by Donald McGavran
(An interview by John K. Branner)
JB: Did you ever meet Roland Allen?
DM: I never had the pleasure. I first heard of him after I had been in India for a number of years, at a conference where someone spoke of Roland Allen’s principles. I had not read his book, and I reacted negatively. His principles would not have furthered evangelism where I was working. In fact, in my judgment, they would not have furthered it in most places. A few years later I again heard of his principles in the same kind of conference.
About 1940 I purchased Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? and was charmed by his clear argument from the New Testament, but not convinced that unpaid, mostly illiterate men could shepherd village churchlets. I tried this in the small Christian groups beginning to form in the Bilaspur district, but found that they did not (and probably could not) feed the flock sufficiently.
I wanted Allen’s principles to work -they seemed so right but when they did not, I went back to mission-paid supervising pastors. I now see that had our tiny hesitant people movement to Christ come with greater force, and more churchlets been formed and lasted, indigenous church principles would probably have worked. At the low level of fervor at which that people movement operated, its own unpaid leaders did not make good shepherds.
JB: But you speak favorably of Allen today. When did you change?
DM: Along about 1955-65, after I had written Bridges of God. After it had been accepted by World Dominion Press, I learned to my surprise that World Dominion believed Bridges of God was in the Allen tradition. Naturally, I started rereading Alien. By this time I had greater breadth of vision and saw that, in many circumstances and under certain conditions, Roland Allen’s principles are entirely applicable. I also saw that in certain other conditions they are less applicable.
JB: Which of Allen’s books would you recommend?
DM: I consider there all valuable, and I recommend all of them. The Ministry of the Spirit has one very luminous chapter, "Mission Activities," which is worth the price of the book. All of us missionaries carry on many "activities" and get enthusiastic about what we are doing. We carry on these activities whether the gospel is communicated or not, whether men know Christ or not, and whether the churches multiply or not. Missionary activities which should be auxiliary to the propagation of the gospel become primary, and we keep on doing them as primary. Our rationale, of course, is that these are all necessary for the propagation of the gospel, when as a matter of fact, in too many cases we do them whether the gospel is propagated or not.
Then there is Allen’s basic book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? It voices his great thesis. It has been enormously influential and it is substantially and historically correct. It is an excellent description of what Paul did. It is very largely applicable, particularly under circumstances approximating those he faced in the Mediterranean world of the first century.
JB: Would you agree with the thesis that Allen didn’t take cultural factors of the apostolic era into consideration? Didn’t he tend to minimize the fact that the Jewish synagogue was the key to Paul’s success?
DM: Yes, I would agree with that. Allen never understood that Paul was riding the crest of the New Testament people movement to Christ, and that under those circumstances indigenous church methods worked very well. They will work well under the same circumstances today. Paul’s methodology what he did – was suited to a particularly responsive context. One wonders what he might have done had he gone to Arabia and possibly preached there for forty years with ten converts. Under such circumstances indigenous methods would have had very serious limitations. But he never met that situation. He never went into Africa where he had to learn a new language, or where he was a foreigner. He was always an M-1, as Dr. Winter would say, a missionary to men in his own culture.
JB: Do you feel Bridges of God is in the tradition of Roland Allen? Your circle of church growth theorists have often quoted Allen to buttress their positions. In what specific areas has Allen contributed to church growth theory? What is his major contribution?
DM: Allen’s church growth contribution is that he was quite sure, as we are, that a chief and irreplaceable purpose of the Christian mission is to communicate Christ, propagate the faith, and multiply churches. Allen would have reacted negatively to the idea that "decisions for Christ, not followed up" were the end of any evangelistic campaign. He would have insisted that the only evangelism that counts is an evangelism that leaves churches. At this point the church growth theory and Allen’s theory are one. At this point Allen insisted that "the communication of the Spirit" is what missions is all about.
Allen, an Anglican, believed that the Spirit is communicated only where there is the Body of Christ. Only the Body has the Spirit. If you communicate the Spirit, there is, by definition, the Body, so that these bodies, these congregations, these parts of the Body, are the supreme goal of mission. Indigenous church men intend church planting or church growth. At this point, Allen’s work and our work coincide. It was this primary emphasis that made Sir Kenneth Grubb publish Bridges of God.
