Missionary Strategy and the American Church

By Dr. Robert Wright, Ph.D., Professor of Intercultural Studies/Missions

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Western Commentator in 1978, while Dr. Wright was missionary in resident at Western Baptist College (now Corban University). We present it in this issue of DEDICATED in honor of his upcoming retirement. Its principles still hold true, and offer valuable insights for contemporary ministry.

Can the American church learn anything from foreign missionaries? Or has missionary strategy developed from observing the American church? Both may be true. For several years now, however, missionary strategists (and that is what all missionaries should be) have been learning and applying various principles and methods from which the American church can learn.

One of the most spectacular, which has spread across the world, began in 1966. Ralph Winter, a missionary to Guatemala, began a pilot project which is well known today as Theological Education by Extension (TEE). The practicality and value of such a program is evidenced by the many extension programs now being offered by seminaries in America, especially for continuing education of missionaries and pastors. The American church is learning from foreign missions!

Another important area of study, in which hundreds of missionaries are involved, is church growth. What causes churches to grow or not to grow? All fundamental missionaries assume God’s sovereignty and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. No attempt is made to supplant what only God can do! However, as we understand people and circumstances, we are able to more effectively communicate the Word. As missionary strategy becomes more refined, there is a greater understanding of the dynamics which aid in church planting and church growth.

When we were assigned to the ministry amongst the Ticuna Indians in Brazil in 1968, our task was to plant churches. Thus a church planting strategy had to be developed. The planting of the church in 1970 and its subsequent growth—from eleven members to 480 six years later—presented an awesome responsibility. Since the work had begun before our appearance on the scene, we had some questions which only statistical research could answer.

Was the church truly growing by conversions, or only by the many who had previously made decisions for Christ? Also what were the factors which caused the growth? A research project was begun and much was learned. The study revealed that more than 35 percent of current members had been led to Christ since the church was organized. This meant a decadal growth rate of 90 percent by conversion! We discovered many principles which could be reproduced in other areas of the tribe, and also in our own United States.

Universal Principles

Principles which contribute to the growth of churches are universal. They are applicable in any nation and among any people. Methods may have to change, but the principles remain the same. We will attempt to discover together some of these principles as illustrated by the Apostles in the Book of Acts. Missionaries world-wide are discovering, discussing and applying many of these to produce growing New Testament churches.

The first local church was planted in Jerusalem with a nucleus of 120 disciples. The apostles were obviously a part of this church and had a significant part in its planting and development. The multiplication of satellite churches was immediate, with the addition of 3,000 souls (Acts 2:41). The various groups met in numerous house churches, beginning a movement which spread throughout the Roman world.

From Jerusalem, the planting of churches spread throughout Judea, then to Samaria and most significant of all, Antioch. The persecution of the Hellenist Christians resulted in the spread the Gospel and the believers “who had been scattered went everywhere preaching the Word” (Acts 8:4). This “gossiping” of the Gospel by laymen spread to Antioch and, no doubt, further. Their witness planted a church in Antioch (11:19-26) with which the Jerusalem church, as well as the Apostles, began to have an active part (11:22).

The willingness on the part of the Jerusalem church to sacrifice some of its good leadership, such as Barnabas, to aid the developing church and to minister to a receptive audience, is significant (11:22-26). The importance of this principle in church planting today cannot be over-emphasized. Such a spirit should characterize churches in the United States by the encouragement of gifted individuals to consider foreign missionary service. Also pastors must be willing to sacrifice competent leadership to begin other churches in this country.

The transfer of missionary outreach from Jerusalem to Antioch is obvious from the historical record (Acts 13). Here, a missionary church becomes a sending church. The local church produced the workers, for Paul and Barnabas were actively involved in service to this church. They were “ministering to the Lord,” and the local church provided opportunity for them to demonstrate their spiritual gifts. As their abilities were recognized, the Holy Spirit spoke to the local church of God’s call to them. They were sent out by the Holy Spirit and “released” (apoluo) by the church for the ministry of church planting throughout Asia. The church continued to expand and extend itself—to go and to grow!

Church Growth

It is interesting and important to note that Luke gives much attention to the quantitative growth of the church in Acts. The fact that he notes specific numbers of church members—120, 3,000, 5,000, multitudes and myriads (Acts 1:15; 2:41; 4:4; 6:1; 9:31; 21:20) is significant. He must have been excited about the expansion of the church as he recorded the conversion of individuals (18:26-39), households (16:15, 34; 18:8), and entire villages (9:35). Many lessons and church growth principles can be learned from these examples in Acts.

