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Donald McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth [1970]

Author: Evertt W. Huffard
Published: Winter–Spring 2018

MD 9.1

Article Type: Review Article

McGavran, Donald A. Understanding Church Growth. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. 314 pp.

In a 1986 survey of the development of the Church Growth Movement and the impact of Donald McGavran, Peter Wagner observed that Understanding Church Growth “remains an irreplaceable textbook for any serious study in the field of church growth, and it is already acclaimed as a mission classic.”1 That was only sixteen years after it was published, but what about a half a century later? This missions classic continues to influence how we understand the importance of socio-cultural context for the growth of churches.

The Author and Context

Donald A. McGavran (1897–1990) was born in India and served as a missionary in India for the Christian Church from 1923 to 1955. His maternal grandparents were sent to India as missionaries from London in 1854, appointed by William Carey’s Baptist Missionary Society. The parents of his paternal grandmother (the Gaftons) were early participants in the Stone-Campbell Movement and gave a farm to Alexander Campbell—on which Bethany College would be built. It was the president of that college who influenced McGavran’s father to become a missionary for the Christian Church in India in 1891. With degrees from Butler, Yale, and Columbia, as well as possessing gifts of debate, analysis, and teaching, he was a natural for directing the educational ministry of the mission in India. His experiences generated the defining question of his career—why do some churches grow and others do not? This curiosity resulted in a paradigm shift after his research with Waskom Pickett on mass movements in India (1933). This shift created a deep passion for disciple-making and a “demotion” to a mission assignment for 17 years among the Sitnamis, a sub-caste of Chamars in rural India. Two more decades of field research followed with the publication of The Bridges of God (1955), several case studies (in Puerto Rico [1956], Philippines [1958], Jamaica [1962], and Mexico [1963]), and books on group conversion (1956) and how churches grow (1959). With a rich family legacy in missions and momentum to change the paradigm of Christian missions, the “Father of the Church Growth Movement” published his magnum opus—Understanding Church Growth (UCG)—in 1970.2

Three Editions

In the summer of 1968, while recuperating from an operation, McGavran wrote twelve hours a day on the manuscript published in 1970 as Understanding Church Growth (382 pages with 104 bibliographical entries).3 It became a classic in missiology with the progression of thought regarding the growth of churches and influence of three editions (1970, 1980, and 1990).

In 1980 McGavran published an expanded edition of UCG with 480 pages and 164 bibliographical references. This edition extended the impact of the first volume from global missions to church growth within the USA. Most of the new bibliographical material reflected publications on church growth from McGavran since the 1970 volume. It added resources on church growth in the USA (from authors like Win Arn, Art Glasser, George Hunter, Lyle Schaller, and Peter Wagner), which surged to a new level of influence in the 1980s with the expanding programs at Fuller Theological Seminary, new organizations, and a multiplication of books.

McGavran added three chapters to the second edition. The chapter on “The Marvelous Mosaic” incorporated the typology of E-1 to E-3 evangelism from Ralph Winter and George Hunter.4 In the chapter on “Stream Across the Bridges,” he identified the factor that has the greatest influence on numerical growth in group-oriented societies as the strategy “to evangelize the natural fringes of the existing church.”5 The third chapter on “Setting Goals” offered tools for an assessment of growth rates (which was deleted from the 1990 edition since Wagner published a handbook on this in 1984).

In 1990, Peter Wagner, by this time an author of 30 books on church growth, published a revision of the 1980 edition, reducing it to 314 pages, deleting 49% of the bibliography and adding 127 new references. The additions reflected the growth in literature since 1980 with books by Win Arn, Harvie Conn, Eddie Gibbs, Art Glasser, George Hunter, Donald McGavran, Wilbert Shenk, Alan Tippett, Peter Wagner, and Wayne Zunkel. In the preface, Wagner expressed his desire to avoid presenting his version of McGavran since he had enough books published to accomplish that but sought to streamline the previous edition, update the material, and add a chapter on divine healing. One place Wagner failed to preserve McGavran’s perspectives came early in the book. In the first two editions, McGavran wrote: “Among other characteristics of mission, therefore, a chief and irreplaceable one must be this: that mission is a divine finding, vast and continuous. A chief and irreplaceable purpose of mission is church growth” (1970:32; 1980:24). However, in the third edition, Wagner changed it to “The chief and irreplaceable purpose.” (21).

