As the young missionary outlined his plans to win souls and baptize and teach believers, he said, “When I turn the work over, it will become an indigenous church.” He has the right idea, but his use of the word become, and the mindset that goes with it, may prevent him from realizing his goal of seeing the church continue to grow and prosper without outside help.
An indigenous church is one which thrives naturally in the native culture; it is governed, financed, and propagated by native Christians, not outsiders. It is free to follow the New Testament and not necessarily the example of the sending church of the missionary that built it. The question is not how large or strong the church is while the missionary is present, but rather, what happens when he and his resources leave. Will the work fail? Will another missionary need to step in to keep it going? Missionaries, just as military leaders, should go in with an exit strategy. It is a serious mistake to think a church will somehow become indigenous; it must be born indigenous.
The truth be known, it may be impossible to establish a totally indigenous church. To begin with, a missionary and his Bible are not native or indigenous to that place. Once established, the church, even under the leadership of native people, will always be somewhat foreign to the pagan culture that surrounds it. Thus, the goal is a congregation that worships and serves God in a way that is as natural to them as possible. The ministry must be their church, not the missionary’s. The missionary must decide at the outset to do what is best for the people, not necessarily what folks back home expect—and even less what his missionary peers expect. His greatest problems are his own expectations and the temptation to use his money and influence to make things happen. The message is sacred; the methods are not. He must evaluate his methods, insuring that they are moving toward the goal of a church that can function without his money, grow without his preaching, make its own decisions, and solve its own problems. The Bible must be the authority when he begins and after he leaves.
An important key to producing an indigenous church is a good understanding of the culture. Let’s consider two cultural themes and how they relate to indigenous church planting. 1) All people have material culture, and this includes buildings. What kind of a building do the people want or need? If a church group goes to the mission field to build the building, they should submit themselves totally to the native Christians, use the materials that the natives provide, and build it to the natives’ specifications. If square and plumb is not important to the natives, it shouldn’t be to the foreigners. Where should the building be located? Who will own and repair it? 2) Another area of culture is enculturation, or teaching. How does this group teach its culture to the next generation? Who teaches important truths? Where and when are they taught? Many missionaries train “preacher boys” and place them in charge of the teaching and preaching, but are young men recognized and accepted as leaders in spiritual matters? If the missionary will take time to thoroughly learn the culture, he will know what the Christian life (the church) should look like in this place. He will have a picture in his mind of the finished product and will work toward it as an insider, not as a foreigner.
We say an indigenous church is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. This is very true, but can it really be considered indigenous if it has an American style building, preachers that wear white shirts and neckties when no one else does, translated American hymns, an American preaching style and schedule of services, and an American clergy-laity system? The missionary and his supporters back home must expect this new church to be different from anything we have in America. The time to allow and promote this difference is not when the missionary is about to “turn it over to the nationals” but rather from the very beginning of his adventure in this new place. The missionary should share the teaching and leadership responsibilities with the new believers, even if he could do a better job. When problems arise, instead of handling them himself, he might gather the men and say, “Okay men, we have a problem. What does God want us to do?” The missionary is a safety net in case of false doctrine or unscriptural decisions, but he interferes as little as possible. He must be especially careful how he helps the new church with his money. In his book, The Great Omission, Steve Saint writes of the damage done by well-meaning foreigners with deep pockets. He warns, “…too much money is more often the cause of mission failure than too little.”
God give us missionaries with the discretion and courage to oversee the conception, birth, infancy, maturity, and independence of truly indigenous churches that will prosper more because of their departure!