Mission-Church Relations in Post-Soviet Central Asia: A Field Study

by Gene Daniels

It is time to make “new mistakes” in church planting and in dealing with indigenous ministries.

One of the greatest moments on the mission field is when a new church is born—all the more so when it happens on the frontiers. By the grace of God, the obedience of a few intrepid souls has borne spiritual fruit. What was once no more than a dream has now become a reality. This is a joyous and defining moment for the missionaries involved. However, it is also a moment packed with an underlying tension that often goes unrecognized.

Where the vision of missionaries used to be the driving force, the opinion of local believers must now be considered. Where before there was only a task to be done, now there are people to be shepherded. There is now a mission and a church in the same location—and whether we like it or not, that means two organizations competing for the space that used to be filled by one. This is further complicated by the fact that the two organizations have different cultural heritages, ideas and goals. This is a critical transition point, when the pioneer mission births a church and then must learn how to relate to her.

Missionaries around the world have faced this glorious problem for as long as there has been cross-cultural missions. Down through mission history many creative ideas have been tried in order to manage this transitional moment. Some of these have worked well; others have manifested all the miseries of purgatory. But this great cloud of witnesses does not profit us unless we do something rather extraordinary—take time to learn from it.

A few years ago my wife and I attended a regional mission meeting in Central Asia, which included not only missionaries from several organizations, but also a large number of local leaders. One morning session was spent focused on a particularly thorny problem that had recently split a field partnership. One young Muslim background pastor who was personally involved in the matter shared his side of the story, then stood and said to all the foreign missionaries in the room, “We welcome you missionaries to keep coming to our country. We even offer you the grace to make mistakes. But please, please, make new ones.” Although everyone in the room laughed, his point was clear—the time had come for missionaries to stop making the same mistakes over and over again. So, in keeping with the spirit of this brother’s words, I want to discuss patterns I have observed in the way that many missionaries relate to the new churches in Central Asia. I hope this will help all of us move on to new territory—to making some “new mistakes.”

Since 1997, my family and I have lived in post-Soviet Central Asia where we have had the privilege of sharing in a great new mission thrust into an unreached part of the world. Our ministry has been focused on seeing churches planted among a particular unreached Muslim people group. However, our involvement in church planting has been a bit unusual in that we have been “insiders-yet-outsiders.” What I mean by this is that our primary role has always been through supporting activities—organizing short-term teams for villages where there were church planting efforts, cooperating in NGO projects with other missionaries and especially in providing encouragement and mentoring to the indigenous leaders of these new Muslim convert churches.

Our ministry primarily involved locations in which we did not live—some were as close as across the city; others were up to a 6-hour drive away. However, because of a high level of personal involvement, we gained a place of trust with both the missionaries and indigenous leaders in these locations. Because of this unusual role, I was able to analyze the mission-church relationships in these locations from a slightly different angle than is usually afforded the church planter who is so close to issues that it is hard to be objective. Over the past eight or nine years I have observed many church planting efforts among our target people group, as well as several others among other, related Muslim people groups. In particular, I made close observations and extensive notes on five church planting efforts: three distinctly rural, one village-turned-suburb and one urban. Over time, several patterns began to emerge.

It seemed to have become a general belief in Central Asia that some sort of official mission1 was required to start and/or grow a local church. The result had been that local believers assumed (and few missionaries did anything to dispel the idea) that the starting of new churches was the exclusive domain of an organization or someone expressly authorized by one.

Local believers were often exhorted to evangelize their friends and relatives; however, this was always expected to increase the numerical size of an existing church. Whenever new people came to Christ who happened to live outside reasonable travel distance from that church, they were left in limbo. So while evangelism was encouraged, the actual gathering of believers together was reserved as the prerogative of the mission, and therefore often neglected. Even highly motivated members felt neither the freedom nor authority to gather the fruit they had labored to bear. The most damaging result of this perception was that any spontaneous advancement of the gospel was severely limited.

A good example of this was found in the way the gospel came to one small, remote village. Over a period of some years, several people from this village became followers of Jesus. Sometimes it was a husband and wife who would believe together; other times a woman and her children. All of these were brought to faith in Christ through the witness of family members who had become believers while living in a larger city. This evangelistic activity was completely spontaneous; none of it was “authorized” by a particular church and there were no outreach programs. Various people simply shared their faith in Christ whenever they went back to their villages for weddings, funerals and other occasions.

However, because none of these were recognized as authorized representatives of their church in the city, and because these city churches had little interest or time to follow up on new believers in this remote place, there was never any attempt to gather these new believers into a church of their own. For many years they have been left without any regular Christian fellowship or teaching, as well as being completely disconnected from each other in a small village of only a few thousand people.