JB: Let us say that the basics of Allen’s teaching are (a) the Holy Spirit in missions, (b) the indigenous church, (c) the spontaneous expansion of the church, and (d) the voluntary clergy. Are there any of these which you have incorporated?
DM: We have incorporated all of them, but have not emphasized them equally. All are germane to what we are saying, but (b) namely, the necessity of planting indigenous churches, is the one we emphasize most. The Holy Spirit in missions – of course. The spontaneous expansion of the church – wherever possible. In fact, to the degree that it is possible, spontaneous expansion is blessed and effective.
The voluntary clergy – perhaps at this point we might hedge a bit. I don’t think we’ve said very much about the voluntary clergy, simply because the church growth school of thought is tailored to fit all denominations. If we tailored it to fit Anglicans only, we would have talked about voluntary clergy. But since we are tailoring it to fit Friends, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and the Plymouth Brethren also, we assume there will be plenty of voluntary clergy, and we say little about whether they are voluntary or ordained. For us, this is not a big distinction; I personally am a low church man.
JB: You do stress local leadership, even lay leadership, and its importance.
DM: Yes, very definitely. We speak quite freely about "village pastors." Somebody with a high doctrine of ordination might say, "No, not village pastors. A pastor must always be correctly ordained with the right number of holy hands laid upon his head." We would reply, "Well, if that’s the way you believe, splendid. That’s one way good Christians do believe. But plenty of other good Christians believe that the hands-on-head ritual is not at all necessary to achieve standing before God as a minister in his church."
JB: There are some obvious principles in church growth theory that were not a part of Allen’s thinking, notably the concept of people movements.
DM: I’d change that word "notably" and simply say "one" is the concept of people movements.
JB: Are there others?
DM: A chief emphasis of ours is that of the mosaic of peoples, each one of which requires a method, a timetable, and a mode of propagation suited to it. Allen never saw this. To Allen, men were men, no matter to what culture or homogeneous unit they belonged. In fact, he went out of his way to say the difference between propagating the gospel among Jews and among Gentiles must not be overstressed, because they were all sons of Adam. Now we know that men are men, but in addition we emphasize that the gospel is spreading in many pieces of a fantastic mosaic and spreads differently in each piece.
In some pieces of the mosaic, the indigenous church method is the way. In other pieces, it is not the way, and Allen is a positive hindrance. His principles will not work. In those pieces in the beginning, the mission must pay shepherds of the flock. Most of the great younger churches have been started with mission-paid leaders, Roland Allen to the contrary notwithstanding. So, under certain circumstances, with certain pieces of the mosaic, one has to use one method, and with another piece of the mosaic, another.
We must be frank to admit that Allen himself didn’t see the whole picture. He was very much impressed by the heavy baggage that missions carried and he was groping his way back to something simpler. In my judgment, he was a disciple of Nevius (John L., 1829-1893, Presbyterian missionary to China and Korea). He was greatly indebted to him, though I do not recall that he mentions him in his writings.
JB: I found only one minor article in which he mentions him.
DM: I am glad to know that you discovered that. I have long suspected a clear connection between Nevius and Allen. Allen was working in China in 1895 to 1903. Nevius was dead, but his theories were going great guns in China and Korea. Allen should have picked that up.
Allen went beyond Nevius. Nevius was a practical man. He would say, "This works, the other won’t work." Then Allen comes along and says, "Not only does it work, but it is Paul’s way – and the right way – of propagating the gospel."
At this point I have never made up my mind as to whether Nevius believed his way was a holy method, a New Testament method. Did he say, "Because it is New Testament it is holy. Because it is New Testament it is more correct than other methods"? I don’t know.
Many of Allen’s readers answered these questions affirmatively. They made his indigenous church method a kind of missionary righteousness. I disagree with them. I think the New Testament describes the way in which the apostolic church spread under people movement conditions. The people movement going on in the New Testament church operated in a particular fashion. In fact, you’ll find that most people movements today operate best in that particular fashion. If there had been no people movement in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit and the apostles would have used different methods. If the church had not been expanding in the same general culture, and if it had not almost always started with the synagogue, Paul would have used different methods. These facts have to be taken into account.
JB: I have heard you make the statement that no one knew indigenous church principles were biblical until Roland Allen showed them to be.
DM: I haven’t found anybody else who did. Certainly nobody spoke with as much clarity.
JB: Was this a revelation to you?
