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Background Data for Mission

The Background Data for Mission newsletter helps United Methodist leaders sort through the new and integrate it with the old. It explores the latest in technology, demographic trends, and contemporary approaches to worship, church education, and evangelism.


Deep Congregational Development Roots

Congregational Development within The United Methodist Church is increasing across the denomination, one of the signs of hope. Congregational Development is a modern rendition of the Church Growth Movement. Not all Methodists affirm all that characterized that movement but it certainly has informed current congregational development. One of the most prominent pioneers of church growth was Donald McGavaran, who spent the latter years of his career teaching in the School of World Missions at Fuller Seminary. Dr. McGavaran claims to have "lit his fire at Pickett's candle." Pickett refers to Methodist Episcopal Bishop and missionary to India, J. Waskom Pickett. Therefore, UMC congregational development has some ultimate roots in one of their own. It is instructive to see how Bishop Pickett impacted those to come.

J. Waskom Pickett went to India as a missionary in 1910 at age 20, having already completed college. He served there the rest of his career. He was close to contemporary, E. Stanley Jones while there. He was well acquainted with Ghandi and was regarded as a confidant to the first president of India after the British pulled out, Nehru. He was brilliant, hard working, and dedicated and served even the lowliest of the Caste system there. In fact he had a special emphasis with the least of them. He was consecrated Bishop in 1935. He would leave India for "retirement" in the US after 46 years of service in the land he came to call home. One of his landmark accomplishments in India was a massive social research study, the first of its kind outside the USA. This led to his publishing of Christian Mass Movements in India.

Rev. Art McPhee, PhD., has done a masterful job of summarizing Bishop Pickett's impact on missions and church growth as quoted in the remainder of this newsletter:

"The impact of J. Waskom Pickett's Christian Mass Movements in India on the 1930s Indian church scene is hard to overstate. Based on the most ambitious survey of its kind ever carried on outside the West, one involving several thousand interviews of Dalit Christians, it laid the foundation of what became Donald McGavran's Church Growth ideas. It might not be the missiological book of the century, as McGavran described it at the time of its appearance (although, at the time, only a third of the century had come), but it caused many mission boards and Indian churches to rethink and alter their priorities and methods, with mostly good results.

Pickett's survey was also missiologically groundbreaking in its legitimizing the use of the social sciences for research on evangelization. Up to that time, theology alone mattered. Now, however, the social sciences were also seen to have a role in evangelistic thinking, planning and evaluation - and not an incidental one. Research and getting the facts down were now seen as essential tools for laying bare false assumptions and putting the missionary enterprise on a viable foundation. Up to that time, those fundamental ideas had not been widely acknowledged. Christian Mass Movements in India had a lot to do with changing that. It served as a wake-up call, alerting churches and missions to mistakes of the past"often very destructive mistakes"and the path to more fruitful evangelization in the future. When, later on, Donald McGavran reflected that Pickett's book opened his eyes in that respect, he was echoing the testimony of many.

Beyond South Asia and the mission boards represented there, Pickett's book was not as fully appreciated. But, on the Indian church scene, Pickett's name became a household word overnight " much as McGavran's name would become such in the larger missiological world during the final decades of the century. In India, mission after mission asked for Pickett's services. Using the interview schedules developed by Pickett and Warren Wilson, his technical assistant, some groups, like the American Lutherans at Guntur, conducted their own surveys, then turned their data over to Pickett for evaluation. Had Pickett not been elected bishop in 1935, he would undoubtedly have been kept busy for years following up on invitations he had already received"including one from the Catholics, and another to organize a survey in China. But even with his removal to the episcopacy, the legitimizing effects of his study for mass movement work secured it a prominent place in the National Christian Council's (in India) Forward Movement in evangelism. Similarly, his conclusions and recommendations led to the commitment of large numbers of India's churches and missions to re-evaluate their evangelistic strategies, budgets, and personnel deployments. And, then, there was the impact on McGavran and its eventual ramifications.

Some have thought that McGavran was overstating or just being generous to a favorite mentor when he said, "I lit my candle at Pickett's fire." But they are mistaken. So are those who, writing about McGavran, routinely give him the recognition for concepts that were fully articulated by Pickett in the 1930s. The number of Pickett accentuations in Christian Mass Movements in India and Christ's Way to India's Heart that would later be absorbed into the corpus of Church Growth literature is substantial. Among them are such Pickett themes as these:

1. the need for research and getting the facts
2. the importance of focusing less on individuals and more on groups and group (people) movements
3. the power of group identity (homogeneity)
4. the destructiveness of social dislocation and the importance of new Christians remaining in their social networks
5. the hazards of Western individualism
6. the need to abandon the mission station approach
7. the concept of social lift
8. the expediency of reallocating resources according to receptivity
9. the critique of the term, "mass movement"
10. the need to avoid foreignness and to adopt indigenous forms and symbols in the liturgy and worship of the church
11. the focus on the masses as more receptive than the classes.

How many of these concepts were original with Pickett is harder to say - perhaps not many. For example, long before Pickett's day, John Wesley had grasped the principle of allocating resources according to receptivity. And advocating the use of indigenous forms was certainly no new thing, although, in Pickett's day, he was one of the exceptions in advocating it. Developing missionary strategy from the results of social science investigations was a new thing, however; and Pickett was without question among the pioneers. And certainly his application to missions thinking of this particular panoply of principles around a core emphasis on multi-individual, group conversions was unique. The sum of the parts in Pickett's panoply was, as McGavran noted in his review of Christ's Way to India's Heart, a radically new philosophy of missions, a fresh paradigm.

Thus, Pickett's advocacy of the kind of research-based strategies that impressed McGavran - exemplified by his own empirical studies, fresh conclusions, and prototypical recommendations and innovations - by itself puts him among the key missiological "re-thinkers" of the last century.

For those interested in reading more about this extraordinary Methodist, Art McPhee's splendid biography, The Road to Delhi: Bishop Pickett Remembered, is very highly recommended. While first published in India, the book is now available in the US through Evangel Press at 800-253-9315. Amazon will also carry it within the month.  Art McPhee teaches Intercultural Studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

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