This is an article from the January 1986 issue: Donald McGavran

The Father of Church Growth

Over the past 50 years, few have influenced world evange[i:alion as much as Donald McGavran.

At the age of 88, a small, bespectacled man with a barren scalp and impish eyes that no longer see to read, Donald McGavran still seems - there is no other word for it - young. He has a young man's barely restrained impatience to get on with it - "it" being, always, the task of drawing every people group on earth to Jesus Christ.

Harold Lindsell calls Donald McGavran ''a giant of a missiologist, a man of spectacular performance." Carl Henry notes, 'His name belongs in the first ranks of those who have shown a concern for the lost in our lifetime."

Indeed, no many can claim to have singlehandedly begun a movement. Fewer can take credit for a movement as large and vital as church growth, which finds its center in the bustling Fuller School of World Mission that McGavran started in Pasadena, California 20 years ago.

Not that McGavran is a household name. Missions leaders of a century ago William Carey, Hudson Taylor seem far clearer to the imagination. They were public men. McGavran has mainly influenced leaden, not lay people. His published wntings, which fill five shelves, are mostly scholarly works.

Probably no one has worked so hard as McGavran at applying strategy to evangelism, his studies analyze the techniques that lead to church growth, and emphasize that churches usually grow along ethnic or family lines.

The analysis of statisties, careful documentation, sociological theorizing - what do these have to do with accomplishing the works of God? To Donald McGavran, they have everything to do with it. The church growth movement views evangelism in much the same way that an engineer views an airplane. The first question is, Does it Fly? The second question is, How efficiently? As jarring as those questions are in a religious context, so jarring has the church-growth movement been. Church growth does not lack for critics.

Charts and statistics

A story may illustrate the tension between McGavran's methods and the expectations of many Christians.

Charles E. Fuller. The radio evangelist who founded Fuller Theological Sensinary, had originally wanted a school to train missionaries. Though he was persuaded to start a seminary instead, his deep concern for overseas evangelism did not die. In the sixties he finally asked Fuller president David Hubbard to start a school .[missions. McGavran! who already had a full curriculum worked our, made it possible.

McGavran was introduced to Fuller's loyal radio listeners over the Fourth of July during an annual rally that Fuller held at Mount Hcrmon, . mountain conference center. The amphitheater was filled . extra chairs were placed up the hillside to hold over I ,UDQ of the faithful. Fuller's son Daniel, a professor at the seminary, introduced McGavran as the man to start the longed for School of Missions. McGavran greeted the audience, and then, characteristically   began to draw charts and quote statistics to illustrate his points, Is was not the kind of talk familiar to lieteners to the "Old Fashioned Revival Hour."

''I never saw my father more nervous," says Daniel Fuller. The whole time that Dr. McGavtan was speaking, my lather was pacing the floor, biting his fingernails. As soon as Mcflasran was done, he rushed out, and without even pausing to say thank you, said, 'Let'sall sing,' UeavenkSunshine. '' 'I have often thought, what a paradox that two men who loved foreign missions so much were so different."

The early days in India

When Donald McGavran went to India in 1923, he seemed likely to succeed. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, he was a third generation missionary to India. He learned to speak Hindi fluently and soon won recognition as an educator in the Disciples of Christ mission. The Disciples, like many missions, had built their strategy around schools.

In 1929 McGavran became director of religious education for he mission. On his first furlough he won a graduate fellowship at Union Theological Seminary, which led to a Ph.D. at Columbia University. On returning to India.

MeCas ran loaned himself elected field secretary, charged with administering tlsc entire India mission, He svaa capable, he wot ked hard, he had ideas, he could express himself. lie had moved tip with remarkable speed.

But during that second term, w Ittle field secretary, his perspective shifted. He began to we the mission's natitotions 'ehoola and hospitals as interfering with she central work the mission was called to do: evangelism.

