by Greg Giles
Church planting is not finished until the church is established.
In his new book, On The Crest Of The Wave, Peter Wagner identifies the "church development syndrome" as one of the major maladies of Christian missions. By this he means the tendency of church planting missions and missionaries to hang on too long to the recently planted church in an effort to guard it, guide it and provide for it. The result is twofold. First, the mission gets "sidetracked" from its church-planting goal. Second, the young church is made dependent and contextualization is hindered. Similarly, Donald McGavran sees a danger in overly protective missions of culturally isolating new converts, breaking the natural bridges for their own evangelism. To see the reality of these concerns, one does not have to look far on the mission field.
But not everyone would agree. Michael Griffiths is concerned about church growth theology’s reductionist tendency to make quantitative growth more important than qualitative. He joins some in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in expressing concern about "the obsession with efficiency and computer technology shown by some American missiologists." In his chapter on church growth, Griffiths expounds 10 critical dimensions of growth, of which eight are qualitative. He concludes, "This is the chief end of mission-to plant and perfect the church" (emphasis added).
He sees the church-planting-only position as shirking biblical responsibility for building the church. Failure to build the church leaves it open to the opposite danger from that cited by Wagner and McGavran. Instead of cultural dependence there is the danger of cultural syncretism, compromise, and weakness. To see the reality of these concerns, one also does not have to look far on the mission field.
Since both sides of this issue have valid concerns, it may seem difficult to decide. Indeed, the issue is much more difficult than the amount of time or teaching that a missionary invests with a young_church. It seems to me that this is a variable dependent on many factors. I tend to side with Griffiths on the importance of church development, although while I was on the field, I was usually the missionary pushing for more rapid nationalization. The dangers on both sides are real and simple answers will seldom work.
Though Wagner emphasizes the church-planting primacy of missions, he elsewhere seems to support church development. He emphasizes the importance of spiritual gifts, yet acknowledges that he has the gift of teaching, not evangelism. Since God has gifted many missionaries with church development gifts, he must intend these gifts to be used in the church’s mission. Wagner goes on to emphasize TEE, a church development function. Perhaps David Hesselgrave has solved the dilemma by making church development part of the church-planting cycle. Church planting is not finished until the church is established.
Unfortunately, the missionary methods of the Apostle Paul are not much help in deciding this issue, since he seldom was allowed to choose when he left the new churches. However, in Ephesus, before the riot forced him to leave, he admonished the believers with tears day and night for three years (Acts 19:31). Church development was certainly Paul’s concern.
I think the real issue in avoiding the twin dangers of dependence and syncretism is not the amount of church development but the style used. Any missionary who . arrives on the field thinking he has all the answers has already been there too long. But if he comes as a servant, willing to share his gifts and experience without imposing his own answers; if his style of discipleship is done with, rather than to, the church; if he can lead and follow equally as well; if he can take nationals along in his evangelism (so that it is a continuing ministry) in order to pass the burden and to share as well as learn; then he will be welcome anytime in the church.
Discipleship and church development seldom happen automatically when a missionary leaves. Not that the Holy Spirit can’t do it, but he has normally intended to accomplish those tasks through His body. The missionaries don’t have to leave for the Spirit to work (that would be a terrible pneumatology!), but they do need to respect his work in the hearts of the new converts. Together, by mutual ministry, the older and newer parts of the body can develop independently through the Spirit’s work. It’s a symphony, not a syndrome.
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