Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 4)

Donald A. McGavran (1897-1990) was born in India as a son and grandson of American missionaries. He served as a missionary in India for thirty years, then returned to the United States and in 1965 became the first dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission. McGavran is known as the founder of the Church Growth movement. His scholarly yet practical writings on the subject are interesting and provocative. Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life, cites McGavran as one of his biggest influences. The Church Growth movement has many supporters and critics. I have some opinions about this movement, but I will not discuss them here. This is a purpose-driven article. My purpose in bringing up Donald McGavran is to talk about his observations of 20th century mission agencies in India.

McGavran noticed that some agencies were successful at making converts, but others were stagnant and barely growing. He set out to discover why. After careful observation, he found that the stagnant agencies exhibited some common features. He called their strategy a “mission station” approach. A mission station resembled a North American or European church. Western values and customs were on display, giving the church a decidedly non-Indian look and feel. Converts of these missionaries had powerful conversion experiences, but the converts were few and far between. In The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin explains why (p. 122):

In the “mission station” approach, as McGavran sees it, converts are detached from the natural communities to which they belong, attached to the foreign missions and institutions, and required to conform to ethical and cultural standards that belong to the Christianity of the foreign missionary. The effect of this policy is twofold. On the one hand the convert, having been transplanted into an alien culture, is no longer in a position to influence non-Christian relatives and neighbors; on the other hand, the energies of the mission are exhausted in the effort to bring the converts, or more often their children, into conformity with the standards supposed by the missionaries to be required by the gospel. Both factors have the effect of stopping the growth of the church.

I’ll bet that the leaders of the “mission station” agencies didn’t like McGavran’s analysis. I can almost hear them saying, “We focus on quality rather than quantity.” They may have justified their approach by noting that their converts, though few, looked like outstanding examples of Christian discipleship because they had been so thoroughly transformed. Indeed, in the way that they spoke, dressed, and acted, they resembled miniature versions of the missionaries themselves! I suppose that these missionaries had the best of intentions. They were sincere, sacrificial, loving and devout, never imagining that they were imposing western cultural values. From their perspective, their standards were matters of biblical principle, right versus wrong. They imagined they were reading the Bible straight, interpreting Scripture just as it is. Whatever they taught the converts to do was just what they had done when they were converted and discipled.

McGavran concluded that the “mission station” approach was based on a faulty reading of the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Based on those verses, McGavran said that the mission of the church has three aspects: discipling, baptizing, and perfecting. (Note that McGavran’s use of the term “discipling” is quite different from the way we use it in UBF. To us, “discipling” suggests discipleship training, helping converts to obey the teachings of the Bible. In McGavran’s terminology, that kind of training is called “perfecting”, and “discipling” means to help them make the initial commitment to identify themselves as followers of Christ.) McGavran believed that the order of the three activities in Matthew 28:19-20 is very significant, reflecting an order in time and priority. He thought that the missionary should focus on discipling and baptizing, and leave the task of perfecting to leaders of the indigenized church. The “mission station” agencies lose their effectiveness when they spend their time, resources and energy on perfecting rather than discipling and baptizing.

Personally, I disagree with some of McGavran’s conclusions. I am not convinced that Matthew 28:19-20 implies an order of priority, and the distinction between discipling and perfecting seems artificial. But McGavran’s basic observations are compelling. Lesslie Newbigin, who was also a missionary to India, agreed with McGavran’s assessment (p. 124):

The criticism of the “mission station” strategy has a great deal of force. It is also true that missions have, in McGavran’s phrase, tended to put perfecting before discipling and thereby fallen into the old legalist trap. They have become proponents of a new law rather than a liberating gospel. The church has been made to appear more like a school where examinations have to be passed than a place where the community meets to celebrate its freedom.

My purpose in writing this article is not to make hidden, indirect criticisms of UBF. To avoid any misunderstandings, I will tell you directly what I think. Speaking as a North American disciple of UBF missionaries, I have seen the missionaries’ dedication and sacrifice firsthand. I respect and love our missionaries. It is obvious that they have passed on many cultural influences to their converts. That is an inevitable result of cross-cultural witness, and it is not inherently bad. The fertilization of one culture with gospel seeds from another is, in my opinion, an essential part of God’s overall plan for the people and nations of the world. This cross-cultural aspect of UBF was very helpful in my own spiritual development.

