How Peoples are Reached
Indigenous Movements: How Peoples are Reached
By 1975 Donald McGavran and Ralph Winter had guided 1,000 experienced missionaries in studying—globally, and in their own fields: “How are peoples reached?” Answer: indigenous movements.
However, few outside their direct influence saw either:
- the biblical model and mandate for indigenous movements, or
- the historic significance of indigenous movements.
Yet McGavran, Winter and their colleagues concluded:
We cannot say we have evangelized a person until that person can join an indigenous movement in their own society.
Furthermore, this era of collaborative study revealed that:
- The Bible (Mt. 28, etc.) calls us to disciple peoples (ethne).
- Peoples are discipled only through indigenous movements.
The World Consultation on Frontier Missions (Edinburgh ’80) birthed the watchword “A Church for Every People ….”(meaning “a church movement in every people”).
In 1981 McGavran clarified this intent, elaborating:
- Peoples are only reached by movements, never one-by-one.
- 90% of work among the unreached ends up with one-by-one.
Mission researchers are now tracking more than 600 movements, most having developed just in the past decade. And many of these movements are growing faster and stronger than anything Winter or McGavran saw in their study of past movements.
Yet in retrospect, McGavran’s concerns appear prophetic—and as relevant today as when he first wrote them:
- In 1985, McGavran estimated that 50% of the world lived among unreached peoples—2.5 billion people.
Today IMB researchers estimate that 57% of the world lives among unreached peoples—4.3 billion (nearly double).
In what follows I adapt McGavran’s outline with added biblical references and fresh insights from the new movements we see today.
In the Sept.-Oct. 1997 edition of Mission Frontiers, Dr. Ralph Winter wrote an introduction to the reprint of McGavran’s article, “A Church in Every People: Plain Talk About a Difficult Subject.” Winter said in part,
“In many ways this is the most remarkable article written by the most remarkable mission strategist of the Twentieth Century.” I agree.
What is the most fruitful way to “reach the unreached”?
- Shall we work toward just one or more growing congregations?
- Should we aim for a minimal percentage to become believers?
- Or shall we seek an indigenous movement of multiplying ekklesia?
This goal of indigenous movements must shape our methods.
The One-by-One Method
Starting a congregation where none existed is relatively easy.
Missionaries arrive, pray, worship together, learn the language, preach the gospel and pray. They love Jesus, talk about Christ, help others in their troubles, and pray. They share scripture portions and practice “friendship evangelism,” and they pray.
Over time a few locals follow Jesus, and a church grows around the missionaries, who urge them to become “a new family.” A new social structure is formed, and a building may be erected.
Such extraction evangelism typically draws the marginalized from several peoples and segments of society—the elderly, youth, orphans, mission helpers and ardent seekers. The result is often a foreign, conglomerate church, alienated from the local peoples. Locals observe, “You are no longer part of us,” and they are right. This is a new social unit which, if it survives at all, becomes a new people group by the second generation.
Such conglomerate churches usually struggle and fold, but the Bible and recent experience reveal a more fruitful approach.
Extraction evangelism makes peoples more resistant.
Such extraction evangelism into conglomerate congregations actually hinders indigenous movements. How? Most unreached peoples place a high value on their group identity. Any group of individuals coming one by one from different peoples and segments of society looks to such peoples like an assembly of traitors who have left “us” to join “them.”
In marriage most such “high identity” peoples insist “our people marry only our people.” Yet when converts join conglomerate churches one-by-one they often feel forced to take a spouse from another group. This alienates the couple from both groups, and their kids are born into “no man’s land.”
New believers who join such churches are thus often rejected by their relatives—sometimes thrown out or even killed. And when a new believer leaves (or is forced out of) such a tightly-knit segment of society, the Christian cause wins the individual but loses the community. The family, the people group, and even neighboring peoples may be fiercely angry at the new believer, saying: “You have abandoned us. You are no longer one of us.” When this happens, we may win individuals but lose millions.
