Exploring the Mission Theology of Donald Anderson McGavran: A Historical and Missiological Reflection

Introduction

Widely acclaimed as “the Father of the Church Growth movement,”[1] Donald A. McGavran occupies a distinctive place in the history of Christian missions and missiological reflection. A magnum opus of missionary biographies, Mission Legacies,lists McGavran among the prominent mission theorists and strategists.[2] In this article I have made an attempt to briefly explore the life and legacy of Donald McGavran. Who was Donald McGavran? What was his major contribution to missiology? How have his critiques assessed his theories and methods? How does McGavran inspire or challenge the church growth practices and theories today? What can we learn from his work as a whole? These are some of the basic questions which collectively constitute the contents of this article. I am looking at McGavran and his mission approaches from the perspective of a Hindu convert who comes from the geographical region close to where he has spent some quality time as a missionary and developed most of his strategies. This may be called an insider’s perspective on McGavran and its significance needs to be seen in the light of current mission situation in the same region. We shall begin with a brief biographical note.

The Life of Donald Anderson McGavran

Donald A. McGavran was a third-generation Christian missionary in India. He was born in Damoh, Madhya Pradesh in central India on December 15, 1897 to missionary parents. He was the second child of John and Helen McGavran. John and Helen were the missionaries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) USA, in Damoh. John came from West Virginia, USA and Helen came from England, UK. Donald’s siblings included Grace, Edward, and Joyce McGavran. 

In his childhood, Donald McGavran was home schooled in India.[3] However, he earned all his higher education degrees in the USA. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1920 from Butler College at Indianapolis (now University), Bachelor of Divinity from Yale Divinity School (1922), Master of Arts from the College of Mission in Indianapolis (1923) and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.[4] He thus had the best and the highest education possible and was well trained as an academic. In addition, he lived the life of a practical missionary, following in the footsteps of his parents. Donald made his commitment to Jesus Christ and was baptized in the year 1911. However, the missionary commitment was not made until the summer of 1919, when during the YMCA camp he heard John R. Mott’s preaching and had a remarkable spiritual experience.[5] McGavran describes his Lake Geneva experience in the following words, 

Till then, while being a reasonably good Christian, I had determined that my life work would be in some field other than the ministry. My family had done enough for the Lord, I said, I shall make money… At Lake Geneva, day after day we were challenged to complete surrender to Christ. Let him decide everything. Everything included making money and my life work. For several days I resisted, but finally I yielded and said simply, “Very well, Lord. It is clear to me; either I give up all claim to being a Christian, or I go all the way. Since that is the situation, I choose to go all the way”[6] …. “Lord, I’ll do whatever you want. I will go wherever you send. I will carry out, not my will but yours.”[7]

The commitment to follow the Lord Jesus Christ all his life took McGavran all over the world, starting with his country of birth. This long a fruitful journey was shared by his like-minded companion and wife, Mary Howard. Donald married Mary Elizabeth Howard in 1922. They met each other in Donald’s his final years at Butler College. They got engaged in 1920. Donald and Mary had shared the Lake Geneva experience together. Mary was born in Munice, Indiana to Isaiah and Sarah Howard. The Howards had dedicated their daughter for the Lord’s work. Mary was gifted in singing and music.[8] Donald and Mary were ordained as missionaries in the summer of 1923 by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).[9]

Donald and Mary McGavran served as missionaries in India for more than 30 years. More than half of these years were spent in church planting activities in Chhattisgarh, Central India. They were greatly engaged in educational, evangelistic and literary activities by running schools, planting churches and translating the Gospels in Chhattisgarhi, a major dialect of Hindi. Donald McGavran also served as the executive secretary and treasurer for the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS), his sending organization.[10] McGavran travelled all over the world lecturing on Church growth studies. In 1961 McGavran started an Institute of Church Growth at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon.[11] In 1965 he moved the Institute to Fuller Theological Seminary in California, transforming it into the School of World Missions. After a life faithfully spent in obedience to his call for the cause of mission and having played numerous roles of mission administrator, church planter, researcher, teacher, speaker, writer, etc., McGavran breathed his last on July 10, 1990. His life partner and co-laborer in mission Mary McGavran had died three months earlier. Donald McGavran continues to live as a prominent signature in the twentieth century missiological thought especially in regard to Church Growth studies and its never-ending challenges and issues. 

