by Tom Steffen
Finding a balance between staying too long and leaving too early.
My former mission agency began church planting in the Philippines in 1951 and now works among 19 tribal societies there. After 40 years, only one tribal work has been completely phased out because their objectives were met. Why? Because neither the mission nor the church planters started with a clear definition of and plan for phaseout.
With such a definition and plan, the church planters had no way to identify their role changes, much less work through them. Furthermore, the mission did not include phaseout in its selection and training of missionaries. Consequently, most of its church planters stayed on as evangelists and teachers, rather than becoming partners; they emphasized phasein, not phaseout. The mission waited almost two decades before a church was completed according to its objectives. We desperately needed a definition of phaseout.
Of course, church planters who leave prematurely may harm the church. But they can also harm it by staying too long. We can maintain the balance between these extremes by (1) surveying various perspectives of phaseout; (2) isolating its components, and (3) defining phaseout.
OUR PHASEOUT ROOTS
The debate over when church planters should leave is not new. Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn, both late 19th century missionaries, were the first to expound the three-self formula: self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. They said missionaries had to follow this formula to develop churches capable of standing on their own. While not everyone agreed with them, their formula stimulated phaseout thinking.
John Nevius (1829-1893) built on the three-self formula in Korea.1 Roland Allen (1868-1947) concluded that the formula was not only practical, but biblical.2 Much later, Alan Tippett added self-image, self-functioning, and self-giving to the formula.3
William Read, Victor Monterroso, and Harmon Johnson advocated reaching autonomy by having missionaries change their roles over time from apostolate, to administrator, to partner, to servant, to consultant.4 C. Peter Wagner argued that no mission should be content to go out of business after a church is established. Rather, missionary work should move through four phases: (1) going to non-Christians; (2) church development; (3) becoming a consultant; and (4) launching another mission.5 Harold Fuller saw mission-church relationships advancing through four stages: (1) pioneer; (2) parent; (3) partner; (4) participant.6 While these writers may not totally agree with Anderson, Venn, and Allen, they nevertheless are not content to control a new church or remain in a maintenance role.
A mission executive recently said his leaders continue to struggle with responsible phaseout. While they often talk about turning things over to the local Christians, much of their work continues as it has for 20 to 50 years. This executive, however, wants to empower local believers to take control within a much shorter time.
Another mission leader laments his organization’s failure to focus on a church-planting exit strategy as opposed to an entry strategy. He recognizes there is no way the church will keep pace with burgeoning world population if church planters are reluctant to release power to those whom they have come to reach. Like the first executive, he seeks to change the worldwide dependency patterns being instituted by his organization’s people.
The time has come for a new look at our inherited departure strategies. We must correct and modify them if local Christians are to receive and reproduce a church-planting model that empowers others. It’s time we move beyond the cliche, "Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job," and start to make it happen.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
The book of Acts gives a number of reasons why Paul and his team left cities in which they ministered. Obviously, sometimes they left for their own safety (e.g., Pisidian Antioch, 13:50; Iconium,14:6;Lystra,14:19; Thessalonica, 17:10; and perhaps Ephesus, 20:1). But, more importantly for our purposes, they also departed because of their desire and plan to reach as many places as possible with the gospel. After staying awhile in new places, they returned to previously visited areas to strengthen the believers and appoint elders (Acts 9:32; 14:21, 22; 15:36, 41). In some cases, Paul sent his team members to do this. When visits were delayed or inconvenient, he wrote letters of instruction and encouragement to the new churches.
Paul and his team also left places of ministry when they had completed their work for a particular visit, i.e., evangelism, discipleship, or both. Paul or one of his team members left Antioch (13:1-3; 18:23), Athens (18:1), Corinth (18:18), and Ephesus (18:21; 19:21) because their objectives had been met.
So, departure occurred for a number of reasons: Satanic hindrances, completed objectives, and designation of local leaders. As we plan our own phaseout strategies, we should take into account not only planned but also unplanned withdrawals due to political and economic necessities.
To define phaseout accurately, a church planter should isolate all related components of the ministry, including: (1) a definition of a local church; (2) the number of churches to be planted in a given area; (3) the cycle of a local church; (4) the roles of team members, local believers, and God; (5) theological training; (6) when to begin phaseout; and (7) ways of maintaining relationships after phaseout. We begin with a definition of a local church.
How you define a local church determines what product you look for. What takes place in worship, instruction, sociality, evangelism—and the written and taped curricula to support these activities — all determine when phaseout begins. For me, a local church consists of a group of people who trust Christ as their Savior and organize their lives according to indigenous biblical principles. Their purpose is to glorify God through worship, instruction, sociality, and evangelism, which leads to new churches. They try by the power of the Holy Spirit to reproduce themselves in unreached areas locally and at a distance.
Another component is the total number of churches required for the entire society to hear the gospel. Several factors determine this number, one being demographic studies. These studies should indicate (1) the route Christianity will most likely spread; (2) the number of strategic church plantings required to put churches in the entire society; (3) the number of church leaders required on the local and itinerant levels; (4) whether an association of churches is necessary, along with its size; and (5) the ties the society has to other societies.
Discovering what constitutes a significant group within the target society will tell us how many churches we ought to project for the future. This requires cultural analysis. Add to this the demographic studies and your definition of a local church, and you get the broad parameters for a church-planting strategy that leads to phaseout.
Cycles of vitality, lukewarmness, and sterility in the local church are important for church planters to notice. Like all institutions, churches go through stages. First-generation believers often pay a high price for following Christ, but their strong commitment makes risk taking possible. But passivism tends to set in when second-generation believers join the church. They don’t face the same burning issues their parents did, nor are the lines of difference between believers and unbelievers so clearly defined. While their parents often experienced a sudden, dramatic conversion, second-generation Christians tend to be more gradual and less emotional in their conversions. Structure often replaces spontaneity.