Another problem involves the matter of location. Obviously, a new church must have somewhere to meet. Yet in Central Asia, there are many official and semi-official restrictions that make it hard to start the typical Western church meeting in a dedicated building, particularly in regards to churches made up of Muslim background believers. Therefore, most missionaries opt away from building distinct church buildings, which at first glance would seem to foster house-churches and the member responsibility that goes along with them; however, this has not been the result.

In every single situation I observed, the mission, or individual missionaries, decided to provide a meeting place for the new church. Sometimes it was in the missionary’s own home, although usually it was in a converted home or apartment that belonged to the mission, often the office of some organization. The end result was that everyone concerned acted as if the mission, not the local believers, was responsible for providing and maintaining a venue for the church to meet.

A related, and most unexpected, problem arose because of the unique situation in post-Soviet Central Asia. In a Muslim multi-lingual environment, there was uncertainty about what term to use for a “church.” Add this to the fact that many of these physical locations also served as an office for some kind of non-religious organization. We ended up with churches that were typically called “offices” by the local members themselves. Furthermore, since missionaries also employed many of these members in one capacity or another, their service in the church appeared to be simply an extension of their employment. One Muslim background believer quite innocently described the several local churches she knew as religious companies with offices, and those who attended as their staff members. In another case, a local friend remarked that he did not attend the mid-week prayer meetings at his church because he was not on staff. “I don’t work for them, so I don’t go to the prayer meetings,” he said.

Another effect of the mission playing host was that the mission provided the emerging church with its primary means of moral support. There was little, if any, proper sense of ownership observable among the believers themselves. One local pastor commented how his members usually ignore things like torn wallpaper and broken fixtures in the mission-provided meeting location, but often argued over who could use the church’s musical instruments for their own weddings and private parties.

It is widely recognized that one of the most important moments in the life of a mission-field church is when leadership passes from foreign missionaries to local leaders. This is no different in Central Asia. Several times I observed a mission transfer spiritual authority to local leadership. However, it was disappointing that in each and every case, the actions of the mission’s own personnel greatly hindered the intended transfer of authority. The problems usually occurred in one of the following areas.

1. The wrong people were appointed into church leadership. On more than one occasion I observed mission employees appointed into church leadership. For a time, the members of the young church accepted the appointment of leaders based solely on the desires of the mission. They seemed willing to accept mission-appointed leaders over them as a sign of respect for the missionaries. However, within a year or two, the members became either privately antagonistic or openly rebellious toward these leaders. This problem usually erupted when truly indigenous leaders began to emerge within the church. By “truly indigenous leader” I mean those leaders who developed from within the believing community and who were first and foremost a part of the church, not the mission.

This is distinctly different from the kind of leaders who are usually appointed by the missionaries—ones who derive their authority from their relationships with missionaries rather than with the local church. The result can turn into a power struggle between the mission-appointed leadership and the unrecognized, but very real, indigenous leadership.
In each of the transitions I observed, the mission employee-turned-pastor was himself a local citizen, usually of the same ethnic group. Nevertheless, he was still treated as an outsider by the members of the church. And in each case, part or all of the new church eventually rejected the mission-appointed pastor because his leadership position had nothing to do with his standing in the community; it was derived exclusively from a connection to the mission.

In one case, a mission in a larger city appointed a man to pastor a church in a distant village. This man never relocated to that village, but only visited once a month or so to hold meetings. Soon, another man from that village felt called to shepherd the people, many of whom he had led to the Lord himself. However, the mission-appointed pastor from the city insisted that he was God’s authority in the village and demanded that the believers follow him. Just imagine how bizarre this must have seemed to people living in a small, Muslim village where kinship is almost sacred! Thankfully, this unnatural situation eventually resolved itself; after three years the city “pastor” got tired of making the trip and gave up. This little church is now thriving under the leadership of the truly indigenous leader who was humble enough to wait the situation out.

2. The continued presence of mission personnel and authority created confusion. Although it may be unpopular to say so, it became obvious that the continued presence of missionaries alongside emerging indigenous leadership often raised the question of who actually had kingdom authority in that particular location. The longer this was left unsettled by the continued, unbroken presence of the church planters, the greater the perception that the Kingdom of God is some kind of two-headed beast. Not only local believers, but also all those watching, come to think that there are two authorities in the Kingdom of God: one vested in the foreigners and their employees; another, a lesser authority, vested in the indigenous leadership of the new church. This greatly undermines the spiritual work and community standing of the indigenous leaders. I should point out that when I refer to indigenous leadership as having “lesser authority” I do not mean that I agree with this assessment, but rather that this was the general perception I observed.

Furthermore, if the mission and her personnel stay on well into the growth of the new church, this perception of dual authority will tend to divide the loyalty of members, setting up a conflict between the leadership of the mission and that of the local church. In the worst case, it can even split a young church.