The Missiological Legacy of Donald McGavran

In this section I would like to briefly highlight McGavran’s major contribution to missiology. Let us begin with his definition of mission and evangelism. With regard to mission, McGavran was convinced that,

the word “mission” must be understood as essentially those activities that multiply churches, that win the lost, that disciple unreached peoples—namely, church growth. The phrase “mission/church growth” must come again to mean what the New Testament church did as it multiplied churches across the Roman world.[12]

On another occasion he interpreted “missions” as an interdisciplinary discipline which combines various fields of studies such as history of Christianity, theology, anthropology, social sciences, etc. To him mission was “neither theology nor science… neither church history nor anthropology.”[13] He saw that the aims and boundaries of missions were different from all other disciplines. He explained, “Missions, to be sure, has used theology, sociology, comparative religions, anthropology, church history, ecumenics and the whole biblical field. Yet it is none of these.”[14] He argued that mission is “a combination of these, particularly suited to equip founders and leaders of young churches to perform their calling.”[15]

Concerning “evangelism,” McGavran held that it is an essential part of mission and church growth. However, he called for a qualified evangelism. He argued for an evangelism that, “must be effectiveevangelism.”[16] Elaborating on the meaning of the word “evangelism” he stated that it has several different meanings. For example, evangelism may mean simply proclaiming the gospel, hoping that someone will hear it but not knowing whether anyone becomes a responsible member of an ongoing, soundly Christian church or not.[17] He also believed that there is an evangelism that limits itself very largely to reviving the faith of existing Christians. He wrote that there are many other forms of evangelism and all these are good activities. He had engaged in many of them himself. However, he strongly held that, evangelism, if undefined, is too broad a word to describe what Christ commanded. Therefore, he emphasized on an “Effective evangelism” that “enlists in Christ’s school all segments of human society, and incorporates in his body, the church, all the ethnic and linguistic units of the world.”[18] McGarvan sees Mission/church growth/effective evangelism as the new and definitive statement of the underlying purpose of the Bible. He firmly believed that “God wants all people to believe on Jesus Christ, become members of his body, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and live in him. The Holy Spirit leads Christians everywhere in this direction. Anything less than this is not biblical.”[19] This Christocentric pneumatological vision of the biblical ecclesiological mission is a powerful trinitarian missiological interpretation underlying the church growth philosophy of Donald McGavran. To adequately understand the depth and scope of this philosophy and the movement it birthed, we must now explore through his principal publications.

The Bridges of God and the Church Growth Principle

McGavran published The Bridges of God in 1955. In this book he presented his insights on church growth in detail. He states the thesis of the book in following terms, “The era has come when Christian Missions should hold lightly all mission station work, which cannot be proved to nurture growing churches, and should support the Christward movements within Peoples as long as they continue to grow at the rate of 50 per cent per decade or more. This is to-day’s strategy.”[20] Thus, the book emphasizes a growth-oriented focus in mission endeavors beyond the mission compounds but among and within the people groups. 

The key missiological question raised in the Bridges of God is “How do peoples become Christian?” The complete set of questions includes: (a) What are the causes of church growth? (b) What are the barriers to church growth? (c) What are the factors that can make the Christian faith a movement among some populations? And (d) What principles of church growth are reproducible?[21] With these questions, McGavran revolutionized the entire theorizing of mission studies with a bomb-shell lens of church growth perspective. 

