Archive for September 23rd, 2014

Donald McGavan

A big name in missiology is Donald McGavran.  According to Wikipedia Dr. McGavran 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.


He was also someone important because of his People Movement Approach towards Missions.  While McGavran did not live long enough to see the Insider Movement, I do think the Insider Movement would not be what it is without McGavran’s People Movement Approach.  I also think that some of the things he has to say about his approach in contrast to what he calls the conglomerate church approach is not fully biblical and at times I don’t see how his model necessarily avoid the very problems that McGavran fault with the conglomerate model.  I think his approach shouldn’t be altogether dismissed but instead can benefit from the following criticisms being offered.  In what follows I am interacting with the following essay by McGavran in the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement:

McGavran, Donald. 2009. “A Church In Every People: Plain Talk about a Difficult Subject.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 627-632.

The purpose of his essay is not to argue that the conglomerate church approach is thoroughly wrong and his approach is the only one that’s right; rather the purpose of his essay is a little more modest as he himself said: “Let us make sure that we do it by the most effective methods” (McGavran, 632).  Essentially McGavran believes that the People Movement Approach would be more effective.  A Christian however should not just evaluate a method because it is “effective” but also how an approach align with Scripture; that is, we must evaluate any method with the question of whether it is being faithful to God’s Word.

What is Conglomerate Church Approach versus People Movement Approach?

Before we can go any further it is important to define and describe what is the conglomerate church approach and what is the People Movement Approach.  Several times McGavran describe the conglomerate church as the “one on one” convert approach.  He also described it in the following manner:

The missionary arrived.  He and his family worship on Sunday.  They are the first members of that congregation.  He learns the language and preaches the gospel.  He lives like a Christians.  He tells people about Christ and helps them in their troubles.  He sells tracts and gospels or gives them away.  Through the years a few individuals converts are won from this group and that.  Sometimes they come from a very sound and spiritual reasons; sometimes from mixed motives.  But here and there a woman, a man, a boy, a girl do decide to follow Jesus.

One single congregation arising in the way just described is almost always a conglomerate church–made up of members of several different segments of society.

(McGavran, 627).

On the other hand, in McGavran’s perspective a People Movement Approach is one in which “the goal must be a cluster of growing, indigenous congregations, every member of which remains in close contact with his kindred” (McGavran, 629).  McGavran gives us an example of what this approach looks like:

For example, if you were evangelizing the taxi drivers of Taiperi, then your goal would not be to win some taxi drivers, some university professors, some farmers and some fishermen, but rather to establish churches made up largely of taxi drivers, their wives and children, and their assistants and mechanics.  As you win converts of that particular community, the congregation has a natural, built-in social cohesion.  Everybody feels at home.  Yes, the goal must be clear”

(McGavran, 629).

McGavran’s Objection to the Conglomerate Church Approach

McGavran’s chief concern with the conglomerate church approach is that it is a group that is too mixed and ends up being ineffective for outreach.  This kind of church which is a collection of various odd groups of individuals in McGavran’s opinion ends up being seen as outsiders by the community which as a result make members become ostracized.  The concern that Conglomerate Church leads members being sealed off from the community is repeated again and again in McGavran’s essay:


It is sealed off from all the people groups of that region.  No segment of the population says, ‘That group of worshippers is us” (McGavran, 627-28).


A church which result from this process looks to the people of the region like an assemblage of traitors.  It is a conglomerate congregation.  It is made up of individuals, who, one-by-one, have come out of several different societies, cast or tribes” (McGavran, 628).

Third time,

‘You are not of us,’ they say to him; ‘You have abandoned us; you like them more than you like us.  You now ownership their gods not our gods.’  As a result, conglomerate congregations, made up of converts won in this fashion, grow very slowly” (McGavran, 628).

Fourth time,

We must not allow new converts to become seal off.  We must continue to make sure that a constant stream of new converts comes into the ever-growing cluster of congregations” (McGavran, 631).

And finally:

But is a slow way.  And it is a way which frequently seals off the converts’ own people from any further hearing of the gospel” (McGavran, 632).

McGavran’s concern faces two criticism.

