by Gailyn Van Rheenen
These stages in the church-planting cycle are a must.
Many "trained" missionaries begin their work in a cross-cultural context without a clear understanding of the missionary task. From a personal perspective this statement was partially descriptive of our missions team. We were well prepared to learn new languages and cultures. We had basic preparation to lead unbelievers into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. We effectively struggled with contextualizing the gospel in a new and different culture. Our team, however, consumed hundreds of hours trying to determine what to do next. And because we did not adequately understand the process of missions, we made many mistakes along the way.
This article attempts to outline the broad process of establishing church-planting movements from the missionaries’ initial entry onto the field to the passing of the baton of leadership to the national church. It was written for two major reasons. First, to enable missionaries to visualize the broad process of missions and the roles and skills required of missionaries during each stage of planting and developing a new missions movement. Second, the article challenges those who equip missionaries to focus not only on the initial stages of church planting-the "learning" and "growth" periods-but also on the final stages of church planting-the "collaborative" and "phase-out" periods. Traditionally the study of church planting has focused more on church initiation than on church maturation.
THE LEARNING PERIOD
Approximately the first two years on the mission field are appropriately called the learning period or the adaptation stage. Missionaries are learning to live in new contexts and adapt to them. During this period, four interrelated types of learning take place. Missionaries learn (1) to speak a new language, (2) to understand the culture of the people among whom they are working, (3) to form personal relationships within the culture, and (4) to develop models of ministry appropriate to the context.
Two extremes are common during this stage. On the one hand, some missionaries assume that they should not begin communicating the gospel until the learning stage is completed-until language and culture learning are accomplished. Christianity, however, is the core of identity. Missionaries cannot easily lay aside their identity even during the early stages of missionary work. They should learn languages and cultures as Christians and thus express and live out these distinct Christian perspectives. Christian proclamation must be incorporated rather than marginalized during the learning of language and culture. When effective language and culture learning takes place, the first converts are frequently made and a church established, even during this preliminary learning stage. Missionaries must, however, understand their communication limitations and work within them. They should teach using broad, general concepts and use indigenous illustrations only with the greatest of care.
On the opposite extreme, some missionaries naively bypass the learning stage. They conceive that "people are people all over the world and the gospel can be presented in the same way in all contexts." They, therefore, desire to be teachers without learning first. Without active language and culture learning during the first months on the field, the missionaries’ effectiveness in all other stages is reduced, and the resulting movement is typically anemic.
As stated earlier, effective missionaries should be identificationalists, but the nature of their identification varies from stage to stage as the Christian movement matures. In this early adaption phase missionary identification is broadly focused and may be defined as learning the general patterns of a new recipient culture. The major role of missionaries during this stage is learner.
During this stage of missionary life, our team first learned the Kiswahili trade language and then the Kipsigis vernacular. Although many people know the trade language, we found that for communicating the message of Christ the trade language could not substitute for the language of the heart. As we learned the Kipsigis language, we also learned Kipsigis culture. It became evident that to learn the language was also to learn the culture. Language categories form the cognitive domains expressing the building blocks of the cultural worldview.
Four months after our arrival in Kipsigis, the first six people came to Christ. We found that language/culture learning and ministry could not be segmented: As we learned, we also expressed who we were and taught the message of reconciliation to God in Christ in our own very elementary way. During this stage I personally was pulled in two different directions: Not only was I working with those of the Kipsigis tribe, but I also found hundreds of workers on the area tea estates who were receptive to the gospel. Within a year I baptized 150 people in these estates. But we soon found that the workers on these estates were all visitors, living out of their tribal area and that establishing a permanent movement where all the people are visitors is very difficult.
Although a large number were converted, without the support of the home community, many reverted to their old ways. We came to realize that stable churches are established when people are converted where they "live" rather than where they "stay," a linguistic differentiation made by local people in both the Kiswahili and Kipsigis languages. Thus our model of ministry radically shifted to preach where people "live" (i.e., their home area) rather than where people "stay" (i.e., their work place).
THE GROWTH PERIOD
Effective missionaries, having learned language and culture and shared their faith, begin the Growth Period with a vision of how God will use them to mobilize a movement in the area in which they are working. They realize that their task is not merely to plant a church but to initiate a movement of God. They have developed the cultural and linguistic understandings to think missiologically about their cultural context.
