Billy Graham Center

"Among All the Thousands of Pieces of the Human Mosaic: The Last Decade of Donald A. McGavran"

[Presentation based on the Archives' Collection 178 given by Robert Shuster to Wheaton College alumni in Barrows Auditorium in the Billy Graham Center on May 11, 2002. This was part of the larger Treasures of Wheaton program, one of the events of Commencement Weekend. This version of the speech on the web is a slightly corrected and revised version of the original talk.]

In 1987, the faculty, staff, and alumni of the School of World Mission at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, along with many interested friends, gathered to celebrate the 90th birthday of Donald A. McGavran, who had trained a generation of Christian workers, among other accomplishments. David Hubbard, the president of Fuller, could not be there, but the message he sent, read by dean of the school of world mission Paul Pierson well summarized McGavran and his impact.

The Billy Graham Center Archives is the custodian of the ninety-nine boxes of the papers of Donald and Mary McGavran, thanks to the generosity of Dr. McGavran himself, his family and Fuller Seminary. These documents are a rich mine for information on the church worldwide in the last half of the twentieth century, on missions and missions theory, on evangelism. But they also, of course, tell the story of this remarkable man.

I would like to share with you a few things from this collection about Donald McGavran. It includes everything from Collection 178, Box 53, Folder 6 school boy doodles to mementos from his army days to Collection 
178, Box 13, Folder 14love letters to his fiance Mary to records of his work as missionary, evangelist , scholar, teacher, speaker and author to the private tributes people paid to him after his death as well as the public ones.

Collection 178, Box 60, Folder 4

I would like to use the rest of my time to give a brief summary of his life and then highlight his last decade, from 1980 to 1990, since those years are so reflective of the man.

Donald Anderson McGavran was born 105 years ago in 1897 in Damoh, India, the son and grandson of missionaries of the Baptist and Christian Churches (the Christian Church is also known as the Disciples of Christ). He gave his life to Christ at a church meeting in Oklahoma at the age of 14. He went to Butler University for higher education He look a leave of absence in 1917 to join the Army when the United States entered World War I. Photo file: McGavran, Donald A.Here are he is as a young man with his family and Photo file: McGavran, Donald at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

After being discharged, he returned to the United States and finished his course work at Butler. There he met Mary Howard, who would become his wife. He completed his education at Yale Divinity School and the College of Missions. He and Mary were Collection 178, 
Box 53, Folder 4 wed in the summer of 1922 and left for India in 1923.

India was their home for the next 31 years. Here they raised their family of six children, and here one of them was buried. They served at Harda, Jubbulpore, and Takhatpur, holding a variety of jobs. Mary was superintendent of a girls' school, ran an adult literacy program, was business manager of a hospital, and did home visitation evangelism, among other tasks. Collection 178, Oversize Drawer 33, Folder labeled This 1934 poster illustrates her similar evangelistic work among women. Donald (who got his doctorate at Columbia University during a furlough in the 1930s), was director of education for the India field, a member of the mission's executive committee, director of a leporsarium, Bible translator and an evangelist to many castes, particularly among the so-called untouchables. ( He had in fact in the 1930s clashed with no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi over the Christian's right to evangelize among the Untouchables.)In 1950, Donald produced a film on their work for the couple's supporters in the United States. Here is a brief clip:

In India McGavran began an intense study of the church around him. "Why do some churches grow and others do not?" he wondered, that is grow in the sense of winning large numbers of unbelievers to Christ. Over the next two decades he pursued this question, combing research and writing with his own evangelistic work and building on the work of others, such as J. Wascom Pickett.

[click ] The McGavran family returned to the United States on furlough in 1954. This is a translation of one of the many memorials they received from Indian Christian congregations and institutions, thanking them for their service and hoping they would come back. Donald intended to use the time to complete the work on Bridges of God, which summarized the conclusions he had reached about church growth, and then return to India. But it was not to be. He began to survey other parts of the world to discover people groups ripe for evangelism. He also lectured widely around the country on his theories. These theories were a connected set of ideas. Missions should strive to speedily prepare a set of national leaders to take over the work of evangelizing their own country. The work of evangelism should concentrate on discovering receptive people groups (which might be defined by ethnic, linguistic, or social factors, or a combination of these) and concentrate on preparing Christians within these groups to serve as the means of bringing large number to Christ, making full use of kinship and friendship networks. Churches needed to always be reconsidering the cultural factors that made it easier or harder for people to consider the Gospel in a changing world.