One day while walking through the mission compound after church, he encountered an Indian woman who, with her family, had lived and worked on the headquarterscomposind for many years. They struck up a friendly conversation, in the course of which he asked, ''How is it that you have been with Christians for all these years, yet none of you has ever become a Christian?" She told him they probably would have long ago if anyone had cared. No one had ever urged her, or any one in her caste, to make such a decision.

''That went through me like a knife," McGavran remembers. He was shaken that a family living on the mission conspound had never been asked to take Jesus as Lord. He was working 12 hours a day as an administrator. But he began to spend one night out of every week, evangelizing her family and their caste.

McGavran's circular letters to Disciples of Christ missionaries in India carried increasing appeals to make evangelism a priority. One letter challenged missionaries to set aside just six hours per week for evangelism. In another letter he wrote that "everyone, whether he is particularly suited for proclaiming the message or not, should be out often and frequently, proclaiming the message and trying to win men and women to Jesus Christ."

At about the same nine, he saw his first ''people moscments'' conversions of people in grottos rather than simply as individuals. In scattered areas of In. din. Thousands of people, usually from the lowest class of ''untouchables,'' were coming to Christ. Missionaries were wary. This phenomenon contradicted their educational strategy, which aimed at lifting the middle and upper classes out of Hinduism one by one. The people movements were anything but educated and individualistic. Missionaries wondered whether they could be spiritually genuine, especially since, to becoming Christians, file untouchables were escaping an oppressive Hindu stigma.

A respected missionary, J. Waskom Pickett, was assigned by the National Christian Council of India to investigate the mass movements, He published a highly positive verdict. Mccavran read Pickets's report, and was able so assist in some of his follow. up research. As I sawn thousand peo' pie being baptized at one time, I said, 'This can happen with us, too: ''Boa at the time, McGas'ran'sustn mission, like most, was growing at a pace of only I percent a year.

So, as field secretary, McGavran began to rock the boat, questioning whether schools and hospitals had taken up so much energy and money that evangelism had been forgotten.

Shedding liberal theology

In the same period, and in a much less public way. McGavran shed his liberal theology. The decisive break came while he was teaching a Sunday school class of relatively uneducated mission workers. The preceding teacher had been very liberal in his approach to Scripture. One morning McGavran asked his class what should he the first question a person asks when he reads a biblical passage. One of the most intelligent men answered promptly, "What is there in this passage that we cannot believe?" He meant that anything miraculous or supernatural ought to be deleted or explained as ''poetic."

"I had never before been confronted as bluntly with what the liberal position means to its ordinary Christians." McGavran says. "It shocked me, and I began at that moment to feel that it could not be the truth."

When McCavran's three year term as mission secretary was up, he was not re-elected, He was known for harping on evangelism, and apparently the mission decided to give him a taste of his own medicine, He was appointed as an evangelist in remote central India.

It was clearly a demotion. Evangelists worked with poorly educated or illiterate people; their children had to board far away from them: they experienced little or no educated society.

For the next 17 years until the early 1950s this Yale educated Ph.D was found among the illiterate peasants of small, rural villages. He covered a vast area, often by bicycle or on foot, stag' gling along with a learn of tndian evangelists and pastors to start a people movement among the Satnami caste. He saw many conversions and some deconversions. (One night a whole church revel ted to Hinduism before his eyes, possibly because of his mishandling of a pastors adultery.) During famine he fed hungry people, initiated agricultural development projects, and became an advocate for the poor against their landlords.

As an evangelist he was a qualified success. The church in his area did grow well: but it did not grow at anything like the rate he had hoped. As the time for political independence grew nearer, the anibittons of poor Indians ,,are channeled into political concerns. McGavran's dream of seeing his own people movement never came true.

Yet those years bore a different kind of fruit: a cluster of ideas. In 1955 he took his vacation in thesteamttsg forest, with nothing but a cook, a gun, and a typewriter for cotopanv. He hunted for at, hour each this. and wrote the rest. The result was The Bridges of God, a book that set out his primary theses. They Conned the foundation for what would develop as the church growth movement. The book pot him back on the map, though not as leader in any existing institution. The Disciples of Christ, while receiving the treat of his efforts to convtnce. remained mainly indifferent. So did nearly all other missions. McGavran was beginning a movement, but for many years he would not have a single disciple.

