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Donald Anderson McGavran (Wed., December 15, 1897 – Tue., July 10, 1990) was a missiologist who was the founding Dean (1965) and Professor of Mission, Church Growth, and South Asian Studies at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A child of missionaries in India and later a missionary himself (1923–1961), McGavran spent most of his life trying to identify and overcome barriers to effective evangelism or Christian conversion.
McGavran identified differences of caste and economic social position as major barriers to the spread of Christianity. His work substantially changed the methods by which missionaries identify and prioritize groups of persons for missionary work and stimulated the Church Growth Movement. McGavran developed his church growth principles after rejecting the popular view that mission was ‘philanthropy, education, medicine, famine relief, evangelism, and world friendship’ and become convinced that good deeds – while necessary – ‘must never replace the essential task of mission, discipling the peoples of the earth’.
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”.
Pickett and McGavran were both influenced by the ministry of John R. Mott and the Student Volunteer Movement. The missionary awakening at Mount Hermon, Massachusetts in 1886, which was led by Dwight L. Moody, resulted in one hundred students dedicating themselves to missionary service and the founding of the Student Volunteer Movement. The slogan—“the evangelization of the world in this generation”— became a watchword for missions during the first two decades of the twentieth century. 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".
Pickett served in India for forty-six years as pastor, editor, publisher, secretary of Christian councils, and bishop in the Methodist Church. Reflecting how John R. Mott influenced him to look for results, he writes, "Acting on advice given to me by the great missionary statesman, John R. Mott, I had determined to challenge every assumption that I could recognize as underlying the work of my Church in India, not to prove any of them wrong, but to find out, if I could, whether they seemed to be right or wrong as indicated by their results". In 1928 Pickett was asked by the National Christian Council of India, Burma, and Ceylon to make an extensive study of Christian mass movements in India. The study required the development of research instruments, tests, and study of ten representative areas. The results were published in Christian Mass Movements in India.
McGavran read Pickett’s book, enthusiastically endorsed it, and recommended to his mission headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana that they employ the services of Pickett to study why similar mass movements to Christ were not happening in their ministry area of mid-India. 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. McGavran assisted Pickett in the study and became the chief architect of the study in Madhya Pradesh. The results of the study were published under the title Christian Missions in Mid-India, which was later revised in a third edition to Church Growth and Group Conversion. 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” (Letter to Herb Works dated December 11, 1973).
Questions and motives driving the Church Growth Movement
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".
As McGavran’s theological views turned more conservative, and his studies of growing churches increased, he began to fervently encourage his mission and fellow workers to engage in direct evangelism. When his three-year term as mission secretary was up in 1936, he was not reelected. According to McGavran, in effect the mission said to him, “Since you are talking so much about evangelism and church growth, we are going to locate you in a district where you can practice what you preach”. It was clearly a demotion as evangelists worked with the poorly educated and illiterate people. Believing that it was God’s leading, however, McGavran accepted his new appointment and spent the next seventeen years trying to start a people movement to Christ among the Satnamis caste. He felt his work was somewhat successful, but no people movement resulted. About one thousand people were won to Christ, fifteen small village churches were planted, and the Gospels were translated into Chhattisgarhi. The years did, however, see the formation of his Church Growth Theory out of the hard realities of missionary service. He was no ivory tower theoretician!
McGavran often repeated the phrase "Matheteusate panta ta ethne," "make disciples of all the nations" (Matt. 28:19 NKJV). The verse reference and motto is found at the top of his headstone.
- McGavran, Donald A. (1986). "My Pilgrimage in Mission". International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 10 (2): 53–57.
- Hunter, III, George G. (1992). "The Legacy of Donald A. McGavran". International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 16 (4): 158–162.
- Pickett, J. Waskom (1973). God, Man, and Church Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 6.
- Pickett, J. Waskom (1933). 1933 Christian Mass Movements in India. Lucknow, India: Lucknow Publishing House.
- McGavran, Donald A.; et al. (1936). Christian Missions in Mid-India. Lucknow, India: Lucknow Publishing House.
- Donald and Mary McGavran Papers, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.