Conglomerate congregations grow slowly. Worse, they make the pursuit of indigenous movements doubly difficult among the people groups from which the congregation comes. “The Christians misled one of our people,” the group says. “We will make sure they do not mislead any more of us.”
McGavran wrote in 1981:
Perhaps 90 out of 100 missionaries who intend church planting get only conglomerate congregations.
Such missionaries evangelize anyone they can. But they get only those willing to endure the disapproval of their people.
In tightly-knit unreached peoples—where converts are shunned and Christianity is seen as an invading religion—winning and gathering a congregation from different peoples and segments of society erects barriers rather than builds bridges.
One-by-One Can lead to movements.
The one-by-one method sometimes does result indirectly in an indigenous movement. This can happen when believers break with a conglomerate church (and usually from the missionary’s influence) to “revert” (re-adopting their original identity) in order to spread their new faith in a culturally relevant way.
When this happens the faith may spread very rapidly. However in the process it may also lose its mooring in the Bible and become syncretistic. Unfortunately, rather than working with such “renegades” toward grounding such indigenous movements in the Bible, missionaries generally resist such “reversion.”
Movements: the KEY to Reaching the Unreached
Jesus’ disciples and Paul’s teams modeled multiplying ministry in which existing relational networks and households (oikos) were introduced to the gospel together. This engaged—rather than competing with—existing groupings, then spread to other groupings to enfold and transform whole people groups. Thus Winter quipped, “the ‘church’ (i.e., the ‘committed community’) is already there, they just don’t know Jesus yet.”
[In Acts,] ‘the church that is in their house’ [was] … where family ties and church worship went together, where church … and family authority were often indistinguishable, where church discipline and family respect were one and the same thing, where ‘honor thy father and thy mother’ were … spiritual accountability in the church. … the synagogues of the New Testament period as well as the Gentile-run churches of the New Testament period mainly consisted of a cluster of extended families guided by the elders of those families.
“[In] traditional societies around the world [an indigenous] movement … reinforces, not dismantles, natural families ….
Seven principles that lead toward movements:
- Keep the goal clear
From the beginning the clear goal must be an indigenous movement of multiplying ekklesia through receptive oikos in ways that leave relationships and social structures intact.
Those familiar with winning and incorporating individuals into existing churches must give special attention to this:
- Don’t seek to win and gather individuals with relative strangers.
- Do seek to win whole oikos, or help individuals win their oikos.
As Christ transforms existing oikos, they may become ekklesia:
- enjoying natural social cohesion,
- fulfilling the “one anothers,”
- experiencing God’s blessing, and modeling the good news for other households in their people.
In Luke 10 Jesus directs pairs of disciples to seek those who:
- welcome the message and messengers into their households, and gladly share what they learn with their family and community.
Jesus told His disciples not to go “from house to house,” but to stay with the household that welcomed them. When the disciples left, this household could become an ekklesia.
When we join “God already at work” in this way, we are far more likely to see extraordinary fruit. And when we train new believers to join God at work in the same way, we open the door for an indigenous movement to reach that whole people.
- Concentrate on just one people
Work with nationals to find responsive individuals within just one people, like the Nair of Kerala. As the gospel is proclaimed to Nairs, say quite openly,
“God desires that thousands of Nair follow Jesus Christ, yet remain solidly Nair. You whom God calls will become more beautiful Nairs, loving your Nair neighbors better than ever.”
Train new believers to bear persecution with the attitude:
I will be a better son, daughter, father or mother than I was before. I will love you more than I used to. You can hate me, but I will love you. You can exclude me, but I will include you. You can force me out of our ancestral house, but I will live on its veranda or get a house across the street. I am still one of you, more than I ever was before.
Build into new believers a consciousness of 1) God’s love for their whole people and its unique culture, and 2) God’s promise to bless all the clans of the earth—starting with theirs.
- Encourage the movement to remain indigenous
In indigenous movements, new believers remain one with their kinfolk in clothing, marriage, etc. They continue to eat with their people, and to eat what their people eat. If their people are vegetarian, new believers do not say, “Since I follow Jesus I can now eat meat.” Rather they become more faithfully vegetarian.
