Understanding Revival–Church Growth Style

Donald McGavran’s Understanding of Revival

In Understanding Church Growth, Donald McGavran dedicated an entire chapter to the theme of revival as it relates to church growth.[1] Since McGavran was most concerned with conversion growth among the hidden peoples of the world, he took a cautious approach to revival. He was particularly concerned that revival referred primarily with the revivification of existing believers, whereas people movements involve the “original turnings of non-Christians to Christ.”[2] Though acknowledging the similarities between revivals and people movements, McGavran argued that they are two distinct types of movements. Still, McGavran had a lot to say about revivals.

He identified two “principle preconditions of revival”: prayer and feeding on God’s Word. Both of these events, he points out, occur within the church (i.e. among believers), particularly knowledge of the Christian Scriptures:

The God of righteousness and love, prayer for revival, ethical heights reached by the revived, concern to share salvation with those for whom Christ died, reality of the Holy Spirit, and many other aspects of Christian revival would be impossible without knowledge of the Christian Scriptures.[3]

Also significant, he identifies three outcomes of revival: holy living, spiritual power, and zeal for proclaiming the gospel.[4] Again, all of these are traits common to those who are already believers.

He contrasts the preconditions and outcomes of revival with “conversion on new grounds” either through a long process of gathering a few out of their people into dependent churches, later to be revived, or through people movements:

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.[5]

He calls these conversions “multi-individual, mutually interdependent conversion[s].”[6]

The types of revival that are important to McGavran are those that aid or lead to church growth—“Under certain conditions revival may be said to cause growth. Under others, its relationship to church growth is so distant that apparently revival occurs without growth and growth without revival.”[7] He lists seven ways, of many possible ways, that “revival bears on church growth”[8]:

  1. If the revived Christians, in spirit-empowered Christian witness focus on a single homogenous unit in “living kin-contact.”
  2. “When a constant stream of converts is flowing into [a growing Christian congregation].”
  3. If pastors have “church growth eyes” looking for receptivity, understanding which churches are “growing greatly” and why, allowing group conversions, and keeping Christ central; and that policies and methods utilize “whatever means” have been successful in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  4. If the movements focus on “winnable elements” within the population, if “leaders from among the new converts are discovered and trained” and whole congregations and leaders are given “as much biblical training as possible.”
  5. “When leaders of revival are taught all we know about how God has brought about great ingatherings”: readiness, right methods, right revivals, and right priorities.
  6. “If the choice has to be between revival and knowledge, Christians should choose revival.”
  7. “Revivals issue in great church growth when revival plus knowledge is counted of even greater importance. Christians should learn all God has to teach us about church growth, and pray without ceasing for revival.”

He concludes his chapter by stating: “Great growth of the church following revival will come where all the conditions are right.”[9]

So, while McGavran wants to maintain a distinction between revivification of existing churches and new conversion growth, he still presents a useful discussion on revival. The important thing for the historian of revivals among traditionally non-Christian peoples is to look for areas where revivals led to church growth and where church growth occurred without a preceding revival. One wonders if church growth, i.e. people movements, occur where some form of church had not already been established and where the prayers of the saints have not already been poured out for revival.


[1] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth. ed., C. Peter Wagner, 3d edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 133–143.

[2] Ibid,139.

[3] Ibid., 136.

[4] Ibid., 137–8.

[5] Ibid., 223.

[6] Ibid., 227.

[7] Ibid., 133

[8] Ibid., 142–3. For the purpose of the Shantung Revival, especially in light of Mark Shaw’s rubric for revival, these seven ways are invaluable. Cf. Mark Shaw, Global Awakening: How 20th Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), 12–29.

[9] McGavran, UCG, 143.

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  1. Glenn Stewart May 25, 2010 — 21:33

    Hey Wes, I hope you are doing great and enduring the reading of too many books, lol. I have a practical question. I think it applies loosely here and relates to many of the topics you discuss.

    “On the field” there are many methods that seek to promote Church growth and are based on a small portion of scripture or parable. McGavern states, “particularly knowledge of the Christian Scriptures” is one of two key elements for revival. Surely this applies to Church growth.

