Dialogue on the Frontiers
A Conversation With Dr. Donald McGavran, Chairman of the Board and Dr. Ralph Winter, General Director of the U. S. Center for World Mission
Dr. Winter: I'm delighted to be able to introduce a man and the book he produced which is probably the biggest bombshell in terms of mission theory and practice in this century. Dr. Donald McGavran has traveled the world to discover causes and hindrances to the growth of the church. Tell us some of the places you have visited in the seven years since your 75th birthday.
Dr. McGavran: I've never made a list of the places I have gone, but let me try to recall some of them. I was in Africa, in Zaire taking a look at the great growth of the church there. Then I was in Nigeria, Kenya and Liberia. I was in Japan and in Korea, where I spoke to 2 million people one night seated on the air strip on Yoidu Island. I've been in Taiwan and the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh and India.
Dr. Winter: You've been back and forth to India many times, haven't you? Tell us something more about that.
Dr. McGavran: Well, there are many places in India. India. is like the United States of Europe will be when that political entity comes into being. Finland is about as much like Spain as northeast India is like Kerata. India is really a federation of different nations, all under one flag, all comprising under one flag, all comprising one nation state. Also, I've traveled in Latin America Brazil, Peru, Panama and Mexico. It has been a busy seven years.
Dr. Winter: Now, I'd like to go further back almost 30 years to the publication of the book called The Bridges of God It was originally titled "How Peoples Become Christian." The publisher said, "That's not good English," and changed the title, (Americans don't think of people in groups (peoples) but as individuals.
This book has probably more profoundly affected the perspective and strategy of missionaries and mission societies than any other single book. It ranks with Roland Allen's insightful writings in its influence over the contemporary scene. In this small volume, Dr. McGavran's key observation was this: "Crosscultural evangelism limps along until groups of individuals start accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior in a chain reaction."
Later on he says something else very interesting: "One goal of missions is to plant churches in every homogenous unit culturally in harmony with that unit, jealously guarding that unit's cultural diversities and considering the tribe (or the caste, the clan or whatever unit we're talking about) as one of God's orders of preservation to be respected until He replaces it." Now those are radical words.In a more graphic reference, he says this: ". . men and women exist not as a pile of stones, but as parts of an organism, as cells in a body, or as knots in a tennis net. When the net is hit in one place, all the knots jump." Dr. McGavran was able to see that there is something larger than individuals that had to be dealt with.
Out of that single observation, two key applications came. One is that once you break through (to a people group) you must take advantage of that breakthrough. The other is that until that breakthrough occurs, you haven't even gotten started. Dr. McGavran, how does that breakthrough occur?
Dr. McGavran: Let me give an illustration of that word "breakthrough." What actually happens when Christ is proclaimed? The missionary has learned the language, and preaches God's plan of salvation. They listen quizzically, maybe even skeptically. Some are curious. Only a few rise up and say, "Yes, I believe." In many places, the missionary may be there for ten or twenty years, or even thirty or forty years winning very few converts. People hear, inquire, some may even buy and read the New Testament, but becoming a Christian is such a big step, they don't take it.
Then one of these converts begins to spread the gospel to others, For example, in northern India there was a man named Ditt, He was a low caste man who scavenged cattle hides for a living. He heard the gospel and believed. When he told the missionary, "I am going to become a Christian" the missionary was puzzled. If I receive this low caste man, all the respectable castes will reject the gospel, But when he realized that Ditt had truly believed, had learned the ten commandments, the Lord's prayer and the Apostle's Creed he realized he couldn't do anything other than baptize him.
The missionary encouraged Ditt to stay with him. 'If you return to your village you will face great pressure to renounce your faith," he argued. But Ditt returned to his village and the missionary heard no more from him for six months.
When he returned, he came with his wife, his brother and wife, his cousin and wife and said, "These people are all ready to become Christians. They believe in Jesus, know the commandments, the Lord's prayer and the creed. We are worshipping together every week."
The missionary examined them, found that it was true and baptized them. And so, in that one caste, the Christian movement began to spread. That is what I call the "breakthrough." requires that we recognize that primarily people influence and are influenced by other people in their own group People normally 'win people to Christ within their own sphere. And so the Christian faith spreads through the segments of society.
Back of this, Dr. Winter, is the belief that the society of the world is made up of a very large number of pieces of a mosaic. The world is not one homogeneous unit, one kind of people from end to end. There are many pieces in the mosaic and every missionary goes to a piece of the mosaic, Most missionaries now realize that. And this view of mankind is proving exceedingly fruitful as missionaries 'look out on the world today.
Dr. Winter: Now suppose there is a breakthrough of that sort on a mission field. What might happen if the missionaries did not understand this "people group" situation fully?
Dr. McGavran: In many places, the missionaries are spread out geographically, and there are several people groups in each location. If the "people movement" to Christ begins in one section, the other missionaries might not realize the importance of concentrating resources where the movement had started.
They might feel that all sections should receive equal attention. And to be sure, we should not abandon any people, any tribe, any section, but we must concentrate resources where the breakthrough has occured and God is already working.
