Book Review. Ethnic Realities and the Church by Donald McGavran.

McGavran, Donald A., Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1979. 

This blog post was originally submitted as a class assignment for my doctoral studies. However, this book often comes up in conversations as a relevant book for understanding the Indian church. Understanding the Indian church is key for mobilizing the Indian church! (For more on mobilizing South Asian Christians to South Asian Muslims, click here) I am hopeful to have future blogposts that cover books and dissertations that provide insight about the churches of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian churches.

Biographical Sketch of the Author

Donald McGavran (1897-1990) was a missionary to India. He was also the founding Dean of the School of Missions, Church Growth, and South Asian Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1965. McGavran was born and raised in India by missionary parents before returning to spend thirty-eight years as a missionary in South India (1923-1961). During this time, McGavran was mentored by J. Waksom Pickett, the author of Christian Mass Movements in India (1933). McGavran and Pickett co-wrote on the dynamics which led to people movements.

During his time in India, McGavran noticed that the church was growing at extraordinary rates in some areas and not at all in others. In his words,

In the section of India where I worked, 145 areas were scenes of missionary effort… in 134 of these areas the church… had grown at only 11 percent a decade… But in the other eleven areas the church was growing by 100 percent, 150 percent, or even 200 percent a decade. Why was this happening? A vast curiosity arose within my breast. There must be a key to Great Commission mission, and I resolved to find it.[1]

As a result, McGavran wrote Bridges of God in 1955, trying to describe how people movements were occurring in India where large numbers of a single people group came to Christ in a short period of time. In 1970, McGavran wrote Understanding Church Growth in which he more carefully delineated his teachings on the homogeneous unit principle (HUP).

Summary of Contents

Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India describes nine church types in India to describe the challenges and opportunities that these church types present for the Great Commission. This book is primarily a sociological description of the various church structures observed by McGavran and his colleagues[2] in India.

McGavran said “in only twenty-one of the more than three thousand ethnic groups of India do Christians form any considerable proportion of the total population… In more than 2900 castes and tribes there are practically no Christians at all” (28). Likewise, McGavran noted that there were a few dominantly Christian districts in India, but most districts were less than 0.5 percent Christian (25-27). The uneven spread of Christianity among certain ethnic groups and in certain areas was due to past people movements. According to McGavran, “Nine-tenths of all future conversion growth of the Church in India will come by people movements to Christ” (36). 

McGavran distinguished nine church types in India, five basic types and four secondary types. Those nine types are (41):

The Five Basic Types

Type 1. Fully Monoethnic Syrian Churches

Type 2. Fully Conglomerate or Multiethnic Churches

Type 3. People Movement or Monoethnic Churches from Caste

Type 4. People Movement or Monoethnic Churches from Tribe

Type 5. Modified Conglomerate or Multiethnic Churches

The Four Secondary Types

Type 6: Urban Conglomerates or Multiethnic Churches

Type 7: Urban Monoethnic Churches

Type 8: The Great Conglomerates

Type 9: The Indigenous Churches

Ethnic Realities and the Church describes these nine church types and discusses Great Commission barriers and opportunities of each church types. This book concludes with two appendices where McGavran defended his views on ecclesiology and the HUP.

            The Syrian churches (Type 1) of Kerala are Catholic and monophysite fellowships that read their liturgy in Syriac (51). These are the oldest churches of India, perhaps being founded by the apostle Thomas. Syrian Christians dominate much of the Christian religious leadership of India with over half of Catholic priests in India being from Kerala (55). While Syrian Christians are “immovable” in their faith, most Protestants would consider them “doctrinally corrupt” (55). Moreover, “For nineteen hundred years, because they did not want to mix their blood[3] with that of other ethnic units, they ceased to propagate the faith” (57). While historically the Syrian church has been “stolidly nonevangelistic,” two spin off denominations, the Mar Thoma Church and the St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India, have been evangelistic (61ff). Since these two denominations worship in Malayali,[4] their evangelistic effectiveness has been limited to Malayali speakers. Therefore, McGavran’s suggested Syrian Christians to form apostolic bands that can learn the language and culture of other people groups and plant churches among them (66).

