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Donald McGavran’s Bridges of God [1955]

Author: Shawn Daggett
Published: Winter–Spring 2018

MD 9.1

Article Type: Review Article

McGavran, Donald. The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005. 174 pp.

In 1986 when we began mission work in Italy, our goal was to involve as many people as possible in individual Bible studies. Initially we worked to surface contacts through teaching English using the Bible, interesting them in Christ, and leading them to make personal decisions to become followers of Jesus. Eventually, we became so swamped with the sheer numbers of people interested that we decided to insist on group studies. Suddenly our potential converts were meeting together, forming friendships, and sharing deep conversations about faith with people just like themselves. The church began to grow as people came more quickly to a decision to follow Jesus.

In some respects, our experience is a microcosm of the greater picture of Christian missions that McGavran addressed. Fueled by Western individualism, missions during the Great Century tended to extract would-be believers from their communities one soul at a time. Their changes in life, values, and worldview led to social ostracism. They were cut off from their own people and gathered in protected communities known as “mission stations.” In Bridges of God, McGavran underscores the need to bring people to Christ without destroying their cultural identity and connections. His conviction was that Christian churches grow much more rapidly when people move to Christ together with their social networks intact.


Donald A. McGavran (1897–1990) was born and raised in India where both his parents and grandparents were missionaries.1 After completing degrees at Butler University, Yale Divinity School, and the College of Missions, he and his wife, Mary, served as missionaries of the Disciples of Christ in India. They worked as educators, evangelists, church planters, and missions administrators from 1923 to 1954.2 After their second term of mission work, Donald obtained his PhD from Columbia University. By the 1930s his attention turned to research. Inspired by W. Pickett’s Christian Mass Movements in India, McGavran became consumed with the question, “Why do some churches grow, and others do not?”3 While serving as secretary for the Indian Mission, McGavran cooperated with Pickett in researching the phenomenon of group conversion in central India. They discovered that when families were allowed to become Christians without breaking ties to their extended networks of relatives and friends, church growth was more rapid and healthy. McGavran’s peers in the Indian Mission disregarded his findings and failed to elect him to another term as secretary. For the next two decades, he evangelized among the low-caste Satnami people, bringing around one thousand people to faith and establishing fifteen fledgling congregations.4 The response could have hardly qualified as a “people movement,” but his experiences and insights gained in evangelism during that period led to the eventual publication of Bridges of God (1955). Recognizing that McGavran was becoming a forward thinking expert in missions, his sponsor, the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS), sent him to continue his study of church growth in more than a dozen countries on five continents.5 In 1965 McGavran accepted an invitation to move his newly founded Institute for Church Growth from Northwest Christian College to Fuller School of Theology where, together with other outstanding scholars such as Alan Tippett, Charles Kraft, C. Peter Wagner, and Arthur Glasser, he extended his greatest influence on missiology.6


In Bridges of God, McGavran asks and answers one basic question, “How do peoples become Christian?”7 His predominant thesis in response to the query is that families, clans, and tribes more quickly and completely become followers of Jesus when they are encouraged to maintain their cultural identity and nurture their existing social and familial relationships.

The author begins by outlining the problem of slow church growth among a rapidly growing world population and the insufficiency of existing explanations for explosive growth where present. During “a period of cataclysmic change,” McGavran calls readers to recognize that the world will find unity and peace either in secular materialism or in Christian fellowship (3). Since the former leads ultimately to despondency, only the later solution will heal the world’s ills. McGavran affirms that societal upheaval is creating an opportunity for conversion unequaled in centuries, yet despite its widespread global presence, the Christian faith has stagnated. Miniscule percentages of the largest populations of Asia and the Islamic world adhere to Christianity. Missionaries must discover how peoples become Christian. The Nevius method of unpaid national evangelists and the centrality of Bible study, outreach to animistic tribes, and persistent work over long periods of time have indeed garnered modest results in a few places, but these approaches fail to furnish a universal solution to the challenge of moving peoples to Christ (5–6).