Principles of church growth

The principles of chuach growth are simple.

1. God wants his lost sheep found.

While church growth emphasizes technique, its foundation is a theological imperative. Missionaries, it was generally assumed during McGavran's days in India, were supposed to proclaim the gospel. McGavran believed that Christ expected more than mere effort. Christ wanted success.

McGavran lataer wrote in Understanding Church Growth, "Results in terms of men won to Christ have become suspect across wide stretches of the Church..."

Missionary writers vie with one another in deprecating mere numbers. The shepherds, going out to search for lost sheep, meet at the gate to announce that they do not intend to notice particularly how many are found."

McGavran defined good evangelism pragmatically: it would lead numbers of people to become countable, responsible members of the church. The demands ofa holy life would take a lifetime for these disciples; the first task was to get them to declare their allegiance, and sense their own identity, its Christ.

McGaeran concluded that a great deal of missionary work fell short. He acknowledged varied reasons for that, including the fundamental resistance of some peoples. But he insisted that fail' ore to win men and women for Christ be called failure Otherwise, how woold we ever it, anything new? That message stotig. particularly those who were not seeing numerical growth but still believed they were doing good.

2. Our choice of method must be based on facts. McGavran's second principle was a fierce pragmatism. If a technique makes the church grow, he is for it. If not, throw it out.

But these decisions must not be made without evidence. McGavran began ma time when Christian missions had very little statistical information about themselves. Many missions could hardly say wltether their churches were growing or net. If they were growing, they did not know how they compared to neighboring missions, they had not cared to find out They made few distinctions between areas where the church was growing at a breakneck pace and those where the church was only inching for ward, lcG' 'ran and his disciples have done a great deal of their work simply accumulating and analyzing data about the church.

One of McGavran's early trips took him to the Belgian Congo, where he visited two different mission stations of comparable size and situation. both with excellent personnel from the same mission. But at outstation the church had grown from 3,000 to 33,0: in the other, the church had actually shrunk. When he told this to mission executives, they could hardly believe him. After he convinced them of his stabs' tics, they saw the next logical question: what was one mission station doing that the other needed so learn?

3. Poor your resources into winning channels. McGavran emphasized that missions ought lobe as mobile as possible, grabbing as opportunities. Ifs people were receptive to the gospel, they ought to get all the help possible. McGasrart had seen people movements in India falter prematurely, because the mission responsible lacked the resources to maximize the movement's effect.

4. People like to stay with their own people. Let them do so. Most missionaries had viewed India's hundreds of languages and castes as an impediment to a church in which there was "no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free." They wanted to encourage one multiethnic church. McGavran came to believe that this l audable goal meant, effectively, barring men and women from Christ. In India, most Christians came from the untouchables; when people from other groups became Christians they joined the untouchable church and became, in a sense, untouchables.

Indian people movements, McGavran believed, made effective evangelism because enough people became Christians at the same time to allow them sossay within their original social group. They did not have to shed their cultural identity. They remained part of their community: their cornsnetniey became Christian.

The church, MeCavran saw, did not spread out like ink in water; it usually grew along famil lines, or at least within societal boundaries. As an American raised on indisidualism and the "melting pot" theory of culture, he came to a profound respect for the differences between peoples.

A study in persistence

Committed to spreading his ideas, McGavran returned in 1954 to the United States, after 30 years in India. He and his vs ife lived on the move between Disciples of Christ colleges and seminaries, teaching a variety of courses and speaking in many churches. He wrote many articles and an incredible number of letters. It was not unusual for him to write twice to someone on the same day; sometimes he wrote six letters to a person before he received his first answer.

