by C. Gordon Olson
Although the “church growth” school of thought has made substantial inroads into missionary thinking, there is a continuing reluctance on the part of many evangelicals to accept “church growth” concepts.
Although the "church growth" school of thought has made substantial inroads into missionary thinking, there is a continuing reluctance on the part of many evangelicals to accept "church growth" concepts. In part, the reluctance is due to the vast sweep of "church growth" thought and the resultant danger of a generalized reaction against that which is extremely difficult to simplify. However, even when we narrow our focus to just one concept, we find that there is a fuzziness of definition that makes it very difficult to pin down the concept in order to evaluate it biblically.
Another aspect of the problem is the communication gap between Donald McGavran and some evangelicals. The gap is in part theological. It seems inevitable that the baptism regenerationist overtones of his Campbellite background would affect his discussion of the new birth and people-movement conversion. Second his postmillennialism affects his communication with many evangelicals. McQuilkin seeks to resolve this problem in his evaluation of McGavran, but it still remains a communication problem, if not a theological one.1
The problem is further complicated by the fact that although McGavran’s associates might repudiate some of his earlier statements in attempts to correct and clarify the concepts, it does not seem that McGavran himself has been willing to do this. In 1970 he wrote:
In my earlier volume, The Bridges of God, Chapter III illustrated the people movement from the New Testament….The document is open to all and can be studied at leisure…
In the Bridges of God I have argued the case at length-there is no need to go into it again.2
At the heart of the "church growth" school of thought is the concept of people-movement conversion. Although Dr. McGavran and his associates have sought to sharpen the definition of this foundational concept, at one time or another a great diversity of phenomena have been brought under the umbrella of a people movement. My own interest in the issue dates back to the years of missionary service in the Punjab of Pakistan, where it is reliably estimated that 90 to 95 percent of Punjabi Christians are product of the mass movements (people-movements?) that began in the 1880s. The purpose of this article is to sharpen the definition of people-movement conversion and to evaluate biblically what phenomena can rightly be designated as such.
THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE PEOPLE-MOVEMENT CONCEPT AND TERMINOLOGY
The people-movement concept began in the so-called mass movements of India in the last half of the last century. Bishop J. Waskom Pickett anticipated McGavran’s people-movement concept, even though he did not use the term. Rather, he used a term that already had some currency- namely, mass movement.3
He did use the terms homogeneous group,4 group movement,5 group accessions,6 and group declslons.7
When McGavran wrote Bridges of God in 1955, he used the term people movement instead of mass movement because he felt that mass movement implied the unthinking acceptance of Christ by great masses, and … it totally obscures the facts (a) that any one group is usually small in numbers, (b) that each member of the group has usually received much instruction in the Christian faith, and (c) that large numbers are achieved only by the conversion of a series of small groups over a period of years. The term "mass movement" should never be used. It obscures and distorts what is really going on.8
Although this seems clear enough, in his zeal to find biblical and historical support for the concept, McGavran broadened the definition. He included the tribal conversions of the Northern European tribes as people movements9 and in discussing the social and political factors of the Reformation, left the impression that this too was a people movement.10 In surveying God-given people movements in the modern era he referred frequently to the Chuhras of the Punjab. "The outcome was that at the end of about eighty years there are no more Churas (sic) in that section of India. They have all become Christians."11
It is my appraisal that only 10-20 percent of the present descendants of the Chuhra converts are born-again Christians. If this is accurate, then McGavran should have raised the question as to whether this was really a people movement in the sense he had already defined, or whether it was just a mass movement. This would have helped greatly to avoid confusing the issue.
Under the pressure of criticism, McGavran has developed the more precise definition of a people movement as "multiindividual, mutually interdependent conversion."12 He does not replace the term people-movement conversion, but only clarifies and defines it. But even with this limitation it seems clear that a diversity of practices and phenomena would be included under this definition. The degree of individual screening before baptism is not specified. The extent of gospel preaching before conversion is not spelled out. The Jewish or Samaritan or pagan background of the people ought to be clarified. It would seem that such diverse phenomena ought to be distinguished and evaluated individually.
One other area of clarification is necessary. There is a difference between a people movement and people-movement conversion. There have been people movements to Romanism and to Islam which would not include the element of conversion in the biblical sense of the term.13 In addition it needs to be stated that we cannot just scrap the term mass movement. There have been many such, whether to nominal Christianity or to some other religion. It would seem rather that we should avoid using the term mass movement conversion. That there have been people movements to Christianity is indisputable. At issue is the question as to whether there have been biblically valid people-movement conversions.