Yet it is impossible to look at UBF chapters in North America and not see resemblances to the mission stations. Any North American who visits a UBF worship service for the first time instinctively feels that we are different, and we wear those differences as a badge of honor. Newcomers hear this message loud and clear: “You are very welcome here. But if you enter this fellowship, we expect you to become like us. Your standing in our community will rise and you will be rewarded as you accept and adopt our methods, manners, standards and traditions.” Of course, we never think of them as our traditions; we call them “God’s” mission,” “God’s” commands, and “Bible” principles. By the language that we use, we canonize and absolutize our ways of doing things. Use of that language is itself rewarded and taken as a sign of growing faith and commitment to Christ. But anyone who makes significant contact with Christ-loving people outside of UBF knows that many of the things that we hold dear are not absolutes but simply our own manners, methods and traditions.

When I came into UBF nearly three decades ago, I was, as McGavran observed, detached from my American Christian heritage and transplanted into an alien culture. I neglected and severed relationships with friends, family and neighbors. This detachment from my own people was a consequence of the way that Samuel Lee ran the ministry during the 1980’s and 1990’s. It drastically changed my life and brought me to Christ, but it left me emotionally isolated from people and confused about my identity, and it limited my influence and Christian witness to society outside of UBF. Now that I realize what has happened, I am trying to recover that lost identity and repair relationships with people whom I wrongly ignored.

And to me it seems undeniable that the factors cited by McGavran are stifling growth. It has just been reported that our average Sunday worship attendance in North America increased about 4% in 2010. I wonder what that figure would be if you remove the effect of inflow of missionaries from Korea and the natural increase from children born to UBF families coming of age. Regardless, we have not been seeing the growth that many had hoped for, and we have fallen far short of the target of doubling the ministry by 2010. To what do we attribute this slow growth? Reading through the yearly reports appearing on ubf.org, the top reasons cited by our missionaries for falling short are not praying enough, not studying the Bible enough, and so on. These ideas are reinforced by messages from leaders that exhort members to work harder, sacrifice more, recover zeal for the gospel, have an absolute attitude, etc. Everywhere I look, the assumption is that our mission strategy is impeccably sound, and all problems are due to individuals who did not get with the program and carry it out with enough intensity and sincerity. There is an elephant in the room, but no one seems willing to talk about it. That elephant is our overall mission strategy. This is the reason why I have been claiming that we lack a coherent theology of mission. We lack this theology because we trained ourselves not to discuss it, not even to think about it.

The mission station strategy is built on the assumption that the gospel message travels in just one direction, flowing from the missionaries to the converts. Sooner or later, as the community matures, there must be a backflow as the missionaries are re-evangelized by the converts. We see that happening in the early church beginning in Acts chapter 10. The passage that is often titled “The Conversion of Cornelius” could just as well be called “The Conversion of Peter.” The divinely arranged encounter between the centurion and the apostle shook Peter to the core. It challenged his lifelong assumptions about purity and righteousness and brought him to a new, deeper understanding of the gospel. Peter’s first reaction to the Holy Spirit’s vision was, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:14). That reaction reveals that, although he was a committed follower of Jesus, he still regarded his adherence to the law as a badge of honor, something that made him better than others in the sight of God. To see a non-law abiding Gentile be instantly accepted into God’s family made him realize that, even after being a Christian for many years, his own standing before God was still not based on anything he does but on what Christ has done for him. The gospel of Jesus Christ is, from first to last, a gospel of grace and faith alone.

The tensions in a cross-cultural ministry are inevitable. Eventually there must be a Jerusalem Council, an open dialogue between foreign missionaries and native converts, to inquire of God and enlarge their understanding of the gospel. I think we can all agree that the gospel must bring tangible, visible change to the lives of those who receive it. But what should the fruit of the gospel look like? Should the fruit of the gospel planted on Korean soil look just like the fruit on American soil? How different can they be?

The participants at the original Jerusalem Council thought hard about this and concluded that Jewish and Gentile Christians should look different. Yet they were also aware of the need for compromise to maintain friendships and spiritual unity. In the letter that James drafted to the Gentile Christians, he urged them “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29) That list of prohibitions includes behavior that we still regard as sinful (sexual immorality) and behavior that we now see as benign (eating of blood — Have you ever tried “black pudding”? It’s quite, um, interesting). So even the outcome of the Jerusalem Council was not an absolute ruling that could remain in place for all time. I take that as a meaningful principle. The ethical requirements of the gospel can never be fixed. Some aspects will remain constant over time, but other aspects will have to change.