Dr. Winter: Now suppose the missionaries did what you recommend. They concentrated their resources and discipled to the very fringes of that group, Is that good enough? Could they just go home then, now that the clan or tribe, the people, had been won? Dr. McGavran: Oh no, There may be 1,000 other people groups in that particular country who are undiscipled. There is no guarantee that the breakthrough in one people group will automatically spread the gospel to other peoples In the New Testament we read that the church had become very strong ¬thousands of believers. But these words are included in the record, 'they spake the word to none but Jews." It took a special revelation of the Lord Jesus to Paul and to Barnabas and others before they broke through to the other people groups of the first century.
So we must continue to send mis'sionaries, and encourage the other segments of society to send missionaries to still other peoples, because the task is enormous. The undiscipled peoples of the world are a tremendous number. That is the reason for this particular World Mission Center, That's the reason for the School of World Mission, And that's the reason the missionary movement today is in the midst of a revival an awakening of encouragement and hope.
Dr. Winter: In a recent article, (see pages 4 and 5 editor) you have popularized the terms "domestic missions" and "frontier missions," How do these terms relate to the "break' through" we've been discussing?
Dr. McGavran: If a missionary works where there is a well established church with indigenous leaders I'd call that "domestic missions." The breakthrough has already occured in this group, and the missionary he helping a church that is carrying out a ministry to its own people
Dr. Winter: We understand that where we have already broken through we must take advantage of that, but what about the 16,000 plus pieces of the mosaic where no breakthrough has taken place? What about the ministry we call "frontier missions?" Do you feel that the Center here is contributing to the awareness of these groups?
Dr. McGavran: I believe that this Center has done a very great deal, is doing a great deal, and is going to do a great deal more toward creating an awarenes of the unreached peoples. There has been a tendency for the church to rest on its laurels, thanking God for the national churches around the world and the 15,000 missionaries they are now sending out. But the American churches, the European churches and the third world churches all together are only touching a fringe of the undiscipled populations of the world.
Those charts you have produced are very illuminating, and your emphasis on the fact that the missionary task is far from complete, in fact, is just beginning, is most timely. I am quite confident that the greatest days of Christian mission lie ahead, not behind. Everything up to the present is prologue, from now on the book really begins, We are going to see tremendous sections of the world turning to Christ.'
There is a miracle happening in Africa, you know. Africa, south of the Sahara Desert is in the process of becoming Christian, In Zaire, 62 out of every 100 people is now a Christian, In Namibia, 82 out of every 1000 are Christians. By A.D. 2000, sub Sahara Africa is going to be as Christian a land as the U. S. That has never happened in the history of the world. Europe became Christian, but it took 1000 years.
Dr. Winter: As you can see, Dr. McGavran's work has produced a lot of optimists. It seems to roe there is a relationship between his optimism and his observation that the world does not consist of 4.5 billion individuals who must be won one at a time, but rather of many pieces of the mosaic, of people groups. I'd like to think that this basic observation of his is the most far-reaching concept in modern missions thinking. The concept is that we are not out to win souls (to use the American evangelical expression) but to disciple peoples. In the actual language of the Great Commission, you can look it up, individuals," it says "disciple all the peoples.
Dr. McGavran: "Panta ta ethne."
Dr. Winter: One evening, some months ago, Dr. McGavran was in our home, and there were a number of us there talking and praying about these issues which we've been discussing here. It was out of the discussion that evening that the phrase, "Church for Every People by the Year 2000" came.
Dr. McGavran: The word "Church" there should be spelled with a capital C. It means a cluster of churches, a branch of the Church universal, not just a single congregation. It refers to a people movement within a segment of society, We break down the task, not into political units, nation states, but we break it into people units, bitesized units.
Dr. Winter: We have talked about a"Church"meaning not just a congregation, but a people movement within a society. We have talked about peoples," those entities which the Bible talks a lot about while our American language doesn't. But the last part of that phrase, "the year 2000' brings in a timetable, and touches every person who reads this discussion. It raises the question of what each of us is going to do in the rest of our days. It brings in the humbling, challenging question of whether we are going to be willing to let God's priorities disturb our career plans to the extent that we can actually contribute to the process of this breakthrough occurring in each of the remaining people groups.
I wonder, Dr. McGavran, if you would be willing to reflect about the significance of a campaign in America like the Frontier Fellowship with its emphasis on daily prayer, reading and giving focused on the people groups where the "breakthrough" has yet to take place.
Dr. McCavran: I believe the Frontier Fellowship is a very significant movement. What you are saying is extremely important. I hope that all of us will cling to this idea and hear God calling us to take these peoples into our hearts and commit ourselves to daily prayer on their behalf.
Dr. Winter: Thank you so much, Dr. McGavran. We really appreciate the fact that you've been willing to serve as Chairman of the Board of the U. S. Center for World Mission. It's taken much of your time and energy, but it has allowed us to be borne aloft with the faith, daring and determination that has characterized your career. We just want to say how grateful we are to you and to your wife, Mary.
Dr. McGavran: Let me say that I wouldn't be chairman if I didn't believe that the Center will continue the work that has attracted attention across the United States. I across the United States. I believe God is blessing it. I believe there is a great future ahead, and the impact of this Center and the men and women you have gathered here is going to be felt in a very marked way as we head into the greatest century of Christian expansion the world has ever known.