Critics would accuse church growth, on the one hand, of being a pragmatic, mechanical approach concerned with statistics instead of souls and on the other of emphasizing cultural differences to the detriment of Christian unity.

But this was never McGavran's understanding of his ideas. He at one and the same time had a vision of the church as completely unified in Christ and also made up of a vast diversified mosaic of peoples and tongues. "Mosaic" was the image he used over and over for both humanity and the church. As he one said in a prayer [Prayer prayed at the beginning of the January 8, 1979 class. Except from tape T34, Collection 178. For the complete prayer, click ] ,

McGavran met both opposition and indifference during the first years of propagating his ideas. Here are some comments on this period of his life that he made many years later:

But after he passed his sixtieth birthday, he began to have the impact he had prayed for and strived for for so long. He was able to start the Institute of Church Growth at Northwest Christian College in Oregon in 1961. In 1965, he was invited to moved the Institute to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena California, where he became the founding dean as well of Fuller's School of World Missions. Through almost innumerable church growth seminars for pastors, evangelists and missionaries held in all parts of the world as well as the people he trained through his classes at Fuller, and his publications, he changed thinking on evangelism and missions and raised a vast cloud of disciples - and opponents. His and Ralph Winter's presentations at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization Collection 53, Box 1, Folder 5helped make church growth a central concern of Christians from then on.

Thirty years of patient, often obscure, laboring and study in India was the foundation of thirty years of teaching and proclaiming around the world. He was a man who valued study and exacting standards of inquiry but who placed them all in the service of evangelism, of breaking down internal and external barriers that kept the church from pouring itself out as a sacrifice in proclaiming the Gospel.

In 1981, McGavran retired as senior professor of mission at Fuller. He had long ago (since 1971) retired from being dean of the School of World Mission. But retirement seemed to mean little. His last decade was a period of extraordinary activity, of exhortation, teaching, conflict, and creativity right up to the end.

There continued to be many occasions for speaking and teaching He started the decade in 1980 by speaking to the International Students Conference on World Evangelization, held in Seoul. Korea. He traveled around the United States and spoke at conferences and seminars in England, India, Norway and Korea. Here are Donald and Mary at a seminar in Japan at which he spoke in 1982. Even when his travel became more restricted in his very last years, he spoke at churches throughout southern California and addressed many classes and groups of church leaders at Fuller Seminary. Because of his frail health, his wife Mary wrote this memo for places where he would be speaking, alerting them to his special needs. As his eyesight deteriorated, he would write his notes larger and larger, These notes, from a 1988 lecture, fill an eight and a half by eleven inch sheet of paper. But he continued to speak. Here is the program for a seminar held in Pasadena eleven months before his death in 1990. The theme, as you can see, continued to be "Christ commands church growth",

His scholarly work continued. During his last decade he published five new books and also revised some of his previously published work, including Bridges to God.

He continued too to be involved in the life of the School of World Mission. Here he is at the installation in 1984 of his friend and colleague C. Peter Wagner as the first holder of the Donald McGavran Chair of Church Growth at Fuller. One of his concerns was for the men and women he had trained. He several times proposed to the School of World Mission faculty that all the alumni be contacted and surveyed to find out what they were doing in terms of making disciples. Partly, one suspects, McGavran meant to stimulate alumni to continue in what they had learned from him. The other purpose was to evaluate the School of World Mission itself - how well was it preparing its students to disciple the nations? Study and research were always in his mind closely connected to action and ministry. This survey was one of many efforts to convey this sense of urgency to others and to adapt and refine the methods of presenting the Gospel to changes in the world. As he wrote in his covering letter, "I am still engaged in learning to do some of the things our Lord commanded." This particular project never got off the ground. The note attached to the letter and survey in McGavran's papers sadly notes, "Another good idea that did not bear fruit." [Correspondence relating to this project can be found in Collection 178, folder 98-2]

Photofile: McGavran, Donald A.But McGavran found other ways to continue to communicate his vision. Besides the teaching and speaking and publications already mentioned, he was a prolific correspondent. Like Paul, he was a man of letters. For this last decade of his life alone we have eighteen boxes of correspondence in the Archives. They are full of examples of his efforts.

