do a certain task. A sense of urgency and of importance marks growing churches.

ARN Importance and urgency are good words and are also seen in action in all meetings of the church; for example, in a growing church one doesn’t find a song leader having people sing five or six hymns “to fill out the hour.” There is urgency. There is purpose. Something happens when people gather.

McGAVRAN Christians would generally agree that the business of the church should be conducted with even greater care and attention than the secular enterprises they are involved in throughout the week. The gatherings of God’s people should be marked by good planning and prompt execution.

ARN How people feel about a meeting is very important, sometimes even more important than the content of a meeting.

McGAVRAN I agree. If people feel their time is being well spent, that they are not wasting it, you have a weighty moral factor on your side.

ARN We can summarize by saying that a growing church “redeems the time.”


McGAVRAN Committed is the key word in that head ing. Members are committed to Christ not only in general, but to Christ’s specific purpose—to bring men and women to believe on Himself and thus to find eternal life.

ARN True discipleship means that the disciple has the same goals and objectives as his Master. But being committed to discipleship has an additional dimension in growing churches. Discipleship suggests active involvement.

McGAVRAN Right! Christians are working at winning others to Christ. They look at the community round about them and see men and women who really ought to know Jesus. They bring in reports as to the numbers who have received Christ. They have plans for growth. In other words, they are committed to winning others.

ARN When Jesus called His disciples, He said, “Follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men.” (See Mark 1:17.) That is still the call of discipleship today.


ARN William James suggests that the basis for effective organized movements is small groups of committed people. Small groups are the purifying element of the church. They are the praying element of the church. They are the dynamic. The church needs small groups as the loaf needs the yeast. In small groups there can be strength, power and outreach to change and move the church—to change and move the community and the world.

McGAVRAN In some cases, small groups would have to be created. In other cases, the existing church structure could be revamped.

ARN A church would have to survey its membership and determine if all are involved in small groups where Christians can be served and where they in turn can serve others. To meet this need some churches have altered their structure; others have totally restructured.

McGAVRAN Dr. Meyers is the authority for the statement that if you want a Sunday School to grow, you must break down every class of more than twelve. Whenever a class gets to be twelve or more, divide it and start a new class. He believes that only small groups come to know each other well enough to have the dynamics described.

ARN Today as one observes the characteristics of growing churches, small groups are most significant.

McGAVRAN Dr. Meyers’ study indicated that the growth of a church did not correlate with the training of the minister, or the excellence of the Sunday School, the building, or the musical program. It correlated with the number of small face-to-face groups. If a church had a large number of small face-to-face groups, it grew. If it had big Sunday School classes and big church services, the chances were it did not grow.

I would add that the small-group fellowship must be an evangelistic fellowship. Merely organizing small groups which have a warm spiritual time among themselves does not create growing churches. But if these groups are outward oriented, if they are concerned with the unchurched, if they win other members in the community where they live—in short, if they are evangelistic fellowships, then small groups are very important.

In the Philippines today, small groups are being stressed. Every small group aims to have at least 50 per cent of its members consist of those who do not yet know or believe in Jesus Christ. In this way the small groups are made up of Christians and non-Christians in about equal proportions and are very effective in evangelism.

ARN You’re saying that in small groups, while people may enjoy excellent relationships one with another, to be evangelistically effective they must turn outward.

McGAVRAN They must bring the unchurched into the group. The “yet to believe” must find real fellowship in the group. There is power in small groups if properly used.


ARN Across the nation today there are many different models of evangelism. Do you see any successful pattern?

McGAVRAN Models which have come to the attention of the nation’s churches are those which have been successful in at least one church. Other churches can frequently use the same methods – modifying them to meet local circumstances. The important thing is to use them so men and women are in fact led to accept the Savior.

ARN Models help us see how others are evangelizing. Remembering that each church has its particular personality and each community has its particular needs, a church is more successful if it can create its own program of direct evangelism which suits itself and its community.

McGAVRAN In talking and planning about direct evangelism, let’s be honest and list the direct evangelism that we are really doing and the amount of time we’re really putting into it. Sometimes we’ll find we are doing a good deal. Often we’ll find that we are doing very little. Our need is to begin to do something, to innovate, or borrow, or adapt. In most cases, Christians should greatly increase the amount of direct evangelism they are doing.