New believers cannot remain one with their people in idolatry, drunkenness or other habitual sin. Nairs who follow Jesus will not worship their old gods; but many Nairs already ridicule their old gods. All Nairs can remain Nairs while abandoning idolatry to follow Jesus.
Indigenous movements empower the lost to join a worshiping community of their own people without embracing western theology, traditions, culture or individualism. For collectivistic societies this may mean an honor/shame-enhanced gospel.
- Pursue group decisions regarding “distinctive” obedience
Unreached peoples are typically collectivistic—making decisions as a group rather than as individuals. When first believers in such peoples are baptized individually, their family may reject the new believer as “abandoning us to join them.”
Train first believers to love and share with their oikos while seeking the Holy Spirit as a group about obediences that may lead their people to see them as joining a foreign religion.
Disciple individuals to reach their family and community; discuss Bible stories for them to share and discuss with others. Say, “Let’s work to lead your oikos to follow Jesus, so that when you are baptized you may all be baptized together.”
The gospel must involve whole families early, and as much as possible, as with Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, etc. Ostracism is highly effective against an individual, but weak against a dozen. And against 200 it has practically no force.
- Aim for trusting obedience, not just theological instruction
Leaders often think, “If our people become theologically mature they will attract others to church.” Yet Jesus’ command was to “teach obedience” (Mt 28:20). When obedience to Jesus does not match or exceed our understanding, we are spiritually immature and become a poor witness. We must follow Jesus’ and Paul’s example: modeling the gospel alongside preaching, and immediately engaging new disciples in multiplying. Consider the Samaritan woman and the Gadarene demoniac.
“But,” some may say, “won’t swift engagement of new believers in trustingly obeying and sharing the gospel produce believers who don’t know the Bible? Isn’t this a recipe for creating shallow or nominal believers?”
Both Scripture and today’s movements demonstrate just the opposite. People learn far more from teaching than from being taught. Those who actively share their faith and see the gospel changing lives come to a richer and deeper experience of God’s grace much faster than those who simply listen to the best theological instruction.
Consider the brief months or even weeks of instruction Paul gave those oikos which were becoming ekklesia. We must trust the Holy Spirit, and believe God still calls, equips and sends people out of darkness into His wonderful light.
For a movement to flourish, its leaders and new believers must actively train others to obey the Holy Spirit as He convicts them through discussing the Bible (ideally whole books). How the Holy Spirit leads may surprise us. Yet when new believers are taught trusting obedience to what they see in Scripture—and teach themselves by teaching others to trustingly obey—they mature and reproduce much more rapidly.
- Cultivate new believers as pioneers to reach their people
Urge new believers to adopt the attitude:
God has given me the privilege of showing my relatives and neighbors a better way of life. This will be good for thousands of my people who have yet to believe. Look on me not as a traitor, but as a better member of my family and society—a pioneer to bring my people to the fullness of God’s blessing.
Successful indigenous movements lead whole families and communities to see the gospel as good news for their people. The movements in China began only after the Chinese stopped seeing the Church as a competing, foreign religion.
- Lead those on the church fringes to reach their people
Missionaries often look diligently outside the church for “persons of peace” through whom the gospel can spread. Yet wherever conglomerate, westernized churches have been established, such “persons of peace” may be “right under our noses,” on the fringes of the church—drawn toward God, yet still too connected to their community outside the church to fully fit in. These may be seeds for additional movements.
Rather than fighting to break these individuals free from their community to become part of a new “church family,” let us follow Paul’s example with the God-fearers in the synagogues of the Roman Empire. McGavran called these “bridges of God.” Let us equip and encourage them to start indigenous movements among their own oikos and people.
As we pursue God for indigenous movements in every people, let us NOT assume that “one-by-one evangelism is a bad thing.”
One precious soul willing to endure severe ostracism to follow Jesus has repeatedly been blessed by God toward starting an indigenous movement among his or her people.
Extraction evangelism into conglomerate churches is an approach God is blessing to the increase of His Church.