Other semantic problems must be clarified. First, there is McGavran’s unique use of the term discipling to refer to the conversion process.14 It would seem to be a valid usage based upon the Greek text of Matthew 28:18-20. However, it is contrary to common evangelical usage based upon the post-conversion demands of discipleship as taught by the Lord Jesus in many places. He might have done better to retain the compound to make disciples rather than the participle discipling.
Second, Liefeld questions his use of ethne as people.15 It seems clear that it refers to Gentiles and probably does not have all the sociological overtones that McGavran reads into it.
Last, one might question his use of the word Christian. He speaks about Christianization,16 about the establishment of Christian civilization,17 and seems frequently to include all of Christendom within the term Christian. This has not helped to clarify the issues.
AN EVALUATION OF PEOPLE-MOVEMENT TERMINOLOGY AND CONCEPTS
Insightful critiques and clarifications of church growth ideas have been offered by a number of writers. J. Robertson McQuilkin supports the people-movement concept when he writes, "We are clearly unbiblical when we demand radical individualism, which is a western rather than a biblical concept."18 Yet he also emphasizes the necessity of providing personal counseling. Robert Recker sees the "people" concept as an extension of the family.19 Walter L. Liefeld stresses the importance of maintaining the purity of the church in a people movement.20
AN EVALUATION OF CHURCH GROWTH CONCEPTS AND TERMINOLOGY
The Theological Foundations. Before we may proceed with our own evaluation, certain biblical standards of conversion must be set forth. When speaking of conversion it should be clear that we are not talking about the change from one religion to another. In addition, biblical evangelism seeks to bring about not just conversion, but also a genuine regeneration as well. As Thiessen writes:
From the divine side the change of heart is called regeneration, the new birth; from the human side it is called conversion. In regeneration the soul is passive; in conversion, as we have seen, it is active. We may define regeneration as the communication of divine life to the soul, as the impartation of a new nature or heart, and the production of a new creation.21
We should note several things. First, regeneration is one hundred percent a work of God. Christ made it very clear when in discussion following the interview with the rich young ruler, the disciples exclaimed, "Then who can be saved?" Christ responded, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:25-26). Man contributes nothing to his new birth.
Second, the new birth is an instantaneous work of the Holy Spirit. This is most effectively communicated by the symbolism of physical birth being an event, not a process. James’s use of the aorist tense (Jas. 1:18), and Peter’s use of the perfect (1 Pet. 1:23) confirm this. Regeneration would be that work whereby the Holy Spirit quickens the deadened human spirit so that the individual becomes alive to God, no longer "alienated from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18).
Third, it should be noted that justification is simultaneous with regeneration. The same faith upon which regeneration is conditioned is also the condition of justification. This is the common evangelical understanding based upon Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:1-21.
Starting with this foundation, it is clear that any peoplemovement conversion concept which does not ultimately involve genuine conversion faith and repentance (Acts 20:19) and instantaneous regeneration and justification of the individual, is sub-biblical and therefore unbiblical.
Another important theological factor, which this writer feels is omitted from current discussion, is the contrast between the means and circumstances used to bring people to faith in Christ and the actual new birth itself. Although the new birth is completely a work of God, God uses human means to bring people to faith in Christ. This could include sociological and anthropological factors, as McGavran contends. However, we must be careful not to reduce the new birth itself to a mere sociological phenomenon.
Towards More Precise Definitions. As a basis for meaningful biblical evaluation, various forms of people movements must be distinguished. McGavran, in his later definitive work, Understanding Church Growth, classifies four types of people movements. But his classification relates to the extent and impetus of professions of faith among a people, not to the circumstances under which conversion takes place.22 Therefore, it is irrelevant to the present discussion.
Upon closer examination, at least seven district phenomena should be distinguished which have been, or could be, designated as people movements.
1. The simultaneous conversion of thousands of prepared Jews or Samaritans (Acts 2, 3, 8, 9).
2. The simultaneous conversion of a household (Acts 10, 16).
3. A succession of related individual decisions or web movements.
4. A people comes together for baptism after considering the claims of Christ together over a period of time.
5. A people, burning their fetishes together, comes together for baptism, whereupon the evangelist puts them under group instruction, baptizing those individuals who show evidence of faith and repentance.
6. A people baptized together without adequate preparation in the hope that the follow-up will cement the decision for all. A mass movement.