McGavran traces the contemporary paralysis of the Christian movement to Western individualism, which promoted independent decision as the pervasive norm for conversion. Blinded by their preference for autonomy, evangelists have overlooked the importance and power of community life and even communicated that the choice to follow Christ is more virtuous if done in solitude or against the will of one’s family. Individualized conversion may have become the norm in the West, but this is not so in the rest of the world. “To Christianize a whole people, the first thing not to do is to snatch individuals out of it into a different society” (10). Personal conversion is certainly necessary but should not be done in isolation or divorced from one’s family ties. Mission leaders need to “see life from the point of view of a people to whom individual action is treachery. Among those who think corporately, only a rebel would stride out alone, without consultation and without companions” (11). In much of the non-Western world, a person does not think of oneself as a “self-sufficient unit, but as part of the group” (11). Peoples become Christian when, thinking as a group, they move together as a “chain reaction” (12). This sociological phenomenon, when understood properly, becomes the lens through which the Great Commission can best be put into practice. The aim is to “disciple” “peoples” in such a way that individuals are united around the conviction that they must abandon other idolatrous affections and bind themselves loyally to Christ (14). Christ must be acknowledged as their only sovereign Lord.

In the next two sections, McGavran seeks to illustrate and legitimize the people movement principle through an examination of biblical and historical examples. McGavran attempts to demonstrate that such large numbers of people came to Christ among Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles, that no convert was completely ostracized upon conversion, because the Christian community was too large. In fact, the Jews turned to Christ in such large numbers that McGavran’s contemporary critics would have probably rejected the validity of their conversions. The followers of Jesus multiplied from 120 to 3,000 to more than 5,000 as “families came in, not individual men” (19). As Christianity spread geographically, Jews took the new belief with them so that in every town, there were Christ-followers in each synagogue. McGavran observes, “It shows that peoples become Christian fastest when the least change of race or clan is involved” (23). The first gentile convert, Cornelius, was isolated from his extended family by distance, otherwise his conversion would have begun a people movement. At Antioch, where a people movement across cultural lines did occur, there were anonymous Christians who served as bridges between the Jews and Greeks (24). In Antioch Paul learned a reproducible method of spreading the movement. McGavran writes, “He was shown which Gentiles the Holy Spirit had prepared for conversion, and how the Jewish Movement to Christ was the bridge across which the Christian Faith could spread to the Greeks” and suggests that the Antiochine Christians wanted to reach their relatives on Cyprus and the mainland (27).

Citing Paul’s many connections as seen in Romans 16, McGavran maintains that Paul sought to preach and expand Christianity by working through this kinship network that extended all the way to Rome and by turning away from places that were unlikely to respond positively. In contrast with the missionaries of McGavran’s day, he did not linger for a hundred years where people were not becoming Christians. “On the contrary, going to relatives and kinsmen, to show who could and did become Christians, was the habitual procedure” (30). “He did not choose fields. He followed groups of people who had living relations in the People Movement to Christ” (31). Paul succeeded in extending the message through “Gentiles on the bridge” who had connections with Christianity through the synagogue (34). In this section McGavran sees through the lens of his church growth paradigm through which all mission work demonstrates the truth of the people movement principle. If the church grew, it did so by utilizing this truth. If it failed, the principle had been ignored.

McGavran then turns to surveying the spread of Christianity down through the centuries. In the first four hundred years, people either made individual decisions with low cultural identity that resulted in the stagnation of the movement, or the movement became a “one-people” church as in Alexandria, Egypt. Northern Europe witnessed group movements to Christ that only changed loyalties without the perfecting of life. During the Reformation, “Luther, Calvin, Knox were not content to expound a purified faith and then let all who wished to enter to do so one by one. . . . Their leaders made the choice, partly on religious, and partly on political grounds, and the population followed their leaders” (40).

