Known worldwide as perhaps the foremost missiologist, Donald A. McGavran was born in India of missionary parents and returned there as a third generation missionary himself in 1923, serving as a director of religious education and translating the Gospels in the Chhattisgarhi dialect of Hindi. He founded the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. McGavran died in 1990 at the age of 93. McGavran authored several influential books, including The Bridges of God, and Understanding Church Growth.
McGavran was born in Damoh, India, in 1897. As a third-generation missionary, McGavran’s family totaled 279 years of service in India by 1954. Donald McGavran credited his early missionary training and experience to the friendship and guidance of his father, John McGavran.
McGavran received his early education in Central Provinces, India. After his family returned to the United States, he went to school in Tulsa, OK and Indianapolis, IN. He attended Butler University (B.A., 1920), Yale Divinity School (B.D., 1922), the former College of Mission, Indianapolis (M.A., 1923), and, following two terms in India, Columbia University (Ph.D., 1936).
When Donald McGavran went to India as a missionary in 1923, he worked primarily as an educator under appointment with the United Christian Missionary Society of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1929 he became director of religious education for his mission before returning to the United States to work on his Ph.D. at Columbia University. After his return to India, he was elected field secretary in 1932 and placed in charge of administering the denomination’s entire India mission.
It was during the late 1920s and early 1930s that the stirrings of what would eventually become Church Growth Thought began to develop in McGavran’s mind. There were several forerunners who contributed to McGavran’s developing insights, such as William Carey, Roland Allen, and Kenneth Scott Latourette. The most direct influence, however, was J. Waskom Pickett, of whom McGavran was fond of saying; “I lit my candle at Pickett’s fire”.
As a senior at Butler University, McGavran attended the Student Volunteer Convention at Des Moines, Iowa during the Christmas season of 1919. Describing that event, he writes, “There it became clear to me that God was calling me to be a missionary, that he was commanding me to carry out the Great Commission. Doing just that has ever since been the ruling purpose of my life. True, I have from time to time swerved from that purpose but never for long. That decision lies at the root of the church-growth movement“.
As supervisor of eighty missionaries, five hospitals, several high schools and primary schools, evangelistic efforts, and a leprosy home, McGavran had become deeply concerned that after several decades of work his mission had only about thirty small churches, all of which were experiencing no growth. At the same time, he saw “people movements” in scattered areas of India where thousands of people in groups, rather than as individuals, were coming to Christ. He wondered why his denomination’s churches were growing at only one percent a year, while other churches were seeing much higher rates of conversions to Christ. In 1937 McGavran wrote a book called Founders of the India Church in which he turned the spotlight on humble Indians who began people movements. The ideas that later developed into Church Growth Thought are rather remarkably present in this publication. This was the creative period in McGavran’s life, as he was applying Pickett’s insights to Indian history, literature, and social structure. McGavran later called this “a most creative period”.
Through this study, McGavran discovered that of the 145 areas where mission activity was taking place, 134 had grown only eleven percent between 1921 and 1931. The churches in those areas were not even conserving their own children in the faith. Yet, in the other eleven areas the church was growing by one hundred percent, one hundred fifty percent, and even two hundred percent a decade. A curiosity arose within his breast that was to occupy his life and ministry until his death. He wondered why some churches were growing, while others, often just a few miles away, were not. He eventually identified four major questions that were to drive the Church Growth Movement.
1. What are the causes of church growth? 2. What are the barriers to church growth? 3. What are the factors that can make the Christian faith a movement among some populations? 4. What principles of church growth are reproducible?.
During this same time period, McGavran was quietly changing his view of mission and theology. In the formative years of his childhood, mission was held to be carrying out the Great Commission, winning the world for Christ, and saving lost humanity. This was the view McGavran held when he returned to the United States for his higher education. While attending Yale Divinity School, McGavran was introduced to the teachings of the influential Christian professor H. Richard Niebuhr. According to McGavran, Niebuhr “used to say that mission was everything the church does outside its four walls. It was philanthropy, education, medicine, famine relief, evangelism, and world friendship”. McGavran espoused this liberal view of mission when he went to the mission field in 1923. As he became involved in education, social work, and evangelism in the real world of India, however, he gradually reverted to the classical view that mission was making disciples of Jesus Christ. Commenting on this change he wrote, “As my convictions about mission and church growth were being molded in the 1930s and ‘40s they ran headlong into the thrust that mission is doing many good things in addition to evangelism. I could not accept this way of thinking about missions. These good deeds must, of course, be done, and Christians will do them. I myself was doing many of them. But they must never replace the essential task of mission, discipling the peoples of earth”.
The Bridges of God appeared in 1954, and it has since become known as the classic summons for missionaries to utilize the “bridges” of family and kinship ties within each people group thereby prompting “people movements” to Christ. This is contrasted with the “Mission Station Approach,” dominant in missionary strategy of the nineteenth century, whereby individual converts are gathered into “colonies” or compounds isolated from the social mainstream. McGavran claims that whereas the latter approach was necessary and useful in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “a new pattern is at hand, which, while new, is as old as the Church itself.”
In this missionary classic, first published in 1970, Donald A. McGavran skillfully combines theological convictions, empirical research, sociological principles, and spiritual insights to mold a paradigm for effective evangelism strategy both at home and abroad. This third edition, revised and edited by C. Peter Wagner, retains the book’s original aim and essence while modernizing the language and streamlining the flow of ideas, reducing the book’s bulk by 35 percent. Other features of this edition include an additional chapter on divine healing and an expanded, updated, and annotated reading list.
McGavran’s biography appeared this year written by one of his disciples, Vern Middleton, a former missionary to India and professor emeritus at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. Zaire Alliance missionary Ray Downey and a former VP of Global Ministries earned a Ph.D at the School of World Mission and studied under McGavran; Ray writes a review of the biography here.
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