First off, biblically speaking, we must not forget the Words of Jesus concerning the reality that believers of Jesus Christ will face persecution including being ostracized by one’s community for the sake of following Christ.  Note Luke 10:16, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.”  Note also Jesus’ words in John 15:20-21= “20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me,they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”  McGavran’s essay does not deal with these verses which is unfortunate since these verse do speak on the topic of being sealed off from one’s community and facing rejection.  In fact, the entire essay lacks any acknowledgement of a biblical understanding of the role of people’s sin in rejecting Jesus Christ and the reason why people persecute genuine Christians.

Secondly, it seems doubtful that the People Movement Approach would do any better than the Conglomerate Church model in avoiding being ostracism.  We must also remember that believers cannot control nonbelievers from rejecting us–ultimately, it is up to them and not us.  Moreover in the essay McGavran himself acknowledge the possibility that the People Movement Approach faces the exact same difficulties as the Conglomerate Church Approach when he writes of the People Movement Approach that “all converts should be encouraged to bear cheerfully the exclusion, the oppression and the persecution that they are likely to encounter from their people” (McGavran, 629).  He adds “Encourage converts to remain thoroughly one with their people in most matters.  Please note that word ‘most.'” (McGavran, 629).  I don’t see how Mcgavran’s exhortation for the People Movement Approach is unique or any different than the exhortation of those practicing the Conglomerate Church model.

Evaluating Mcgavran’s People Movement Approach

When we look at the essay’s description of the People Movement Approach more closely, two problems stand out.

The first problem is with what McGavran has to say about baptism: 

If only one person decides to follow Jesus, do not baptize him immediately.  Say to him, ‘You and I will work together to lead another five, or ten, or God willing, 50 of your people to accept Jesus Christ as Saviour so that when you are baptized, you will be baptized with them.’  Ostracism is very effective against one lone person.  But ostracism is weak indeed when exercised against a group of a dozen.  And when exercised against 200 it has practically no force at all” (McGavran, 630).

It is biblical to baptize an individual believer without having multiple converts with him or her as Acts 7 demonstrate with the case of Philip baptizing the Etophian eunuch.  Now I will grant that there might be some wisdom in wanting to see more people getting baptized at the same time but I think we must be careful to avoid conveying the idea that we must baptize only when many people come to faith.  I think this practice is also presumptuous.  If it turns out that conversion is taking place slower than one expected, do we then put off baptism of new believers for years until an arbitrary quota is fulfilled?  I also think the discussion of baptism also bring out the reality that the people movement approach still faces the same problem that McGavran has for the Conglomerate Church model in that the People Movement Approach (or any other approach for that manner) is still doing evangelism “one by one,” that is one individual at a time.  But even if there are sudden rush of people coming to be baptized, I also think McGavran’s reason for multiple baptism so as avoid being ostracized would also fail since we see the early church have moments when many come to faith yet believers can still face rejection from their community as in the instance of Acts 2.

The second problem has to do with what McGavran has to say about teaching versus reaching out:

One of the common mistake made by missionaries, eastern as well as western, all around the world is that when a few become Christians, perhaps 100, 200, or even 1,000, the missionaries spend all their time teaching them.  They want to make them good Christians and they say to themselves, ‘If these people become good Christians, then the gospel will spread.’  So for years they concentrate on a few congregations.

Between the two evils of giving them too little Christian teaching or allowing them to become a sealed-off community that cannot reach its own people, the latter is much the greater danger. (McGavran, 631).

I think we can easily have a false dilemma here, where MCGavran commits the fallacy of either/or when we can have a “both/and.”  Biblically we must not forget that the Great Commission is what drives Christian Missionary activities.  We must remember what Jesus said in Matthew 28:19-20:

19 [a]Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you [b]always, even to the end of the age.”

Note how the Great Commission involves “ teaching them to observe all that I commanded you;” if we don’t teach everything as one of our aim, then we are failing the Great Commission.

The Apostle Paul is a great exemplar of the Biblical model of a missionary who never lost the focus of evangelism to nonbelievers while also making sure new believers and churches continue to grow in the teachings of Christianity through face to face ministry and his epistles, some of which contain deep truths of God (think of the Epistles to Romans).

I also think McGavran falsely assume that the more teaching a believer has, the more likely he will be sealed off from their own people.  I don’t think logically that necessarily follow.  However, it is true that the more teachinga new believer recieves and applies the more that believer will become holy, which essentially mean “set-apart” for God.   Here I think McGavran commits an equivocation fallacy, in which he equivocate holiness with being “sealed-off.”

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