And that raises another very important question. Who gets to decide what those ethical requirements are? That is not an easy one. So the series shall continue…


  1. While I don’t have any experience in missionary work (outside of talking to people from other countries about the bible online) I do have experience in UBF. I don’t know how other churchs do it, but UBF really does seem set in its ways. It’s great a first for those who really, genuinly want to study the bible. I’m very greatful for my shepards who have helped me think deeply about the bible and helped bring me to Jesus. That being said I agree with Newbiggin when he says “They have become proponents of a new law rather than a liberating gospel.”    After accepting Christ we are  slaves to him.  But this is often used to mean we are slaves to UBF. I can’t count how many times I’ve been pressured to go fishing, or never miss a friday meeting/(UBF)prayer service, and skip work to go to every conference, etc.   Why, just the other day I was having Galatians bible study talking about faith expressing itself through love and how, if we aren’t loving people (i.e. the stuff I mentioned above) then we aren’t being faithful. Look, I don’t mean for this to be a criticism. I really do enjoy studying the bible with UBF, I just don’t like that there is an agenda behind it (or as mentioned in another article “through the looking glass of world mission”).   Maybe I’m just a lazy guy who doesn’t want to do things the way UBF does….  

  2. Hi Oscar. Thanks for your insights. It’s very interesting that you brought up Galatians and faith expressing itself through love. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit. The gospel should bring forth divine love. But love in an inner condition. We don’t see love itself. We only see the way that love is expressed through words and actions. And those expressions may be seen very differently in different contexts and cultures. It is quite possible for a UBF shepherd to believe that encouraging you not to miss meetings etc. is an expression of love. Perhaps it is an expression of love. But it might not look that way to you. These gospel-borne fruits really do look different across individuals and cultures. This is why we have to be careful, not too quick to judge others’ intentions and motives, and seek deeper understanding of one another in the unity and fellowship of the Spirit. This can be hard, but our common identity in Jesus should make it possible.

    • Joshua Brinkerhoff

      I agree with Joe’s point that the expression of love differs. I’ve frequently heard professional translators talk about the difficulty of translating a joke from one language into another. If humor is hard to transfer from one cultural and ethnic context into another, how much harder it must be to transfer the expression of divine love! If my pastor was from Canada, I would come up to him, give him a big hug, and say, “Pastor, I love you. Thank you so much for your love too,” and that would be that. Over the years, sometimes I desperately wanted a hug, a squeeze on the shoulder, a word of encouragement, or something like that from my pastor to show me his love. I didn’t want to be told to write my testimony again with deeper repentance, to pray more and longer, to repent more, and go back to my Bible. Those things didn’t spell love to me at those times. Even though I surely needed such good spiritual counsel, I also wanted my pastor to communicate love to me in a meaningful way. Gradually, God is helping me to understand the deep, genuine love that underlies these comments and reinterpret his words as real, genuine expressions of sincere divine love and his desire to help me grow as a Christian. I think that sometimes people cannot make this reinterpretation, and so rather than hearing love, they grow resentful. If they leave, it is said, “They were rebellious,” or “They couldn’t accept the pastor’s spiritual authority,” but in reality the main problem is that they couldn’t understand the pastor’s expression of his real love.
      I hope these thoughts are (at least tangentially) germane to the above posting! Blessings!

    • Joshua, thank you. Speaking as a pastor — and as a husband and a father — I have been  learning, mostly through my painful mistakes,  that it is my job to communicate in ways that  others understand.  Not for me to insist that others correctly understand and interpret my preferred love languages, but for me to understand theirs. That is the essence of cross-cultural witness, and also of emotional maturity. But it’s hard. In my case, it requires me to learn how to express affection, which has always been difficult for me. And the love being expressed must be sincere, not an act designed to fool or manipulate people in order to get them to do what I want. It must be real love, the kind that comes from God as a fruit of the Spirit, not from my corrupt sinful nature. The kind that comes from a personal relationship with Christ.