ARN There is a relationship between the amount of time and effort and the number of people involved in direct evangelism and the growth of the church.
McGAVRAN No question about it. The number of people working at it has a great deal to do with the outcome. If, in Church One, you have twenty people working in direct evangelism, and in Church Two you have 200, Church Two will grow more than Church One.

ARN Considering direct evangelism, I would like to emphasize that we’re not talking of a special crusade once every four years lasting a week or two, or of a once-a-year evangelistic emphasis in a local church. We’re calling for a consistent program of evangelism fifty-two weeks of the year.

McGAVRAN This is absolutely true. Churches that have an evangelistic week once a year are not, as a rule, growing churches but those that have regular evangelistic work going on all the time, with reports at every board meeting, and charts in the pastor’s study or the hoard room showing the growth of the church these arc the churches which are growing,


ARN Peop1e are different. They don’t fit one mold. A church that recognizes these individual differences and strives to meet people’s needs, tends to grow.

McGAVRAN That’s right. We’ve been speaking a lot about evangelism, but evangelism must not he interpreted in a narrow sense. Evangelism is not simply button-holing people and speaking to them about Jesus: there must he a concern for their needs. The church must be willing and ready to meet people where they are.

For example, if families with young children begin to attend the church, adequate nursery facilities must be provided so that the mothers can come to church and worship while their youngsters are being cared for. Possibly a scout troop or recreation for the young people should be organized. Perhaps classes in English would help some members of minority communities. True evangelism loves persons, recognizes their needs and tries to help them.

But remember, meeting needs, by itself, is not evangelism. Social action must not be substituted for evangelism. Sheep must be found, brought to the fold, and fed.

ARN A growing church, then, is a church sensitive to the needs of its own people, to the needs of the community, to the needs of the world, and endeavors to meet these needs on many different fronts. But I can see danger in getting too broad.

McGAVRAN Many churches multiply good deeds while not growing at all. This is why it is very necessary to have a church growth conscience. Christians should be not primarily serving men’s temporal needs. We serve them because they are children of God. We serve them because they are immortal souls and have eternal needs. We meet their temporal needs at a dozen different places. But we should beware lest we simply wait on tables, or simply heal bodies. Christians must regard others as bodies and souls, and strive to meet the needs of “the whole man who is made in the image of God.”

ARN A church which meets the needs of the whole man is a growing church. It grows because all people have needs and will respond to such a church.


ARN I believe that leadership training, from the New Testament church until today, has been a chief secret of growing churches.

McGAVRAN That’s right, but it must be leadership training of a particular sort. Leadership training comes in fifty assorted colors. You can train leaders in many ways. We must make sure that leaders are trained in church growth. They must come to have “church-growth eyes.” They must see the congregation as a church not a Christian club. They must see the city as in great need of Jesus Christ and the church as the answer to that need. In short, all of us must think about leadership training from a thoroughly Christian perspective.

ARN Leadership development presupposes a plan whereby training in church growth is carried on continually.

McGAVRAN I’d like to suggest that every church can institute regular training classes in church growth. With the educated membership of the American church, and the abundant books and magazines available, any group can study church growth and see how it bears upon its particular community.

ARN Contemporary church growth can be an exciting study. For example, a church shouldn’t simply say, “We are a church in Houston or Columbus or Milwaukee,” but ‘We are a church in a particular part of our city and our particular neighborhood has certain characteristics. Our church will grow in certain ways and it will not grow in other ways. The people who need Christ in this segment of the city are different from the people who need Christ in another segment of the city.”

McGAVRAN That kind of thinking can become, and ought to become, commonplace to the whole membership — men, women, and youth. Creating that kind of thinking is what I mean by “training leaders for church growth.”

ARN When Jesus sent out the 70 two by two, apparently this outreach was preceded by training.

McGAVRAN Yes! He told them they were to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. In the preceding days, our Lord had been telling them what the Kingdom of God means. When they went to those villages in the high country of Judea, the 70 taught what they had learned about the Kingdom of God. Part of the amazing growth of the church after the Lord’s resurrection was, no doubt, due to this evangelistic tour and to the training He had given His disciples before sending them out.
ARN We’ve been considering characteristics of growing churches. Now our readers should take the important step of discussing these characteristics and applying them to their own particular congregations and communities.

“Characteristics of Growing Churches,” excerpted from “How to grow a Church” by Donald McGavran and Win Arn.

“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”