Next, over against the Western model of individual (one by one) Christianization, McGavran speaks in favor of a people (or ethnic group) based movement to Christianity. He argues, “It is of utmost importance that the Church should understand how peoples, and not merely individuals, become Christians.”[22] He preferred the People Movement as a better system of Christianization. He outlines, and I reproduce here, (with gratitude), the “Five Great Advantages”[23] of people movements to Christ,

  • They provide “the Christian movement with permanent churches rooted in the soil of hundreds of thousands of villages.”[24] Economically they are independent of Western missions. 
  • They also have the benefit of being naturally indigenous.[25] In the mission station method, the convert is dominated by the foreigner and westernized.
  • They have the natural spontaneous expansion of the church. Advocates of spontaneous expansion point out that foreign directed movements will in the end lead to sterility and antagonism to their sponsors.[26] In the People Movement churches the desire to win their own people and the opportunity to bear witness are present with a high degree.
  • They have enormous possibilities of growth. People movements have both external and internal growing points. Externally they grow among their own people in different lands. Internally they grow among the unconverted within their fold. This growth continues until the discipling of all people. 
  • They provide sound pattern of becoming Christian. Being a Christian is seen to mean not change in standard of living made possible by foreign funds, but change in inner character made possible by the power of God,[27] in day today Christian life and practice. 

Having outlined the advantages of People Movement in Christian mission, McGavran also suggested “Seven Principles”[28] to use or operate the “People Movement Method” effectively. These principles are as follows,

  • Aiming for a Cluster of Growing Congregations.[29] The goal of the missionary church planter is emphasized to be a cluster of growing indigenous congregations every member of which remains in a close contact with his relatives. This cluster will grow best if it is in one people/caste/tribe or one segment of the society.[30]
  • Concentrating on One People. Here the missionary is called to work with only one people group. This means to invest all the resources (funds, personnel, and programs) exclusively for one ethne, caste or tribe. As an example, McGavran himself worked among the Satnamis (Lit., “True Namers,” the leather-workers) of Chhattisgarh, although there were other people living in same villages. 
  • Encouraging Converts to Remain with Their People. Here the converts are called to continue to eat and dress like their people. Conversion should not bring outward change! It is also suggested that the converts marry within their people. McGavran insists that converts be encouraged to remain thoroughly one with their people in most matters (not in idolatry and drinking, etc. though).[31]
  • Encouraging Group Decisions for Christ. As a means to handle ostracism, usually most effective against one person, McGavran calls for the practice of group (cluster) conversions and baptisms. Baptizing only in groups and not individuals. 
  • Aiming for Constant Stream of New Converts. Here McGavran suggests that missionaries should not spend all their time in teaching (making good Christians or perfecting) the converts. They should keep reaching out to new groups (making Christians or discipling), he insists. 
  • Helping Converts to Exemplify the Highest Hopes of Their People.[32] The converts must be able to say to their people that they as Christians are showing them a better way of life. That they are pioneering good ways for the community as a whole. That they are better sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, etc., committed for the betterment of their segment of society. 
  • Emphasizing Brotherhood. The emphasis on equality and unity of all Christians is underlined in this principle. To McGavran the most effective way to achieve brotherhood (and sisterhood, or say peoplehood) is to lead ever increasing numbers of men and women from every ethnos, every tribe, every segment of society into an obedient relationship to Christ.[33]

McGavran fully believed that God is working in both the ways to increase his church worldwide: one by one, as well as by people group movement. He prefers the later but calls to accept whatever the Lord commissions us to work with. He affirmed his position in the following words,

Church growth insists that God wants his lost children found. These lost children may live North or South, East or West, in all six continents, in every region of the world. All must be found and encouraged to become Christ’s disciples and responsible members of his church. This is what church growth insists on. The multiplication of congregations in every segment of society in every nation—growth—is and must remain the steady goal of the church.[34]