Third-generation Christians often face theological and ethical breakdowns. Nominalism tends to set in while they seek their cultural roots.
Church planters must not confuse generational issues when they define phaseout, i.e., by placingsecond-generation expectations on first-generation believers, or vice-versa. Church planters must be adept at recognizing church cycles, and define their phaseouts accordingly.
The fourth component of phaseout calls for church planters to isolate the different roles played by team members, local believers, and God. As church planters move through evangelism, discipleship, church development, church organization, and church reproduction, their roles change as local believers do the same things, imitating the models set by the expatriates. The missionaries’ roles include learner, evangelist, teacher, resident advisor, itinerant advisor, and absent advisor.
When the newly established church reproduces another church close to home ("Jerusalem"), or cross-culturally ("Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth"), phaseout should be under way. Local Christians demonstrate their abilities in evangelism, teaching, meeting felt needs, administering church ordinances, implementing church discipline, and developing leaders for both local and itinerant ministries.7 Their role changes include accompanying, participating, leading, and training. In all these activities, both expatriates and local believers must recognize God’s sovereign hand on themselves and those whom they are reaching.
The fifth phaseout component is theological training. To be successful, it should provide a solid foundation for the gospel, be comprehensive (Acts 20:27), focus on the material as well as the spiritual world, and address cultural themes, cults, and political ideologies.8
Theological training must move from the simple to the complex, from the known to the unknown, and be presented through viable cultural means. From the perspective of phaseout, it should include everyone from the start, emphasize church-planting evangelism rather than simply individual evangelism, be owned by the churches, and be reproducible. The aim is to train theologically oriented church leaders who will model to their flocks the importance of starting new churches.
Sixth, church planters must decide when to begin their phaseouts. They start by setting a realistic timetable for the new church to reach its goals. This is critical, because it gives the team a specific goal.
Of course, one must be flexible. We set an eight-year goal, knowing that health, subversive elements, or stony hearts could change our projection. The timetable, like the strategy statement, must regularly be updated to allow for new developments and understandings. Phaseout begins when the stated objectives are met, not when the prescribed time arrives.
The seventh and final component is determining how church planters can maintain good relationships after the phaseout. They work themselves out of a job, but not out of a relationship. Continued fellowship includes prayer, visits, letters of challenge and encouragement, sending other people to visit, and financial assistance.
First, let me say what I do not mean by phaseout. I do not mean abruptly abandoning maturing believers, even when they reach a certain level of maturity and Bible knowledge. Or when they appoint their own leaders. Or when things seem to be going well, with problems at a minimum.
Phaseout-oriented church planters build in their absences over time, so they can have interaction with the church throughout. They plan their disengagement. They start with short absences and move toward longer and longer ones, until they completely withdraw physically, but not relationally.
Church planters begin phaseout by stepping back from active leadership. By this time the believers are doing evangelism, discipleship, leadership development, and organization, as well as starting new churches. The seven components surrounding phaseout begin to converge. It is now time for the church planters to distance themselves from the believers.
Of course, any phaseout strategy has to start long before the church planters land on the field. Closure must be designedbeforetheirministry starts, because a planned exit affects all the steps in church planting: pre-evangelism, evangelism, and post-evangelism. Such planning gives team members the whole picture, direction, and a checklist toward closure. Just as a blueprint illustrates to construction workers the finished building and the steps to get there, so a planned phaseout strategy helps a church-planting team. Without such a prefield plan, phaseout will be continually delayed, or, in all too many cases, never achieved at all.
Phaseout church planting must be integral to the entire mission. It’s a comprehensive organizational approach that starts with the end product and works back to those who are responsible for producing it. It affects everything: how candidates are selected and trained, how they plan, form teams, handle social programs, evangelize, and develop leaders and curricula. When a mission agency works with such a definition of phaseout, it is not likely to wait 40 years to achieve its first phaseout from a new church.
Phaseout is not pullout; it is the planned absences of church planters over time, so that believers can develop their own spiritual roots and grow strong, as responsibility for the church shifts to them from the church planters.
Phaseout begins with a closure strategy for the overall field and for each local church within that society. The strategy includes: (1) the definition of a local church; (2) the number of churches required to finish the task in that area; (3) the cycles of a local church; (4) the different roles of the church-planting team, the churches, and God; (5) theological training; (6) the timing of the phaseout; and (7) maintaining relations after phaseout.
Such a closure strategy, crafted over time and seasoned with prayer, determines to a great extent whether the team will accomplish its goal in a realistic time. Such an effective strategy will also produce believers whose reliance remains on the Holy Spirit, not on the team. If we are to move beyond phasein to phaseout, our agencies must be permeated from top to bottom with this kind of thinking and action.
1. John Nevius, Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958).
2. Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962).
3. Alan Tippett, Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory (Lincoln, Ill.: Lincoln Christian College Press, 1969).
4. William Read, Victor Monterroso, and Harmon Johnson, Latin American Church Growth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969).
5. C. Peter Wagner, Frontiers in Missionary Strategy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971).
6. Harold Fuller, Mission-Church Dynamics: How to Change Bicultural Tensions Into Dynamic Missionary Outreach (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1980).
7. For a complete checklist for a new church, see Tribal and Peasant Church Planting: A Comprehensive Phaseout Model, by Tom Steffan (10918 S. Kane Ave., Whittier, Calif. 90604).
8. For a comprehensive evangelism and teaching approach ("The Chronological Teaching Approach"), see Building on Firm Foundations, Vol. 1, by Trevor McIlwain (available from New Tribes Book Store, Box 459, Camdenton, Mo. 65020).
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 280-287. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.