            Fully Conglomerate churches (Type 2) are “the most typical of all Indian congregations and denominations” (68). These churches are composed of members from various castes and tribes. “Each convert has to come to Christ alone, out of the caste in which he was born” (68). McGavran describes,

The process is entirely natural. Given the fact that no community wants its members to defect to any other caste, given the intense communal loyalty which is an essential part of the Indian system, there are only two ways in which men of caste can become Christian. (1) They can come as individuals – one-by-one-against-the current, against the family, against the jati[5] or homogeneous ethnic unit in which they were born… (b) They can come out group by group.” (69-70)

Fully conglomerate churches are primarily composed of individuals coming to Christ, while church types 3 and 4 are composed of groups coming to Christ.

Many fully conglomerate churches developed around mission stations where one-by-one individuals were brought into the church. The message of these churches was “leave your caste and join our community” (83). Fully conglomerate churches often resisted people movements because “To be good, it had to be slow” (77). Therefore, monoethnic churches were seen as less Christian. The Great Commission potential of fully conglomerate churches is twofold. First, they have a high potential of reaching those who are at the fringe of society, such as those who move to distant cities for work or who are not in a good relationship with their caste (89ff). Second, McGavran argued that the highest evangelistic potential of Type 2 churches is to start Type 3 and 4 people movements. In his words,

“Historically most great people movements have risen as existing Christians of conglomerate congregations have led someone to Jesus Christ, and then he… has led his own people – in India his own caste or tribe fellows – to Christ.” (91)

            Monoethnic churches from caste (Type 3) and tribe (Type 4) occur when large numbers of a caste or tribe come to Christ and continue in their “normal social organism” (93). Generally, monoethnic churches form when men and women hear the gospel and discuss their decision as a group until a consensus is formed at which time they make a group decision and are baptized together (96). Because of the close relationships within castes and tribes, this message naturally travels through their relational networks. As more and more groups in a relational network take baptism, the social pressure becomes less for the next group to do so. Thus, people movements can sweep across an ethnic group. It is important to note that historically, people movements have generally occurred among lower castes.

“In about 2,000 Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya, and Brahman castes, substantial and lasting people movements have developed in only 5 – that is in only 0.0025 percent of these castes. On the other hand in about 600 Scheduled Castes, substantial and lasting people movements have developed in 21 – that is in about 3 percent of these castes” (100).

According to McGavran, no great monoethnic movements by caste had taken place in North and Central India (110).[6] Since the publication of McGavran’s book in 1979, such monotonic movements by caste are occurring in North and Central India.

Monoethnic churches have great evangelistic potential not only for their own ethnic group, but also to affect other ethnic groups on their fringes. For example, the Presbyterian movement in the Punjab around 1900 “won far more converts from the Muslims than all the specialized and scholarly missionaries to the Muslims put together” (113). 

Tribes and castes differ in that castes share “a region with many other castes” while tribes are “the sole or the main ethnic group” in a given area. Each tribe has “a language or dialect of its own” (123). Evangelistically, monoethnic churches by tribe often “suffer from limited vision” since they do not feel responsible to share the gospel outside of their tribe (132). Per McGavran, there should be intentional attempts among any tribal people movement to make sure that the entire tribe is evangelized before deep separation occurs between Christians and non-Christians within a tribe (137).

            Modified multiethnic churches (Type 5) are a blend of Type 2 and Type 3 or 4 churches. Modified multiethnic churches attempt to be multiethnic, but their proximity to a people movement causes at least half and maybe as much as ninety percent of the church to be of a single caste or tribe (144). Therefore, the culture of that caste or tribe dominates the church culture. Modified multiethnic churches tend to be large and tend to have great evangelistic potential to reach more of the primary caste or tribe (148-150). However, these churches tend to be divided since church leaders, being from people groups that are more historically anchored in Christ, are almost never from the ethnic group that forms the modified multiethnic church’s majority (145ff).

