by Kenneth Mulholland
Perhaps no other person has had a greater influence on missions in this century.
I remember well the first time I met Donald Anderson McGavran. One January morning in 1979 I was about to descend the steps at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission when I was met by an energetic gentleman, balding and sporting a goatee, who came charging up the steps, briefcase in hand. I stopped him to introduce myself and to thank him for the influence of his writing upon my life and ministry. To my astonishment he replied, "I read your book on theological education by extension." Then, as if he had all the time in the world, he verbally reviewed my book, linked me with fellow TEE educator George Patterson, and proceeded to give me a mini-lecture on the significance of theological education by extension for the growth and expansion of the church. I was awed.
I met him for the second and last time several years later in the mid 1980s at a meeting of Theological Students for Frontier Missions. He was lecturing on people movements. He spoke vigorously for two hours with no notes and never once paused to utter an "uh." Then, during the break time, in response to a group of seminarians who had gathered around him, he told us about his days as a seminary student at Yale Divinity School.
In the last few years, during which time I have served as president of the Association of Evangelical Professors of Missions, we have corresponded frequently. Scarcely would a general newsletter or an issue of the AEPM Occasional Bulletin be in the mail than a letter from him would arrive, filled with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement. Later, he sent me a manuscript of an article he hoped to publish, asking for suggestions. I can’t remember when I felt more humbled.
Shortly after his wife died, he received word that his own death was also imminent. Soon, his letters took on the character of 2 Timothy, openly acknowledging his coming death, affirming his hope in God, encouraging those to whom he wrote, and reiterating the great passion of his life and ministry: to disciple the nations. On July 10, 1990, the "Apostle of Church Growth" entered the presence of the one who issued the Great Commission.
Although he was born in the last century (1897), probably no one person has influenced evangelical missions in this century as much as McGavran. His life spanned two eras. Art Glasser told me that as a boy of 12, McGavran, in the company of his father, attended the historic Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. Before he died he was the last living person to have attended that gathering which both culminated "the great century of missions" and set the stage for missionary "advance through storm" in this century.
Both McGavran’s father and grandfather were Disciples of Christ missionaries to India. Born in India, McGavran returned to the United States for college. However, his studies at Butler University in preparation for a career in law were interrupted by a time of military service during World War I. Upon return to civilian life came another interruption: God’s call to missionary service through the then still vigorous Student Volunteer Movement. McGavran switched from law to theology. After graduation from Butler, he pursued theological studies at Yale Divinity School, where he accepted the prevailing liberal views regarding the literary composition of Scripture, but without abandoning his pietistic zeal or theology. He graduated with a B.D. and returned to Butler where he finished an M.A. in missions the following year.
Returning to India under the auspices of the United Christian Missionary Society, McGavran spent the next third of a century in incredibly diverse missionary activity. He administered schools and hospitals, served as a rural evangelist, translated the gospels into one of India’s many languages, and produced a film on missions. While on furlough he completed his doctorate at Columbia University in New York. About the same time, he also returned to his earlier evangelical conviction, abandoning the liberal view of the Bible he had previously accepted while at Yale.
In the midst of his many activities one question became the focus of his life: why do some churches grow and others remain stagnant or decline? His writings, research, and lectures increasingly centered around this theme.
In 1961 he established the Institute of Church Growth at Northwest Christian College and soon thereafter launched the Church Growth Bulletin. In 1965, at the age of 67, he became dean of the newly established School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. There his ideas, supported by a growing research base, assumed definitive form. Through his writings and those of his colleagues the concepts were disseminated throughout the world. Even after retirement at Fuller, at a time when his wife’s declining health limited his own travels and public ministry, he continued to churn out books and articles and engaged in extensive correspondence until the very end of his life.
What were the characteristic emphases, the burning convictions, the signal contributions of a life lived so passionately and single heartedly? I want to focus on five overarching theses which I believe constitute McGavran’s legacy to evangelical missions: (1) The Christian church is divinely intended to grow significantly in number; (2) church growth is a legitimate measuring rod for theological extension; (3) missionary expansion must be understood principally as crossing cultural rather than geographic barriers; (4) urban populations must be given priority, and (5) research is a vital part of missions strategy.
