by John Seamands
0ne of the most provocative and stimulating attempts in recent years at appraising present-day missionary methods is that by Dr. Donald Anderson McGavran, former missionary to India and now dean of the new Fuller School of World Mission and Institute of Church Growth, Pasadena, Calif.
0ne of the most provocative and stimulating attempts in recent years at appraising present-day missionary methods is that by Dr. Donald Anderson McGavran, former missionary to India and now dean of the new Fuller School of World Mission and Institute of Church Growth, Pasadena, Calif. His main theses are clearly defined in two books, The Bridges of God and How Churches Grow. In two other works, of which he is co-author, Church Growth and Group Conversion and Church Growth and Christian, Mission, McGavran has further elaborated on his views.
McGavran is the "apostle of church growth." Church growth is the all-important phrase in his approach. By church growth he means "growth in the number of baptized believers and growth in the number of worshipping groups." The term does not exclude growth in faith and knowledge, that is, the perfecting of believers. He emphasizes strongly that church growth is a chief and irreplaceable purpose of the church; not the chief, or only purpose, but certainly a chief and indispensible purpose of the church’s mission.’
TEN PROMINENT ELEMENTS
The church growth point of view includes the following prominent elements:
1. God wants church growth. God wants His lost children found. Church growth is theologically required. It is a test of a church’s faithfulness.
2. Finding the lost and bringing them back to the Father’s house is a chief and irreplaceable purpose of missions to Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where tremendous numbers are living and dying without Christ. Men also have multitudinous needs of body and mind. The church is properly engaged in relief of suffering, pushing back the barrier of ignorance, and increasing productivity. But such activities must be carried out in proportion. They must never be substituted for finding the lost.
3. These truths are theoretically accepted by Christian missions and written into their constitutions. Practically, however, both liberals and conservatives-faced with many human needs; often defeated by resistant populations; always bound by previous patterns of action; cumbered by institutionalism in advance of the church; burdened with cultural overhang that leads them to proclaim Christ in Western ways; committed to a non-biblical individualism; not understanding multi-individual accession as a normal way men come to Christ; and deceived by their own promotional efforts (whatever our mission does is wonderful)-constantly underemphasize and betray these truths. Both liberals and conservatives too frequently are content to carry on "splendid mission work." Bitter experience teaches them to entertain small expectations of church growth, and they spend most of their budgets, time, and missionaries for other things.
4. At this very time the world (a mosaic of peoples) is much more responsive than it has ever been. People after people is now winnable. Segment after segment can be discipled.
5. Enough discipling is not happening, however, partly because of a lack of knowledge about how to find lost men and build them into the church. This paucity of knowledge can be ended.
6. The hard facts of church increase can be ascertained by research: Where has the church grown? How much has the church grown? Above all, why has each segment of the church grown?
7. These hard facts must be published, taught to missionaries, and read by all serious-minded missionaries.
8. The sciences of man (anthropology, sociology, and psychology) have much to tell us about how men become Christians and make other changes; hence, they should be greatly studied.
9. Church planting evangelism should be greatly increasedby laymen, missionaries, ministers, denominationsalong indigenous church lines, by mass evangelism, people movements, personal evangelism, literature, and radio.
10. Theological education should be revamped so that seminaries graduate many men successful in church planting.2
THREE IMPORTANT ASPECTS
Analysis of these major points reveals that Dr. McGavran approaches church growth from three important aspects: theological, sociological, and practical. Let us look at these in greater detail.
1. The theological approach.3 God is the God who finds. The parables of Jesus emphasize this. The woman does not only search, she searches until she finds the lost coin. The shepherd does not make a token hunt and return empty handed. He goes after the lost sheep until he finds it. Searching is not the purpose, but finding. God is not pleased with token search. He wants lost men found. He sends shepherds to find and bring home the lost. He wants His children back in their Father’s house.
