by Melvin L. Hodges
In recent months questions have arisen about the validity of indigenous church principles in relation to modern missionary work.
In recent months questions have arisen about the validity of indigenous church principles in relation to modern missionary work. At the Green Lake Consultation on Church-Mission Relationships, some statements seemed to indicate that some mission leaders feel that indigenous church principles had been tried and found wanting, and that in the future missions would have to look to some other measures in order to insure the success of their work. Dr. George Peters’ excellent paper on church-mission relationships contained a paragraph which, if not properly understood, could support this opinion.
He calls for a thorough-going review of the whole issue of finances and he mentions one method of handling funds as follows "No foreign funds be made available to national churches. This is the extreme application of the self-support principle under the label of indigenization. Due to this practice, there are today thousands of small, impotent, ill-cared-for, anemic groups of believers in the world struggling for survival. There is as much peril and undersupply as there is an oversupply of foreign funds. Balance and common sense are much needed in this matter."
Semantics is a part of our problem. What do we mean by "indigenous church principles"? Indigenous, of course, means "native to the soil, not exotic." Used of the church, it means those concepts which would cause the church to thrive and prosper in its own naive soil and culture, rather than being an exotic plant that requires artificial climate in order to thrive. The promoters of indigenous methods really are calling for following New Testament church principles that will establish an on-going, thriving church – not dependent on -foreign help. Certainly, we do not mean that everything indigenous is good, simply because it is indigenous. Nor do we advocate the cutting off of proper help that a church should receive from the rest of the body of Christ. I believe that there is no fundamental disagreement among evangelical mission leaders in this regard. We all are striving for the same goal, although there array not be complete agreement as to the methods that will best bring about this result.
The second problem arises out of a misapplication of indigenous church principles. We should hold in mind that indigenous church principles mean more than a self-supporting church in the financial sense. Mistakenly, we have often identified indigenous church principles exclusively with the self-supporting aspect. Self-propagation is perhaps the most important aspect of the indigenous church concept. Self-government also plays an important part.
When Christian leaders have directed their attention too exclusively to the self-support aspect of the work, their effort has not always been successful, because a people trained in, and accustomed to, dependency do not overnight adjust to responsibility. It requires patient teaching and planning, and above all, the introduction of the dynamics of the Holy Spirit.
The dynamics of the New Testament church are important in the life of a New Testament church. Did Dr. Peters mean to say that money is the life-blood of the church, without which there will be anemic groups of Christians? Many of these anemic groups of Christians would still be anemic even if they had a pastor supported by foreign funds. Money does not convert an indifferent group of Christians into an active soul-winning-evangelizing force. It takes the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to do this.
Another question that has been raised has a theological base. It is stressed that since the church is one body in the whole world, and the ministries that God has placed in the church are for the church irrespective of political and geographical boundaries or differences of race, it follows that the whole resources of the church, financial, as well as spiritual, should be available for any section of the church wherever the need may be. This, of course, contains an element of truth, for the church is one and God is interested in the prosperity of the church everywhere. It is, however, shallow thinking to apply this to all conditions in the church without taking into consideration how this principle was applied in the New Testament. Paul was certainly aware of the oneness of the body of Christ, yet there is no hint of his requiring the church an one area to undertake the supplying of the operational expenses of the churches in another area. He did accept offerings from the churches to finance his missionary projects. He also took up offerings from the Gentile churches as an act of mercy for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem. These actions suggest the unity of the universal church.
Some statements indicate that the churches of the more affluent countries should systematically and continually underwrite the expenses of the church in the less developed countries. Most certainly, it seems proper to give financial help to send out messengers to establish the church in those areas where Christ is not known. But wherever the church is established, the Christians themselves (converts) automatically fall heir to the responsibilities for witnessing to the gospel of Christ and for supporting their own work. To do otherwise, would be to fail of the grace of God.
A problem arises when we think of church life only in terms of the church that we have been accustomed to. We tend to establish churches abroad after the pattern of the American churches we are accustomed to; to pay pastors according to American standards, and institute organizational structures that may constitute far too heavy a load for the church in an economically undeveloped area. Should we not see that the church can develop independently of economic conditions? Indigenous church principles do not exclude the proper use of foreign funds for projects that will help the church get on its feet. What we object to is crippling the church by making it dependent on foreign sources of supply. We should never do for the church what it should do for itself.
In handling foreign funds, the question that should continually be asked is, In the long run will this gift help the church to be able to carry on? Will it stimulate responsibility or create dependency?
Objections have been raised to the illustration of the missionaries being compared to the scaffolding of a building. The idea is, that when the building is completed the scaffolding is to be torn down. This illustration must be understood in the sense of the truth it tries to teach.
By using this illustration, we do not mean that after the first work is done the missionary must necessarily pick up and go home. Rather, the missionary should build the church in such a way that it pan still exist without him. He is not to build a church around himself and his mission. His ministry is to bring the church into existence. After the church is established, the missionary may very well have an important ministry to the church, but he should not build the church in such a way that if he leaves, the whole structure will collapse because his ministry, funds, and guidance are essential to the continuing life of the church. The missionary should not perpetuate himself as pastor of a local church, or administrator in the national church. Paul followed this pattern. When he left a locality he still continued his ministry of counselling and teaching to that church by means of visits and letters.
For those who are concerned lest the withholding of foreign funds for the support of pastors and the maintenance of the day-to-day program of the local church thereby stifle and cripple its life, a study of the truly ongoing churches in foreign fields should settle the problem. Only those churches that have learned to depend on their own resources, whose members consider that the church is their church and the responsibility to win the lost is their own obligation, are really moving forward and doing a permanent work.
Remarkably enough, those churches that receive no missionary help are often stronger than those who have the help and finances of missionaries. Certainly, missionary work should be done in such a way that in the long run the church will have greater strength and evangelistic outreach than if they were doing it by themselves! Surely something is wrong if missionaries with their talents and money produce a less aggressive, less evangelistic church than those groups attain who have had little or no missionary help. Our plea is that missionary help will truly be a strength to the church rather than a source of weakness.
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