Searching for the Indigenous Method

by Kyle Faircloth

Our goal, as formed by scripture and shaped by culture, is to spend time making disciples who make disciples, planting churches that multiply, and training leaders who train leaders.



No one smiled when we gathered into discussion groups at the end of a four-day training meeting. Many stared at the floor blankly, their minds too overwhelmed to give much effort to sight. We were a group of church planters, and for most of us, this event was the first full exposure to the strategy for Church Planting Movements (CPM).

I opened our discussion with prayer and thanked God for the many useful tools given to us during the training sessions. I also asked for wisdom in applying them to our efforts. Even now, some years later, I believe the study of church-planting movements offers many insights for mission strategy.

The shell-shocked feeling of the group that day was not due to the concept of CPM per se, but to the quality the strategy emphasized—rapid.

We were stunned by a barrage of exhortations such as, “You can move through the CPM process quickly”; “Your goal is to push through the stages as quickly as possible”; “Baptize right away”; “Immediately help them to multiply”; “Help new churches plant other churches right away”; and “They need to share the gospel quickly with their families.” Each sentence dangled with appendages of Bible verses making the point clear—nothing must stand in the way of the inexorable force of a CPM.

If suitable elders are not to be found,
we should wait for them, however long
a waiting may be required. 

Although the trainers assured us this strategy was built on indigenous practices, we knew something about it was essentially different. Most of us were familiar with the principles of the indigenous method already. And we knew the indigenous method provided an expectation for church multiplication and a sincere hope for rapidity. Nevertheless, expectation and hope are altogether different from applying the indigenous method for the sake of rapidity itself.

Comparing the Indigenous Method with CPM
The indigenous method and CPM strategy agree that missionaries can either thwart or encourage rapid multiplication. Both strategies seek to apply such concepts as a simplified discipleship approach, the basic definition of a church, and the basic qualifications for leadership. Both strategies agree these are invaluable aims in church planting. Yet, what looks like common ground is actually the very place at which the strategies diverge.

“Simplified” and “basic” in regards to the indigenous method mean removing the influence of the missionary’s culture (to the extent possible) so only the biblical meanings of these concepts are passed on. This allows scripture to be the arbiter of local culture rather than the foreign missionary. In this way, church planters do not make new churches indigenous, but help establish the foundation on which they may be indigenous. But when rapidity is the key ingredient for strategy, even the biblical meanings risk reduction.

A case in point is the injunction by Paul in 1 Timothy that a leader must not be a new convert. Some proponents claim this condition is optional because Paul did not mention it again in Titus. They claim this qualification will slow down the CPM process and, therefore, can be dispensed with. Yet Paul’s reason, that a new convert “may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil,” should be enough to encourage careful consideration (3:6). Even more, Paul made it clear that his instructions for church leadership apply not only to the Ephesians, but also to the church universal (3:14-15).

Holding to Biblical Roots

Back when I was freshly commissioned, I took some time to visit a well-respected local Christian leader. One of our missionaries led him to Christ many years before, and he was very knowledgeable about the Christian work in the country. He responded to my enthusiastic questions with patience, but became pensive when the topic turned to the recent missionary work.

After a few evasive comments, he said, “You new missionaries are nothing like those who came before you. You use scripture to convince people to follow your programs, then teach them to preach a strategy rather than the Bible.” He seemed to regret his words and said no more on the subject. Needless to say, his keen observation remains ever before me.

Also speaking from long years of experience, John Nevius recounted a time when he and his co-laborers placed some in leadership who did not meet the biblical qualifications. The result, he admitted, was injurious to the leaders themselves and to the churches.

While elders should be ordained as soon as practicable, we should not forget that the qualifications of elders are minutely laid down in the Scriptures; and to choose and ordain men to office without the requisite qualifications is in fact contrary to, rather than obeying the Scriptures. If suitable elders are not to be found, we should wait for them, however long a waiting may be required. (Nevius 2003, 72)

The Apostle Paul gave only one requirement in the area of experience—that the person not be a new convert. He was not concerned with time, but with maturity. He was not looking for those with potential, but for those who have proven their potential.

It appears that one common misconception in CPM strategy is that the indigenous method equals rapid multiplication. If missionaries plant churches that are culturally appropriate, so the thought goes, then hundreds or thousands of people can come to Christ in quick succession. If missionaries plant “indigenous” churches, then all barriers will fall away and the Holy Spirit will move quickly among the people. There is a subtle shift from the possibility of rapidity, to an almost guarantee of it. Why is this?

Perhaps, to some degree, there is confusion between a multifaceted cause and its many-layered effects. For instance, according to its current definition, a

CPM is an “effect” which resulted from numerous causes (an historical progression of interweaving events drawn together into a divine fabric).

This means that to teach a CPM strategy only confuses the distinction between a CPM (a many-layered effect) and a strategy (possibly one of countless causes).1 Put simply, proponents of CPM strategy observe that a CPM is rapid, and then conclude that in order to replicate this result the strategy itself must also be rapid. This does not mean all the principles used in CPM strategy are necessarily flawed by association. It is to say instead that the demand for a CPM puts unnecessary pressure on church planters to equivocate these principles.

Leaving Room for the Whole Body of Christ
The first concern voiced during our small group time had to do with discipleship. Growth is essential to the lives of believers and is made evident by their progressive stability. This maturation process soon moves beyond basic discipleship as the aspect of “what they need” begins to vary according to the grace given to each. One gifted in exhortation requires one type of cultivation, while one gifted in showing mercy another type.