Developing a strong movement of God in a new city or ethnic area requires three essential, interrelated tasks during the Growth Period. First, initial evangelism leads to new churches. Second, Christians are nurtured to maturity within these churches. Third, leaders are trained to evangelize and plant other churches, pastor and shepherd the community of believers, and train still other leaders. Effective missionaries successfully develop models for accomplishing each of these central missionary tasks. While other missions endeavors may amplify these three central tasks, without them a strong movement of God cannot come into being. In receptive areas of the world accomplishing these three tasks will require a minimum of eight to 10 years of focused ministry during the Growth Period to enable mature local churches with trained leadership to come into existence.
Care must be taken that these three tasks not be performed artificially by inducing people to come to Christ because of finance or favor. Western missionaries come from very wealthy countries. Without realizing it, they frequently magnetize the leeches and con men of the culture and then attempt to build a church around them. Effective learning during the first stage equips effective missionaries to deal with the many dilemmas concerning the disparity of wealth in the world and the resulting expectations of the poor. God’s church, moreover, must reflect the compassion of God for the poor and disenfranchised. God’s people are called to preach good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).
These ministries, however, occur within the context of genuine Christian conversion: Unbelievers must "open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins" (Acts 26:18).
Perhaps the greatest challenge during this stage is developing an effective paradigm of church planting which is both biblically integrated yet reproductive. For example, one missionary team may plant a single church in a city or ethnic unit while another employs a multichurch orientation to plant numerous viable churches within the same culture. One team may smother national leaders by micromanaging church affairs; another may work with maturing leaders to develop models of mobilizing national leadership. [The models or paradigms used in church planting and development make the difference.]
Church-planting teams in receptive areas should develop a full-city, multicity, or full-tribe perspective rather than expecting to plant only one local church. Their model should be that of Paul, who planted and nurtured, but expected Apollos to water (Rom. 15:17-20; 1 Cor. 3:6, 10).
When a team focuses on establishing one church, a missionary enclave is almost always created, and the presence of many trained foreign leaders tends to smother development of national church leaders. Frequently only an anemic church, transplanted from the sending culture, is established. This church can only learn to grow and develop naturally when it learns to live within the social and economic realities of its own culture after the missionaries leave.
The nature of identification during the Growth Period becomes more focused: Missionaries identify with (1) the broken sinfulness of unbelievers in order to lead them to Christ, (2) the struggles of new Christians to nurture them to grow to maturity, and (3) the equipping needs of developing leaders to empower them in ministry. In this stage the missionary is more than just a learner; he is an evangelist and church planter, a nurturer of new Christians, and a trainer of developing leaders.
Our team working among the Kipsigis of Kenya developed a new paradigm of church maturation during the Growth Period appropriate for the context in which we were working. We sought to mature churches through four distinct stages. The first converts were brought to Christ through evangelism during the Initial Church Stage, a time lasting from five to 10 weeks. During this stage, church planters served primarily as evangelists who proclaimed the foundational message of the gospel. The objective of this stage was to gain enough converts to form a vibrant group; the joy was seeing a congregation born through public and private proclamation of the gospel.
The second stage of church maturation, called the Developing Church Stage, sought to form a sustaining fellowship from those converted during the initial stage. Initial Christians were nurtured to become germinally reproducing, cohesive bodies through teaching and modeling of evangelism and church life. Church planters served throughout this stage as church maturers, nurturing members of the body to serve the function that God had given them within the body. As mentors of new Christians, the missionaries spent one or two days each week visiting from house to house and holding evangelistic and nurturing meetings throughout the village. The objective of this stage was to mold initial Christians into a body; the joy was seeing new Christians grow into a cohesive body able to stand on their own. This stage took from six to 15 months, depending on how quickly the churched matured as a body. Interestingly, churches which rapidly became spiritually and numerically strong tended to become the most mature of the churches in their respective areas.
The third period of church maturation, the Independent Church Stage, began when founding church planters were able to allow local leaders to assume all major leadership roles. Frequently a rite of separation-a time of commissioning, of laying on of hands to commend the new church to the Lord- signaled entry into this stage. The church had developed enough leadership to function as a cohesive body without the continual presence of the initial church-planting missionary.
While the focus during the Developing Church Stage was on congregational training, the emphasis during the Independent Church Stage was on leadership training. During the previous stage, leaders rose naturally to the surface as all members were taught the basics of the gospel and nurtured to become participants in cohesive fellowships. In this stage special training was given to leaders to develop theological understandings and skills for practical ministry.
Thus effective church planters among independent churches grew to be catalysts training congregational leaders. The objective was to train leaders to the point that local Christians were able to "build themselves up in love" (Eph. 4:16); the joy was seeing congregational leaders develop.
