by John Tanner
Four transferable principles that make an indigenous church-planting movement more likely to succeed.
In my forty years of ministry I have been involved in the leadership of a number of missions and served for a term as the national director of the Australian Evangelical Alliance Missions Commission—a World Evangelical Alliance affiliate. In my role, I consulted extensively with Australian mission leaders. At no time did we collectively discuss the issues surrounding the exit of a missionary force once the task of church planting was completed. Since that time, I have been greatly impacted in my thinking by Tom Steffen’s article, “Exit Strategy—Another Look at Phase-out” (2001). Among several other milestones that indicate maturity, Steffen mentions the need to establish a “mission training center to continue the church planting process at home and abroad” (2001, 186). The actual case study in indigenous church planting below is written as a personal plea for church-planting agencies to consider Steffen’s proposition seriously.
In March 2006, I visited Myanmar to speak at a seminar for church leaders and to attend the tenth anniversary celebrations of the host church. My invitation came from three Burmese graduates of The Pines Training Centre1 who were involved in a church-planting movement within the country. The ministry environment is incredibly difficult and sometimes dangerous. Yet despite the challenges, churches have been planted through a process of local evangelism. I believe God is doing something so significant through this gospel movement that the rest of the world should take careful note. Perhaps there are similar movements elsewhere; if so, we would all be helped by a careful analysis to determine the common characteristics.
The ABC Evangelical Church2—Its Story
Background. The cultural context in which the church offers the gospel is not as favorable as it is in Australia or the United States. Myanmar has a rich mix of ethnic groups; however, the dominant people group—the Burmese people—hold political and economic power. The national government is composed mainly of generals from the military. Buddhism is the national religion. The country is listed as being among those countries with the lowest per capita income in the world. The Church in Myanmar has had a wonderful heritage; however, after almost a century of operation, it is hindered by nominality in many places. Independent and Pentecostal churches are making some progress, but often at the expense of existing denominations.
History of the ABC Evangelical Church. In 1996, a teacher who also served voluntarily as a youth pastor in an independent church in the capital city received a vision to plant one hundred new churches among the Burmese people by the year 2020. The teacher was not Burmese himself, but a member of a tribal group. Within the next five years, Oh3 had planted two churches in the capital city (intentionally) and three in his tribal homeland (unintentionally through running a leaders’ course). Oh came to The Pines for training in February 2002. He returned home in June and commenced a school for church planters in August of the same year. Although Table 1 shows that this training was the catalyst to significant growth, it was likely not the only factor.
Significant Growth Factors Explained
There are at least six contributing factors to the significant growth of the church in the past five years.
1. Quality leaders. The church-planting movement is led by Oh, his wife, and two other pastors. All the leaders are involved in the training process. They are godly people, committed to fulfilling the vision, and willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary. Although they differ in gifts and personality types, they work as a cohesive team.
2. Weekly day of prayer and fasting. All the churches and students in the training college celebrate every Friday as a day of prayer and fasting. The focus of prayer is on effective evangelism. The rice not eaten on Fridays and money not spent in buying food is given away to poor people from the dominant ethnic group to show love and support.
3. Vision 2020 outreach. All of the thirty-six church plants are working to minister to Buddhists primarily, but not exclusively. All ministries are designed to be culturally-relevant to this group. All church planters begin as evangelists. When a group has been gathered, the evangelist is then promoted to probationary pastor. Only when the group continues to grow and mature is the leader confirmed as a pastor. As no new churches are allowed to own property within the country, the church plants begin in small, 2-room rented houses. One room is for the family, the other is for the church. Each pastor is encouraged to pray and work to have a church of two hundred members by 2020.
4. Training. The original training program was adapted from overseas courses and delivered over a longer period of time than in the Western context. The program involved a Certificate IV level course initially; however, a diploma year was soon added. The focus of all the courses is on spreading the gospel using culturally-relevant means. The fact that church planters designed the original overseas course has contributed toward a high degree of transferability and practicality for church planters in the local situation. Quite evidently, this training has produced a cadre of practical leaders who know what to do and are willing to pay the price for leadership within their own cultural context.
5. Conversion/membership policy. At first, the church-planting movement was at best only tolerated by other denominations. Now that it has proved to be successful, the movement has been recognized by national church and training accreditation bodies. Church planters asked the founders if they were permitted to accept members by transfer from other denominations. To accept this as a policy would have guaranteed the early success of several church plants. However, the founders decided that only those people who accept Christ through the ministry of a church plant would be accepted as members of that church plant. This decision has been a stroke of genius as it has kept the focus on the gospel. It also has the potential of saving the pastor from imprisonment through complaints from other pastors about “sheep stealing.”
6. Moral and financial support from overseas. Each of the earlier factors has equal importance. This last factor is far less important, yet still key enough to mention. This whole movement operates at an annual cost of less than $30,000. Some financial support comes from several churches in Australia. As people have come to Christ over the past ten years, the local income of the movement has increased, but not at a rate sufficient to cover significant expenses. Overseas churches have also helped to set up small community development projects designed to help the church movement to become self-sufficient. Of more significance than the dollars has been the regular prayer of supporting church people and personal contacts made with leaders who visit from Australia at least twice each year to encourage the church planters.
