by Carlos Diaz
Last year, I spent some time walking around a small seminary in western Cuba with the seminary’s director. I was there to teach a course on missions and was enjoying the beauty of the campus. Near the entrance to the seminary, a bridge had been built over a small pond, more for decoration than use. As we approached the bridge, the director shyly pointed at the construction of the bridge, showing me how they had designed the railings of the bridge in the form of suitcases.
“Suitcases,” I asked. “Why?” The director explained that the suitcases represented the financial help the seminary had received from Western countries, adding that the seminary would not exist had it not been for the generous help of Christians from outside Cuba bringing in books, teaching materials, teachers, finances, even medicine. The suitcases on the bridge represented the gratefulness of the seminary, not only for the help they had received, but also for the ongoing relationship the Church in Cuba maintained with the outside Christian world.
The “Three Self:” Autonomy of the Church
When I was working on my mission degree at a North American Bible college, I was taught what were considered the most important principles in church planting overseas. To be successful, the church was to become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.
When my wife and I later joined a mission organization, our agency and the field leaders also believed that a successful church plant was a church that had embodied the “three-self” principles and become totally autonomous, no longer dependent upon the foreign missionary. The planted church was able to make its own decisions, support itself financially, and take on the work of witnessing and making new disciples.
David Hesselgrave, commenting on autonomy and the “three self,” quotes Peter Beyerhaus and Henry Charles Lefever, when considering the argument that the goal of church planting may not be leaving an autonomous church. More importantly, they suggest, we should leave a Christ-centered church or a church which has reached “Christonomy,” meaning that Christ is the center and authority of the church and its members live in obedience and fellowship with him (Hesselgrave 2000, 366).
While autonomy in church planting is important to consider in mission work, the question that the Western missionary continues to struggle with is: What should our relationship be with the established community of believers? Many of the models that have been developed by Western missiologists are based on a Western worldview, using words such as “self,” “automony,” or “exit strategy”—words that are not characteristic of Global South societies, especially in regard to the Church body.
Moving from Dependency to Interdependency
World mission efforts have changed greatly since William Carey took a boat to India and began his missionary career in the late eighteenth century. Thanks to the obedience and sacrifice of the Western Church over the past few hundred years, many regions in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America have strong and growing Christian communities. It is estimated that seventy percent of today’s Christian evangelical population exist in these countries—what has become known as the Global South.
These Christian communities grow and are active in evangelizing and church planting within their own countries; some are even sending out workers into other regions of the world. However, they still lack experience and resources. Western missionaries are fearful of continuing or creating dependency in these communities. The Global South is weary of the Global North Church maintaining control of emerging churches and church-planting movements.
Dependence, even in non-individualistic societies, is seen as unhealthy. A parent in any society expects his or her child to grow into adulthood, find a job, provide for his or her own needs, and raise a family. However, even when a boy grows into a man and succeeds in this pursuit, he maintains a healthy relationship with his parents and the members of his childhood community.
The adult is independent, but he exercises interdependency by maintaining contact and receiving help in raising his family and guidance in life decisions. As a Latino, while my wife and I make decisions for our family, we continue to sense the approval or disapproval of our extended family and receive offers of assistance in our daily affairs. These are seen as signs of our strong and healthy family.
In the Bible, we see that many images, terms, and descriptions are used to describe a mutual relationship between God and those who have chosen to be in fellowship with him. The Trinity is the first of these. God relates as a triune God; he does not exist alone but in unity and mutual fellowship with all three Persons. This is an ongoing relationship; all are equal and capable, yet they work together in interdependency.
God also chose paternal terms to describe this relationship: God being the Father and Christ the Son. God’s relationship with his people has also been described in the same filial terms—God is the Father and believers are his children. God is said to be the father of Abraham (Exod. 3:6). Paul wrote that all believers are adopted into the family of God and they can call him “Abba” or “Daddy” (Rom. 8:15).
Last, the Church is called the Body of Christ. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians, pointing out that, while there are many members, they make up one body. Each part is different and has a different function, but they all work together in an interdependent relationship in which they are mutually dependent upon each other.
Developing Interdependent Relationships in Today’s Missions
As we move away from dependence and learn how to work together in healthy, interdependent relationships, we need to listen and learn from each other as we work together. In any relationship, as in the Body of Christ, each person or group has strengths and weaknesses, as well as knowledge acquired by life experiences. We also have individual gifts, both spiritual and physical.
One of the great strengths of Western missions has been a long experience in bringing the gospel to the world. While we have turned away from some of the views and practices of the early European and North American missionaries, the faithfulness of these men and women has given the Church great depth in understanding fruitful practices and expertise in culture, language, and world religions.
In my field in the Islamic world, I learned a vast amount from studying the writings of those who served there before me. While on the field, I was mentored by elder missionaries. They shared the love they had for the local people and invested greatly in my own spiritual development.
However, national workers who have lived in Global South societies and experienced war and poverty or who have lived in environments that are hostile toward Christianity are able to bring insights and wisdom that many from the Global North Church cannot. We can look to those in East Asia who can teach us about persecution and how to work in areas where the gospel is not allowed to be preached.
God has blessed the Global North with prosperity, but he has also allowed much of the Global South to experience poverty. The former can fix problems with finances and help in areas that need assistance, but the latter has learned to do without, solve problems with few resources, exercise great faith, and see God in a different light.
My cousin in Cuba organized a church in her home because they could not afford to buy land and build a church. However; the church experienced tremendous growth, and they needed more space. No one within the community could finance the expansion needed to make her home larger, so she and her husband started making tomato sauce and developed a canning system. With the money they earned, they were able to enlarge their porch to make room for all to enjoy the Christian services. There is much we all can learn from the unique experiences God has allowed members of his body in different places.
In his letters, Paul writes that God has distributed different gifts to different members of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:1-11; Rom. 12:3-8). While these gifts are distributed to the various members of one local congregation, they are also distributed throughout the larger community of believers, in one geographical location as well as throughout the world.
When we look at the scope of the growth of the Church in the book of Acts, we see that the work of the Spirit of God and his gifting and blessing is not limited to one local congregation. We see a network of relationships and mutual responsibility for the work of spreading the gospel and the maturing of believers. Today, with the widespread reach of media and technology, many with the gifts of teaching and evangelism (from both the Global North as well as the Global South) have blessed not only their own local congregations but also the greater community of Christ throughout the world.
Twenty-five years ago, my family worked with a small team of missionaries from both the Global North and South to begin pioneer work in a small country in Central Asia. When we arrived, there were no churches and only a handful of believers. God has blessed the ministry, and we have seen a dramatic growth in the number of individual believers and communities of Christ. In fact, these communities continue to grow, not only by the efforts of foreign workers, but also by nationals who have taken the leadership and responsibility to continue the work.
However, they continue to reach out to us, wanting to maintain a relationship and requesting that we remain involved while working out expectations and differences on both sides. Instead of governing the local church or creating financial dependency, we are striving to develop and maintain healthy relationships, working together in interdependence for the purpose of glorifying God and fulfilling the Great Commission.
Hesselgrave, David. 2000. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Carlos Diaz (pseudonym) serves with TEAM, where he trains and coaches Latino missionaries working among Muslims. He and his wife have worked with Muslims for over twenty years in Central Asia and Europe. Previously, Carlos was academic director of IIbET (Iberoamerican Institute of Cross-Culture Studies) in southern Spain.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 98-102. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.