The Mature Church Stage was the final period of church maturation. At the beginning of this stage and after intense leadership training during the Independent Church Stage, church leaders were selected and ordained. Elders were selected to pastor the flock; deacons were selected to serve in various ministries; evangelists were set aside to lead the congregation in proclaiming God’s redemptive message both in the local village and in adjoining areas; Sunday school teachers and other ministry leaders were also selected. As the founding church planters looked at the church, they saw with joy how God had worked to bring this body to maturity. Because trained leaders had been ordained, founding church planters assumed the role of occasional guests, who came periodically to exhort and strengthen the body. They were, however, no longer needed for its continuation. Church planters, resisting the temptation to maintain control over the mature church, had to allow the church to continue on its own.
Many missionaries consider their task complete when a number of churches have been planted and leaders have been trained to minister within their local congregations. But communities of faith frequently erode if they are left as autonomous bodies without continued nurturing. The work of church planting and development is not completed when local churches come into existence. These local churches need nurturing, equipping structures which tie them together as a movement and which empower ministers and elders as spiritual leaders to pastor their congregations and continue the process of local evangelism and church planting. This need for structures of continuity leads to the third period of church development.
THE COLLABORATIVE PERIOD
When a Christian movement is established without inducements of finance or favor but through heartfelt response to the proclamation of the kingdom of God, authentic national leaders mature in Christ to stand with church-planting missionaries as leaders of God’s movement. With the maturing of devout, responsible leaders, the movement enters the third stage-the collaborative period-of church planting and development.
Understanding the missionary-national leader relationship is essential to perceiving the need for this phase of church planting. Frequently national leaders become disillusioned because of missionary paternalism, inappropriate or misunderstood strategy models, missionary turnover, and inadequate equipping of national leaders to assume traditional missionary tasks. Heightened tension leads national leaders to challenge, sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly, missionary roles and methodologies. Alex Araujo of Brazil graphically characterizes this relationship as pororoca, a loud popping noise heard when the massive waters of the Amazon meet the rising tide of the Atlantic Ocean. Like the violent collision of two gigantic bodies of water, missionaries and developing national leaders dash, creating havoc for anyone caught in the maelstrom.
Such a clash between missionaries and national leaders can frequently be avoided if national Christians are nurtured to become evangelists and elders and collaboratively incorporated as leaders and decision-makers in the developing Christian movement. A process of leadership maturation is thus understood and employed from the inception of the missionary movement. Alex Araujo illustrates the merging of two leadership streams into one by describing two large rivers which flow into the Amazon River to become one near Manaus, Brazil. The Negro River appears dark and clear, like Coca-Cola seen through a glass. The Solimoes River, however, is full of sediment and appears grayish white. For miles downstream they appear as two rivers sharing the same river bed-dark on one side, grayish white on the other-but gradually the waters intermingle to become one mighty river. Likewise, national and missionary streams of leadership must flow together and intermingle to become one.
Collaboration implies the developing maturity of both the missionaries and national leaders, each with changing roles. Missionaries who were culture and language learners in the Learning Stage become teachers, evangelists, and church planters in the Growth Stage and equippers, encouragers, and advisors in the Collaborative Stage. National leaders who were converts during the Learning and Growth Stages become colaborers and fellow-resource people-full participants in a collaborative process.
In the Collaborative Period national leaders come to own their movement and make decisions for its continuity. All too frequently, paternalistic missionaries thwart national initiatives believing the nationals are out of line, usurping authority, or acting naively. Effective missionaries, however, serve as encouragers and advisors, co-facilitators in decision-making processes. National leaders and missionaries thus work together to lay the foundations for eventual missionary phaseout and for the movement’s continuity.
Cooperatively developing structures of continuity for the future is the major focus of the Collaborative Stage. Monte Cox, in an insightful Ph.D. dissertation, says that "organization ambiguities" of certain anti-institutional movements like Churches of Christ have "dampened morale and perhaps stunted the growth of the church" in rural church plantings in Kenya. When churches reach what is here called the Collaborative Stage, they begin to ask structural questions.
What are the structures of governance, expansion, finance and theological education? Or, in Kalenjin parlance, how can churches show kipagenge (unity) and cooperate for the sake of ribset (member care), amdaet (evangelism), tesetab tai (development), and somanet (education)?
Strong movements develop structures of continuity on both the congregational and associational levels. On the congregational level the community of faith, guided by the Word of God, must determine how local churches are organized and how these local congregations relate to one another. The community must also agree on the nature and roles of elders, deacons, evangelists, and other local church leaders and implement guidelines for their selection. In addition, the local church must develop methods and structures for nurturing and equipping children, young people, and congregational leaders. These decisions, having begun with guidance from the church planting missionaries during the Growth Period, become a collaborative effort during this stage of church development.
