by Ben Sawatsky
Based on my 18 years of cross-cultural ministry in Singapore and Malaysia, I believe that church planting is the most strategic cross-cultural ministry today.
Based on my 18 years of cross-cultural ministry in Singapore and Malaysia, I believe that church planting is the most strategic cross-cultural ministry today. To plant the church is to join hands with the risen, ascended Lord in an activity of great concern to him. To plant the church is to enter the mainstream of God’s plan for the missionary enterprise.
Three New Testament statements reveal Jesus’ relationship to church planting. “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), reveals Jesus’ activity within the church. “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), portrays Jesus’ attitude toward the church. Finally, “He walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 1:1), indicates Jesus’ proximity to the church. The first two statements speak clearly of the universal church, while the last statement speaks of historical local churches.
The apostle Paul also was concerned with church planting, or, perhaps more accurately, “congregation planting.” Wherever he went, congregations began, but Paul did not plant churches during weekend evangelistic blitzes! He spent 18 months at Corinth and two to three years at Ephesus. Paul spoke of the ministry of church planting when he wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). Church planting and “church watering” are on equal terms. The former covers evangelism and other ministries related to the early stages of congregation planting. “Church watering” covers a wide range of ministries, including theological education and discipleship.
Because of the Bible’s command and example concerning church planting, we must make this the primary focus of the cross-cultural missionary endeavor. There are two basic types of cross-cultural missionaries. Alongside the “church planters” and “church waterers” are the support missionaries engaged in numerous activities. The problem is that our worldwide cross-cultural church-planting task force has dwindled, while our support personnel have ballooned.
One of the reasons for this imbalance is the voluntarism characterizing much of the modern missionary movement. The missions recruiting net has been cast widely by our saying to young men and women, “Anything you can do, come to us and we’ll find a place for you.” It would be unthinkable in the business world for a corporation to take in volunteers and then create jobs for them, but is this not what many mission agencies are doing? There are, of course, other reasons why we have so few church-planting missionaries, such as too few of today’s missionaries being discipled in a church-planting atmosphere, or receiving church-planting experience before venturing overseas. (See Ron Fisher’s article, “Why don’t we have more church-planting missionaries?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October, 1978, p. 207.)
While not viewing necessary and legitimate support personnel as second-class missionaries, we must, however, limit their number to services either not available or affordable in the host country. We should view many support ministries as temporary rather than permanent, and when possible, drawn from the ranks of our growing corp of short-termers.
Church planting has become the “in activity” in missions circles. This has led to a tendency to seek legitimacy for every missionary activity by placing it under the church-planting rubric. Church planting is the evangelistic activity which brings into being congregations of believers in Jesus Christ. This defines church planting, but how do we go about defining a good church planter? What qualities and qualifications should a worker exhibit? Let’s look at some of the most important pre-field and on-field qualifications.
PREFIELD QUALITIES AND QUALIFICATIONS
1. A high view of the church. The church is at the heart of the missionary enterprise. Its role is to select, send, and support cross-cultural missionaries, as spiritual gifts are discovered, developed, and deployed. It isincredible to see young men and women make grand plans for cross-cultural ministries involving huge amounts of money without roots in a local church. Rootlessness at home is reflected in a similar rootlessness of ministry overseas. Too often candidates choose a school, ministry, and mission agency before coming to the local church to pay the bill. The divorce between the local church and mission agency is not only the fault of the mission agency, however. Local churches seem content to allow candidates to choose their own type of ministry and place of training, while the mission agency selects, deploys and supervises their ministry.
The uniqueness and autonomy of the emerging national church also is related to a high view of the church. A missionary to Japan wrote:
Missionary candidates need to be aware that they are — at least in our case — working in an already established national church which has some patterns for evangelism fairly well established…missionary candidates must have strongly impressed on them the fact that things will not be done in just the way they think it should be and that patience and a willingness to hear and see the nationals’ view point is absolutely essential.
Another missionary noted a church relations problem in several parts of the world.
The current leadership of the Venezuelan Evangelical Free Church feels that local church autonomy is a Western cultural imposition. As in many Third World countries, authority in Venezuela comes from the top down. Apparently Venezuelan Evangelical Free Church leadership feels that Free Church polity in Venezuela should follow the cultural pattern.
2. Necessary spiritual gifts. Basic to New Testament patterns and principles of church planting is the universal ministry of all believers. Spiritual gifts qualify every believer to be in this ministry, while training equips the believer for service. Cross-cultural church planters are typically multitalented people. But cross-cultural church planters need more than skills; they must possess certain spiritual gifts.
(a) Apostleship. In the secondary sense, an apostle is one who is sent. Cross-cultural church planters spearhead and pioneer new work as they enter a new target area to plant a resident witness. Apostle-ship includes a pioneer spirit and cross-cultural adaptability. With half of the world’s people culturally separated from the gospel, we need thousands with this gift.
Apostleship must be tested at home through a good pre-field cross-cultural experience in this country. However, the American scene can never provide complete preparation for cross-cultural church planting overseas. Nor does much pre-field church work prepare cross-cultural church planters for church planting. Upon arrival overseas, would-be cross-cultural church planters must first recognize their own cultural baggage and then contextualize their church planting ministry.
(b) Teaching and preaching. Cross-cultural church planters must learn how to teach, lead, and preach. Because of the cross-cultural nature of their teaching ministry, they must be sensitive to the educational modes which are best suited to communicating the truths of Scripture in the host culture. Together with their national brethren, they must set about developing a culturally sensitive theology and course of instruction.
(c) Evangelism. Cross-cultural church planters must do the work of evangelism. Church planting and evangelism go hand in hand. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak in terms of church planting/evangelism. During the initial stages of a new church planting venture, almost all of the activity is evangelistic.
