Donald McGavran (1897-1990) began his career as missionary to India, but is best known as the director of the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. As “the father of the church growth movement,” McGavran’s principles and methodology were not uniformly helpful. But he was the foremost missiologist of his time, a mentor to hundreds of scholars and practitioners, and a man clearly devoted to world evangelization.
Toward the end of his life he wrote a letter to David Hesselgrave, co-founder of the Evangelical Missiological Society and director of missions at TEDS, explaining his concern with the ever broadening definition of mission.
I want to lay before you, David, a very important item. . . I think that the evangelical professors of missions need to establish a nationwide organization called openly and courageously “The American Society of Christian Missiology.”. . . What is needed in North America and indeed around the world is a society of missiology that says quiet frankly that the purpose of missiology is to carry out the Great Commission. Anything other than that may be a good thing to do, but it is not missiology (Quoted in Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 316).
That was 1988. A month later in April 1988 McGavran wrote a piece called “Missions Faces a Lion” which was subsequently published in Missiology: An International Review. McGavran described a remote village with sickness, poverty, inequalities, and antiquated agricultural methods. After affirming that Christians should work to alleviate all these problems, McGavran noted that one problem was more critical than the others.
However, [the village's] crucial need is none of these. Its crucial need is to cease worshiping the stone idols, to cease believing that sickness is caused by the acts of these gods. The crucial need is to believe on God the Father Almighty, who is made known to us in Jesus Christ, His Son. The great need is to move off the animal and human platform and mount the platform of the divine life. Then and then only will these other advances be made quickly and permanently (quoted in Hesselgrave, 330).
Hesselgrave concludes that McGavran’s “lion” was “the kind of mission/missiology that ‘devours’ evangelism and church growth efforts by insisting that everything else that is good and desirable is equally or more important.” If mission is everything then what does it really mean to do mission or be on mission? Obviously, we must obey the two great commandments to love God and love neighbor. But do these commandments constitute the mission of the church? Or is the church’s mission something narrower, something shared by no other institution on earth, something we see modeled in the missionary work of Paul? At the very least, I would argue that the mission of the church is most clearly explained in the Great Commission, and that the other good things we do as Christians are virtuous, but either secondary or something other than the mission of the church altogether.