WESLEY & CHURCH GROWTH Before McGavran: The Methodological Parallels of John Wesley

by Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D.

Delivered October 3, 2014 to The Annual Conference of The Great Commission Research Network, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, TX.


This article will look at methodological parallels between John B. Wesley and Donald A. McGavran. The influence of both men arose during similar social shifts that were accompanied by a perception of ecclesial apathy. Parallels will be demonstrated in McGavran’s principles of 1) conversion as a priority, 2) effective evangelism as a process model, 3) the danger of redemption and lift, 4) the importance of multiplication and 5) pragmatism in methodology. A final section will look at the legacy of these two men and suggest how identification can help retain focus on principles rather than contextually-bound tactics.

Published in the Great Commission Research Journal (2015).  Delivered in abbreviated form by Dr. Whitesel as a keynote at Renovate: The National Church Revitalization Conference, 11/3/14, Orlando, FL.

Whitesel Wesley RENOVATE 1 copy

Parallel Times

In this article we will look at missiological parallels between the principles of John B. Wesley and Donald A McGavran. Wesley’s methodology was hammered out in mid-18th century England as the Industrial Revolution conquered Europe, driving peasants from agricultural to urban lives in a quest to better their lives though technology. As historian David Watson describers it, “a society which was suffering from radical change and depersonalization.”[1] Only in hindsight would history brand the promises of the Industrial Revolution as overly materialistic and rarely altruistic. Yet amid this cultural shift from organic to mechanistic, spiritual fires leapt from the field sermons and structured discipleship methodology of a former Oxford don.

Not surprisingly in such an era, methods overshadowed principles and soon the derisive appellation “Methodist” was applied to Wesley’s followers. Though they preferred to be called Wesleyans, Wesley would only bend to popular terminology by describing them as “the people called Methodists.[2] Yet the sarcastic term survives and even flourishes in churches and denominations with Wesley’s methodologies in their heritage (though they may not remember what those methods be).

Donald A. McGavran’s principles for what he called effective evangelism[3] were born in a similar cultural transition from farm to factory. In the post-World War II milieu, American ingenuity in science and quantification had defeated Europe’s historical masters of technology: the German nation. Amid the euphoria generated by the passing of the technological baton, Donald A. McGavran began to emphasize measurement and anthropological assessment as valid lenses to follow the unseen movements of the Holy Spirit within societies. Based in part on his background as an executive-level administrator of missionary hospitals in India; McGavran suggested principles and methodologies that appealed to a culture infatuated again with measurement and technology.

But, McGavran and Wesley had similar eye-opening experiences regarding the state of contemporary spirituality. Wesley famously received a letter from his brother Charles, who had just begun his studies at Oxford’s most prestigious seminary: Christ Church College. Charles summed up what he found in these words: “(at Christ Church College) a man stands a very fair chance of being laughed out of his religion.”[4]

McGavran had a similar experience as described by Tim Stafford: “One morning McGavran asked his class what should be the first question a person asks when he reads a biblical passage. One of the most intelligent men answered promptly, ‘What is there in this passage that we cannot believe?’ He meant that anything miraculous or supernatural ought to be deleted or explained as ’poetic.’ ‘I had never before been confronted as bluntly with what the liberal position means to its ordinary Christians.’ McGavran says. ‘It shocked me, and I began at that moment to feel that it could not be the truth’.”[5]

Both men encountered dichotomies that would set their spiritual and tactical trajectories. For both, a popular interpretation of what constitutes biblical spirituality had robbed Christianity of authenticity and relevance. As a result, it should not be unexpected that parallel explorations and codifications of the spiritual journey would result…

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[1] David Lowes Watson, The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002) p. 129.

[2] John Wesley, Letter to John Clayton, 1732.

[3] Similar to what Wesley experienced, McGavran’s more nuanced designation underwent a similar simplification with an accompanying overemphasis upon its tactical nature. Though McGavran preferred his principles be described as effective evangelism (Effective Evangelism: A Theological Mandate, (Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 1988), 43) but much like Wesley 256 years earlier, his work would succumb to the more modish label: church growth.

[4] Kenneth G. C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd, The Letters of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Instruction and Notes: Volume 1 (1728-1756), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 25.

[5] Tim Stafford, “The Father of Church Growth,” Mission Frontiers Journal, January 1986.

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