On the outside, he remained generously pleasant, positive, optimistic. Inside, he grew discouraged, The years passed and he saw no sign that missions were changing, He and his wife looked at a farm in Oregon and talked of retirement. But they kept on. These years from the fifties into the seventies are a study in persistence.

Though MeGavran had come to share evangelical thinking about the Bible, he had spent his entire life within the Disciples of Christ, a mainline denomination. His articles were published in World Council of Churches periodicals, and a special consultation sponsored by the WCC considered and largely endorsed his ideas. Yet those churches were gradually turning away from McGavran's idea of evangelism. Their mission forces would soon shrink drastically as church membership declined.

Evangelical missions, on the other hand, were growing. Though suspicious of McGavran's theological background, they liked what he said. Gradually, evangelicals discovered him. For several years he addressed summer seminars at Winona Lake, sponsored by the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association. Hundreds of evangelical missionaries were exposed to his thinking.

Yet it was no platform for a movement. Ironically, the man who urged missions so break from their institutions began to realize that he needed one. Although he as in his sixties, McGavran was still innovating - or at least trying to. He pushed his denomination to setup a Church Growth Institute, perhaps attached to one of its seminaries. None of his schemes proved feasible.

Finally, the president ol Northwest Christians College in Eugene. Oregon, a small, untsccredied undergraduate college, took in MeGavran and his Institute. He was given an oak table and a desk in the third floor stacks of the libratt He began with one student. Four years later he had 12.

It was a beginning, but a slender one. Whether it could even continue was much in doubt. The college was so poor that for the first years it could not afford to put a phone near the oak table. When phone calls came in the librarian had to run up the stairs to fetch McGavran. In addition, McGavran turned 67: by the institution's rules, he would soon be required to retire. That was when Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution McGavran knew little about, began to consider a School of World Mission.

Effects of church growth

In the 20 ycars since then, McGavran's ideas have become a movement, primarily among evangelicals. Fuller has trained thousands of disciples, some at whom have never aid eyes on McCnv ran Church growth has also attracted criltcism. Such flames as John Howard Yoder, Howard Snyder. J Robertson McQuilkin,, Orlando Costas, and René Padilla have offered thoughtful questions.

Many of those questions have to do with McGavran's theological and biblical assumptions. Howard Snyder, writing in The Problem of Wineskins, says:

''While in essential agreement', with the emphasis which argues forcefully that Christtan churches are divinely intended to glow significantly in number - I feel it also needs the corrective of other biblical emphases to keep it from turning into a mere 'spiritual technology.'" Starting as it did from a pragmatic and sociological point of view, church growth has needed to put down deeper theological and biblical roots.

A number of other questions also remain controversial: whether "discipling" and "perfecting" - roughly, conversion and sanctification - can be divided as neatly as McGavran suggests; whether numbers can be an adequate tool of evaluation; whether it is right to start churches along racial and ethnic lines when those lines perpetuate racial and ethnic prejudice; whether church growth has a tuncated concept of mission. Rene Padilla, in his Lausanne address, said, "I am for numbers, but for numbers of people who have heard a presentation of the gospel in which the issues of faith and unbelief have been made clear..." Some would question whether that is possible in South Africa, for instance, if missions pursue church growth along ethnic and cultural lines.

It is undeniable that McGavran's thinking has helped evangelical missions recover their central purpose of evangelism and he has given them confidence they can do it with modern skill.. Evangelists are now more aware that evangelism is proclamation that includes communication and persuasion. They pay attention to social conditions that make a person respond (or not respond) to a message. They evaluate evangelism pragmatically as well as theologically, by counting results in active church membership not by counting decisions or honest effort.

Is has become common to think in terms of ''people groups,'' rather than just individuals. ''Friendship evangelism" is directly linked to church growth thinking in its claim that the gospel flows most easily from friend to friend.

