Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Donald McGavran's Reflections On The Church Growth Movement

Dr. Bob Orr
Proud to call Donald Mc Gavran
my friend and mentor

Reflections On The Church Growth Movement

Dr. McGavran is the father of the church Growth Movement and to hear at near the end of his earthly life a reflection on the church growth movement is a unique way to hear the heart of this faith giant. I have had the rare privilege of not only having the originals of these lectures but had the opportunity to be with Dr. Mc Gavran as he delivered them


The Final Lectures
Lecture 8

That the Gospel be Made Known

My pilgrimage in the twentieth century resulted from eternal God’s command.  In Romans 16:25 eternal God commands that the gospel be made known to all the peoples of the world, leading them to faith and obedience.  Every segment of society—rural and urban, literate and illiterate, high income and low income, factory workers and university professor—must hear the gospel.  It must be proclaimed with the intent to disciple every segment/group, that is, to make it a Christian segment of humanity.  This command must be seen against the enormous number of God’s lost children.  More than three-fourths of all mankind do not yet believe in Jesus Christ; they have not yet been saved.  Christians must, of course, be concerned to lead thoroughly Christian lives.  They must also realize that any such life must devote a large part of its thoughts, labors, and prayers to winning men and women to Christ and multiplying churches.
My pilgrimage was greatly influenced by three rivers of thought which dominated the twentieth century.  The first was a theological river.  At the beginning of the century most Christians and most ministers were distinctly biblical in their emphasis.  As decade succeeded decade, however, historical and literary criticism of the Bible produced in many denominations a sharp diminution of the authority of Scripture.  Since literary critics had that the Bible was made up of many different strands written by different authors at different times (J.E.P.D.Q. and the rest), it was increasingly easy for some Christians to emphasize those sections of Scripture that appealed to them and write off the rest as not authentic and infallible revelation.
Dr. Donald McGavran
For example, a professor in a neighboring theological seminary to whom I had quoted John 14:6 replied, “Well, McGavran, that verse does say that no one comes to the Father ‘but by me,’ but we must all recognize that at that point the latest editor of the book of John was waxing somewhat enthusiastic.”  Against this liberal current, Fuller and other theological seminaries were founded.
My pilgrimage was tremendously influenced both by eternal God’s commanded by the currents of theological opinion for and against biblical authority which have ebbed and flowed throughout the twentieth century.
The missionary movement, which in 1900 was carried on chiefly by the great missionary societies of the older Protestant churches, as a result of increasing liberalization and other forces gradually diminished.  The missionary movement of conservative evangelical missionary societies gradually increased.  My Christian faith and ministry has developed through the years in the midst of these great tides of conviction.
In the summer of 1919, shortly after I had been discharged from the army on my return from France, I decided that God was calling me to full-time Christian service.  In December of that year at the Student Volunteer Convention in Des Moines, Iowa, I decided to become a lifetime missionary.  I was then president of the senior class at Butler College in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Immediately on graduating in the summer of 1920 I entered Yale Divinity School and graduated cum laude in 1922.  While there my professors, all of whom had studied in Germany and were theological liberals and “modern scholars,” had convinced me of the truth of the liberal position.  The Bible which I read for the next fifteen years had the various strands (J.E.D.P. etc.) underlined in different colors.
Nevertheless, since my work during those years lay in India and was carried on in the Hindi language and since I was quite sure that the idol worshippers whom I addressed needed to abandon their idols to worship the true God revealed in the Bible and in Jesus Christ, the liberal position did not greatly affect my thoughts.  I used the Bible, read from it, and quoted it precisely as any evangelical Christian would.  But in the back of my mind theological liberalism still remained as my understanding of the truth.
This liberal position was reemphasized in 1930 when we returned to America on our first furlough.  I had been awarded a research fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York, an ardently liberal institution.  While I was studying there for my Ph.D., almost everything I heard and read reflected the liberal position.
On our return to India in October 1932 I was elected as field secretary of the seventy-missionary India Mission of the United Christian Missionary Society of Indianapolis.  This required much travel to all of our various stations.  It also required that when I as in Jubbulpore, our headquarters, I teach a Sunday School class of the men of the church.  These were mostly workers in the mission press with an average education of seventh or eighth grade.  My predecessor, Dr. William McDougall, had been a flaming liberal, a graduate of Chicago Divinity School.  He had taught this Bible class for the previous seven years.
A turning point in my theological pilgrimage took place one Sunday morning when I asked the class of some fifteen or twenty men, “When you read a biblical passage such as we are studying this morning, what is the first question you ask?”  One of the most intelligent workers in the mission press replied immediately.  “What is there in this passage that we cannot believe?” What he meant, of course, was that when we read the passage bout Jesus walking on the water, we know instantly that He could not have done that.  Consequently, we must understand the passage as an exaggerated or perhaps poetic account of what happened.
I had never before been confronted as bluntly with what the liberal position means to ordinary Christians in multitudinous instances.  It shocked me, and I began at that moment to feel that it could not be the truth.  Despite all the difficulties, I began to feel my way toward convictions concerning the Bible as infallible revelation.  It was God’s Word.  It was entirely dependable.  It was the rule of faith and practice of every true Christian.