In the chapter “The Characteristic Pattern of the Great Century,” McGavran provides a comprehensive explanation for the development of the ineffectual and ubiquitous missions-station approach. When the Protestant missionary movement began to take wing in the early 1800s, missionaries attempted unsuccessfully to span the cultural and economic gulf created by the West’s privileged status compared to the rest of the world that was not yet enjoying the same degree of wealth. Living arrangements, standard of living, and the color of skin contributed to the missionaries’ inability to “melt into the generality of the inhabitants of the land as Paul could” (43). White missionaries who were especially susceptible to disease isolated themselves from the people to whom they brought the message. There were a few exceptions among the most successful Westerners who learned the language and formed meaningful relationships with the people. Of this period, McGavran comments, “Casual contacts may win a few individuals to a new faith, but unless these individuals are able to start a living movement within their own society, it does not start at all” (45). In an attempt to adapt to this situation, the missions-station method evolved. Originating out of an individualism that called converts to “come out and be separate,” converts left their homes and moved to a newly founded colony. McGavran writes, “To gather a compound full of Christians out of a non-Christian population seemed a good way to proceed” (46). What should have been a temporary phase eventually produced one of two results: either new Christians were isolated from their own people and the movement stagnated, or the missions station happened to be established among a highly receptive people and experienced moderate growth. In either case, the missions-station approach was intended to be an initial stage to a larger growing movement. However, “conversions were mainly out of the tribe, out of the caste, and indeed out of the nation” (49). Converts were not just joining a new religion, but a foreign way of living. When missionaries experienced little response with this approach, rather than make disciples of converts, they institutionalized and turned to educational and medical work. An unintended but inevitable consequence resulted in churches becoming a smaller part of the missions station. The mother station was bigger than what local churches could sustain and supply and created “the idea that to be a Christian is to receive aid from institutions rather than to live a Spirit-filled life” (59). Although the products of this work often became national leaders and led to “national rebirth” in some locations, Christians were not the only ones offering schools and hospitals anymore, and their influence was waning (62). The stations had come to offer little spiritually, only the “material without a soul” (66).

Nevertheless, mission stations have occasionally produced people movements among such peoples as the Karens of Burma, Churas of Pakistan, and the Batak of Indonesia where “almost every activity of the station contributes to the conversion of chains of families” (75). McGavran argues that contrary to criticism, such movements now numbering in the millions are not nominally Christian. Just because people come to Christ in large numbers does not necessarily mean their commitment is weaker. He also observes that rapid growth and overwhelming challenges create conditions that further fuel the expansion of the movement. When foreign missionaries are swamped, they must entrust preaching to nationals, who usually remain unencumbered by material wealth and the financial burden of maintaining the edifices of the mission station. McGavran observes, “It is generally agreed that the less physical and financial support the missionary gives the indigenous Christians and the congregations, the better” (78). These swiftly expanding movements enjoy the advantages of being naturally indigenous and independent of Western missions that spawn the formation of locally led churches. “Being a Christian is seen to mean not a change in standard of living made possible by foreign funds, but change in inner character made possible by the power of God” (91). McGavran argues that holy living and strong dedication do not guarantee growth. What is needed is contact. “Christianity, like electricity, flows best where there is good contact” (93).

In the remainder of the book McGavran focuses on the implementation of a new strategy that prioritizes the reallocation of financial and human resources to receptive fields among people movements. He describes the approach, provides the reasons for it, and advocates for much-needed research to advance it. McGavran describes the strategy simply as co-operating with growing churches. He states, “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” (109). Growing churches are those organized cells in which members convert without social dislocation, marry without entering a new marriage market, and interact without betraying kindred. The real test, writes McGavran, is whether men and women are accepting baptism in groups that maintain ties with relatives at home. Aspects of this strategy include staffing missionary stations lightly and optimizing those stations which operate among responsive people movements by developing positive attitudes toward group conversion, focusing on the people group that is most winnable, and embracing the realities of tribe and caste. New work established among people movements should: (1) establish self-government from the start; (2) entrust infant churches to the work of the Holy Spirit; (3) delegate discipline to the new church rather than being imposed by missionary; (3) train missionaries to work not paternally over the people movement but submissively as servants; (4) nurture social improvement as it comes from the new church as the “normal fruit of the Spirit”; and (5) encourage systematic giving. McGavran suggests specific ratios of workers under this new system reckoned not by missionaries to non-Christians, but “missionary assistants” to the number of new Christians. Among mission stations there should be one missionary to 3,000. Among most people movements one to 500, and among the most vigorous movements one to 200.

