by Glenn Kendall
Our goal must be to be facilitators of new churches instead of leaders of them.
We had last seen Bob and Ann 15 years ago at our graduation. They had gone to a tough mission field: few evangelicals and not much response. Now, at lunch together, they described their struggle. Little did I know then that within six months I would see their field for myself.
As I worshiped with some 60 people meeting in borrowed facilities in that urban metropolis, and heard Bob preach, I couldn’t help wondering why it had taken a decade and a half to get this far. But I never questioned their dedication to the task.
Next morning, quite by chance, I bumped into Jeff, another college friend and fellow missionary whom I thought was in another part of the world. But no, four years ago he had come to this same city and in that time he had started two churches and was working on a third. Membership far surpassed Bob’s, especially surprising in what has always been considered a resistant field.
As Jeff and I talked about this, some strong philosophical differences emerged between him and Bob, differences that produced startingly different results. Let me briefly describe their differences.
Bob set out to plant a church and he succeeded, albeit slowly. Because none of his people had training or experience, Bob did most of the preaching and leading. His people generously affirmed his ministry. They weren’t ready to assume his role and he wasn’t eager to give it up. He had invested 15 years in this church and he didn’t want to release control too soon and risk a failure.
Jeff, on the other hand, facilitated the starting of churches. He motivated and trained people to do it. He wasn’t up front every Sunday. He encouraged new Christians and developed leaders from the beginning. He would not start church services unless he had nationals to lead them.
Jeff’s ministry expanded as he drew out leaders to take over. Bob’s ministry dragged on. He thought it would take another 10 years before he had responsible leaders.
As I have since reflected on biblical and historical models, as well as on Bob and Jeff, it seems to me that our goal must be to be facilitators of new churches instead of leaders of them.
For example, Jesus seemed to concentrate on a few men whom he wanted to be leaders. He trained them for future ministry and got them into it quickly. He lived with them and invested himself in them.
But my friend Bob did not set out to develop leaders. He gathered people around him for worship.
The apostle Paul followed Jesus’ pattern. He traveled from place to place, staying for a few months to a few years, leaving behind trained leaders to carry on the work. True, Paul was an evangelist, too, but he concentrated on training reliable leaders. That seemed to be the reason for my friend Jeff’s success.
In my own field, we have seen remarkable success, too. National missionaries sent by the churches I serve do both evangelism and leadership training. The growth in new churches is impressive: our association of 28 groups and 1,000 members in 1975 today numbers 335 groups with 17,000 members.
Amos is one of our church planters. When he started out he know he had to stress evangelism and leadership development. He knew he could not plant one church and stay around to pastor it. He knew he had to find capable men to train and they could teach the others. But Amos failed. In four years he started one church, which even today is not strong.
Thank God others caught the picture of being facilitators. They brought into being several new churches with hundreds of believers.
In Kigali, Rwanda, it’s been said that our city is probably the hardest place in subsaharan Africa to plant a church. But our records prove otherwise. On average, our churches have doubled their membership each year over the past five years. Certainly, some people are more responsive than other, but after comparing Bob’s ministry and Jeff’s and ours hers, it seems that our methods and philosophy have a lot to do with responsiveness.
Dr. Ray B. Buker, Sr., makes a telling observation based on his 15 years in Burma. The great Adoniram Judson who founded the church among the Burmese discouraged ordaining Burmese pastors and opposed offerings in the churches. Consequently, says Dr. Buker, there was no growth. "When I arrived the Burmese church numbered 5,000 and 15 years later it still numbered 5,000," he says.
However, the different results among the Karens was striking. They had to develop their own political leaders while their churches grew and spread. They ordained their own leaders, took offerings, built churches and schools, and many years had no missionaries. Today they have the strongest church in Burma "because they founded and developed their own churches," according to Dr. Buker.
Admittedly, missionaries like to be the whole show. It’s hard to turn things over. Not only does the Protestant work ethic drive us, but when we get overseas we are impelled to work hard to be sure that we are accomplishing something. Yet, our strong desire to ran the church mitigates against the goals we set for ourselves.
Philip Thornton wisely observed in a 1985 article in this journal (July, p. 241) that "any strategy that places missionaries in key positions of leadership and later seeks to transfer that leadership to national hands is not one that will attract strong, natural leaders." But that’s exactly what missionaries like my friend Bob do and they think they are following good church-planting strategy.
Missionaries trying to pastor new churches ran into a host of problems. The church will usually develop along the foreigner’s leadership style. The foreigner, no matter how culturally sensitive, will always be a foreigner. Inevitably, he will draw people interested in a foreign type of church.
Then when a local pastor comes in, attendance often slips because some people will go to another foreign-style church. People wrongly conclude that the new leader is incapable and that the church wasn’t ready for local leaders. But if they go back to missionary leaders the whole process will be set back.
Foreign leadership invariably inhibits the number of new churches because there are only so many missionary pastors to go around. Instead of recruiting more missionaries to plant churches themselves, mission boards should seek a few church growth facilitators, missionaries who can train and encourage nationals to train others to start churches.
Here are some ways that missionaries can be facilitators of church growth:
1. Evangelism and leadership training must be top priorities. Bible training without evangelism produces a sterile church. Evangelism without training opens the doors to syncretism, cults, and false teaching.
When a missionary reports "quality growth," that may mean few or no conversions. But how can a church have quality growth when no one responds to the gospel? Reproduction is a necessity of life. That church that doesn’t reproduce will die.
2. Set big goals. Planning for a people movement is different than planning to start one church. Keep your eyes on the bigger task. Aim to complete the task.
3. Work in two or three areas or ministries at the same time. This really helps to get new churches started, because you will be the advisor, not the king pin. working two or three place at the same time forces you to be away from them and gives room for national leader to grow. You will strangle the new leaders unless you build into your plans time to be away.
4. Work hard to build relationships. This means mutual commitments, unselfish assistance, room for creativity, and building a team on trust.
The missionary can either deter or facilitate church growth. All of us have great ambitions and desires, but sometimes our best-intentioned efforts go for nought and prevent us from seeing the kind of results we might otherwise see. We should not plant churches, we should facilitate church growth.
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