McGavran’s four secondary church types were peripheral to his five basic types. Thus, they will be dealt with in less detail. Urban conglomerate churches (Type 6) are types of multiethnic churches that occur in big cities as a result of transfer growth (158). “So far big-city conglomerates… have not shown much evangelistic potential… The English-speaking multiethnics were the least potent” (165-6). Urban monoethnic churches (Type 7) occur as believers from rural people movements relocate to urban areas and form monoethnic congregations (170ff). The great conglomerates (Type 8) are eight denominations that composed 83 percent of Christians in India in McGavran’s day: Roman Catholic, Church of South India, Council of Baptist Churches of Northeast India, Methodist Church of Southern Asia, Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India, Church of North India, Presbyterian Church of Northeast India, Federation of Evangelical Churches of India (186). Indigenous churches (Type 9) are denominations and associations that are indigenous from their beginning, meaning that they are derived from Indian leadership (214). McGavran concluded by stating that the greatest potential for the church of India was the untapped reservoir of potential missionaries from within the Indian Church (237). 

Ethnic Realities and the Church concludes with two theological essays. The first reminds the reader that Ethnic Realities and the Church is written phenomenologically rather than prescriptively in describing the various church types of India. Therefore, McGavran asks the reader not to criticize his ecclesiology but rather use this book as a look at the various ecclesiologies present in India (246). The second essay defends that caste issues are deeply rooted in Indian society and that the resultant ecclesiological issues must be addressed (250ff). Practically, McGavran reiterates his call for monoethnic churches, while advocating that Indian Christians overcome racial prejudice in Christ (257).

Critical Evaluation

McGavran’s Ethnic Realities and the Church is an invaluable description of the Indian church through a missiological lens. While this book is almost forty years old, most of McGavran’s descriptions ring true today, especially regarding his five basic categories. McGavran’s five basic church types provide an accurate framework around which to describe what is happening in the Indian church. As with anything written by McGavran, most critiques of Ethnic Realities and the Church center around the HUP. 

One major shift in the Indian church from the time of McGavran is the rise of indigenous missionaries and resultant indigenous churches and denominations. McGavran stated that these groups showed great potential but had often not flourished since pastors were moved towards denominations with greater resources (218). Since 1979, indigenous missions, such as Vishawani, Uttar Pradesh Mission, Believer’s Church of India (i.e. Gospel for Asia), have grown dramatically. These are organizations started and lead by Indian leadership who are funding indigenous workers to plant indigenous churches. These indigenous movements still tend to be dependent on outside funding as in McGavran’s day (16). As a result, there has been a dramatic shift away from Christians in India being formed into only a few denominations. Most of the eight great conglomerate denominations have decreased in influence, while indigenous denominations have drastically increased.

Another shift from McGavran’s time is that the Syriac churches have continued to lose their distinct character with multitudes leaving these monoethnic churches to join conglomerates. Likewise, many of the new church movements being birthed by indigenous missions cannot be described as purely monoethnic, but also have a distinctly different character than the fully conglomerate churches. These churches are similar to the modified multiethnic churches but differ in that they began as monoethnic churches which begin to bring in other castes. Generally, these semi-multiethnic churches are over fifty percent of a particular caste, while successfully reaching out to other castes and integrating believers from castes that have a similar status.

As noted by McGavran, most Christian growth in India has taken place among various Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (i.e. low caste ethnic groups), however it is no longer correct that people movements have occurred among only twenty-one ethnic groups in India (28). As in McGavran’s time, there has been substantially less Christian growth among forward castes, Muslims, and other peoples, although progress is occurring among these groups as well. Because of these realities, probably the greatest weakness of Ethnic Realities and the Church is its age. Missions efforts in the subcontinent would be greatly helped by a fresh and thorough phenomenological analysis such as McGavran’s. McGavran was only ready to write this book after thirty-eight years in India and significant academic experience. Likewise, an updated version would be of greatest value if written by someone with substantial experience, like McGavran.