But one-by-one evangelism is a slow approach, and usually hinders movements by increasing resistance to the gospel.
Movements are another approach God is blessing
According to McGavran, “The great advances of the Church on new ground … have always come by people movements, never one-by-one.” This is an approach Jesus modeled in speaking to synagogues, Samaritan villages and crowds, and in sending His disciples to find households open to the gospel.
As Jesus called individuals to become full-time workers, most worked within their group identity to become bridges to whole families, communities, and towns where they brought the blessing of God—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Others, like Paul, were sent to start indigenous movements in other cultures.
McGavran commended this simile from his Bridges of God,
Missions start out proclaiming Christ on a desert-like plain. There, life is hard; the number of Christians remains small. A large missionary presence is required. But, here and there, the missionaries or the converts find ways to break out of that arid plain and proceed up into the verdant mountains. There, large numbers of people live; there, great churches can be founded; there, the Church grows strong; that is people movement land.
Let us seek God for movements while accepting what He gives:
- Where only individuals are coming to faith, train them to start new ekklesia within their oikos rather than separating them from their family and friends into a “church” family built on the missionary.
- Pray and work for indigenous movements, adapted to the local context and working within existing social structures to lead multitudes out of darkness into His wonderful life.
The article above is inspired by McGavran’s original article and largely follows his outline and illustrations.
A few further observations:
- McGavran championed watching for seekers on the fringes of existing churches, then pursuing movements through these seekers (rather than fighting to incorporate them into the church).
- Winter promoted the complementary idea of sending laborers to pursue indigenous movements in peoples where they don’t yet exist.
- Laborers today, in nearly 600 movements worldwide, are finding that movements spread fastest when (as in the New Testament) stories of Jesus are freely shared, without reliance on dedicated buildings, paid staff or weekly sermons.
- Once one indigenous movement is established, it is often fruitful to encourage the leaders to start similar movements in nearby peoples. See the article on page 26 for real life examples of movements fostering movements in nearby peoples.
Ekklesia: Reproducing cells and clusters gathering in Jesus’ name, often daily, to trustingly obey all He commands, as modeled in Acts 2.
Oikos: Household (or other high-trust network of pre-existing relationships) which naturally develops consensus regarding major decisions.
Movement: Four or more streams of disciples/ekklesia, reproducing in each generation (resulting in exponential growth, like compound interest).
Indigenous: Adapted to local culture rather than missionary culture.
People Group: The largest relational network with a shared birth identity through which the gospel can spread as a church-planting movement .Alt.: The largest group in which a marriage can be arranged.
Unreached: A people group with no indigenous movement and no residual evidence of one (i.e. readily available Bibles and a “Christian” identity) .Alt.: A people which fears Christianity, perceiving believers from their people to have “traitorously left their own people to join another people.”
Discovery Bible Study (DBS): A group (generally pre-believers) obeying God as He speaks to them through open-ended discussion of the Bible.
Disciple-Making Movement (DMM): A movement pursued primarily through Discovery Bible Study.
Adopted: An unreached people with a team committed long-term to interceding and advocating for an indigenous movement in that people.
Engaged: An unreached group with 1) a resident team, 2) working long-term, 3) in the local language, toward 4) an indigenous movement.
Fully Engaged: An engaged people with at least one such team for every 100,000 in population.
Church-Planting Movement (CPM) Continuum (abbreviated):
1. Purposeful: Aiming for multiplying believers & ekklesia.
2. Focused: Multiple G1 believers/ekklesia and some 2nd gen (G2)(i.e. some new believers/ekklesia have won/started others).
3. Breakthrough: Multiple G2 believers/ekklesia and some G3.
4. Emerging CPM: Multiple G3 believers/ekklesia and some G4.
5. Full CPM: Multiple G4 streams with consistent growth (each generation reproducing new believers/ekklesia)
6. Sustained CPM: indigenous leaders guide hundreds or thousands of ekklesia, with little/no need for outsiders.
7. Multiplying CPM: catalyzing CPMs in other people groups