In this last section of the book, the author offers his most practical reasons for the adoption and implementation of the people movement strategy. He argues that for far too long non-growing churches have consumed all our mission efforts and these non-functioning bridges should transfer money, support, and workers to growing churches. McGavran contends, “If winning men for Christ and the establishment of Churches is the goal of missions, then such transfers need to be considered most seriously by leaders of Christian work” (145). Since not all missions activity should be assigned the same level of importance, existing funds should be used to do the greatest good. Mission stations are too expensive and should be placed, in a simplified and sustainable form, in the hands of nationals. Proponents of the status quo might object, “What about the people who have never heard?” McGavran replies that if they are unresponsive, then works among such people “veer away” the proclamation of the gospel where it is most effective. McGavran believes that the best way to reach the unreached is not by foreigners working in hostile environments but by seeking people movements (119).

Bridges of God concludes with McGavran’s call to increase research in church growth in order to define the new strategy’s objectives and to measure its achievements. Separate records for people-movement and mission-station approaches should be kept and compared. Research questions should include: (1) Is it possible to predict growth rates? (2) What degree of growth constitutes a healthy movement? (3) How can faith be transmitted from one culture to another? (4) What are the causes of arrest to people movements? and (5) How much training do workers need? McGavran anticipated that his book would be aggressively attacked but that proper research would bolster his arguments and approaches.


With the publication of Bridges of God, Donald McGavran called into question the prevailing mission method and sought to replace it with a completely new paradigm with far-reaching effects. As he himself acknowledged, at the time of writing of his book, the missions-station approach was universally accepted, unquestioned, reigned supreme, and dominated practically all missionary thinking (100). McGavran changed all that. Although some mission compounds persist by riding the momentum of a century or more, these efforts are now patiently tolerated rather than actively promoted among missiologists and informed missionaries. He carried the ideas of Rufus Anderson, Henry Venn, and Roland Allen to their practical and radical implementation.8 He effectively advocated a less compassionate, more objective, yet painfully necessary weaning of mission stations from foreign resources that needed to be redeployed where people movements were growing. McGavran’s new approach would guide missionaries to abandon one-by-one conversions, open their eyes to see the power of group identity, and appreciate the valuable insights provided by anthropology and sociology.9

The timing of the publication of the book in 1955 was providential. Countries were rejecting foreign domination and seeking independence. Emerging nations were declaring, developing, and obtaining independence. Racial tensions and cries to end segregation dominated American domestic concerns. McGavran’s approach required cultural sensitivity, respect for existing social networks, and humility by missionaries who were to work as partners, servants, and assistants. The new missionary replaced domination with servanthood, institutions with relationships, and isolation with incarnational presence. McGavran’s work provided a necessary corrective to the “moratorium on missions” and a resurgence of cross-cultural evangelism.10 McGavran’s writing called mainline Protestant churches to a revitalization of evangelism and introduced conservative evangelicals to principles of anthropology. Finally, among the many other important contributions of Bridges of God to the cause of Christian missions is Donald McGavran’s insistence that careful research be conducted to discover the primary determining factors to church growth. This publication together with his church growth research over the next decade and the gathering of preeminent mission scholars at Fuller contributed in a major way to the “restoration of Christians missions as a serious and viable subject of study and research.”11

Relation to Contemporary Thought

It is difficult to calculate the degree to which McGavran’s writing and work have affected contemporary missions. His work provided the foundational principles and impetus for the Church Growth Movement, incarnational missions, the Church Planting Movement, and Discovery Bible Studies. Megachurch leaders, such as Rick Warren, trace much of their success to the modern application of McGavran’s principles. Today’s churches cannot operate like nineteenth-century mission stations that sought to attract adherents out of their socio-cultural contexts. Instead, today’s missionaries must honor existing social ties and strive to share the gospel in culturally relevant ways.12 According to Warren, he began to rethink how to do evangelism while working as a student missionary in Japan when he stumbled across a magazine article discussing McGavran’s Bridges of God. Seeking to find the answers to McGavran’s church growth questions provided the direction for Warren’s work with Saddleback Church.13