Church growth, McGavran therefore insists, is the will of God. "We believe God desires to reconcile men to Himself through Jesus Christ in the Church of Jesus Christ. We advocate church growth not for reasons of self-aggrandizement, but because God desires it. The nature of God in Christ demands it. The Church must therefore seek to be ever growing in numbers as well as in the grace and knowledge of her Lord."4
God is interested in results. Proclamation is always for a verdict. Jesus not only said, "Preach the Gospel," but also, "disciple all nations." He clearly warned, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who believes not is condemned." Mission in the New Testament was never proclamation for proclamation’s sake; it was proclamation in order to salvation. Witness was never simply the discharging of a duty, an end in itself. It was a witness that men might believe. Indifference to results is the antithesis of biblical mission. "Conviction that the mission is God’s, not ours, cannot lead to an indifference as to whether men, multitudes of men, believe or not. It cannot lead us to accept with equal joy as the outcome of our witness one hundred, or ten, or one, or no believers at all."5
God desires multitudes to be found. It is not His will that any should perish. Some, of course, do perish, but it is not His will. Jesus commanded that we disciple "all nations" (ethnos: peoples). It was after the disciples had caught a multitude of fish that Jesus called them to be "fishers of men." This suggests that they would catch a multitude of men. The Book of Acts is a record of multitudes coming into the church. It tells of 3,000 who were converted on the day of Pentecost (2:41), "multitudes both of men and women" who were added to the Lord (5:14), "multitudes" who gave heed to the Gospel in Samaria (8:6,14), and "many thousands" who believed in Jerusalem (21:20).
The motive for the salvation of multitudes and the expansion of the church is found in 2 Corinthians 4:15-"so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God."
2. The sociological approach. Church growth is rooted in theology. We are interested in it, because God is interested in it. But at the same time, church growth takes place along sociological and cultural lines. The social structure is the soil in which the church must be planted. Society is made up of various patterns and conditions that put their stamp upon a people in a hundred different ways-for example, their attitude toward leisure, work, God, worship, sex, marriage, and the world.
McGavran believes strongly that the study of society and the social structure of a people is essential to church growth. Ignorance of, and indifference to, the social structure may be a serious hindrance to missionary work. He urges the use of the principles of sociology and anthropology. "The more we know about how men organize their lives, make innovations, shift to new cultures, and graft new ideas into their intellectual rootstock, the better we can help them to make the transition to the Christian faith. By themselves, these sciences are neutral.Theyneitherfavor nor oppose the expansion of the Christian religion. They are bodies of knowledge about how men behave. We believe this knowledge can be used to the glory of God and expansion of His Church. We yoke these sciences to the missionary passion and use them in the service of the Great Commission."6
McGavran points out that any liven society is made up of a number of subsocieties or subcultures. Society is not a uniform wall with one color of paint; it is, rather, a mosaic of different colors and patterns. Each subsociety has a character of its own; it ripens or becomes responsive at a different time; it develops a church of its own.7
The existence of relatively homogeneous units within large national social structures makes possible the growth of the church through "people movements." McGavran defines a people movement as "the joint decision of a number of individuals comprising some sections of society, perhaps five or fifty families, which enables them to become Christian without social dislocation, while remaining in full contact with their non-Christian relatives, thus enabling other groups across the years, after suitable instruction, to become Christians and form churches."8 He feels that in such homogeneous societies the one-by-one, or strictly individualistic approach, is a "cultural overhang" from the West, and ends in abortive missionary endeavor.
A study of the patterns of a society will also help the missionary to see what groups of people are "ripe" for the Gospel, and will offer the greatest response to its proclamation. McGavran feels that "realistic thinking about Christian mission today must make a sharp distinction between the receptivity of populations. All populations are not the same, and hence mission cannot be measured by a common foot rule."9 McGavran is very critical of "the equalitarian approach to mission"-treating every section of the work as equal in order not to offend the feelings of individual missionaries. This attitude says in advance that it will pay no attention to differing responses and to the growth of the church.
3. The practical approach. The practical application of McGavran’s theses to missionary work would call for the following actions:
(1) Church and mission administration should be geared to church growth, and organized. to multiply churches intelligently and purposefully.
(2) Missionaries should be trained in the principles of church growth, and in the sciences of sociology and anthropology.
(3) Theological education and missionary orientation should be revamped so that graduates and trainees may be successful in church planting.
(4) Missionary personnel and mission finances should be concentrated more on responsive areas and ripened fields, without jeopardizing existing work.
(5) There should be constant measurement of church growth and intelligent use of the facts discovered. This will call for careful and uniform record-keeping, widespread surveys with extensive cross-denominational and cross-continental comparisons, the study of historical and environmental factors making for church growth, and serious application of the lessons learned.