DM: When I first ran across it, for fifteen or twenty years I resisted this insight and methodology for the simple reason that it would not have multiplied churches in the districts in India where I was working. There the advance was one by one against the Hindu current. All missions subsidized their Indian pastors, evangelists and ministers. All missions had paid workers. Even in the great churches that had arisen in the north and south – the people movement churches – both ordained and unordained leaders received at least part of their pay from abroad. You will readily see then that Roland Allen’s methods seemed to us to be a counsel of perfection.
JB: When a missionary starts from scratch, and a people movement occurs, ox any other large increase takes place, then Allen’s method is ideal.
DM: Yes, under those conditions indigenous church principles apply fully.
JB: Allen never dealt with the questions posed by situations in which people movements did not occur. By describing St. Paul’s methods he had to keep in the New Testament context. He never gave workable counsel as to how to apply indigenous church methods among churches that are already established. And yet, this is what he was reacting against – the institutionalized concept, pouring movies into static or slow-growing operations.
DM: Yes, this is Allen’s weakness. Remember, Christian mission owes Allen a great debt. There is no question at all that to the degree that self-support can be achieved, to the degree that a church can become independent of overseas contributions, to the degree that each new congregation is not a drain on the overseas budget, but may actually help the overseas budget, to just exactly that degree a denomination, a cluster of churches, a new movement is free to grow.
Whenever a new church means $10,000, or $ 5,000, or $100 additional drain on the mission budget, there a ceiling is immediately imposed on the number of churches the missionary can start. The ceiling dampens the spirits. The national church thinks multiplying churches is the business of overseas missions, not its own. All the debilitating effects of foreign subsidy that Allen described are true. For these reasons I count myself an indigenous church man.
JB: Is there anything in the church growth theory to which Allen would have been opposed?
DM: I don’t think so. He might have given the biblical nature of his theory greater normative weight than I do. He might have said that because it is biblical it describes what happened in the New Testament, therefore it has universal validity. But I don’t know that he would have drawn that conclusion. He was a man of very good judgment. He simply describes the New Testament way and says that we ought to use it today.
JB: Most people say Allen was ahead of his time, and was therefore a prophet. Do you think he was?
DM: Allen was not a prophet in that sense. It’s true that from 1910-45 Allen was largely rejected by most leaders in the missionary world. Most missionaries – and, mind you, national leaders too – said something like this:
"Yes, and no, mostly no. Allen’s ideas sound good, but will they work? His is brilliant theory, but we are facing actual facts. If we try to follow his theory, we might destroy our work. We’d like to see Allen’s methods work, but know too much to apply them indiscriminately."
Following World War II, for several reasons, Roland Allen came into his own. For forty years, from 1910-50, World Dominion Press had kept his books alive, publishing them because of his historic relationship with them. He died, you know, in 1947 in Kenya, where he lived with a daughter. After the war several things happened:
One, British missions found themselves very short of money and indigenous church principles seemed to be a way out. Two, all missions found themselves in hot water with their nationals. Countries were going independent and nationals who up to that time had taken direction without feeling coerced, suddenly felt very coerced if they got any direction at all from the missionary. The climate changed immediately and everybody was asking, "How do we get along with nationals?"
Well, one answer was that you cease paying them and then you don’t have to get along with them. You cut the umbilical cord. "Very well, friends. You want to be independent, you are independent. You object to our direction; we will not direct you any more. And we won’t pay you anymore."
Then too the economic argument and the advantage of better interpersonal relations were reinforced by a judgment as to method. Many missions jumped to an erroneous conclusion that the indigenous church method will make churches multiply. The net result of all this was that all across the world great and good missions suddenly fired all their preachers. A given mission had, let us say, fifty little churches, each with a few families, perhaps four or five. Each such churchlet had a paid mission worker serving as pastor-evangelist. Espousing indigenous church principles, some missions dismissed all these workers. The workers were parts of those fifty communities and lost their jobs. Naturally, they had a great sense of aggrievedness.
"We have not been treated justly," they felt. "Our bread has been taken out of our mouths. Our children’s lives have been ruined. We have had to pull them out of school because we cannot pay their fees anymore. We were accustomed to one style of living and to one status, and then suddenly we have become day laborers."