Most significantly, but probably most tentatively, it has become normal to look at evangelism as a complex process that is fruitful not for those who are merely persistent or holy-minded or theologically correct, but for those with the training and the determination to find the right strategy. In any framework you name - crusade evangelism, TV evangelism, literature evangelism, friendship evangelism, whether in the parachurch outreaches of Campus Crusade for Christ or the home missions emphasis of the Missouri Synod Lutheran churches - you find this kind of engineering minset.

The outworkings of McGavran's original insights seem far from exhausted. The missionary concern for "unreached people groups," spread by Ralph Winter and Ed Dayton particularly, is one outgrowth. American church growth, elaborated by Win Arn and Peter Wagner, is making a powerful impact on the North American scene. The latest horizon is "power evangelism" - the use of signs and wonders as a means whereby the church grows. For generations, missionaries to animistic societies have brought back stories of miracles and exorcisms that went with people movements; now Fuller Seminary is associated with the growing interest in prayers for healing in the church - for the manifestations of power that often accompany the growth of the church.

At 88: Still Gripped

Despite all this, McGavran remains, at age 88, gripped by the question: 'What makes she church grow.' He takes an intense interest in news from around the world. He carries on an extensive correspondence. He lectures, though he can no longer read his own notes. He agitates. He sponsors new ideas for strategies in evangelism, particularly in India.

McGavran has fought throughout a long life to take the techniques of evangelism seriously, to study them rigorously. But at his heart is not, and has never been, a love for technique. At his heart is a love for the lost. Ultimately the church growth movement will depend on keeping that theological imperative first.

J. Robertson McQuilkun, president of Columbia Bible College, tells of driving McGavran to the airport after a visit to Japan. McQuilkin had come away from their consultations puzzled. ''Dr. McGavran. there's still a mystery here. Among the four denominations that were really growing, each attributed their growth to a different cause. One said it was prayer. Another said it was their organization. Another said it was a movement of the Holy Spirit.'

"There's no mystery there," McGavran said. "What do they all have in common? They all expect to grow, and they are going out and doing it."

McGavran Comments

Overall, Mr. Stafford's article is excellent. I think he's filled the space quite well. But I think two things should be said.

First, the article is titled 'The Father of the Church Growth Movement" I have grave doubts about that. There are many fathers of the Church Growth Movement. There are many who have been working at it. Indeed, the Church Growth Movement is an essential Christian movement dating back to the Day of Pentecost. That's when the Church really started growing.

I remember going to the Philippines in 1980 or 1981. I met with 500 pastors. They signed a covenant acknowledging that now there are 10,030 Protestant congregations in our country. By the end of the century, we will do our utmost to make that 40,000 congregations." Whether they do that or not is another matter. But at least they've set a goal.

Something of this sort is going on in a very remarkable way all over the world. God is really at work. It's not Donald McGavran who has done this. It's God the Father Almighty Who has done it. And He's done it through a large number of people. I'm just one of many.

Another matter: Mr. Stafford didn't begin to emphasize what has been happening since 1965 as the (Church Growth) Movement spread throughout the world.

We need to look at the 20 years of the Church Growth Movement in light of the other movements that have been spun off from it.

The first movement that spun off was Win Am's The Institute for American Church Growth. Am has done very well. He has a half million dollar business, and he's reaching all across the United States.

The U.S. Center for World Mission is another thing that has spun off, and now this institution has had a tremendous effect. Dr. Winter's emphasis on the Unseached Peoples, his emphasis on so many of the aspects, has been of enormous help to the Church Growth Movement. Dr. Winter is constantly talking about things that are really essential parts of it. The Unreached Peoples are an enormous number of segments of population everywhere. Somehow we've got to get to them whether they are in Tibet or Chad, Zaire, Brazil, Paraguay wherever they are. We've simply got to get them. And that's one of the things that has been stressed here at the Center.

The E. Stanley Jones School of Evangelism at Asbury Seminary is a third spin off.

One of our graduates, Roger Hedlund, is in India with the Church Growth Research Association. There are other graduates in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Mexico... almost every country. We must not limit the Church Growth Movement to the School of World Mission. The spinoffs have been numerous.