What did McGavran discover about church growth?

1. The missio Dei leads every church to find seekers and nurture them to become responsible members of the body of Christ. He wrote (in all three editions) “In this world, mission must be what God desires. It is not a human activity but missio Dei, the mission of God, who himself remains in charge of it” (20). This view of mission calls for qualitative and quantitative analysis. He welcomed sociological, anthropological, and statistical resources to evaluate the execution of the mission. He struggled to justify massive expenditures in the mission station approach that did not produce viable new churches.

McGavran’s insistence on evaluating numerical growth and setting goals should be understood more as a conscientious effort to execute the missio Dei than as mere pragmaticism.6 He reacted to wasted resources, apathy toward status quo, and rationalization for non-growth in the face of global opportunities for evangelism. I have appreciated his strategic pragmatism as his way of equipping church leaders to be accountable with better tools for assessment.

Before judging McGavran as too pragmatic, listen to his prayers. When he taught a class, he would clip his prayers to his notes. Vern Middleton, a friend and colleague of McGavran in India, has published a biography of his earlier years. He collected a hundred of McGavran’s prayers—many from the classes he taught. Here is a prayer attached to notes that became chapter seven in UCG (1970):7

Gracious and loving God, our heavenly Father: We so easily work ahead in our own strength. We so readily forget your almighty power and your constant presence. We think of the work as ours and so quickly the transient things of life pass and we see so dimly the things that are eternal. As we bow here in your presence, pour on our consciousness the sense of your wonderful nearness to us. You are our Father, we are your children. You are the Real: we are the unreal. You are the Master; we are the servants. If we are missionaries of the Gospel, it is only because you are the Gospel and ceaselessly search for lost men. Be reconciled with God. . . . In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.8

2. The great obstacles to conversion are social, not theological. Theological obstacles are real and pervasive, but the social obstacles seem to be Satan’s first line of defense. Many of McGavran’s germinal perspectives relate to his boldness in addressing social realities. For example, he explained how the caste system created more obstacles than doctrinal differences.

Confronting these socio-cultural realities of disciple-making drew some of McGavran’s strongest criticism: Forrester characterized McGavran as “theologically inadequate,” and Huebel said he was “long on sociology and short on theology,” with no discussion on the doctrine of the church.9 William Abraham expressed concerns about a perceived gap between theology and praxis, between evangelism and the kingdom. Compelling evidence for the inability of church growth theology to address this can be found, according to Abraham, in the fact that the “competing and even conflicting doctrinal traditions have been able to embrace church growth theory without shedding any theological tears.”10 He was not alone in concluding that sociological considerations were more foundational to McGavran than theological considerations. While there is some validity to the critique, we must also ask what the theologians have to offer in response to the socio-cultural realities McGavran observed throughout the world. Missionaries can have good theology but weak methodology. His research led him to some of the following principles for making disciples in the real socio-cultural context that challenged the growth of churches.

3. “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers” (163)—also known as the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP). Harsh resistance to this principle came from people who did not understand its application. The principle relates to those outside the church, not to those within the diverse mosaic of the family of God. McGavran understood interethnic unity as a product of sanctification, not a requirement to become a disciple.11 If it were a requirement, then accepting Gentiles into the kingdom would have been required of Jewish believers in Acts 2, not left to spiritual maturation where the Spirit is allowed to transform—as in Acts 15. This principle does not condone racism in the church. He clearly stated (in all three editions) that: “My own considered opinion is that, in the United States, the refusal of any congregation to admit blacks as members is a sin” (174).

4. Fluctuating factors of receptivity must be studied extensively as they affect every aspect of world evangelization (179). Some of the causes of receptivity listed by McGavran would be new settlements, returned travelers, conquest, nationalism, religious change, and freedom from controls (182–86)—all examples of national and local contextual factors impacting growth.