    OK two questions: Can a people movement be sustained on or even should it be initiated on a small portion of Scripture, such as a paprable or pericope? Second, Many of these sorts of books and discussions talk about “right methods”; what would be a doable i.e., practically accomplishable, on the field, “essential minimum” workers should hope to impart to disciples concerning Scriptural knowledge?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    • Glenn,

      Good to hear from you brother! Great Questions!

      On the first, I think some distinction can be made between the initial momentum leading to a people movement and the long-term growth and vitality of the movement. I think McGavran takes a long-term approach to people-movements. He is not looking for a short burst that fizzles out or a weak movement. He cares deeply for the long-term health of Christianity among all the peoples (especially the “hidden peoples” of the world). Missionaries and Christian workers can take Church Growth principles, especially the purely sociological principles and get a movement started on little to no scriptural foundation. Sociology is sociology. But I gather from McGavran that sociology is a servant to missiology, a servant to theology (not the other way around!). So to answer your question directly, no, a CHRISTIAN people movement cannot be sustained on only a part of scripture–disciples cannot be healthy without the whole of the canon, and neither can churches. Such unhealthy movements will die or mutate (heterodoxy). However, I think a contextually appropriate catalyst for a people movement can start from a small portion of scripture; for instance, the gospel story is not always a full-blown canonical message.

      I’ll answer your second question a little later.

      -Wes

      • OK, (thanks for taking the time to rspond) here’s the problem I see with the “small portion of Scripture” scenario. Sometimes, maybe often, this exposure to the Bible is as much as they ever get. Granted that was overstated, but when peple are involved in “new work”, they find themselves caught in an aweful TIME quagmire. 1. Their method i.e., small portion of Scripture is working, people are believing. 2. They implement an inductive Bible study as a way for the new believers to grow, but imagine where you would be now, as a result of going through a similar process? How mature would you be? 3. Fine, be that as it may, you have people believeing, now you are in a serious need of leaders. Idealy they come from the new work, right? Where’s the mature believer for that leadership?
        You didn’t have time to build it into the equation and now, you really don’t have any time, people are coming to faith by the hundreds and thousands. Problem: You need to move forward, and you need discipleship, and you need to train leaders.
        In my work, as an example, there are 45,000 villages. So, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, we’d like to reach everyone? You realistically only have one time around. By that I mean, whatever you give them, pericope or C2C, might be all they ever get. With which will they do best?
        From the lazyboy, (arm chair quarterback) people say you have to do discipleship, and you have to do leadership development. Keeping in mind, 45,000 and logistically getting there one, two, three or four times each, what do they get? Seminary or Sunday school? Really, I’m not being a wise guy here, so what is the “essential minimum”?

        • Glenn,

          Good points! I think in my next comment below I speak to some of this, so I won’t repeat too much, but I think you are on critiques of practical implementation that require being in the situation. I’m glad you brought those up.

          I honestly believe the essential minimum is the whole canon of scripture. Logistically, how that works will vary between literate and non-literate cultures and it will majorly affect your time-table.

          John Nevius put into practice a quite novel practice, for his time, in China (1870s & 80s); which was later adopted in Korea and has been attributed to being the primary impetus for the long-term growth of Christianity in Korea. He maintained that every believer is to be a teacher of other believers. So, every believer is being taught by someone further along and they themselves are teaching someone else. In Korea, the missionaries poured themselves into a few men who became the first leaders of the Korean church (in 1907). And Bible knowledge trickled down (and up) discipleship relationships. Also, the missionaries and church leaders held Bible Classes for every level of believers from home to home, church to church, during the months when the ground was too cold for farming (hence it was contextually adapted). This was also a different time, when missionaries held a “protected” status worldwide, so they could be more at the forefront of things. Still, one thing that stood out in the Korean church, early in its development, was that it was self-governing.

          Something similar to this can be adapted, but I think it will take increased involvement by those with Bible knowledge in the life of young believers, rather than less. So the worker passes on as much as possible about Scripture to a few strong leaders who pass on, who pass on. Thus, rather than focusing on “minimums” the focus is what is the maximum amount that can be passed on! Perhaps this is idealistic, but there is historical precedent. The worker on the field, though, has to decide the best way to implement something like this given their particular context.

          What do you think?

          -Wes

    • Glenn,

      To your second question, “what would be a doable i.e., practically accomplishable, on the field, “essential minimum” workers should hope to impart to disciples concerning Scriptural knowledge?”