People Groups and Families

Church growth often results from web and/or people movements. These are movements to Christ through webs of family or class relationships where many individuals come to Christ in conjunction with and because of relations or friends. In Acts whole households were won and, at least in one recorded instance, (16:32; see also 18:8) the individual was challenged to believe along with his family unit. One can surmise that this did not stop with the conversion of the jailer and his immediate family, but spread throughout the extended family. Multiple families must have believed on the occasion of Peter’s preaching in the home of Cornelius also.

Acts 8:6 gives evidence of multi-individual, mutually interdependent conversions. The people must have discussed not only the Gospel message, but also its implications for themselves and “multitudes with one accord” believed it. The transformation of a community occurred when “all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord” (9:35). Households were natural bridges in the planting of churches. This principle of church growth has been literally applied in many areas of the world. The basis for it, however, can be applied universally—family unit evangelism. Strong, growing churches are composed of whole families. Therefore, our evangelistic goal should be to evangelize whole households.

Responsive in Attitude, Similar in Culture

Church growth in Acts resulted as the apostles concentrated on responsive peoples.

Since the synagogue communities were most receptive, churches grew around them. “The Jews in the synagogue believed; then the proselytes in the synagogue believed. The proselytes were Gentiles who had become Jews. In every synagogue there were devout persons who hadn’t become Jews, but, who, nevertheless, liked Jewish worship . . . When Paul preached Christ many ‘devout Gentiles’ believed and were baptized. That was the Antioch pattern . . . In the synagogues he found those Gentiles who were already inclined to the Gospel.”[1] These “devout Gentiles” were the bridges God used to reach much of the Gentile world.

Certain elements of any society are more receptive to the Gospel than others. A biblical strategy will seek to discover these responsive peoples and concentrate upon them (Acts 13:51).

Growth in the early church was also the result of indigenous churches which were native to the culture. Jewish churches maintained much of their culture, distinct from many of the Gentile churches which were encouraged not to be concerned about becoming Jewish communities (Acts 15). In this manner, Jewish Christians were able to effectively communicate to their own homogeneous group (kind of people). This was also true of each Gentile group. Certainly one could distinguish various cultural features which were particular to the Antioch, Corinthian or Roman churches.

A growing church is often composed of one primary homogeneous group. People tend to prefer to become Christians without crossing barriers of race, language or class. A church for each social or cultural unit will attract others of a similar social unit, enabling it to reach its own kind more effectively.

Widespread Involvement, Evangelistic Focus and Strategy

Church growth continued due to an involved laity. The persecution of the Jerusalem church produced a “scattered” people who “went everywhere preaching the Word.” (Acts 8:4) These persecuted laymen went as far as Antioch, and through their witness a church was planted (11:19-26). Paul encouraged the pattern of lay involvement when he admonished Timothy to “commit the Word to faithful men” so that they would be enabled to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). Wherever the church grew, and grows today, the laity has been involved in the recognition and exercise of spiritual gifts.

There are two basic kinds of lay leaders within a church. There are those involved in supportive ministries­­—Sunday school teachers, deacons, trustees, and others. Their primary ministry is towards Christians. The second type of lay leader, who could also be serving in the previous capacity, ministers outside the church building seeking to reach unbelievers. Churches grow in proportion to the number of laymen in the second category.

Church growth was also advanced by the apostles’ concern for lost souls and keeping evangelism as their goal (1 Cor. 9:19-23). This type of evangelism involved not only the proclamation of the message, but also the persuasion of sinners to receive Christ (Acts 18:4, 13; 19:26; 26:28; 28:23.). Those who received the Gospel were then incorporated into local churches as seen from Acts 2:41. Without the emphasis upon proclamation, persuasion and incorporation, neither church planting nor church growth would have resulted.

The apostle Paul wrote that he did not run “aimlessly.” (1 Cor. 9:26) Church growth seldom results without a goal-oriented strategy. The goal of every local church must be growth and multiplication if it is to be biblical!


Is apostolic methodology valid for today? Are its practices reproducible in the world-wide missionary task of our age, including here in America? Principles, yes, but practices are not necessarily a biblical pattern to follow. The methodology may vary from culture to culture, so that a different strategy may have to be developed for the same principle. With that approach in mind, the book of Acts can be used as a handbook of missionary or evangelistic principles from which the strategist must pragmatically develop practices and strategies for planting New Testament churches—churches which are growing, reproducing organisms!

[1] Donald A. McGavran with Win C. Arn, How to Grow a Church (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1973), 31.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.