Donald McGavran was born December 15, 1897, in Domah, India and became a third generation missionary. In 1910 his family returned to the U.S. and when he was 14, he was saved and baptized in the First Christian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the same year he attended the Edinburgh Missionary Conference with his father. McGavran attended Butler University from 1915-1920, and two years of this time he served with the U.S. Army during World War I. From 1920-1922, he went to Yale Divinity School, and then spent another year getting his masters from the College of Mission in Indianapolis. During a YMCA conference at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he dedicated his life to going where God sent and carrying out His will.
Through the influence of the Student Volunteer Movement, McGavran returned to India as a missionary of the United Christian Missionary Society (the missions branch of the Disciples of Christ) in 1923, along with his wife Mary whom he had wed one year earlier. While in Harda, India, he was placed in charge of the mission school system in Harda and in 1927 he was appointed director of religious education for the India field. This involved standardizing curriculum and instruction. After eight years in India, the McGavran family came to the U.S. on furlough. Donald attended classes at Columbia University in New York and received his Ph.D. in Education. His dissertation was on Hinduism and Christianity. When his family returned to India, McGavran served as executive secretary of mission, in which he worked with 80 missionaries, 5 hospitals, high schools, primary schools, and he became the superintendent of a leprosy home and hospital. McGavran became an expert on Hindi language and translated the gospels into the Chattisgarhi dialect.
In 1954, after more than thirty years of service in India, the McGavran family returned to the U.S. on furlough. Although it was their intention to go back to India, the mission ended up sending Donald to do further research into the growth of churches planted by the mission and related Christian groups around the world. During this time, McGavran started teach and write significantly about the theories he had developed during his time in India about the factors that influence and shape the development of congregations. When evaluating church growth, he asked three questions: When a church is growing, why is it growing? What barriers, obstructions or sicknesses prevent the natural life, vitality and growth of churches? What reproducible principles operative in growing churches can be used elsewhere? What McGavran had discovered in India was the theory of “homogeneous units” in church growth, which today are more known as “people groups.” A homogeneous unit often means a group which shares a common language, culture or other characteristic which makes it individually unique from other groups. This theory earned McGavran as the Father of Church Growth. He promoted returning to traditional mission stressing evangelism and church planting. In 1957 he established the Institute of church Growth in Eugene, Oregon. In 1965 he established the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. From 1971-1981, he was senior professor of missions at Fuller and when he retired he continued to speak and write.
On July 10, 1990, Donald McGavran died at age 93 of cancer. Two of his most influential books were The Bridges of God and Understanding Church Growth. McGavran will forever be known as the “father” of the modern Church Growth movement.
Culbertson, Howard. The Modern Church Growth Movement. Southern Nazarene University, 2001.
Papers of Donald Anderson and Mary Elizabeth (Howard) McGavran - Collection 178. Billy Graham Center archives.