In some cases village Christians reverted, or if they themselves did not revert, some of their relatives did and they stood by and watched. Thus in some parts of the world the Christian cause was set back. It would have been better, as I point out in chapter 18 of Understanding Church Growth, to have ceased subsidizing on a rising, not a declining emphasis on evangelism. To pull the rug out from under paid workers and stop evangelism at the same time means leaving little leaderless churches scattered out through a countryside. I don’t believe that was a good move. I know of no case where it has led to great growth of the church. In several instances the work has been severely damaged. Some people say, "Yes, the transfer to no subsidy was a jolt. It will take ten, fifteen, or twenty years to get over it. But once we do get over it, then we’ll be in a healthy condition." Well, I hope it works out that way. It would be interesting to investigate all the places where workers were released, and find out whether, in any place, there followed great growth of the church.
JB: Are there areas of Allen’s teaching that could contribute to the church growth movement to a greater extent than they have?
DM: In brief I would say no. Allen’s teachings have been greatly used by the church growth movement. We are for the indigenous church: the more self-supporting a church is, the better. It is true, we define indigenousness more broadly than Allen did. For Allen it was largely a matter of missions not paying the bills, whereas we tend to feel that an indigenous church must be one with the culture of the people.
JB: Is it safe to say that essentially church growth thinking started in your mind with Bridges of God?
DM: Yes and no. It really started in my mind back in 1934-35 when I first saw that "one by one against the current" was the mode of discipling which all the missions in our part of India were using. Indeed, most missions in most parts of the world were using that mode.
In India before 1934 we had heard that some very unsound mission work was going on. Large numbers of people were being hastily baptized – half-baked mission work! We thanked God that ours was much more carefully Christian – and slow.
In 1934-35 I began to see that what we had heard was quite wrong. What we had deemed "unsound, half-baked work" was really one great way in which the church was growing quite effectively. God was blessing that way of growth. Churches using it were growing better than we were growing. They were becoming better churches than ours. It was heresy to say that in 1935.
In this connection, you need to read Church Growth and Group Conversion, a book written in 1936 by Pickett and myself. In 1962 I reprinted it and added a chapter by Warnshuis. The book is a series of case studies in mid-India in which Pickett and I dug up and applied church growth insights – at that time we called them mass movement insights. That’s where my church growth thinking started.
I grew enthusiastic about these insights. I was executive secretary of my mission, which then in 1937 said to me, "Look, if you believe in this so much, you ought not to be executive secretary; you ought to be out there doing evangelistic work; you ought to be putting this into practice."
My colleagues asked, "Where do you think the greatest opportunity lies?" I said, "Chattisgarh." So they said, ""To Chattisgarh you go."
Well, if I had known I was going to be there seventeen years, I would have resigned from the mission and come back to the United States. I thought it was going to be for three years. But at the end of three years I felt the Lord wanted me to stay there, so I went back after furlough in 1940 and I went back again after furlough in 1947.
Mrs. McGavran and I were there for seventeen years. During these seventeen years the opinions I had held in 1935 and 1936, voiced in Church Growth and Group Conversion (the 1936 edition was called The Mass Movement Survey of ‘Mid-India) hardened into conviction. I had tried them out for seventeen years, seen where they had succeeded and where they failed. During those years I had, during my vacations, made a number of church growth studies in various parts of India. The whole experience added up to the mature view of mission and church growth. Then I wrote Bridges of God.
That, very briefly, is the history of the development of my ideas about church growth. When I go back to Bridges of God and read it again, I am surprised at the soundness of the thought, which I attribute to the fact that I had been wrestling with church growth for twenty years. From the days when I had first begun to discern it, back in 1934, and during the seventeen years when I worked at it day and night, I had it on my heart.
During those years I was superintendent of a leprosy home and business manager of a hospital. I was a builder and a manager of schools, to say nothing of almost continuous membership on the mission executive committee and other church and mission committee assignments. The time I spent in evangelistic work was limited to a week or so a month, during which I lived in the villages.
Evangelism was called village work and I lived with the Christian villagers, often sleeping in their homes, eating their food, and spending hours talking with them. I was the only missionary in the station. I took the whole mission set-up schools, leprosy home, hospital, building, employments, pastoral workers – and directed them all to one end, that men believe in the Savior and become members of his church.
You asked when my church growth convictions started. Well, they started and grew during two decades at the front, in the field, doing mission work, being a missionary of the gospel, working under a biblical mandate. Perhaps that is why so many national leaders and missionaries throughout the world find them applicable and biblical.
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