It is evident that McGavran’s principles cannot be fully applied to certain areas of the world, particularly the Islamic word, where the hearers of the Word are highly resistant. But they are certainly relevant to many sections of the world. There are areas where people are responsive and winnable; for example, Korea, Taiwan, Sarawak, Africa south of the Sahara, certain sections of India, and much of South America. Church growth is taking place in such lands, but not nearly on the scale that is possible. People movements are still possible in many areas of the world among close-knit, homogeneous societies, where multi-individual decision is the norm; for example, the lower castes in Hindu society in India, the various tribes of Africa,Animisthill tribesin New Guinea, Borneo, and Taiwan, the Indian tribes of the western hemisphere, and even the lower economic classes of the growing cities of South America. Wise missionary policy would take into consideration these winnable areas and concentrate upon their evangelization.
OBJECTIONS AND ANSWERS
Certain questions arise as a result of studying McGavran’s writings.
Does not the church growth point of view place too great an emphasis on numbers, and, consequently, neglect the teaching ministry of the church?
Dr. McGavran answers: "The term, church growth, does not exclude growth in faith and knowledge, that is, the perfecting of believers."10 "The practical problem of how to assure adequate Christian nurture for inflooding multitudes is always keen. Nurture must be provided. Genuine Christianity is essential of church growth."11 Further, McGavran points out that quality cannot be divorced from quantity. "Evidence from many lands proves that growing churches have spiritual quality."12 A church grows because it has life, and because its members are actively engaged in witnessing. A church that is growing in numbers is thus qualitatively better than a church that is static and ingrown.
Does McGavran advocate a cessation of the social service of the church?
No, rather he calls for a proper balance between evangelism and social work, and a realignment of priorities. Concerning the philanthropic work of missions he says, "Such activities must be carried out in proportion. They must never be substituted for finding the lost."13 Again, "Churches do many good things. We hope that they will continue doing them. We hope even more that these good things will not obscure the supreme and controlling aim of the Christian mission."14
Would not the application of McGavran’s principles lead to a pulling out from difficult, unresponsive fields?
Here again there is a possible misunderstanding of his views. We recognize that there are difficult areas where we can expect but little church growth. But he is concerned about the church making the difficulty of some areas the norm for all areas; about the church developing a mentality of little expectation; and about the attempt of some to formulate a theology of little growth on the basis of resistant peoples. Also, he feels strongly that there are many fruitful areas where the church is failing to reap a harvest because of the wrong attitude or wrong approach to church growth.
"There are highly resistant populations where younger churches and their assisting missions do well merely to hang on. When God sends men to these populations He measures devotion not by the numerical increase of Christians but by the intent of the missionary. In such populations genuine concern for evangelism may be great, while the amount of church growth may be very small … . These unquestioned truths must not, however, be applied to missions in general. Small expectations need not and must not characterize Christian mission. In responsive populations-and the number of these is larger than commonly imagined-our plea is that church growth be taken seriously . . . where the church can grow, it ought to do so."15
Does not the emphasis on church growth lead to, "baptized heathen" and roll-padding?
McGavran replies: "If anyone seeks church growth he should avoid these dishonest practices as he would poison. These are the surest ways to put an end to it. The only church growth worth striving for is sound growth which remains decade after decade… The church growth we advocate is sound and Christian. We emphasize spiritual reality and vitality in churches."16
Does not the emphasis on people movements undermine the scriptural teaching that salvation is strictly an individual matter?
This question has honestly bothered many evangelicals, and even McGavran himself. His previous explanations of people movementsleftthe problemunsolved, but more recent statements, I believe, have cleared up much of the confusion. He points out that "Christianization of groups does not in the least exclude individual conversion. Strictly speaking, individual conversion is both theologically and psychologically the only kind possible. A group, a clan, or a tribe is not a person. It does not have a mind of its own. It can make no decision. It can neither `confess the Lord Jesus Christ’ nor `believe on Him.’ It cannot be `justified by faith.’ What is commonly called group conversion is really multi-individual conversion. It is many individuals believing on the Lord at the same time, in shared knowledge of the joint action and mutual dependence on each other. Such multi-individual action has very different marginal meanings and results from lone individual action taken in the teeth of group disapproval."17 McGavran also points out that a people movement is not a pressure movement, for there is always room for stay-outers. Some do stay out."18
Does not McGavran’s sociological approach to church growth reduce the missionary enterprise to a mere human science, unmindful o f the mysterious working o f the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men, and in society?
There is, undoubtedly, a danger lurking here, if sociology becomes a fetish and an end in itself. But this is certainly not the intention of McGavran. Throughout his writings there is a strong emphasis on the preeminent place of the Holy Spirit in the Christian mission.