The most controversial statements in Ethnic Realities and the Church revolve around McGavran’s statements regarding the HUP. For example, 

“Nine-tenths of all future conversion growth of the Church in India will come by people movements to Christ; but since the congregations and denominations of most leaders of the Indian Church are conglomerate and not people movement by nature, these leaders neither know nor teach the monoethnic way of becoming Christian. Indeed, in most seminaries and Bible schools in India people movements are seldom mentioned. The very concept is often disapproved.” (36) 

These statements move beyond phenomenological description to active advocacy of “the monoethnic way of becoming Christian.” The controversial nature of this kind of statement can be seen in a 2016 Southern Baptist Journal of Evangelism and Missions. In that journal, Aubrey Sequeira blasted McGavran with the following five critiques:

(1) Missiology characterized by church growth principles underestimates the diabolical nature of the caste system; (2) The church growth model fosters nominal Christianity and perpetuates a deeply entrenched ethnocentrism in the church of Jesus Christ; (3) McGavran’s theology does not sufficiently reflect a biblical understanding of conversion, particularly of repentance; (4) McGavran’s church growth principles have not adequately taken into account the New Testament call to embrace Christ at the expense of being excluded and ostracized by society; and finally, (5) Church growth missiology exalts pragmatic considerations over biblical faithfulness.[7]

In the same journal, John Michael Morris[8] and Troy Bush[9] wrote in defense of utilizing HUP based missionary methods. Indeed, McGavran’s HUP has been debated and examined since he introduced this concept in Bridges of God in 1955.

The question at hand is whether McGavran’s advocacy of HUP based missionary methods is appropriate or if it breaks the biblical injunctions regarding the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ (Eph. 2:11ff). McGavran offers a reasoned response to this question in Ethnic Realities in the Church. By the time McGavran wrote this book, controversy had raged about the HUP for twenty-five years. Therefore, McGavran’s later writings had been refined by the fire of criticism on his teachings. McGavran wrote four considerations: 

  1. “the Church in India faces a Hindu social order which believes that men and women are made in different molds by God Himself, and that some are forever superior and other forever inferior.”
  2. “Christians are indeed called to participate in the struggle for a new society… Before the Throne we all stand equal.”
  3. “the practice of full brotherhood… ought [not] to be made a condition for a person becoming a Christian.” Therefore, “as a matter of convenience to the ‘yet to believe’… homogenous-unit congregations may be started.”
  4. “Christ will indeed break down the middle wall of partition… but he will do it for those who through faith become parts of His Body” (256-257).

In other terms, McGavran acknowledged that the caste system is evil, but understood it as an inevitability among unbelievers in India. His concern was to create churches in which unbelievers could come to Christ. Once in Christ, the walls of division between castes and ethnic groups could be broken down. In other words, for McGavran the focus was on bringing people to Christ so that their views on caste could be reformed. 

In response to Sequeira, a few considerations are required. First, McGavran and Sequeira are united in a disdain for the caste system. However, their views on how to overcome the caste system are different. McGavran sought to bring people to Christ so that Christ could transform believers so as to overcome casteism. While Sequeira seems to advocate that unbelievers need to reject the caste system as part of their repentance unto Christ. Second, Sequeira said that McGavran did not sufficiently explore the idea that believers face ostracism in coming to Christ. However, even a cursory reading of McGavran shows how often he appealed to believers facing ostracism and persecution for Christ. For example, McGavran’s Founders of the Indian Church details multiple stories of the first converts in people movements across India. McGavran clearly describes their transformed lives and the difficulties they faced in coming to Christ. In conclusion, South Asian missiology will continue to be divided over the issue of whether monoethnic churches are ethical or not. But, all can agree that casteism is both sinful and ever present in Indian society, although hopefully on the decline. 

[1] Donald A. McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10.2 (1986): 54.

[2] Especially, “George Samuel of Bombay, Amirtharaj Nelson of Madras, and T.C. George of Bangalore” who helped McGavran develop his last four church types (39ff). 

[3] McGavran was describing the endogamous nature of the Syrian churches of India.

[4] Malayali is the common language of Kerala.

[5] Jati is the Hindi word for caste or tribe.

[6] Since 1979, people movements have occurred in North and Central India. 

[7] Aubrey M. Sequeira, Harry Kumar, and Venkatesh Gopalakrishnan, “McGavran’s Church Growth Principles from an Indian Perspective,” SBJME 2 (2016): 94.

[8] John Michael Morris, “McGavran on McGavran: What Did He Really Teach?” SBJME 2 (2016): 9-23.

[9] Troy L. Bush, “The Homogenous Unit Principle and the American Mosaic,” SBJME 2 (2016): 24-46.

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