Today some of McGavran’s principles continue to be controversial. According to McGavran, churches reach people more quickly when they take advantages of “natural bridges of family, clan and culture.” Monocultural churches draw immigrants who are reluctant to join Caucasian churches. These churches may grow faster, but unless they become multicultural in practice and theology, they can harbor prejudice, racism, and segregation.14 Some statements in Bridges of God are alarming when heard through North American ears today. For example, “people like to become Christians without crossing racial, class, or linguistic lines” is a statement that sounds racist by today’s standards.15 In light of God’s desire to abolish racial barriers (Eph 2:12–16) and make Christians of all races “one in Christ” (Gal 3:28), McGavran’s homogenous unit principle may be a good strategy, but it is poor theology. Today’s critics concede that people may come to Christ without crossing racial boundaries, but they need to quickly be exposed to the multicultural essence of God’s kingdom.16


McGavran’s Bridges of God established the dominant missions and church growth philosophy for the last half-century, but today’s world presents a different set of challenges and opportunities. Today, inactive, cloistered, and self-absorbed Christians, not mission stations, present one of the greatest hindrances to the growth of the church. Today’s churches suffer, in some respects, the same maladies as the traditional missions station, including isolation from surrounding contexts and a focus on one-by-one conversions. The growth of global Christianity, generated especially by the mission work of non-Westerners, has narrowed the number of receptive untouched fields. Today, the presence of large people movements among unreached populations no longer corresponds completely to our reality. The vast majority of the unreached are in countries that are predominantly Muslim. These unreached are more resistant to offers of the Christian gospel and are frequently hostile to it. There are some people movements to Christ among Muslims, and remnants of McGavran’s principles continue to steer evangelism among quickly growing churches.17 Prayer, sacrifice, and courage, however, will also be needed to propel the church into the most resistant and untouched fields.

Shawn Daggett is the Director of the Center for World Missions at Harding University. He and his wife Donna served as missionaries to Bergamo, Italy, from 1986 to 1996 after which he began teaching at Harding. From 2000 to 2003, while studying at Boston University, he and Donna worked with the church in Natick, Massachusetts. They continue their connection with Christians in the Northeast through directing Gander Brook Christian Camp each summer in Raymond, Maine. Shawn has taught courses in missions history, missionary anthropology, mission strategies, the Gospel of John, and other missions and textual courses.

1 Gary L. McIntosh, Donald A. McGavran: A Biography of the Twentieth Century’s Premier Missiologist, Kindle ed. (Boca Raton, FL: Church Leader Insights, 2015), loc. 665.

2 George G. Hunter, “Donald A. McGavran 1897–1990: Standing at the Sunrise of Missions,” in Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, ed. Gerald Anderson, et al. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 516.

3 “McGavran, Donald A(nderson),” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 449.

4 Gary L. McIntosh, “Celebrating Donald A. McGavran: A Life and Legacy,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2015): 425.

5 Hunter, 516. See also, McIntosh, “Celebrating.”

6 McIntosh, “Celebrating.”

7 Donald Anderson McGavran, The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions (New York: Friendship Press, 1955), 1.

8 Rufus Anderson, To Advance the Gospel: Selections from the Writings of Rufus Anderson, ed. R. Pierce Beaver (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). Henry Venn, To Apply the Gospel: Selections from the Writings of Henry Venn, ed. Max Alexander Cunningham Warren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971). Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

9 McIntosh, “Celebrating,” 430.

10 Hunter, “Donald A. McGavran,” 521. National church leaders, such as John Gatu of Kenya, rejected the authoritarian and paternalistic practices of Western missionaries and called for a “moratorium.” Among mainline Protestant churches, this resulted in a near halt of mission involvement and evangelism altogether. See A. Christopher Smith, “Moratorium,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 659.

11 Hunter, “Donald A. McGavran,” 518.

12 Jonathan Mahler, “The Soul of the New Exurb,” The New York Times, March 27, 2005, 33.

13 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 29.

14 Douglas Todd, “Churches with One Culture Troubling,” Toronto Star, November 29, 1997, M22.

15 George McHendry, “Who Started Megachurches Anyway?” Daily Camera 2008, 33.

16 Todd, M22.

17 See David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God Is Drawing Muslims around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ (Monument, CO: WIGTake, 2014). For a discussion of possible people movements among Buddhists see Todd Pokrifka-Joe, “Prospects for Indigenous People Movements in the Buddhist World: A Call for Collaborative Local and Global Theologizing,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (2016): 149–156.

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