On the associational level mature leaders and missionaries collaborate in developing teaching, equipping, and encouraging structures above the level of the local church. Local congregations should bond together, as did the early churches in Jerusalem, so that they help each other. Vocational, paravocational, and full-time national evangelists must form teams to complete the evangelization of their area and spread the gospel into adjoining and distant areas. Training schools on the association level-almost always, out of necessity-provide forums for creative reflection and equipping of leaders and youth for local congregations.
The need for such structures of continuity is frequently questioned in anti-institutional movements like Churches of Christ. Such movements espouse a sort of indigeneity which negates any sort of partnership even when a movement has developed roots and stability.
Our team working among the Kipsigis people of Kenya competently ministered during the Learning and Growth Periods but lacked understandings to go on to the Collaborative Stage. Developing leaders asked: "Does the Church of Christ in America only have local churches? Who equips and encourages these churches?" Others said, "We thank you missionaries for starting these churches and for teaching us to become evangelists and church planters. But should you not now equip us as leaders?" Our team, however, holding firmly to an indigenous philosophy of missions, failed to see the validity of these questions and did not plan with the national church for their future. The result was a movement that grew from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s. In the late 1980s, however, the inevitable clash between noncollaborating missionaries and maturing national leaders occurred. National leaders met without missionaries to form a hierarchy to make plans for local churches. Like the clashing of two mighty bodies of water, pororoca occurred. Missionaries and many national leaders upheld the autonomy of the local church and refused to accept the authority of the proposed centralized leaders. Others, many of whom had personal agendas, attempted unsuccessfully to provide structure for the developing movement. Churches polarized. This tension and ambivalence caused the movement in Kipsigis to stagnate for a time.
During the 1990s several factors worked together to reverse discouragement, to help the young movement stabilize, and to develop structures of continuity for the equipping of local churches. First, a second-generation team of American missionaries worked in Kipsigis for approximately 10 years encouraging existing churches and training leaders in congregationally based courses. Second, churches from all areas of Kipsigis met together in 1990 to pray and forgive each other and acknowledge the unity of the body of Christ. God worked powerfully to heal old wounds and unite the body of Christ in love. Third, older missionaries returned to encourage national leaders and younger missionaries. At first they primarily taught textual courses to groups of national leaders in local churches throughout Kipsigis but eventually began to collaborate with national leaders to institute nationally led structures of continuity. As a result, churches began to appoint elders over clusters of churches (rather than over individual churches), and Siriat Bible School was initiated to train leaders and youths of area churches. The school’s schedule is unique but fitting for its rural environment. Leaders, selected and supported by their churches, study two one-week classes. They then return home to do required practicuums as they care for their farms and continue their jobs. After five or six weeks they return to the school for the next two one-week classes. This cycle is continued for two years (24 classes), when they graduate. The school has been nationally run from its inception. A committee of national leaders from all areas of Kipsigis provides direction, and a full-time principal facilitates school activities. Structures of continuity are thus developing at a later period in Kipsigis on both the congregational and associational levels.
Two extremes are possible in regard to the Collaborative Stage. At one extreme, missionaries phase out before leaders mature and structures of continuity develop. Christians generally become discouraged in this situation because they are not ready for the missionaries’ departure. Some Christians may, consequently, revert to the world, others affiliate with different Christian religious groups, and still others maintain their heritage and learn to survive without missionary support. This premature phaseout ignores the need for collaboration. At the other extreme, missionaries naively jump past the Growth Stage by creating training institutions without adequately nurturing developing churches and equipping national leaders. These schools almost always reflect the worldview presuppositions and economics of the sending culture. Missionaries in this scenario generally assume that Bible knowledge alone enables national leaders to effectively minister in their own culture. They presuppose that cognitive information without contextualization and application is adequate for ministry preparation. Both early phaseout and premature development of institutions imply inadequate understandings about the progressive development of Christian leaders. Just as children pass through several stages of development before they become adults, new leaders require growth through natural stages to become mature. When structures of continuity have been mutually developed by missionaries and national leaders, the stage is set for missionary phase-out.
THE PHASE-OUT PERIOD
At the conclusion of his theological treatise to the Romans Paul describes how he had fully preached the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum, laying new foundations wherever he ministered (Rom. 15:19-20). In this process it was his custom to appoint elders, and through prayer and fasting, "commit them to the Lord" (Acts 14:23). His words to the Romans demonstrate the heart and motivation of phaseout: "But now, since my work in these places no longer needs my presence …….Let us go somewhere else……… so I can preach there also" (Rom. 15:23 Phillips). His goal was to visit Rome so that they might send him to new fields in Spain (Rom. 15:24).