"While recognizing that the Church is in a very large measure influenced at many points by the society and culture of which it may be a part, one must also be constantly aware of the fact that it is in a real sense a supracultural institutionin the sense that both its history and its dynamic are the outworking of the plan and purposes of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we have evaluated some of tie human factors involved in church growth, we cannot presume to have said all there is to say, or to have described all the relevant factors. We must admit that the operation of God’s Spirit cannot be subjected to direct observation, nor can we set up controlled experiments, or presume to apply statistical indices of success or failure."19
I find the basic theses of McGavran’s approach both valid and significant.
His theological approach is biblical, evangelical, and based on sound exegesis. It strikes a blow at the concept of religious relativism, which would surrender the doctrine that Christ is the full and final revelation of God, and which would deny that every Christian should proclaim Christ and persuade men to become His disciples. It also attacks a concept of "seed sowing" that is heretical, which claims that the responsibility of the missionary ends with the actual sowing of God’s Word, and disavows any interest in the harvest that results. Such reasoning leads to a sort of token evangelism, a neutral witness, oblivious of results. McGavran sees the ground for church growth, not in expediency or desire for self-aggrandizement, but in the very nature and will of God Himself. We should be interested in church growth because this is what God is interested in.
His sociological approach is also sound. The social structure operates whether the missionary recognizes it or not. It offers serious hindrances, as well as glorious advantages, to church growth. The sciences of sociology, psychology, and anthropology can be used to great advantage in church planting, and can help the church in various countries to become more indigenous and, therefore, more permanent.
The emphasis on people movements will stand the test of investigation. People movements account for at least two-thirds of the original membership of the younger churches. They certainly have produced some of the greatest indigenous churches on the mission fields, such as the Karen Church of Central Burma, the Batak Church of Sumatra, and the Naga Church of Assam. I have visited many of these churches, have worked as a missionary among people movements for many years in India, and find the Christians of these congregations to be some of the most genuine that I have found anywhere.
McGavran’s approach places the emphasis where it belongs-on the church as God’s permanent agent for evangelization and social reform, on evangelism as the central task of the church, on the mobility of the church in its action, and on the indigenous character of the church that is planted. We are grateful to this missionary statesman for calling us back to primary objectives. We have allowed good activities to crowd out the best, and thus push the chief goal into the background. It is time we put first things first.
McGavran is no mere theorist. His theses are backed by solid scientific data gathered from surveys of missionary endeavor in many sections of the world, among a variety of peoples, and in a variety of situations. His theses should not be dismissed lightly, but should be made the subject of serious study and evaluation by mission board secretaries, missionaries, and national church leaders.
Toward the early part of this century, a missionary by the name of Roland Allen wrote two classic missionary books, challenging the church to return to Pauline principles of missionary work. It was not until the middle of the century that anyone began to take him seriously, and to appreciate what he was saying. Now in more recent years Donald McGavran has been challenging the church to take seriously the Great Commission of our Lord, and all tat it implies. I trust that we will not wait until the end of the century to take him seriously. By then it might be too late.
1. Notes from Seminar on Church Growth, Winona Lake, Indiana, Sept. 6-10, 1965, p. 1.
2. From a summary entitled, "Ten Prominent Elements in the Church Growth Point of View," sent to the writer on request by Dr. McGavran.
3. The theological basis of Dr. McGavran’s thesis is best explained in his article, "The God Who Finds and His Mission," available from Dr. McGavran in mimeographed form.
4. Church Growth and Christian Mission (New York: Harper and Row, 1965 ), p. 244.
5. How Churches Grow (New York: Friendship Press, 1959 ), p. 65.
6. Church Growth and Christian Mission, p. 239.
7. An excellent example of the mosaic pattern of society is found in Dr. McGavran’s book, Church Growth in Mexico (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963 ), ch. 4.
8. Seminar on Church Growth, 1965, p. 22.
9. Church Growth and Christian Mission, p. 236.
10. Seminar on Church Growth, 1965, p. 1.
11. Church Growth and Christian Mission, p. 235.
12. Ibid., p. 235.
13. "Ten Prominent Elements in the Church Growth Point of View," point 2.
14. Church Growth and Christian Mission, p. 235.
15. Ibid., pp. 236, 237.
16. Ibid., 234.
17. Ibid., pp. 72, 73.
18. Seminar on Church Growth, 1965, p. 23.
19. Church Growth and Christian Mission, p. 88.
Copyright © 1966 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.