Understanding Church Growth and the Homogenous Unit Principle

McGavran published another landmark work, Understanding Church Growth, in 1970.[35] In this book he has presented his central thinking, the notion of the homogenous unit (HU). He defines homogenous unit as “a section of society in which all members have some characteristics in common.”[36] In defining homogenous units more accurately McGavran explains that they can be defined either politically, geographically, culturally, ethnically, economically, educationally, or linguistically.[37] McGavran describes homogenous units as a mosaic of humankind and reminds that as cultures keep changing at all times, the blocks and pieces of human mosaic do not stay static but keep changing as well. Thus, the units challenge Christian missions in different ways at different times.[38] However, the strategic value of the principle is significant for its implications. The homogenous unit principle has five implications[39] for church growth, they are,

  1. Church growth occurs within the homogenous unit
  2. Each homogenous unit church grows according to its own pattern
  3. Each homogenous unit church has its own unique rate of growth
  4. Each homogenous unit church has not only its own pattern and rate of growth but also its own limitations
  5. Each homogenous unit church has its own élan or vital force, its own assistance from outside. 

In The Bridges of God, talking about the growth of the Early Church in the first decade of its existence primarily among the Jewish people, McGavran had concluded, “peoples become Christian fastest when least change of race or clan is involved.”[40] From this conclusion he brought out a significant church growth principle in Understanding Church Growth. He wrote, “men [people] like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”[41] The idea of homogenous principle as significant factor for church growth was already growing in his mind during 1959 when he noted in How Churches Grow, “whole people churches whose members speak the same dialect, have the same traditions, intermarry with each other, have much the same occupation and level of culture have high stability and their church growth rate was likely to be great.”[42]

McGavran’s understanding of the applicability of the homogenous unit approach is seen to be based on the strategic value. McGavran emphasizes that “for maximum sound discipling, for maximum communication of the Gospel, each homogenous unit must be encouraged to remain itself.”[43]

In promoting the homogenous unit principle McGavran goes even as far as to propose that when Muslims become followers of Christ, they should also be allowed to look, act and live like Muslims in all cultural matters.”[44] In setting forth the principle of evangelization of homogenous units without crossing barriers[45] McGavran wants to make clear “that conversion within one’s own culture does not justify intolerance or segregation against other people groups or against the weak. On the contrary, the Church is to be engaged in a battle for brotherhood [see seventh principle above] against all non-Christian behavior.”[46] He maintains that becoming Christian is the greatest step toward brotherhood. And he goes on to warn against the establishment of narrow churches selfishly centered on only the salvation of their own people or class.[47] McGavran calls the churches to seek to moderate people’s ethnocentrism in all possible ways so that becoming Christian should never enhance tribal animosity or arrogance common to all human societies.[48]

Critical Responses to McGavran

George Hunter III identifies three different groups of Christians and scholars who make critical response to McGavran’s theories and methods. 

  1. First, who desired interreligious dialogue and harmony, including those who believed in the sameness of all faiths, were upset by McGavran’s emphasis on evangelism for conversion (winning all winnable).[49]
  2. Second, who doubted McGavran’s use of field data, statistics, graphs, and behavioral science insights, etc. To them his methods were not sufficiently “biblical,” “theological,” or “spiritual.”[50]
  3. Third, those who desired churches to transcend humanity’s divisions and demonstrate reconciliation challenged McGavran’s conviction that homogeneous unit congregations can be faithful expressions of the universal church and its mission.[51]

Further, in regard to the homogenous unit principle, four critical concerns that have been raised. Sakari Pinola[52] highlights them as follows: 