In 1989, he wrote several schools of missions around the country to say he had been contacted by a wealthy friend who wanted to endow a chair of effective evangelism, saying

I don't know the end of this story. I don't know if such a chair was ever endowed. Many of the replies McGavran got back indicated some problem or other in accepting such a chair. But it is another example of his efforts to keep the attention of the church focused on effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission

In 1986 he did implement an idea very similar to his idea for a survey of Fuller alumni. He contacted dozens of mission executives to find out to what degree their mission was actually involved in "multiplying churches among the unreached." To the many who replied, he would often maintain a detailed correspondence, dialoguing about ways that mission could increase its effectiveness. As he wrote one executive,

Many letters were to, from or about India. India was the school where for thirty years he had learned the church growth theories he spent the next thirty years teaching. His connections with the church there remained ever green.

One particularly concern, as it had always been, was about physical and spiritual welfare of the tens of millions of people in what is called untouchable castes of India. He however, usually called them by another name, the Dalits or fallen. In his last decade he continued to write about their oppression at the hands of Hindu Brahmin castes, writing to influential religious and political leaders that,

Collection 178, Box 68, Folder 6During the 1980s he had a voluminous correspondence with V. T. Rajshekar, author, editor of Dalit Voice, and one of the leading human rights activists in India protesting oppression of the Dalit peoples. Often McGavran would write Rajshekar two or three times a week with comments and ideas. Rajshekar's Marxism did not prevent McGavran from supporting him in the effort to make the oppression of the Dalits known to the world, any more than it prevented McGavran's frequent friendly and firm presentation of events to Rajshekar from a Christian perspective and to witness to him personally. His last letter, after expressing his hope again that Rajshekar would come to know Christ, ended with these sentences,

Here is another example of his concern for India. In 1983 and 1984, he was the main spark plug Photofile: <b>McGavran, Donald A.</b>  Dr. Vijai Lali in front of the building, ca. July 1989.behind the a conference to coordinated efforts between Campus Crusade, Far East Broadcasting, Trans World Radio and other broadcast ministries to develop a strategy for using radio to reach people groups that were otherwise resistant, especially in India. The conference resulted in efforts to create house churches throughout India which would be initially brought together by radio. It was very appropriate that Indian Christians should name a media center in his honor shortly before his death.

McGavran was also active in other parts of the world. For example, he was continuing his long cooperation with James Montgomery of the DAWN movement,Disciplining a Whole Nation. DAWN was engaged in leading a movement in the Philippines to radially increase the number of churches in that country and McGavran was a major strategist of the movement.

These efforts I have mentioned are, believe me, only a handful from among the many he was engaged in from 1980 to 1990. We could have looked at his efforts to bring the World Council of Churches back to a commitment to evangelism, or his encouragement of evangelism in Brazil or his contributions to the U. S. Center for World Mission or many other topics. It was indeed a decade, as David Hubbard had said, of scolding, prodding, coaxing, commanding.

McGavran's last opportunity for encouragement and exhortation came in 1990. His beloved Mary died in April of that year and he knew that his own death from cancer was coming soon. While he wound up his earthly affairs, he wrote to his many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Here, as an example of the many he wrote, is the conclusion of the letter we received at the BGC Archives, one he wrote abut six weeks before he died. He wrote, in part,

Photofile: McGavran, Donald A.After his death, his life and work were commemorated in many letters sent to his family, in services in various parts of the world, such as this, one in Madras Photofile: McGavran, Donald A.

Photofile: McGavran, Donald A. and in a variety of physical and organizational memorials. The Donald and Mary McGavran collection in the BGC Archives is another kind of memorial stone, I suppose. Certainly it is a means of studying their lives and ministry and impact. But for Donald, especially, memorials seem besides the point. His life, so focused and driven, tends to turn the student's attention away from the man and to the cause he labored for and to the Lord who was the source of his energy, hope and vision.

Let me conclude by again letting you hear Donald McGavran's own voice. In the McGavran collection in the archives, we have dozens of tapes from one of his last church growth classes at Fuller, a class he taught in 1979. Each class began with a prayer and each prayer is a moving plea for help and grace from God and a call to commitment from his fellow Christians. The audio recordings and transcripts of all twenty-five prayers are available on the Archives website. Here is one that I think is a true expression of the man:

Photofile: McGavran, Donald A.

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