In one church, I watched missionaries appoint the director of their relief organization as the pastor of a church they had started. This young man was of good character and was generally respected by the members; however, he was considered an outsider because he was from a different ethnic group. A short time later a truly indigenous leader naturally developed from within the church. The mission-appointed pastor soon started a nasty, covert campaign to undermine the community-based authority of the unrecognized leader because this man represented a threat to his own mission-derived authority. The end result was a split church, a large number of hurt people and a very poor witness to the Muslim community that was intently watching this whole sad affair.

3. The mission personnel ignored the insights and authority of indigenous leadership. The many indigenous leaders I have spoken with have usually manifested genuine love and respect for their foreign brothers and sisters; however, they were often frustrated by their actions. On countless occasions, I listened to them dejectedly talk about the different ways that missionaries had undermined their spiritual authority. This is well-illustrated by the words of one local pastor:

They [the missionaries] ask our opinions not to know what we think, but to simply gain our approval of their ideas. I know this because each time that I disagreed with them or offered other suggestions, they still did exactly what they had planned from the beginning.

Somewhere along the line there has been a breakdown in the flow of respect. Unfortunately, that which is offered so freely to us as missionaries is seldom returned in the same measure.

I hesitate to offer recommendations because I do not believe I have all the answers. However, it is a cheap gift only to point out where others have gone wrong. A sincere and concerned observer must try to offer some remedies as best he or she can. Therefore, with much trepidation, I offer the following suggestions.

1. Continued growth requires spontaneity. The church in Antioch did not consider itself to be starting satellites of itself across Asia Minor when Paul and Barnabas left on their epoch-changing trip. They were simply obeying the words of Jesus, making disciples of all nations and gathering them into churches. The denominations and various associations of national churches that develop over time are a normal part of the Church becoming established in a new location. However, these should be a means of conserving spiritual fruit and stabilizing young churches, not of controlling the actual process of planting those churches. When missions attempt to control church planting, the expansion of the Church is limited to only “authorized” efforts and our dreams of reaching whole peoples are doomed to produce no more than a few heavily dependent churches.

The New Testament shows people, not organizations, planting churches. We must bravely move back in this direction, empowering, encouraging and releasing local believers to not only evangelize, but to also plant churches. This must become a basic presupposition of foreign missionaries, particularly those on missions’ frontiers, if we are to see truly indigenous churches that are capable of reproducing themselves.

2. Truly indigenous churches need truly indigenous leadership. Webster’s Contemporary Dictionary defines “indigenous” as “originating naturally in a specified location; native.” We need to realize that indigenous leadership means much more than simply the place of birth, or nationality, of the leader in question. The question of who is, or is not, an indigenous leader is defined by the perceptions of those being led, and often has very little to do with the feelings of missionaries. Leaders whose authority is primarily derived from the mission will seldom carry the community-based authority that is necessary to shepherd a young church for very long.

As outsiders, foreign missionaries need to give serious attention and study to the way that indigenous leadership develops in the new churches of our target culture, and nurture that process. Without the kind of leadership that originates from within a church itself, it is doubtful that we will ever see strong, truly indigenous churches.

3. Foreign missionaries must start thinking like temporary residents. The longer the founding missionaries stay, the more we overshadow the new churches we help start. This makes it all the harder for indigenous leadership to develop their full potential in Christ. They must be given space to grow. Our presence is too often like an older sibling who always gets the highest marks in school, leaving the younger ones never quite able to measure up no matter how hard they try. Conversely, when missionaries see themselves as temporary, they are much more likely to make choices that create the space for indigenous leaders to arise.
Also, when founding missionaries move on, the mission-church dynamics change. The leaders of young churches are more likely to develop collegial relationships with the newer missionaries who will invariably come. This fosters an environment where local leaders can naturally lead rather than facilitate the long-term position and prestige of senior missionaries.

It is a fearful thing to be part of writing a new chapter in the history of world mission, but that is what is happening today in Central Asia. We are seeing God pour out his blessings as many pioneer missionaries are now faced with the delightful problem of how they should relate to the new churches which have been the result of their labors. Unfortunately, this growth has uncovered some of our shortcomings as servants of God; foreign missionaries have made many mistakes in these few years. Nevertheless, by the grace of God I believe we can learn better ways to relate to these young churches, and how to nurture truly indigenous leaders for them. Or to put it in the words of the brother quoted at the beginning of the article, I believe we can move on to make some “new mistakes.”

1. Few, if any, of the organizations that missionaries work with in Central Asia would call themselves a “mission.” Most missionaries use creative access strategies through non-religious organizations, or in some of the larger cities they attach themselves to large, local churches. But regardless of what they are called, these organizations function as much as their predecessors and therefore should be called “missions.”


Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family have been serving among unreached Muslim people groups in Central Asia since 1997.

Copyright © 2007 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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