Donald A. McGavran ~ The Mad Scientist of the Church? A Book Review of Understanding Church Growth [3rd Ed.]

Understanding Church Growth, 3rd Ed. by McGavran Donald A.  Ed by C. Peter Wagner, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1990. xviii + 314 pp., $13.20.

Looking back, is it possible that Donald A. McGavran was the mad scientist of the church? Remembering all too well the movies and images I have of mad scientists and dark castles, I guess I am revealing more about myself than Dr. McGavran. However, join with me for just a moment in speculative sci-fi thinking. (Or at least laugh at me while I do so.)

An eerie sinewy violin sighs in the background preceding the creaking and groaning of a monstrous oaken door. The camera slowly ~ cautiously peers into a misty moldy laboratory and fixes its gaze upon a frantic figure. The audience watches in anticipation as the darkened figure fearlessly labors as if possessed by an otherworldly passion for creation or rather re-creation. Forging provocative statements from the fiery cauldron biblical conviction the father of the Church Growth Movement pours them from the massive kettle and ratchets together a totally new being. He slowly, skillfully, even zealously, creates the perfect blend of scriptural authority, evangelistic zeal, and real common sense sociological understanding. Like a certain Dr. Frankenstein, he skillfully binds each of these commitments together resulting in a savage salvific beast. We see him now rushing to the high voltage lever, grasping, panting and ultimately forcing it down releasing furious bolts of electricity. Then, as anticipation meets actuality, the beast, his new creature springs to life! The camera fades to black with jubilant shouts of, “It’s Alive! It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

Ok, well maybe that is a bit of a stretch.  I also cannot confirm that Dr. McGavran ever donned a lab coat either.

However, all imagery aside, his creature is indeed alive: a walking, talking, monstrous faith smashing through and exploding off of the pages with one goal: total destruction of the villages of christian thought steeped in super spiritualism devoid of soul understanding and broken-hearted evangelism.

In the following lines, I present a simple series of quotes that let McGavran do the speaking. Each one of these forced me to consider the Gospel, the Church, Evangelism and Discipleship in ways that I previously had not. In fact, that is the brilliance of this work. I am quite sure that readers may disagree on certain points. I am sure that I do. However, the church and the church’s leaders today need to be challenged to think biblically critically about all of the things we do in the name of Christ. Sometimes we need to be rattled and stirred up so that we can see our efforts (or lack thereof) through a cleaner-clearer lens. We desperately need to following to be true.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,”  Hebrews 10:24

My goal is simple: stir up and challenge the church to revisit a great text that perhaps may drive us all to reflect, reconsider, re-strategize and possibly repent of our efforts in spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. May these 5 quotations catapult us all to true Church Growth.

Frankenstein Fervor: Five Statements from the Lab

  • “Anyone who would comprehend the growth of Christian churches must see it primarily as faithfulness to God. God desires it. Christians, like their Master, are sent to seek and save the lost…. Only where Christians constrained by love obediently press on, telling others the good news of the Savior, does the church spread and increase. Where there is no faithfulness in proclaiming Christ, there is no growth.”  [pp 6]
  • “Church growth is basically a theological stance. God requires it. It looks to the Bible for direction as to what God wants done. It holds that belief in Jesus Christ, understood according to the Scriptures, is necessary for salvation. Church growth arises in unshakable theological conviction…. From the beginning the Church Growth Movement has been rooted in biblical, evangelical, conversionist theology…. Therefore, faithfulness to God implies doing our part, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to persuade all men and women to become disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of his church.” [pp. 8-9]
  • “Among other desires of God-in-Christ, he beyond question wills that lost persons be found – that is, be reconciled to himself. Most cordially admitting that God has other purposes, we should remember that we serve a God who finds persons. He has an overriding concern that men and women should be redeemed. However, we understand the word, biblical witness is clear that people are “lost.” The finding God wants them found – that is, brought into a redemptive relationship to Jesus Christ where, baptized in his name, they become part of his household. He is not pleased when many findable sheep remain straggling on the mountain, shivering in the bitter wind. The more found, the better pleases is God.” [pp. 21]
  • “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers. This principle states an undeniable fact. Human beings do build barriers around their own societies. More exactly, we may say that the ways in which each society lives and speaks, dresses and works of necessity sets it off from other societies. The world’s population is a mosaic, and each piece has a separate life of its own that seems strange and often unlovely to men and women of other piece. [pp. 163]  “It takes no great acumen to see that when marked differences in color, stature, income, cleanliness, and education are present, unbelievers understand the gospel better when expounded by their own kind of people. They prefer to join churches whose members look, talk, and act like themselves. [pp. 167]
  • “Unless Christian leaders in all six continents are on the lookout for changes in receptivity of homogeneous units within the general population, and are prepared to seek and bring persons and groups belonging to these units into the fold, they will not even discern what needs to be done. They will continue generalized church and mission work that, shrouded in fog as to the chief end of mission, cannot fit outreach to increasing receptivity. An essential task is to discern receptivity and – when this is seen – to adjust methods, institutions, and personnel until the receptive are becoming Christians and reaching out to win their fellows to eternal life. Effective evangelism is demanded. It finds the lost, folds those found, feeds them the word of God, and incorporates them into the multitudes of new and old congregations. That is why it is called effective evangelism.” [pp. 192]

I hope you enjoyed this book review. My hope is that you might also take some time to read this book and be challenged to live out the Great Commission through your local church.


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