7. A national conversion in which the people are little involved in the decision of their ruler.
The first three phenomena are clearly scriptural since the primary examples are drawn from Scripture directly. It is important to note, however, that the significant mass conversions in Scripture all involve Jews and Samaritans who had significant preparation.23 The 3,000 converted on Pentecost Day were Jews who were familiar with the ministry and death of Christ and believed simultaneously that God had raised him from the dead. The thousands of others added subsequently had a similar preparation. The multitudes of Samaritans converted in Acts 8 also had the preparation growing out of Christ’s witness there and the fact that many Samaritans already believed in him (John 4-41-42). It should also be pointed out that before the mass of Jewish inhabitants of Lydda and Sharon turned to the Lord, there were saints already living in Lydda (Acts 9:32), so they had undoubtedly received an extended and clear witness.
It should be especially noted that as the gospel went to the Gentiles there was no repetition of the mass conversion experienced with the Jews and Samaritans. Henceforth, we find household conversions, such as that of Cornelius and the Philippian jailor. Although the group gathered in Cornelius’s house included relatives and friends (Acts 10-24), they had been prepared by his testimony and the knowledge of the facts of Christ’s, ministry and death (Acts 10:37-39). Also, there was no doubt as to the reality of their faith and the genuineness of their conversion before they were baptized. George Peters defines household salvation in the following terms:
By household salvation we do not mean the covenant idea with its consequent infant baptism, whether baptism is regarded as sacramental affecting (sic) regeneration, or covenantal and thus relating the individual uniquely to God for salvation and making him a potential member of the household of God, which in due time he actually becomes.
By household salvation we mean the principle (sic) decision on the part of the father and/or parents, and in deliberation with the members of the family, that the household ought to become a Christian family, and that the home ought to become a Christian home. Then, either jointly and simultaneously as a family unit, or individually, each member in personal decision relates himself to Christ as personal Saviour.24
When we come to the foundation of that first cosmopolitan church at Antioch, it seems that McGavran’s analysis as involving bridge relationships is probably well taken.25 However, here there is no indication of a mass of inquirers coming for simultaneous baptism, since the time factor during which "a large number" believed, is not specified (Acts 11:21). Thus the pattern here and in the rest of Acts would fit category number three, "a succession of mutually interdependent conversions. 11 It would seem that McGavran is grossly overstating the case when he states, "Paul found himself in a vigorous seething People Movement and his was the most natural way to work."26 He also overstates the case in using Acts 17:10-14 as an example of a people movement when Luke simply says that "many of them therefore believed" (Acts 17:12), again without specifying relationship or the time factor.27
At the other end of the spectrum, almost all would agree that a national conversion in which the people are little involved in the decision of the ruler (number seven) is not a Scriptural concept. (The conversion of Clovis and the Franks would be an example of this.) Yet in his earlier work, McGavran confused the issue by referring to such as a people movement,28 and holding a brief for it.29 Strategically this could be argued indefinitely in the light of the political realities. But all that is beside the point. Such movements have no scriptural validity. McGavran implied that the problem of such movements was in the realm of "perfecting," but this also begs the question.
Fifteen years later McGavran seems to have reversed himself:
The kind of conversion on which people movements are based is the root of the difficulty. The crucial question is- Do people movements rest on "group conversion"? The answer is No. There is no such thing as group conversion. A group has no body and no mind. It cannot decide anything whatever.30
In saying this McGavran has also repudiated Pickett’s terminology. In reality, therefore, it seems that neither McGavran nor his critics would persist in arguing for national conversion.
Our discussion has led us to conclude that the Scriptures provide examples of the types of phenomena indicated in categories 1, 2 and 3 above. Category 7 cannot be admitted. In fact, there is no place in the New Testament where a whole pagan people, upon a recent hearing of the gospel, decides as a group to become Christians. Categories 4, 5 and 6, however, remain to be examined as to their validity.
Deliberate Joint consideration resulting in joint profession and baptism, An example of number four on the list is seen in Richard Hostetter’s account of an evangelistic experiment in the village of Dzegetato in West Africa. The evangelists approached the village chief and elders for permission to offer Christianity to the village over a thirteen-week deliberation period. During the period it became clear that many were interested in the gospel, but the invitation was put off to the end of the period as promised. "Thirty-three accepted Christ and were baptized that day, all responsible members of the tribe….A year has passed since that day. A total of 70 have been baptized into Christ, including the village chief, his family, and Mr. Kumah’s wife and mother."31
Here is a type of people movement that would seem to give adequate hearing to the gospel before baptism to assure the high probability that the conversions were genuine. Probably some were born again before the day of joint decision. Although no mention is made of the screening process used, if any, those coming forward for baptism were likely just as genuine as those who profess Christ in any mass evangelism crusade in the West, even more so.