THE WILL OF GOD
McGavran’s fundamental conviction was that God meant the church to grow. J. Robertson McQuilkin, a former missionary to Japan and currently Chancellor of Columbia Bible College and Seminary, has often related to my classes the story of driving McGavran to the Tokyo airport at the conclusion of a consultation on church growth. McQuilkin, who had served as a translator for McGavran, was puzzled. "Dr. McGavran," he queried, "among the denominations which are growing, each attributed their growth to a different cause. One claimed it was due to prayer, another that it was a movement of the Holy Spirit, another to their strategy, and still another to their organization."
"What do they all have in common?" responded McGavran. "They all expect to grow. They believe the church should grow and they are going out and doing it."
Church growth was a conviction that gripped the heart of Donald McGavran long before it became a movement. He repeated and expounded his conviction until to some he appeared shrill. He said it loudest in the conciliar circles of which he, by virtue of his denominational affiliation, was a part during the 1960s and 1970s. At that time almost everyone within the ecumenical movement insisted that the church worldwide was shrinking, that church growth was irrelevant to God’s purpose, and that humanization rather than Christianization was the goal of missions. He also said it in evangelical circles at a time when many mission leaders thought that the missionary task of the church was simply "to get the gospel out" and equated slow growth with sound growth.
McGavran linked church growth with the will of God. "Anyone who would comprehend the growth of Christian churches must see it primarily as faithfulness to God. God desired it," he affirmed. He wanted to see both individuals won and congregations multiplied. He held that non-growth displeases God and insisted that "Today’s supreme task is the effective multiplication of churches in the receptive societies on earth.
Fiercely pragmatic, he held that failure to win men and women for Christ be called failure. He emphasized outcomes, believing that the central work of missions was the kind of evangelism that would lead large numbers of people to become countable, responsible members of the church. Learning to live according to the demands of a holy life would involve a lifetime process of maturity, but the first step was to get them to declare their allegiance to Christ.
As a result, most evangelicals now evaluate evangelistic efforts by counting results in terms of the number of active responsible church members and newly established congregations, rather than by counting raised hands and applauding honest efforts.
A MEASURING ROD
Second, McGavran made church growth a measuring rod for theological education. What kind of theological education produces church growth, he asked? This concern was evident as early as the 1962 book by A. Clark Scanlan, Church Growth through Theological Education, published under McGavran’s mentorship while the Church Growth Institute was still located in Oregon. The fact that McGavran invited Ralph D. Winter to leave his missionary post in Guatemala, where he led in pioneering theological education by extension, to join the faculty of Fuller is indicative of McGavran’s conviction that TEE was a vital instrument for church growth.
McGavran distinguished among five classes of leadership. He held that a key to church growth was the involvement of lay persons engaged in active witnessing coupled with the ministry of lay and ordained leaders, part- or full-time, who could shepherd new converts and multiply small groups of believers.
McGavran’s ideas about leadership continued to develop right up to the end of his life. In a series of lectures published in 1988, McGavran raised the questions: "Do theological seminaries have anything to do with effective evangelism? Or are seminaries and Bible colleges concerned only with correct views of the Bible and with inculcating true doctrines? A paragraph later he answered his own question with the affirmation: "Effective evangelism is an essential part of correct doctrine.
He proposed that five courses in every M.Div. curriculum be devoted to evangelism and went on to provide both a theme and a rough description for each course.
Today evangelicals are far more prone than they were a generation ago to explore alternative options to classic residential training and evaluate theological education by its contribution to the growth of the church.
CULTURE RATHER THAN GEOGRAPHY
Third, McGavran influenced the way evangelicals think about missions when he advocated strategizing primarily in cultural rather than geographic terms. Building on the insights of Methodist missionary bishop Wascom Pickett, McGavran recognized the importance of Christian people movements. This led him to examine more deeply the influence of social structure upon receptivity to spiritual change. He concluded that the church did not spread out like ink in water; it usually grew along family, or clan, or caste, or tribal lines, or within other societal boundaries.
McGavran insisted that these Christ ward people movements were not mindless mass movements, but were composed of many multi-individual, mutually interdependent decisions, congruent with the way people in a given culture made authentic decisions. Furthermore, he viewed the behavioral sciences as an ally, rather than an archenemy of theology. He held both a high view of scripture and a high view of culture.
McGavran popularized the homogeneous unit principle even though he seldom used the term. He wrote of segments of society which because of their common culture rejected Christianity as alien. "Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers," he declared. He insisted on the validity and even the desirability of ethnic churches. He helped evangelical mission leaders to see that society is made up of units which vary in their degree of receptivity and resistance to the gospel for cultural as well as theological reasons.
