by J. Keith Bateman
We hear a lot of talk these days about the importance of indigenous churches, churches that are truly “home-grown” and reflect the values and culture of the people.
in-dig-e-nous: 1. Having originated in and being produced, growing or living naturally in a particular region or environment. 2. Innate, inborn. Syn. Native.
We hear a lot of talk these days about the importance of indigenous churches, churches that are truly “home-grown” and reflect the values and culture of the people. Mission agencies are all for these types of churches, with the bulk of their “think tank” hours being devoted to achieving this noble end. National church leaders, who have long chaffed under the (at least perceived) dominance of foreign missionaries, are also committed to this goal. It seems as though everyone wants a truly national church, not simply a carbon copy of someone else’s.
Well, me too! In my fifteen years of missions work in Africa, the Caribbean and the Far East, I think I have become fairly well-acquainted with the methods currently being used to achieve this worthy goal. Based on my observations, I would like to offer this ten-point plan for producing more indigenous churches. I claim no originality for this plan. It is the one currently in use by many in missions today.
1. Keep missionaries around long after the work has been established. This provides a ready source of labor for the national church so that they will not be forced to develop the talents and gifts of their own people.
2. Support national churches with funding from abroad. This will not only promote a church dependent upon westerners and their resources, but will ensure that local sources of revenue will not be developed, thus sparing the local congregation from experiencing the joy of giving.
3. Train national leaders in United States-style classrooms, with US professors, using US seminary curriculae. Better yet, send them to the US itself for study! This will produce pastors completely out of touch with reality. Ironically, this is what most people think pastors are anyway.
4. Introduce a “stateside” methodology as the correct way to run a church “program.” This includes not only the standard Sunday worship package of opening hymn, prayer, special music and three-point sermon, but “canned” evangelism and snappy youth programs long on entertainment, but short on changed lives.
5. Promote US technology as necessary for successful Christian ministry. This includes church buses, microphones, large amplifying equipment, taping and other “studio” services. It also includes music which needs woofers, tweeters, a rhythm guitar and other instruments not readily found. This will ensure that the national Christian will spend those important hours prior to the service fooling with the equipment instead of engaging in unimportant things like prayer.
6. Send national church leaders to every conceivable world congress and other “frame-of-reference-expanding” conference. This will promote self-importance and help them to see that they are clearly too big for mere local church involvement.
7. Talk about strategizing and planning, but do not actually put it into action. This encourages national Christians who, like us, are good at goal-setting, but poor at actually carrying the goals out.
8. Stress formal classroom instruction as superior to practical “on-the-job” training. This will provide the indigenous church with trained people who, like many trained people at home, are good—good for nothing.
9. Present Christianity as the way to the good life. This will be modeled by Christians who live in comparative wealth and luxury overseas. This example promotes proper motivation for national Christians who will also aspire to live above the level of their people.
10. Insist upon multi-degree teachers for overseas training assignments, especially those trained in the important areas of anthropology, sociology and psychology. We all know that the early Church turned the world upside down by following this plan!
Dealing with the Hard Questions
I realize that I have offended both missionary and national church leaders alike with this tongue-in-cheek plan. But before composing letters of protest, please take the time to consider these questions: What does it mean when we hear of already established national churches (who, in some cases, have existed for a hundred years or more) asking for yet more outside assistance? What does it mean when foreign missions agencies (some of which have been present in the same area for a hundred years or more) are calling for more missionaries and more resources? Is this how we develop more indigenous churches?
The reality is, if a church has only ten people who are all tithing, the local pastor can live at the level of his congregation. And so we ask, “How long does it take to get ten people?” The truth is, many national churches have thousands of people! So why do they need more missionaries? Does this speak of success—or failure?
Rather than getting upset that these questions are being asked, there is a more important question that we, as missionaries, mission sending agencies, national churches and sending churches today (and I have been part of all four, and hence am as culpable as any) need to ask. We must look at our strategy and motivation and ask, “Are our actions (done in good faith and with good intentions) in missions today likely to produce truly indigenous churches—or simply more churches that mirror our own?”
J. Keith Bateman currently pastors a church in York, Nebraska. He served as a missionary to Africa from 1978-1993, originally as a dentist/orthodontist in Kenya and southern Sudan and later as a lecturer and academic dean at Scott Theological College in Kenya.
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