Each gift requires different emphases at different times according to need and personal growth (1 Cor. 12:29-30). But because CPM strategy necessitates rapid growth, we were encouraged to push through the stages quickly and exclude elements which were not “core truths” in order to make the discipleship approach shorter.

Rather than being able to share from the joy they first received, we were told to press new believers to share for the sake of the church-planting cause, and to judge them based upon how well they contributed to this cause.

This raised a real difficulty about our responsibility as disciple-makers. Should discipleship be done only to the extent to which it benefits rapid expansion? Should it not be done, instead, to the extent that it benefits the strengthening of each individual member of the Body of Christ? (Eph. 4:16).
The desire for a CPM does not necessarily mean the strategy used to express this is divinely inspired. Nevius explains it this way:

Let us bear in mind that the best methods cannot do away with the difficulties in our work…but bad methods may multiply and intensify them. For unavoidable difficulties we are not responsible; for those which arise from disregard of the teachings of Scripture and experience we are. (2003, 20)

Ultimately, the local Christians are the ones who must deal with the results of rapid strategies. A local church leader in Thailand observed,

The interest of missionaries toward the church is to focus on the total number of people that are Christians. Therefore, missionaries and local church leaders who are under the control of missionaries focus more on evangelism than on building Christian life in the community to be strong. (Phumphaijit 2005, 252)

He was not suggesting missionaries and local leaders should stop doing evangelism; rather, he was saying that many more people could be reached if they helped Christians understand what it means to live as the Body of Christ.

Following the Heart of God

The dust from rapid strategy is beginning to choke all who cannot keep up. The problem of ill-discipled Christians is such that Daniel Kim referred to them as Undiscipled People Groups or UdPGs (Kim 2011). In the past, missionaries added certain non-biblical requirements to the church-planting task which slowed the work. Again, we see the cause was non-biblical application, whereas slow was the effect. Perhaps the answer is not to alter the strategy to be rapid, but to be biblical. To identify “slow” as the problem means even biblical principles may be abridged if they slow down the process.

At the same time, we must not vilify the concept of “rapid” in itself. UdPGs are the effect of unbiblical practices, as strategy becomes the servant of a reductionist mentality. The church planter decides which commands of Christ a new believer should know and obey, which marks apply to the forming of a church, and which qualifications apply to leadership. Scripture is filtered through the strategy and is often found wanting.

Neither the uncritical addition of non-biblical requirements,
nor the negation of biblical requirements truly benefits church planting.

David Hesselgrave shows concern for this issue as well when he asks, “Are any important steps in developing responsible, New Testament churches short-circuited in starting church-planting movements? What are we to say about the marks of the true church as given in Acts 2:42-47?” (2005, 236). Like constructing a building, if completing the building rapidly is the primary concern, then using quality materials and workers and following construction codes become secondary matters. The result could be devastating. How much more so for the church?

Neither the uncritical addition of non-biblical requirements, nor the negation of biblical requirements truly benefits church planting. The one may lead to bored indifference whereas the other may lead to active ignorance. “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet” (Prov. 27:7). This is why the concept of “rapid” must be informed not by CPM strategy, but by the urgency bound up in the heart of God.

God is not oblivious to the urgency of his mission. The guiding factor is found in the source, or cause, of the strategy. Speaking of the apostles Roland Allen said, “They did not consider consequences so much as sources. The important question was not what result would follow, but from what source did the action spring” (2006, 48). Is our standard a CPM, or biblical fidelity? Are we introducing people to a cause, or to a Person? Multiplication and urgency are built into the biblical responsibility of the church planter. A CPM is not.

The term “indigenous” implies stability and health, giving the possibility for spreading quickly. Growth may be a long, drawn-out process or it may happen quickly. Either way, fruitfulness develops out of maturity. As Allen says, “The term indigenous does not connote ‘widespread,’ nor even ‘rapidly spreading’ in the country….That is a mistake….Indigenous does not mean numerous but essentially at home” (Allen 1927, 264-265).

As our small group of church planters talked through these issues, shoulders began to relax, eyes focused, and tentative smiles appeared. We realized that a CPM is something God may choose to do in order to glorify himself, but he is not constrained to do so by our efforts. Our goal, as formed by scripture and shaped by culture, is to spend the time it takes to make disciples who make disciples, plant churches that multiply, and train leaders who train leaders.

Allen, Roland. 1927. “The Use of the Term Indigenous.” International Review of Missions 16(2): 262-270.

_____, Roland. 2006. The Ministry of the Spirit. Cambridge: Lutterworth.

Hesselgrave, David J. 2005. Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publishers.

Kim, Daniel Daesoon. 2011. “An Urgent Plea Concerning Undiscipled People Groups: A Thai Perspective.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47(1): 70-75.

Nevius, John L. 1886; reprint 2003. The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches. Shanghai: Presbyterian Press; reprint, Hancock, N.H.: Monadnock Press.

Phumphaijit, Manote. 2005. The Lost Core of Christianity. Chiang Mai: Nuanganphuiiphreekhawprasut. Translation is author’s own.

 1. Some proponents claim this is not a strategy or methodology. On the contrary, if a CPM is the goal, then the means utilized to reach this goal can only be a CPM strategy.

Kyle Faircloth serves in church and theological education in Asia.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 396-402. Copyright  © 2012 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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