5. If we win the winnable while they are winnable, then our mission strategy will focus on the masses more than the classes—with a sense of urgency (203–8). Western missionaries from middle-class backgrounds tended to create middle-class churches. “The strategy of winning the upper classes first has not worked. They will not be won. The middle classes have it too good” (204).

6. When “the church is established among the masses in the world, again and again, [growth] is stopped dead in its tracks” through redemption and lift (209–11). As new believers experience socio-economic lift with new access to medicine, education, fellowship, and better leadership they become sealed off from their former associates and church growth stops. So McGavran asks: “How then can the church lift and redeem Christians and yet have them remain in effective contact with receptive sections of society that they can influence? How can we keep goodness and educational advance from creating separation” (213)?

Rapid conversion of nominal believers or clusters of non-growing churches would not be a good response. He proposed using “a pattern of church growth that is indefinitely reproducible with the resources available to a given church” (218). Mission institutions, ministers employed through mission funds, and church buildings commonly challenge the reproducible potential of churches. “In short, the congregation should be of such structure and pattern that common people can operate it and multiply it indefinitely among the masses” (219).

7. The kingdom grows through people movements. This dynamic accounts for two-thirds of all converts in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. McGavran contrasted a Western methodology of “one-by-one-against-the-tide” that takes a single person out of their social context to become a Christian (244) with what he called “multi-individual, mutually interdependent decisions” with post-baptismal care (247). He wrote: “A people movement results from the joint decision of a number of individuals all from the same people group, which enables them to become Christians without social dislocation, while remaining in full contact with their non-Christian relatives, thus enabling other segments of that people group, across the years, after suitable instruction, to come to similar decisions and form Christian churches made up exclusively of members of that people” (223).

8. “If we are to understand church growth we must always assume multiple causes for each spurt of growth or period of retardation” (116). In the third edition of UCG Wagner included a valuable introduction to contextual and spiritual factors along with the institutional factors (19).

The Impact of Understanding Church Growth

At the first International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland (July 1974), McGavran gave a keynote address in which he repeated many of the themes from UCG: receptivity, evangelize the masses, methodological dimensions of E-1 to E-3 evangelism, and people movements.12 In the second Lausanne Congress in Manila in July, 1989, Thomas Wang, the director of the congress, affirmed the influence of McGavran. He observed that “since the ‘people group’ idea was popularized in the seventies through McGavran, Winter, and the Lausanne Movement, world evangelization suddenly became the ‘talk of the town’ and considered entirely possible.13 Elmer Towns observed that receptivity for church-growth concepts was “heightened by the 1970 publication” of UCG, along with Alan Tippett’s Church Growth and the Word of God and Ralph Winter’s The 25 Unbelievable Years: 1945–1969.14

In the second edition of The Complete Book of Church Growth (1985), the influence of McGavran and Wagner appears in the first line of the chapter on “Research and Scientific Analysis”: “Again and again in the writings of McGavran and Wagner it is affirmed that church growth is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit and the sovereignty of God. But their position urges churches to open their eyes and see the facts of growth as God has given them to us.”15

Wagner identified four “vehicles” that McGavran used to create the “Church Growth Movement” in the 1980s: (1) voluminous correspondence with Christian leaders all over the world, (2) publication of Bridges of God and Understanding Church Growth, (3) personal appearances that promoted church growth principles, and (4) founding the School of World Missions and the Institute of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary.16

McGavran documents the expanding influence of the Church Growth Movement as reflected in the enrollment of 277 students at Fuller in 1985 from 72 nations and the granting of 22 PhD degrees in missiology and 151 professional doctorates in missiology.17 The multiplication of graduate programs in missiology also reflected his influence at Columbia Bible College, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Trinity Divinity School, Concordia Seminary, Biola University, and Westminster Theological Seminary, where UCG would be used as a textbook for many years.

Time magazine ran a cover story on Christian missions in 1982, observing that “the most important change in Protestant missionary strategy in the past 10 years has been to identify and seek to contact some 16,000 tribes and social groups around the world that have been beyond the reach of Christianity.”18 For Wagner, “The intellectual seed for all this can, of course, be traced to McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth.”19

Still Relevant

Relevance makes a book a classic. UCG may not be reprinted in fifty years but it will continue to have relevance to the making of disciples among all nations.