  1. Injudicious Attitude toward Different Cultures.With a high view of culture McGavran acknowledges that a true conversion to Christian faith can take place within one’s own culture. This leads to the danger or syncretism.[53]
  2. Genuineness of Conversion.Conversion without crossing barriers is questioned for its genuineness on the basis of ethical grounds. The critiques hold that a separation between conversion to Christianity and obedience to its teaching, which McGavran appears to allow, will betray the Gospel itself.[54]
  3. The Danger of Segregation. Planting of homogenous unit churches is seen as leading to segregation and racism for the sake of numbers at the expense of biblical teaching of Christian unity.[55]
  4. The Biblical Basis of the Principle. As the principle is derived from practical fieldwork and based on sociological foundation, it is criticized for the lack biblical foundation. However, it does have some biblical basis (Acts 15:22-29, Gentiles did not have to follow Jewish customs). This may not be normative.[56]

Mennonite scholar John Yoder offers the following responses to the Church Growth movement. From a generation gap perspective, he asks: when the church as it is turns the people off, for example in European context, and if it has not been vital for its members, what would be the point of it having more people?[57] From an anthropological point of view, he asks: “Can there be a Christianization of a whole population that is so superficial that they are not really Christian at all?”[58] This has reference to the Christianization under Constantine which McGavran mentions in The Bridges of God (36-40). 

Another critical evaluation comes from Allan Howe who highlights three specific problems in McGavran’s Church Growth principle: (1) The place and importance of numerical growth.[59] Uncritical numerical growth of the church without concern for the quality of faith remains a challenge of the mass movements. (2) The differentiation and relationship of “discipling” and “perfecting.” Discipling in terms of merely sharing the gospel and baptizing people without ample teaching and mentoring (perfecting) is taken as unhealthy tendency in mission. (3) The legitimacy of social segregation.[60] Socio-racial segregation of congregations is seen as promoting inequality and division.

Concluding Remarks

Donald McGavran inspires me as an enthusiastic evangelist and motivating missiologist. McGavran was an untiring man with passion for the Great Commission. His contributions to missiology in terms of church growth studies and homogenous unit principles, among other things, continue to engage the new missionaries and missions. 

While his critiques have found ample controversial and unwarranted issues in some of his theories and methods, (and I don’t blame them as I hear them), they cannot remain not-indebted to him for the intellectual as well as practical missional engagements that he has globally inspired. McGavran continues to occupy a significant point of reference for the church growth practices and theories today. Can we really talk about church growth theories without going back to McGavran?  There is much to learn from his theories and methods and from his missionary experiences. Personally, when I look at McGavran and his mission approaches from the perspective of a convert and an insider, I find him daring, demanding and sometimes demeaning. May be his personality was such because of his background: growing as a missionary kid as well as a military man, matured in rigorous discipline! 

McGavran initially attempted to follow in the pattern of (somewhat) a mixture of Robert DeNobili (cultural accommodation) and Alexander Duff (education). He basically wanted to reach the so-called high caste people in Madhya Pradesh through the means of education. Having failed in this attempt he moved to the Satnamis[61]of Chhattisgarh, the so-called low caste people, where the Lord blessed him with great success. His homogenous unit principle (HUP), with all its limits, challenges me to toil for church planting among the fisherfolks in the same region where he worked. We may not be able to subscribe all that McGavran taught and practiced, as some of them may not even be relevant for our contexts, but we can surely praise God for his life and legacy, for his obedience to the Great Commission in all that he could. 

Shivraj K. Mahendra

New Theological College (NTC), India


[1]Grant McClung, “From BRIDGES (McGavran 1955) to WAVEs (Wagner 1983): Pentecostals and the Church Growth Movement” in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Spring 1985, 7. See also, C. Peter Wagner, “Preface to the Third Edition” Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1990), viii. This title can be challenged, as McGavran was not the first one to carry out church growth study was J. Merle Davis who wrote How the Church Grows in Brazil in 1943. Larry McSwain calls McGavran “The father of the conservative-evangelical church growth movement,” in “Critical Appraisal of Church Growth” Review and Expositor, 521.

[2]Gerald H. Anderson, Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994), 459, 516.

[3]Vern Middleton, Donald McGavran: His Early Life and Ministry, An Apostolic Vision for Reaching the Nations (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2011), 5. 