Winter Comments

Yes, when you set out to write a five page cover story on the life of a person who is 87 years old, it is a lot to cover!

Tim Stafford did a magnificent job. McGavran's own comments help to round it out. But the full story will have to wait.

Right now, across the street from my office in the newly built "McGavran Center" (a subdivision of our Latourette Library building where McGavran's archives and books are stored, and where he himself is available at certain hours for consultation), a man is working on a doctoral thesis covering the "last 20 years" of McGavran's life.

But what a task! McGavran's impact on this world has taken place mainly in the last 20 years. Perhaps mainly in the last ten, as the mature missionary personnel in whom he has invested his efforts perhaps 2,000 of them fan out across the entire globe. What one other person has so profoundly affected so many missionaries?

I doubt if anyone has ever worked harder between the ages of 67 and 87, or even visited more specific places on this globe at that stage of life. He has certainly not been classroom bound!

But what God has done through McGawan defies the imagination. The overwhelming single emphasis of mission agencies all across the world today is the new, more informed concentration on peoples of the earth.

McGavran goes beyond conversion to Christ to the building of His Church. He knows that the Church must thrive within the peoples of the world, not tear those people units down or tear them up. He points out that the Bible sends us to all the caine of the world. If we have a "bridge" into a group, expand it. If we have not yet penetrated, deliberately go for it. Let all churches everywhere become part of new outreach to their own peoples and to other peoples as well.

Thanks to him, mission thinking will never be quite the same. It is now irretrievably, all across the world, a clearer, simpler ask, one that, with his Giant Step in mind (see next page), can be completed by the Year 2000.

McGavran on Missions

Q: You've been involved in a great deal of controversy. Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?

A: The church growth movement has excited criticism from both the Right and the Left. Conservatives say, "You don't stress the Holy Spirit, the sanctified life, et cetera." I say, "I assume these things," Liberals say, "You re not talking about social justice." I say, "Christians are doing that. They always have, What they are not doing is winning the world."

Q: What do you say about the state of apathy In the American church toward missions?

A: I think that the apathy is a congregational position. After all, they aren't our close neighbors, we don't see them, we don't know much about them, we don't speak their language. And why should we be concerned? That was the universal position of Christian congregations up until 1800, and in many denominations until much later, The Disciples of Christ had no missionary work at all until 1880, 90 years after William Carey, And in those days, you know, churches would spend $100 on themselves and $1 on missions. Even today, she amount given to missions is a very small percentage of total giving.

Yet unless there is attention focused on missions, that extreme apathy is bound to return. That's the way humans are, it's the way Christians are, The battle against secularism is going to have to be recognized, and won. Christian pastors are going to have to quit talking and praying as though this were Christian America. This isn't Christian America. This is agnostic America, is is secular America, it is materialistic America.
Each congregation has to have a group of men and women who are saying that propagation of the gospel is our main concern. We're going to give to it, 'vet e going to pray for it. There are plenty of other good things. We don's say that this is the only good thing. But we are going to do this.

Also, the seminary must cease acting as if missions is something they can deal with in one course, maybe, and that an elective. The feeling is that a good Christian need not he interested in mission. But that must not be the position. Theological seminaries must realize that if they continue on in the present way, the apathy is going to spread. They are spreading it.

Q: What do you hope so be remembered for? Suppose somebody reads a piece 20 years from now that mentions your name and says, "Now who is this McGavran?"

A: I think what I shall be remembered for is emphasizing the hears of Christian mission. There's a new, fresh hreeie blowing through Christian mission. This is not my doing, but I have had a hand in starting is.

The men and women who are leading it, throughout the world, would never have enlisted because of me. They enlisted because they believed that this is Cud's purpose What we are really seeing is a movement of God's Spirit. and quite a few people have played a part. Back into the center of Christian consciousness there sweeps the fact that she Christian religion has been established in order to open the door of salvation for all segments of the human race. wherever they live.


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