Simultaneous abandonment of paganism, with deliberate instruction and screening before successive baptisms. An example of number five on the list is seen in the story of the 8,000 Dani tribesmen of West Irian burning their fetishes in 1960. The missionaries of the C.& M.A. put these adherents under instruction and as they intelligently put their faith in Christ, baptized them. By the next year over a thousand had been baptized; within seven years, 6,000 had been.32 The strategy of counting them as adherents until they were ready for baptism gave adequate time for instruction and screening. This procedure seems to give adequate opportunity for an intelligent faith with adequate safeguards for the purity of the church.
Simultaneous baptism of a people upon minimal instruction a mass movement. It is usually the expectation of the evangelist in this sixth category that the subsequent instruction will cement the decision and personalize it. This might be exemplified in the description that a people realize "that our folk are Christians, our book is the Bible, and our house of worship is the church." McGavran amplifies this concept: "In discipling, the full understanding of Christ is not the all-important factor, which is simply that He be recognized by the community as their sole spiritual Sovereign."33 It would seem that the expectation of many individuals coming to experience the new birth under the post-baptismal instruction is a vain hope. Once they have been baptized it is infinitely more difficult to bring them to realize that they need a personal relationship with God. The millions of empty nominal Christians here in the "Christian" countries are adequate proof of this reality. Since there is little likelihood that this procedure assures regeneration for most of the converts and therefore guards the purity of the church, this concept is to be rejected as contrary to Scripture.34
It may be concluded that at least seven distinguishable phenomena have been drawn under the umbrella of peoplemovement conversion. While the first two categories are clearly Scriptural, there is serious doubt that they are valid examples of people movements in the missiological sense. On the other hand, the last two are seen as seriously undermining the purity of the church because they do not facilitate biblical conversion. Thus we are left with three phenomena which may be designated as biblically valid people-movement conversion.
Valid people-movement conversion should be recognized and encouraged by the evangelist. However, mass movements which are not of the Spirit of God should also be recognized and distinguished from valid people-movement conversions. The care of instruction and screening before baptism is undoubtedly the crucial factor.
It is to be hoped that the very helpful insights of the "church growth" school of thought will be balanced by more rigorous theological and biblical examination and a greater precision in the use of its basic terminology.
The root question, I believe, could be posed in a number of different ways. After a responsible effort of exegesis is made (taking into account, indeed, all the relevant cultural, historic, linguistic, etc., information available), does one approach Scripture with a view toward trying to get it to support certain currently popular social and political trends (radical feminism and Marxism are of course relevant examples), or does one approach Scripture with a view toward forming one’s approach to life by it and evaluating and judging contemporary trends in light of it? Or, put another way, if there is a conflict between contemporary cultural trends and properly exegeted Scripture, where does one’s allegiance lie? – Ralph Martin
1. J. Robertson McQuilkin, Measuring the Church Growth Movement (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), p. 18.
2. Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 311-312.
3. J. Waskom Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1933), p. 21.
4. Ibid., pp. 21-22.
5. Ibid., p. 22.
6. J. Waskom Pickett, Christ’s Way to India’s Heart (Lucknow: Lucknow Publishing House 1960), p. 26.
7. Ibid., p. 28.
8. Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God (New York: Friendship Press, 195 5), p. 13.
9. Ibid., pp. 38-39.
10. Ibid., pp. 40-41.
11. Ibid., p. 72.
12. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, p. 302.
13. Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India, p. 38.
14. McGavran, The Bridges of God, p. 13.
15. Walter L. Liefeld, "Theology of Church Growth" in Theology and Mission, ed. David J. Hesselgrave (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) p 175.
16. McGavran, op. cit., p. 13.
17. Ibid., p. 15.
18. McQuilken, op cit., p. 46.
19. Robert Recker, "What are People Movements?" in Theological Perspectives on Church Growth, ed. Harvie M. Conn, The den Dulk Foundation, 1976), p. 77.
20. Liefeld, pp. 177, 181.
21. Henry G. Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1949), p. 367.
22. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, pp. 319-320.
23. Liefeld, p. 178.
24. George W. Peters, Saturation Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), pp. 148-149.
25. McGavran, The Bridges of God, pp. 23 – 25.
26. Ibid., p. 30.
27. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, p. 312.
28. McGavran, The Bridges of God, p. 38.
29. Ibid., p. 39.
30. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, p. 302.
31. Richard Hostetter, "Multi- individual Conversion," Church Growth Bulletin 10 (May 1974), p. 362.
32. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, pp. 119-121.
33. Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God, p. 14
34. For additional documentation that McGavran borders on this approach, see How Churches Grow (London: World Dominion Press, 1959).
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