[4]Gerald H. Anderson, Mission Legacies, 459, 516.

[5]Middleton, Donald McGavran, 9.

[6]McGavran, “Biographical Sketch” chapter six, as quoted in  Middleton, Donald McGavran, 9.

[7]Donald McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission” IBMR,April 1986: 53.

[8]Middleton, Donald McGavran, 10. 

[9]Middleton, Donald McGavran, 14. 

[10]C. Peter Wagner, “Preface to the Third Edition” Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1990), viii-xi.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Donald McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission” IBMR, April 1986: 58.

[13]Donald McGavran, “What is the Church Growth School of Thought?”manuscript, as quoted in Wilbert R. Shenk, The Challenges of Church Growth: A Symposium, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), 17.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Donald McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission” IBMR, April 1986: 58.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Donald McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission” IBMR, April 1986: 58.

[20]Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God (World Dominion Press, 1955), 109.

[21]George Hunter, “The Legacy of Donald A McGavran,”IBMR Oct. 1992: 158.

[22]Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God, Perspectives, 323.

[23]Ibid., 336-338. Some paraphrasing is done by the present author. Emphasis added.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Ibid.

[26]Ibid.

[27]Ibid

[28]Ibid., 618-622.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Ibid.

[31]Ibid.

[32]Ibid.

[33]Ibid. 621.

[34]Donald McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission” IBMR, April 1986: 58.

[35]Donald A. McGavran and C. Peter Wagner, Understanding Church Growth; Revised and Edited by C. Peter Wagner(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1990).

[36]Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 85. Cf., Donald McGavran, “What is the Church Growth School of Thought?”manuscript, as quoted in Wilbert R. Shenk, The Challenges of Church Growth: A Symposium, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), 17. See also, Pinola, Church Growth…, 228.

[37]Ibid, 61.

[38]Ibid., Understanding Church Growth, 1980 edition, 224.

[39]Ibid.

[40]Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God, 23. 

[41]Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 198.

[42]Donald McGavran, How Churches Grow, 1959: 54. Cf. Pinola, 231.

[43]Donald McGavran, “The Genesis and Strategy of the Homogenous Unit Principle”, 1977:8. 

[44]See, Parshall,Beyond the Mosque: Christians Within Muslim Community,1985: 186-194 as quoted in Sakari Pinola, Church Growth: Principles and Praxis of Donald A. McGavran’s Missiology (Abo, Finland: Abo Akademy University Press, 1995), 226.

[45]For elaboration, see the article “Without Crossing Barriers” by McGavran in Missiology Vol. II, No. 2, April 1974: 203-224.

[46]Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 209ff, cf. Sakari Pinola, Church Growth, 226.

[47]Ibid.

[48]Ibid., 209-213. 

[49]Wilbert R. Shenk, The Challenge of Church Growth: A Symposium(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2001).IBMR Oct. 1992: 160.

[50]Ibid.

[51]George Hunter, “The Legacy of Donald A. McGavran,”IBMR Oct. 1992: 160.

[52]Sakari Pinola,Church Growth…, 236-239.

[53]Ibid., 236.

[54]Ibid., 237.

[55]Ibid., 237-238.

[56]Ibid., 238.

[57]John H. Yoder, “Church Growth Issues in Theological Perspective,” in Wilbert Shenk, The Challenge of Church Growth: A Symposium,42-43.

[58]Ibid.

[59]Allan H. Howe, “The Church: Its Growth and Mission” in Wilbert Shenk, The Challenge of Church Growth: A Symposium,53-64.

[60]Ibid. 

[61]Donald McGavran, The Satnami Story (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1990). For pioneering Christian work among the Satnami people, see, Shivraj K. Mahendra, ”Rev. Oscar T. Lohr of Chhattisgarh (1824-1907): The Life, Mission Works, and Legacy of the Apostle to the Satnami People” Indian Church History Review, Jan-June 2017.



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