Also, he demonstrated that people in transition are more open to the gospel than those who live in static societies and proposed that missionary strategy be shaped by the degree of receptivity of the targeted people group. He even developed a methodology to plot the extent of receptivity on a continuum called a resistance-receptivity axis. He believed in concentrating on receptive populations. He urged missions to "win the receptive while they are receptive" and to "hold resistant lands lightly." As a responsible steward of limited resources, he wanted to see personnel and finances deployed in the areas where they would produce the greatest growth.
This appears to be the very opposite of the unreached people group consciousness so accepted today. Although McGavran’s theology has reflected a consistent, ongoing concern for lost persons, the emphasis of his own writing, particularly his earlier work, has been on receptive peoples.
One of McGavran’s students, David Liao, after a study of the Hakka people of Taiwan, suggested the hypothesis that the unresponsive Hakka people were not so much resistant as neglected. The categories of resistant and responsive were insufficient, argued Liao. Some people groups could not be so classified. They were neglected. Until neglected, or hidden, or by-passed people groups have been penetrated, it is impossible to tell if they will prove to be receptive or resistant.
McGavran’s understanding of social units paved the way for the growing awareness of the unreached people’s concept, but this concept was developed, set forth, and popularized by Ralph D. Winter. McGavran threw his weight behind Winter’s formulations, served on the board of the newly formed U.S. Center for World Missions, donated his library to William Carey International University, and emphasized more and more the necessity of making disciples among the world’s unreached people groups.
URBAN POPULATIONS A PRIORITY
Fourth, McGavran made evangelical missions conscious of the cities. Although his chapter on "Discipling Urban Populations," now dated, was dropped from the 1990 edition of Understanding Church Growth, his concerns have proven prophetic. He called upon missions to focus on the city at a time when they were still putting the bulk of their effort into the towns and rural areas. McGavran’s words still constitute a classic apologetic for urban mission.
The Christian religion was born in the City of David and grew to manhood in the great cities of Caesar …the expansion of Christianity associated with centers of power in the ancient world: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Alexandria, Carthage, and Rome. St. Paul, evangelizing a receptive population-the synagogue communities, which lived by commerce in the cities-traveled from urban center to urban center. Eight of his epistles are titled by the names of the urban centers to which they were directed. Cities and larger towns had great meaning for the Early Church and have even more significance for Christian missions in the next half century.
The eight keys to church growth in cities which he developed have provided a skeletal framework on which much urban strategy has been draped. Today, winning the cities is high on the evangelical missions agenda.
RESEARCH VITAL FOR STRATEGY
Fifth, McGavran made research, the gathering of information for use in decision-making, a vital part of mission strategy. McGavran was a sworn enemy of what he termed "fog." He demanded that mission strategists think precisely. He complained that words like "…friendly interest, response, outreach, encounter and the like are so vague and cover so many activities that they tell little about the increase of congregations. At mid-century, many evangelical missions could hardly say whether their churches were growing or not. If they were growing, they did not know how they compared to the congregations of neighboring missions. Often, they did not care. They made few distinctions between where the church was growing rapidly and where it was only inching forward.
McGavran called for accountability in missions and underscored the need for research. He called for hard data on church growth, encouraged research in church growth, and mentored a number of church growth studies produced by his students. For a time, he even insisted that his students prepare their master’s thesis in the form of camera-ready copy to facilitate publication and cut production costs. Through the Church Growth Book Club and later the William Carey Library he disseminated large numbers of these specialized studies on church growth. The book Wildfire: Church Growth in Korea by Roy Shearer provided his students a basic model for a generation of church growth studies, and the monumental Latin American Church Growth by William A. Read, Victor M. Monter roso, and Harmon A. Johnson awakened broad interest in the church growth movement. Today, research far more sophisticated than the precomputer work of McGavran is being done by Barrett, Johnstone, and the Global Mapping Project. Nevertheless, it was McGavran who made research acceptable to a previously suspicious generation of evangelicals who regarded statistics as unspiritual and resisted measuring the work of God.
In summary, McGavran has helped evangelical missions theologically to recover their central purpose of evangelism and church planting, while providing the conceptual framework and analytical base to do it with modern skill.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 64-70. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.