A great deal of Donald A. McGavran’s insight can be traced to the unique advantage he had of growing up in India as a third generation missionary. by Ralph D. Winter
here before McGavran’s eyes were not only the expectable ethnic and linguistic divisions of the sub-continent (in which every given geographical area has its own area culture)—what is called horizontal segmentation. He early encountered the vertical segmentation of the world’s most rigidly stratified system of social classes. The very fact that India’s castes long constituted a highly visibly quasi-official structure meant that his perspective as he traveled in other parts of the world remained highly sensitized to social barriers (those barriers arising from other than racial and linguistic differences), even in places where no overt social categorization of such things existed. No wonder he has been accused of reading into a situation social differences that did not exist. In some such cases he has merely pointed out differences people wished to ignore. As a matter of fact, many nations too long have looked down on India’s overt social prejudice without recognizing their own covert castes. In any case, one of the durable common denominators among those associated with McGavran in the amorphous church growth school of thought is a parallel sensitivity to the central importance of the profound cultural diversity within the community of mankind. This sensitivity is the basis of what may be called here cross-cultural perspective. Cross-cultural perspective is what makes possible contextualization. Cross-cultural perspective goes to the very heart of Christian theology and historiography as these disciplines have developed across the centuries, since it sheds new light on the problem of unity versus uniformity in historic dimensions.
Examples of the Problem A number of years ago representatives of the Lutheran World Federation went to great lengths to persuade the Batak Christians of Northern Sumatra to subscribe to the “Non-Altered” Augsburg Confession. One millennium earlier, on another mission frontier in the middle of another island (not nearly as large as Sumatra) a small group of men earnestly tried to persuade a Celtic Christian leader that he ought to subscribe to the Roman way of acting out the Christian faith. In these two cases the external advocates of uniformity were only partially successful, since the group being persuaded possessed a good deal of autonomy and naturally preferred its own way of doing things. In both cases, unfortunately, the external advocates were not themselves readily able to distinguish between the universal and the particular elements in their own faith. Historically speaking, as in the period preceding the Protestant Reformation, advocates of a foreign formulation of Christianity are at first successful and do not until much later face the insurgent nationalism of the surviving cultural tradition which may eventually demand its own indigenous Christian formulation. In the Philippines, for example, the Roman tradition swept in along with a colonial power, and while the Roman witnesses to the faith are to be credited with the fact that a great amount of painstaking and quite enlightened mission work was conducted throughout the whole of the Philippines, there eventually came a time when an immense sector of the
Philippines church under Bishop Aglipay declared its independence from Rome in much the way that Luther had. To this day the Philippine Independent Church endures to this day as the largest non-Roman church in the country. These are only a few of many possible examples which demonstrate one of the most unique and surprising things about Christianity—that it is by nature a faith that both welcomes and encourages cultural pluralism. In this sense, if Christianity must be called a religion at all, it is the only world religion of this kind. This little understood...