(d) Faith. For our purpose, faith is the spiritual vision to “see” something as an accomplished fact well before the natural eyes see anything. This gift allows cross-cultural church planters to see a congregation of believers worshiping, fellowshiping, serving, and witnessing together before such a congregation exists. This gift helps cross-cultural church planters focus on a promise like Matthew16:18, “I will build my church,” without being deterred by obstacles.
(e) Leadership. Leadership was best modeled by Jesus’ servant role. He did not lead by self-assertion, self-aggrandizement, or self-adulation. On the eve of his crucifixion, he stated:
You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercised authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matt. 20: 25-28, emphasis added).
Church planting today is often done by teams of missionaries, national Christians, or perhaps, a combination. This allows church planting to be done by individuals with different gifts, skills, and training. With the team approach, each member does not have to possess every gift. Normally, teams have a combination of older, experienced missionaries and new missionaries. This provides the necessary on-the-job training for the new missionaries. It is best for a team to be working simultaneously with several churches at varying levels of maturity and development. This prevents the missionaries from overwhelming a small congregation and provides a more well-rounded training experience for the newer missionaries.
3. Formal training. Cross-cultural church planters must be trained to cope with the text of Scripture and the context of culture. They need skill in both the exegesis of the Word and the world. Such a difficult task requires the best possible training, preferably an M.Div. degree (or equivalent).
Cross-cultural church planters must be able to contextualize the gospel into the host country’s culture, while preserving the original meaning of the text. It is important to be able to craft a Christian apologetic in the context of the country’s non-Christian religion. There are no shortcuts in doing this important work. We should also stress ongoing education, including furlough seminars, relevant courses, and perhaps, advanced degrees.
4. Stable marriage and family life. The home is the base of operation. By providing for the spiritual, social, academic, and financial needs of the family, church planters serve as models and witnesses in a non-Christian society.
Problems arise as culture shock increases stress on the marriage relationship, with unresolved marital conflicts becoming accentuated and aggravated in the cross-cultural setting. With conflict resolution being more difficult overseas, couples must learn these skills while still at home. It is a good idea for candidates to be married for at least a year before going on the field.
5. Compatibility with colleagues. Incompatibility with fellow missionaries, or national colleagues, frequently leads to missionaries resigning. A missionary to the Philippines wrote:
All too often, highly qual-ified and gifted missionaries, with a high degree of training and technical skill, foul out because of inability to work with others and adjust to other people.
ON THE FIELD QUALITIES
1. Bicultural. Culture shock is the emotional trauma that results from having much of the familiar removed from us. Cross-cultural missionaries are thrust into a strange environment, where everything from gift giving to keeping appointments is different. Cross-cultural adjustment enables church planters to move freely from their home culture to the host culture and back again with reduced shock.
Becoming bicultural requires sacrifices and a ministry setback in the first term, most of which the missionary must devote to becoming bicultural. Bicultural missionaries have put down linguistic, cultural, and ministry roots. The task of bicultural church planting is to distinguish between what is Christian and what is Western. This enables missionaries to allow the church in the host country to take on a distinctly national shape. Church planters must be willing to sacrifice pet ideas by allowing the church to becomeuniquely Japanese, German, or Malaysian. They are not commissioned to produce carbon copies of the home church in America.
2. Simple lifestyle. Cross-cultural church-planting missionaries must be willing to do without some of the material items which have become part of the accepted and, in some cases, expected lifestyle at home. But as the standard of living in the Third World rises, material possessions do not put the missionaries out of touch with their national counterparts as they once did. In some cases, our missionaries may even have to consider a higher lifestyle in order to close the material gap.
3. Mobility. The very nature of cross-cultural church planting means that missionaries will only spend a few years in one place. Normally, they will not live in the same house more than one term. Moves tend to become more difficult as the family becomes larger and as church planters grow older. With their life purpose of planting new congregations ever before them, however, cross-cultural church planters realize that to remain in one place too long will keep them from fulfilling their purpose.
4. Strategic mindset. Every field needs at least one cross-cultural church planter who has the mindset of a strategist. This does not mean, however, that the strategy which emerges is the product of his or her mind alone. The best strategists need input from others. It does mean that they are goal and objective oriented. It also means that they can take the lead in developing a plan for church planting evangelism which best suits the host culture. They are able to adapt methods used effectively elsewhere to suit their own church planting situation.
Strategists realize that there is no such thing as either a universal or timeless strategy. A strategy which works very well in Malaysia may run counter with the culture in Japan. A successful strategy in 1991 may well require major modification in 2000. Strategists are sensitive to cultural and time changes. They also must think in terms of strategies rather than a single strategy as different regions of a country will require different approaches. A forgotten characteristic of a strategy is that it reflects the personalities, gifts, and training of the strategists.
5. Flexibility. Flexibility does not mean a willingness to do anything and everything. Jesus had one mission. A similar singleness of purpose must also characterize cross-cultural church planters. They must, however, be flexible in their methods. They must also be flexible enough to assume some responsibility for administrative duties along with their primary task of church planting. It is legitimate for church planters to specialize in church planting, but their specialization must be tempered with flexibility.
The focus of missions today must be church planting. This task is closest to Christ’s heart and central to the Great Commission. To properly plant churches, we must take the responsibility of recruiting Spirit-filled candidates exhibiting these important qualities and qualifications. We must see that our churches nurture these qualities, and that mission boards diligently search for qualified recruits, rather than just waiting for whoever comes to their door. With this type of recruiting and nurturing, we will be able to see the gospel spread to every people in our generation, and also know that it is being done in a way honoring to our Lord and most likely to produce the fruit we are all seeking.
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