  • McGavran’s call for “hard bold plans” in his last chapter still rings true. “In understanding church growth it is not enough to see the faulty assumptions that prevent maximum multiplication of sound churches. We must go on to devise and operate intelligent and adequate plans for establishing church after church through whole populations” (286). He challenged every generation to be intentional and strategic in the stewardship of their resources and gifts for the discipling of the nations.
  • Approximately 95% of all churches in North America are monoethnic in a world that is becoming more diverse, urban, and multiethnic. UCG offers fundamental principles for churches that are led by the Spirit to reach beyond their own kind of people. Because these churches are tempted to become exclusive, McGavran equips them to cross the bridges that God can create with the understanding that “the missionary obligation of each segmental church to evangelize across the linguistic, class, and race gulfs that surround it should be heartily emphasized” (263).
  • My experience in church consulting over the past few decades raises the importance of asking the right questions. The initial contact begins with a concern for stopping a decline, breaking the “200 barrier,”20 managing a conflict, or becoming more effective—all practical local institutional factors. Asking the right question determines the outcome. Is the issue the growth of the church or kingdom? Are we executing God’s mission, making disciples, or growing churches? Is the concern church growth or health?21 Is the source of growth God, the leaders, or the context? Should disciples of Christ give priority to redeeming lives, growing churches, or transforming their community? Influenced by UCG, I have found myself continually challenging churches to get on mission as followers of Christ Jesus and ask tough questions.
  • The purposes of God will be found in the multiplication of churches nurtured on the Bible and full of the Spirit as they make disciples among all nations. McGavran believed that “church growth follows where the lost are not merely found but restored to normal life in the fold—though it may be a life they have never consciously known. Faithfulness in folding and feeding . . . is essential to lasting church expansion. . . . Faithfulness in proclamation and finding is not enough. There must be faithful aftercare. Among the found, also, there must be fidelity in feeding on the word. Quality goes hand in hand with quantity” (6).
  • Churches will always be challenged to define their mission, a task that will keep UCG relevant. Churches typically turn inward—a tendency many of his critics missed.22 McGavran defined mission in tension with a secular worldview that involved schools, hospitals, healthcare, and attempts to “make the world a better place to live.” “But missions which proclaim Jesus Christ as God and only Savior, and persuade men and women to become His disciples, seem to secularists a fanatical sectarian process.”23 He coined the term “church growth” in the 1950s in response to the baggage that “evangelism” had by that time.24
  • A major generational shift we encounter today can be reflected in a deeper desire to know Jesus but reject the church. McGavran sought to bring the church back to the center of God’s mission in an era when parachurch organizations assumed that responsibility. He responded to these critiques in a chapter on “What is Mission?” and in a series of lectures at Westminster Theological Seminary (later published as Effective Evangelism: A Theological Mandate).25

UCG made a lasting contribution to understanding the task of discipling the nations, reaching unreached and neglected people groups, the contextualization of the gospel, urban missions, a church growth movement in North America with academic training, and an explosion of new literature on the subject. Other movements, like the missional church, provided a necessary theological supplement, but may also experience a “shelf-life.” The number of books with “church growth” or “missional” in the title has peaked, and courses offered today at seminaries would indicate a transition to something else.26 Classics like UCG enrich our understanding of the complexity of God’s involvement in history among his people through the power of the gospel.

Evertt W. Huffard is Professor of Leadership and Missions at Harding School of Theology and Facilitator of Church Equipping at Mission Resource Network.

1 C. Peter Wagner, Church Growth: The State of the Art (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986), 24.

2 Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).

3 Gary McIntosh, Donald A. McGavran: A Biography of the Twentieth Century’s Premier Missiologist (Church Leader Insights, 2011), 209.

4 E-1 evangelism would be to people outside a church but within the same culture, E-2 within a different but similar cultural background, and E-3 to people in a very different culture.

5 Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 410.