      I have to respond, what is your time-table? I think the only viable long-term, sustainable solution is impartation of the whole canon of Scripture! It is the biblical world that will supplant anti-Christian worldview structures with the grand redemptive story of all history, of all peoples. Its Genesis to Revelation. Now, I’m not saying that this means that this is done solely through the filter of a foreign worker, but the end goal has to be worldview transformation through the gospel story played out in lives of faith, love and obedience to Christ.

      At the very minimum, IMHO, workers should hope to impart a love for God, and His word that transforms their entire world! Achieving this will look different from context to context and from stage of work to stage of work. And all the while, the worker is a participant in both the story and the transformation. He/She is growing along with the people. His/her faith is dependent on the faith of the people’s as well.

      I know I’ve written a lot and given my opinion here, but I would love your feedback. Feel free to disagree with any/all of what has been said!

      -Wes

      • My point is that whatever you give at first, like it or not, is your foundation for everything to follow. I’m working on the assumption we will have time to promote maturity and leadership.

        Side note: Perhaps part of our problem stemmed from the pragmatic resolution to the thought that: times are bad, it looks like the end, save as many as we can, in a hurry. Problem is, we don’t raise our own children like that, do we? Nor should we approach CPM like that. We raise our children like they will have to live, like adults, in a competitive adult world. So,

        1. We layed the foundation with 34 lessons C2C, (24 lessons from the OT), 2. The new belivers received a New Beliver’s Bible Study (8 lessons) 3. Leadership development, practically, what do we have time to give? Let’s assume we can go to each village 4 times for approximately 5 hours of teaching in a day. 4 x 45,000= 180,000. 180,000 divided by 365 (one year) = 493 years! What do we give them? What is that “essential minimum”? I have thoughts but I want to see what you and/or others think?

        • Sorry for splitting this conversation in two…I’ll refer to my reply in the first conversation regarding what I think is minimum.

          But to summarize; I think the model of Jesus and even Paul was to invest in a few rather deeply which led to leadership development. True, Paul was on the go, but he was always on the go with a select group of co-workers. So, I think the goal would be to pour as much as you can in a strategic few (while sharing the gospel with the masses–don’t want a dichotomy here), while also enabling them to do the same for others. I think from Paul’s letters, which are in fact missionary letters, that he expected his readers to be knowledgeable of the whole canon of Scripture (OT). So it is evident that he, and others, were pouring into the lives of other people.

          What do you think?

          -Wes

  2. OK, but what do you poor? What do you with new believers and people you mentor their in the USA? Step one, two, three, so that you know where to start and when you’ve finished? I need to see what you and other academic leaders are recommending i.e., using themselves in some sort of reproducible format?

    • Glenn,

      Personally, For life-on-life discipleship, I prefer Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups (LTG); read about them in his bookSearch and Rescue. Or you can click here. Given, what I am about to say presupposes a complete Bible and literacy, so Oral formats will have to vary. (I am also open to the G12 model–which my wife’s church in Kazakhstan has used).

      In a LTG, groups never exceed 3, once the number reaches 4, they split and start two groups. The link above lists the accountability questions each member is responsible to ask and answer to each other. But the model requires each member to read 20-30 chapters of Bible each week. The group decides exactly which chapters they will read. Usually a whole book. In the case of larger books, find contextual stopping points, in case of smaller books, read and reread the book a couple/few times. If one member doesn’t finish, the whole group re-reads the same material the next week. Then they can move on. In this model there is high intake of scripture as well as high accountability.

      G12 is similar, but more ecclesiological. In this model, you have a group of twelve which you disciple. Each of these twelve has their twelve, and each of them have their twelve, and so on and so on. As a church planter, you may have twelve cp-ers or pastors that you mentor who mentor others and so forth.

      What exactly are you asking when you say “where to start and where to finish”?

      I definitely take a more long-term approach than most. And I see myself more as a participant and less as a “leader”. Certainly Paul was a leader, but he also embraced mutuality (Rom 1:11-12, for example). Personally, I won’t have better answers till I’m out there doing it, which I hope to be doing in a year or so when I finish. Right now, I’m trapped by being a full-time student, full-time worker, and father of three, and I’m trapped in “southern Christian culture” so I only have ideas and can put this into practice only in a limited degree. But that shall not always be the case.

      -Wes

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