Since my work after 1935 lay chiefly with illiterate idol-worshipping peasants in the great plain of Chhattisgarh, this conviction expressed itself not in sermons, dissertations, or articles written for professors in theological seminaries but rather in messages to the people among the million or more men and women of the caste to whose evangelization God had sent me.
Dr Win Arn. An early disciple of Donald M Gavran
and arguably the main impetus in the growth
 of Church Growth in America
For example, I found that when I told the story of the cross to most village audiences, whether of non-Christians or of Christians, they were likely to respond:  “Well, they caught up with the poor man and killed him.  That is exactly what the Hindus did to some of our own religious leaders.”  Consequently, when I prepared the outlines of twelve Bible accounts which were to be learned—indeed memorized—by village congregations, I wrote out the following four sentences which the village pastor was to use word for word and which his village congregations were to memorize word for word.  If they did this, they would think of the crucifixion in its true sense.  They could never again say, “They caught up with the poor fellow and killed him.”  The four sentences read as follows: 
The Lord Jesus Christ was God incarnate.  With one word He could have burned up all those who were crucifying Him—the Sanhedrin, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and all the rest.  But He came not to destroy people but to save them.  So He died in our place there on the cross.
I rejected the moral theory of the atonement which had been taught at Yale Divinity School.  I accepted the substitutionary view of the atonement which the Bible so clearly expresses.
My renewed conviction concerning biblical authority also motivated my concepts concerning missionary labors of all kinds.  I saw clearly that unless the Bible was accepted as indeed God’s authoritative, inerrant revelation, there was no reason at all for missionary labors.  Let the people of each great religion move forward at their own pace, reforming their own religion and gradually growing into a unified world society.  On the contrary, any real missionary movement must depend upon an authoritative Word of God made known in the Bible and manifested by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This is the only theological position which makes the communication of the gospel, the discipling of panta ta ethne (all the peoples), the multiplication of congregations in every segment of mankind absolutely essential.  This is the theological conviction which underlies the Church Growth Movement.
To the extent that this theological conviction is weakened, the missionary movement inevitably declines.  Why should anybody leave home and country to go to a foreign land, learn a foreign language, and live a very different kind of life unless it was indeed true that He to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given has commanded matheteusate panta ta ethne (disciple all the peoples)?
The second river of thought in which all missionary labor in the twentieth century has been carried on consists of the religious beliefs, cultural customs, physical resources, and ways of living of the segment of society being evangelized.  In the first half of the century it was considered essential for the missionary to know the religion of the population which he or she evangelized.  Were the missionary going to China, he or she must become well versed in Confucian and Buddhist thought.  In Africa, Islam or animism must be known; in India, Hinduism or Islam; and in Latin America, Roman Catholicism.  After 1950 or thereabouts, however, because of the tremendous popularity of anthropology in state universities, the need to know other religions was largely supplanted by the need to know anthropology.  Since most of the tremendous advances of the Christian faith in the twentieth century had taken place among animist tribal populations which had few if any religious books or well stated theological systems, anthropology did indeed furnish greater understanding of the peoples concerned.
The first professor whom I called to the faculty of the School of world Mission was Dr. Alan Tippett, Ph.D. in Anthropology.  If one is going to disciple any animistic tribe, it is most helpful to know its ways of thinking, living and acting—in short, its culture.
It remained true, however, that if one is going to evangelize Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Communists, or adherents of any other religion, he must know their religious beliefs.  He must have read their books and know their values, systems of theology and philosophy.
In the first half of the twentieth century, part of the preparation of my colleagues in the India Mission of the Christian Churches was to read a Hindi book called Shad Darshan Darpan, which described the six most common systems of Hindu philosophy.  My own doctoral dissertation (1932) described nineteen major beliefs of Hinduism and the effect which Christian education had on high school boys holding these beliefs.
When in 1966 the accrediting committee of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges visited the School of World Mission, it was displeased that it did not find us teaching comparative religion.  “How,” exclaimed one of its members, “can you run a school of missions and not teach comparative religions?”
As the Church Growth Movement took shape in my mind between 1933 and 1953, it was greatly influenced by this second river.  An effective disciple of panta ta ethne must know the religions, cultures, occupations, and ways of living of those to whom he preaches Christ.  He will be forming congregations of a specific kind of people who in hundreds of ways are different from the congregations he grew up among.  That is why the Church Growth school of thought constantly emphasizes that each segment of society (tribe, caste, class) as it becomes Christian should look somewhat different from denominations formed in other segments of society.  The Church—the Body of Christ—is indeed one; but like the human body it has many different parts.  Denominations made up very largely of illiterate landless laborers are not likely to look or sound like denominations made up of college graduates in up0er-middle-class American society.  Fingernails do not look or feel like eyes, but they are both integral parts of the body.  The Church Growth Movement urges that men and women become sincere practicing Christians while remaining uniquely and culturally themselves.  For example, vegetarian societies should remain vegetarian.  There is no need for a cultural component to be changed to fit the meat-eating habits of European populations.