Some Transferable Principles
I am certain there are other growth factors that have contributed to this story of a fledgling indigenous church-planting movement. Others will look with more experienced eyes than mine and note additional factors and discrepancies. I am certain that the six key factors above are not all equally important and may not all be applicable everywhere. However, I am convinced there are some transferable principles that warrant further discussion and evaluation. Below are four.
1. The foundation of godly, committed, indigenous leaders. This foundation is a given in any successful church-planting movement. The leaders share a common vision, exhibit Christlike character, are committed to winning people to Christ, and are not afraid to suffer. They are not the product of missionary activity, but of indigenous, local churches. However, this is not an essential factor. The leaders share no sense of dependency, but instead demonstrate wholehearted dependence upon God. The practice of a weekly day of prayer and fasting for all those within the movement is evidence of a healthy dependence upon the Lord for his work and provision.
2. A clear commitment to a God-given vision. Every church planter and trainee in the Bible school has a clear understanding of the “what” and the “why” of the vision. The vision is the reason why the movement exists. I have been present in the annual gatherings of the movement when the leaders have reported. On each occasion, the leader’s statement provided a progress report on how the movement as a whole was progressing toward the achievement of the vision. To some readers, this comment may create a false impression that the movement is managed like a Western organization. It is not. The reports simply tell: (1) how many people have come to Christ and have been baptized; (2) how many new churches have been started, and where; and (3) how many people belong to the movement. Leaders are affirmed and new pastors are appointed.
In my forty years of ministry experience as a pastor, missionary, denominational executive, mission association director, and trainer, I have not observed a group of people who understand a vision and who are as committed to it as these people. Vision comes through godly leadership and reflection upon the guidance of God. Some leaders are good at the skill of reflection, while most others need to be trained in it.
3. Appropriate training. Appropriate training is the key factor in the success of the movement to date. All of the leaders have primary degrees in theology from within their own country. This fact should not be overlooked in any evaluation. The key leaders have attended specialist training in evangelism and church planting in Australia. In each case, this training concluded with a class on planting new churches in a cross-cultural context. Missionaries, evangelists, and church planters designed the entire course on the basis of their own life experiences. It was the ethos, thrust, and practical nature of the course which made it suitable for enculturation and adaptation within another culture. When the pioneer leader returned home, he had permission to use all or any of the elements of the curriculum for his own purposes without cost. He then adapted, translated, and otherwise utilized the content and training methodology of the course to make it appropriate for his own context.
The result was three levels of training delivered in temporary classrooms with dirt floors and thatched roofs. How can we measure the success or otherwise of such an attempt to adapt training from another context—or even to create something entirely new within our own context? Surely, the effectiveness of training can only ultimately be determined by the effectiveness in ministry of those who have been trained. In a short period of time, thirty-six new churches have commenced and almost nine hundred people have come to know Christ through the ministry of graduates from this school.
4. Overseas support. Would this movement have survived and/or prospered without the support of overseas friends? I am not sure because I do not know what God would have done otherwise. However, I am convinced that certain biblical principles should constrain us in these matters:
- We are called to a worldwide partnership—the strong helping the weak, the rich helping the poor. This is not a one-way street, as those who are spiritually rich but physically poor have much to contribute to the spiritually poor Western Church.
- We are to act in love in a way that does not create unhealthy dependency in terms of personalities, finances, and technologies. Christian businesspeople who can help implement microeconomic development projects are almost as important to the growth of the young churches as missionaries.
- We are to always encourage one another. This is the importance of mutual ministry.
- We are to always pray for those who are the messengers of the gospel, wherever they are.
The week following my visit to Myanmar, I visited a major city in another Asian country where there was a significant missionary presence. There were more than one hundred missionary personnel based in the city at considerable personal sacrifice. They were no doubt all good people—each called by God to be there. It may be that their friends and home churches were supporting them by giving more than $1 million per year in total. What an enormous investment the Western Church is making there for so little results! Compare this with what is happening with so little in Myanmar. I admire these workers in this other Asian country for their commitment, and I believe there is a greater need today than ever before for missionaries to be sent out by their churches and mission agencies. However, I cannot help but question the validity of some strategies they are working so faithfully to implement. Can something be learned from Oh and his team that will make us all more effective in spreading the gospel? Is Steffen correct when he asserts the establishment of an indigenous mission training center is essential to the further spread of the gospel once the missionaries have completed their task? This is something we all need to consider.
1. The Pines Training Centre in Queensland, Australia, trains church planters for the harvest, both in Australia and overseas. For more information, visit: http://pinestraining.com.au.
2. Actual name of church withheld for security reasons.
3. Actual name withheld for security reasons.
Steffen, Tom. 2001. “Exit Strategy: Another Look at Phase-out.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 37(2): 180-192.
John Tanner is an Australian who has extensive experience in pastoral, denominational, and mission leadership. He is the founding director of The Pines Training Centre, which specializes in equipping leaders for church planting. John has a doctorate of missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.