  3. Joshua Yoon

    Joe, I am very pleased  that your article on this thme is unfolding a very important issue of   an elephand in the room. I agree that there must be our version of a Jeruslaem Council, an open dialogue among leaders. The council at Jerusalem was possible because there were Paul and Barnabas, Peter and James. Who should be Paul and Barnabas? Who could be Peter and James? Paul’s fruitful second and third missionary journeys were possible because the leaders acknowledged an elephant in the room and discuss about it. Of course, the opposition of the traditional Jews did not cease. Yesterday while I was listening to Christian radio station while driving, I heard about “the elephantroom conference” a One-day simulcast event for church leaders on March 31, 2011.  The Elephant Room will feature blunt conversations between seven influential pastors who share a common love for the Gospel but take differing approaches to ministry. The purpose is to unify the Church on essential truths.    Here is the website for  anyone who is interested in this  event.  http://www.theelephantroom.com  

     We need an open dialogue among church leaders from different ministries and churches,  and within each ministry and church. The question is, “Who should initiate the elephant room and when?” Of course, the Holy   Spirit will do it. When I read Acts 15 again,  I noticed that when there were conflicts between Paul (Barnabas) and some Pharisee believers, senior leaders in Jerusalem church did not ignore it. But with open minds and hearts they  met to consider the matter and had much discussion. It is my hope that we will not just ignore or  avoid  the elephant in the room but deal with it openly through open dialogue and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The elephant in the room is too big to be overlooked.

    • Isn’t it interesting that there were many priests and Pharisees in the early church? (Acts 6:7, 15:5)  The Apostle Paul  identified himself as a Pharisee all his life (Acts 23:6). We  need  not  view Pharisees negatively. I’m sure that many Christian Pharisees were devoted to God and their keeping of traditions was an expression of genuine love for God. But they easily misunderstood and misjudged Gentile Christians who lived differently from them, and in turn they were probably misjudged too.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, this helps me to see things in a different light, though I still have some reservations, but it’s something I struggle with and pray about.     An honest discussion would be very interesting. I think we mentioned this in the article about the next General Director.

  5. Joe,
    I was wondering if you think it’s possible to have a re-evangelization of the missionaries if the missionaries come from a highly hierarchical background.  Wouldn’t it be culturally impossible for converts to re-evangelize missionaries?  Perhaps this issue will be addressed as the series continues.  Can’t wait for the next installment–I’ve enjoyed every part.

    • Thanks, Ben. I  believe that all  of us  need to  evangelized and re-evangelized throughout our lives.  I guess it was culturally impossible for Peter and Cornelius to evangelize each other, but it happened.  It’s the work of the Spirit, not us.

  6. Greetings from Philippines UBF in Manila, where we are enjoying 90 degree weather. Regarding abstaining from  eating blood (Acts 15:29), I just finished my lunch of pork pieces cooked in pig’s blood! And it was delicious. We were laughing and joking that we were “eating food sacrificed to idols.” (Looks like I would have been excommunicated after the Jerusalem council!)  How liberating is the gospel indeed. Sorry for those with weak stomachs.

    The mission station strategy is surely a “blind spot,” and thus it would be a source of contention and anger if brought up or even hinted at, especially by indigenous  converts. Perhaps, it would require a gracious “older”  Korean missionary to gently bring this “painful” issue up, so that we can begin to reasses as objectively as possible what we are doing.

  7. I finished reading Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret. I was impressed with McGavran’s observations about foreign missions, which are eerily similar to Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods.

    Reading Newbigin (1909-1998) and Allen (1868-1947) has “comforted” me in that the conflicts, angst and misunderstandings that we are experiencing between missionaries and indigenous people is really not at all unique to UBF!

    What can we do? I believe that we must have more and more honest, open and transparent dialogue. To some degree it is happening more than before. Yet, in some areas, some missionaries still do not like “their territory” being encroached upon. They especially do not like their authority being challenged, or being questioned about decisions that they have made, and asked to explain or clarify themselves.

    Just as autochtonous people allowed the missionaries to teach, train, mentor, disciple them over the last few decades, the missionaries must now be willing to humble themselves deeply, and truly learn from autochtonous people, just as Peter died to himself and learned from Cornelius, who was just a “brand new young sheep.”

    When this begins to happen more and more, there will be a new history of UBF in this century.

    • Interestingly, my previous comment in 2011 was from Manila, and this one is from Malaysia. How the world is now so much smaller!

    • Ben, I think you are correct. There are unique qualities to the UBF context, but as you point out, UBF and the surrounding controversy is really nothing new. If UBF missionaries do learn the meaning of the word autochthonous, then I think there just may be hope :)

      Thanks for sharing, I always enjoy learning a new word from you!