As Christianity is thereby encouraged to flow in many different populations and men and women are enabled to become Christian while still remaining culturally themselves, the Church Growth Movement believes that many more will become disciples of the Lord Jesus.  It is not necessary for those who become Christians to become westerners, moderns, or highly educated, as long as they put aside all other gods, all other scriptures, believe on Jesus Christ as God and Savior, and accept the Bible as their rule of faith and practice.  They can become good Christians no matter what their cultural color happens to be.
A third river of thought also greatly influenced my pilgrimage.  This river consisted of an accurate account of the growth rate and patterns of the new churches being multiplied.  Responsible stewards of God’s grace must assemble an accurate picture of those turning to Christ and passing from death to life.  They must know whether the church is growing at one percent or 200% a decade.  The Lord of the harvest does not want laborers to come out of a ripe field bearing a sheaf every ten days.  He wants one every ten minutes.  He is not pleased when harvesters sit in the shade on the edge of some field to sing His praises.  He has sent them in there to bring out sheaves.  They must know how many they are bringing out.
As theological convictions formed in my mind and grew clearer and more definite year by year.  I saw that in a great majority of cases missionaries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the lands which I knew and in which I traveled, were indeed doing many good works—education, medicine, literacy, uplift, rural reconstruction, and the like—but in too many instances they were not being very effective in winning people to Christ, i.e., they were not obeying Christ’s command.  They were not acutely conscious of the number of sheaves they were bringing to the master’s barn.  Gradually I came to believe that every missionary and minister, every congregation, and indeed every sincere Christian must be tremendously concerned that the gospel be made known to and believed by many of his non-Christian, secular, agnostic, or atheistic neighbors and friends.
Fifty years ago, in 1934, I discovered that of the 145 towns and cities in mid-India where many missionary societies were at work—from the United States, Sweden, England, Canada, and the like—in 134 cases the Christian population was increasing at less than one percent a year!  As I studied missions in other lands, I found the same thing was true.  Most of this slow growth was explained on the basis that existing religions were tremendously opposed to any spread of Christianity.  This was true in some cases.  However, in many others the lack of growth was due to preventable causes.  In some cases less than 10% of the total resources of missions and denominations were spent on evangelism.  In other cases where a church had grown strong in one segment of society, “becoming a Christian” to other segments of society meant “leaving our people to join that people.”  Scores of other reasons practically guaranteed that sincere, devoted mission work led to very little, if any, church growth.
The Church Growth Movement, in consequence, has greatly emphasized accurate research into the effectiveness of church and mission labors.  It insists that not only must the amount and rate of growth be accurately charted, but also the real reasons for growth or lack of growth must be accurately known.  In almost every nation some evangelism is attended by great church growth; but most evangelism is attended by very little.  Christians must describe and memorize the cause both of growth and of non-growth.  Populations ripen at different times.  Those intending to obey ethereal God-s command to disciple all the peoples of earth must know which of the peoples are ready for discipling and which are resolutely opposed to it, which fields are white to harvest and in which must the seed now be sown for the first time.
As the science of missions (missiology) has developed, it has come to include a large number of subjects.  Knowledge of other religions, other cultures, history of missionary effort, theological foundations of the Christian faith, expertise in the language spoken, and on and on—all these are respectable parts of missiology.  There is grave danger, however, that these will come to be considered and taught as ends in themselves.  They must never be.  They must always be taught urging their students to keep their eyes fixed upon the degree of discipling which is actually being achieved in the specific population which they are evangelizing.
The tremendous spread of the Church Growth Movement since 1961, when the Institute of Church Growth was founded in Eugene, Oregon, has been surprising to everyone.  God has been at work doing far more than anyone expected or thought possible.  All Africa south of the Sahara is in process of becoming substantially Christian.  Competent authorities tell us that there will be 257 million Christian in Africa by the year 2000. Christianity in China has expanded amazingly, principally due to the house church movement there.  Vital Christianity is growing in the Philippines, Guatemala, Brazil and many other lands.
In all these cases the three rivers of thought which underlie the Church Growth Movement have been emphasized by awakened leaders of the denominations (Churches) and missionary societies.  Clearly we face the most receptive, responsive world ever to exist.  If Christians of all nations will now press ahead obeying eternal God’s command, we shall see tremendous church growth.  If the Lord tarries, the number of Christians in the world will grow from one-fourth to perhaps one-half in the coming decades.

My pilgrimage has taken place in the midst of these tremendous divine movements.  God has used the Church Growth Movement far more than any of us laboring at it had dared to ask or think.

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