Phaseout is thus the farewell period when missionaries overtly and intentionally pass the baton of leadership to national leaders as they transition to other missions contexts.
The major missionary roles during this stage are those of encourager and advisor of national leaders on both the congregational and associational levels. As encouragers, missionaries affirm national abilities to carry the mission of God in responsible, reproducing ways. Elders and evangelists in local churches are affirmed as God’s ordained servants. Equippers on the associational level are confirmed as leaders with godly dedication and experience. As advisors, missionaries suggest models of teaching, ministry, and administration to the relatively new Christian movement and its leadership. A good rule of thumb is to make five affirmations to every one suggestion. In other words, the role of encourager should surpass that of advisor.
A significant danger during this period is inadvertent paternalism. Without realizing it, missionaries are tempted to control the structures that have been developed collaboratively with national leaders. They plan for disengagement with one hand while developing structures of control through money and placement of personnel with the other. Like parents of young adults, they know that they should not dominate but have difficulty letting go.
"Ownership," Cox writes, "should be the main criterion by which missionaries and nationals determine the timing of disengagement." This ownership is a process. During the Growth Stage, Christian leaders assume leadership roles in their home churches and learn how to plant and develop other churches. During the Collaborative Stage, missionaries and national leaders envision and plan together to develop the structures of continuity appropriate to the church in their context and are equipped and empowered to lead those structures.
It has been a joy to see the church of Christ in Kipsigis grow during the past few years without missionary involvement. Recently, while visiting Kipsigis, I journeyed by public service vehicle and foot to an area where I had ministered many years before. During the time that I was a missionary in this area, the church was weak. I had worked with national evangelists to start one church that, in turn, established a second. Now, 12 years later, there are 10 much larger churches in this particular area. A crowd of 489 gathered for the Sunday morning service, and 120 vocational preachers ministering in these churches attended the Sunday afternoon evangelists’ meeting. I stood amazed at their mature faith in God, in-depth knowledge of the Bible, and incisive plans for ministry. I could only say, "Praise God. May he use the Kipsigis churches as missions-sending and missions-mobilizing churches!"
Each stage of church planting and development is important to the eventual maturity of a missions movement, and the result is predictable when any stage is neglected.
Bypassing the Learning Stage almost always results in anemic movements. This most strikingly occurs when campaigners from the West seek to plant a church in another part of the world without the presence of long-term missionaries and then hire missionaries to conduct follow-up. Typically these missionaries are given neither the time nor training to become cultural learners. In fact, because the initial converts were taught in English, it is frequently believed that one can be effective in this context without language and culture learning. Little missions works flair up creating much publicity and emotion only to wither as reversions eat away at the movement. The eventual maturity of the missions movement frequently depends on the depth of missionary learning during the initial stage.
The Growth Period is frequently short-circuited when training institutions are established early in the work before contextualized models of church growth and reproduction are developed. The assumption is made that leaders are best trained in a formal school setting rather than by learning ministry in context-by going with mature evangelists and learning from them how to plant churches and nurture new Christians in these churches to maturity. Thus, prospective leaders are taught information in an academic environment without adequate learning by the doing of ministry. If training institutions are developed too early in a missions movement they are not only overseen and supported by missionaries rather than by national leaders who have progressed through a system of maturation but also are geared more toward the dispensing of information than the training for ministry.
Negation of the Collaborative Stage is a common failing. Like our team among the Kipsigis of Kenya, missionaries naively believe that their task is complete when many churches have been planted and leaders trained to minister within local congregations. Without continued nurturing, however, communities of faith erode when left as autonomous bodies. Structures of continuity are needed to equip leaders and to serve as places for reflection and strategy development.
Finally, without phaseout a movement tends to exist with missionaries at the pinnacle of power. Rather than equipping national leaders to assume missionary roles, missionaries remain lords in their created fiefdoms. In a number of mission works around the world-built on the missionaries’ personality, power, and presence-there is no intention of missionary phase-out. Displacing missionaries from their pinnacles of power, if possible, would require catastrophic action by national leaders.
I, therefore, suggest that to be effective all works initiated through cross-cultural missionary work must intentionally progress through stages emphasizing learning, growth, collaboration, and phaseout. Missionaries’ roles change as movements develop. The intention is to phase out the missionary presence as mature nationals assume leaders