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George Hunter clarifies the church’s main business

| by Ronald Keener

What do you know about George G. Hunter III, other than from his bio on the back cover of his latest book, GO: The Church’s Main Purpose (Abingdon Press, 2017) that says he is “one of the country’s foremost experts on evangelism and church growth”?

Did you know he has had “decades with the muscle crowd,” is a bodybuilder, and a mentalist? He takes 42 pages in the book to run through these earlier years—all this as examples of reaching affinity groups, which is a large part of the book. (Still, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping over those chapters.) However, there is much, much “meat” in this book that would merit its purchase.

Upfront, Hunter says he has “observed for a long time, that the leaders of most floundering or declining churches are not at all clear about their core driving purpose. Or some of the leaders have some answers—but no consensus.”

And what is that driving purpose? “This book’s honest bias is that Christianity’s truth and its main business have been revealed,” he affirms. “As we are the stewards of ‘the faith which was once delivered unto the saints’”…“so we are the heirs of the mission once entrusted to the apostles and their movements.”

Hunter borrows from Peter Drucker in asking “What is your main business?” Secondly, what churches need to ask frequently, “How is business?” Stagnant churches need to “rediscover Christianity’s main business, and then redefine their church’s main business and become ‘apostolic’ (or, ‘missional’) congregations,” he writes. 

Some churches have become “the ecclesial equivalent of ‘mules.’ Mules are useful, they are genetically compromised that they are incapable of reproduction,” he writes. “Likewise, such churches are so theologically compromised that they are incapable of reproduction. Not enough new people join to replace the members they lose; they cannot retain even a bare majority of their own children into adult church membership.”

Hunter follows this theme in several helpful chapters. But in the latter third of the book he gets back on his original track in talking about our main business as congregations, in that “Christianity’s main business is its mission to pre-Christian people and people groups, locally and globally.” He spends considerable time reviewing:

  • Church health and church growth;
  • Natural Church Development (NCD)’s failings and problems, given some of its pluses;
  • Reaching those populations across racial, linguistic, and class barriers that he calls the “great people movements of Christianity’s past and present.”

Let me leave you with some thoughts from his seventh and last chapter that deserve your consideration: “This book encourages a Really Big Idea that was once the driving priority of the early Christian movement, but now seems like a new, even absurd, idea to most Christians today. In the followers of Jesus, the High God of Israel raised up a movement to bring salvation and shalom to the earth’s peoples. Early Christians were clear that they were the salt of the earth, ambassadors for Christ, who would appeal to all people to be reconciled to God’s will. In this paradigm, Christianity’s main business is not taking care of the people we already have, as important as that is; the main business is its mission to the world. The church is not only an Ecclesia—the called-out people of God; it is also an Apostolate—the sent-our people of God.”

Hunter has been an apostle of the church growth movement, an exponent of Donald McGavran, and Hunter spends good time on McGavran’s critics. He says that McGavran “brought the rigor of critique to evangelization—across, and within, cultures,” and who dared to ask, “We know how the gospel ought to spread, but how does it really spread? We know how people ought to become Christians, but how do they actually become Christians?”

McGavran was a misunderstood missionary to India, and that might account for much of the criticism, and the recounting of McGavran’s influence and thinking is a useful recitation at this juncture in missionary work.

Ronald Keener

Ronald E. Keener was editor of the national business and leadership magazine, "Church Executive," for eight years, and writes from Chambersburg, Pa. His church interests lie with congregational transformation, church health movement, church strengthening and revitalization and reporting on churches that have not just survived but thrived. 


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