6 Critics seem to miss the difference between an insistence on numerical growth and using numerical data as one indicator of congregational effectiveness and faithfulness. See D. J. Hart for a critique of what he perceives as an emphasis on numbers in “Understanding Church Growth,” Calvin Theological Journal 18, no. 1 (April 1983): 99. Restricting the definition of “church growth” to numerical growth misrepresented McGavran and created false dichotomies. Jonathan Campbell proposed an alternative to the “pragmatic paradigm” in the Church Growth Movement with a “translational paradigm” in “Appropriate Witness to Postmoderns,” Appropriate Christianity, ed. Charles Kraft (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005), 462.

7 Unless noted otherwise, as in this case, “UCG” will refer to the third edition of Understanding Church Growth.

8 Vern Middleton, Donald McGavran, His Early Life and Ministry: An Apostolic Vision for Reaching the Nations (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2011), 304–5.

9 Duncan Forrester, “Understanding Church Growth,” Scottish Journal of Theology 37, no. 3 (1984): 421–23; Glen Huebel, “Understanding Church Growth,” Lutheran Quarterly 6, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 99–101. For him, “Lutheran theology of the cross clashes irreconcilably with McGavran’s theology of glory” (100).

10 William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 80; ch. 4 critiques UCG for not addressing more theological issues than search vs. harvest theology (79).

11 Donald A. McGavran, Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1979).

12 Donald A. McGavran, “The Dimensions of World Evangelization,” in Let the Earth Hear His Voice, ed. J. D. Douglas (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975), 94–115.

13 Thomas Wang, “The Great Commission Decade,” in Proclaim Christ Until He Comes, ed. J. D. Douglas (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1990), 358.

14 Elmer L. Towns, ed., A Practical Encyclopedia of Evangelism and Church Growth (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1995), 294.

15 Elmer L. Towns, John N. Vaughan, and David J. Seifert, The Complete Book of Church Growth (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1985), 190.

16 Wagner, Church Growth, 23–25.

17 Donald A. McGavran, Effective Evangelism: A Theological Mandate (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1988), 101.

18 Richard N. Ostling, “The New Missionary,” Time 120, no. 26, December 27, 1982, 52.

19 Wagner, Church Growth, 30.

20 The “two hundred barrier” refers to the phenomenon in a single-cell church that is unable to grow numerically without changes in organization, communication, decision making, and leadership.

21 Eddie Gibbs, “How Appropriate Is the Church Growth Paradigm in Today’s Mission Contexts?,” in Appropriate Christianity, ed. Charles H. Kraft (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005), 294. Gibbs prefers “growth” to “health” as it continues to keep two fields in tension—ecclesiology and missiology.

22 I. D. Bunting, “Understanding Church Growth,” Churchman 97, no. 2 (1983): 180–82, identifies the most severe challenge to McGavran as his narrow definition of mission; also, Lawrence R. Harris, “Understanding Church Growth,” Homiletic 6, no. 1 (1981): 30, critiques the single focus in mission that will “set aside the caring principles of Christian mission and witness.” Sabas J. Killian, “Understanding Church Growth,” Theological Studies 33, no. 1 (May 1972): 182, also challenged the narrow definition of mission: “If one continues to look at Church growth exclusively as saving souls and at theology as feeding the people with the one formula allowed, one can hardly speak of an understanding of Church growth today. In a diaspora situation, numbers reveal nothing at all.” Jeffrey I. Myers, “Understanding Church Growth,” Theology Today 38, no. 4 (January 1982): 496–97, challenged McGavran’s presentation of mission as either service or evangelism without reconciling the two. Kucnheria Pathil, “Understanding Church Growth,” Journal of Dharma 6, no. 4 (December 1981): 426–29, critiqued a narrow view of mission by encouraging Evangelicals to consider “the other point of view which sees mission and evangelization in the context of the total activity of God in the world.” A. J. White, “Understanding Church Growth,” Dialog 21, no. 4 (August 1982): 318–19, asked for a better definition of church and witness.

23 Donald A. McGavran, “What is Mission?” in Contemporary Theologies of Mission, ed. Arthur Glasser and Donald McGavran (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 24.

24 Towns, Practical Encyclopedia, 5.

25 McGavran, “What is Mission,” 15–29; McGavran, Effective Evangelism.

26 I could not find any reference to church growth on the website of Fuller Theological Seminary.

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