by Ron Fisher
“Crossing an ocean doesn’t make one a missionary” has become an axiom in missionary circles. I’d like to add a corollary that I think is just as self-evident: “Crossing an ocean doesn’t make one a church-planter.”
"Crossing an ocean doesn’t make one a missionary" has become an axiom in missionary circles. I’d like to add a corollary that I think is just as self-evident: "Crossing an ocean doesn’t make one a church-planter."
The majority of missionaries I know would say their goal is church -planting. Yet few of them have had much success. Few of them can point to established and vital churches that they have founded and then been able to leave on their own. If Hedlund’s statistics are accurate, for example, in post-war Italy it has taken 250 missionaries laboring for thirty years to start fifty churches.’ This means it takes five missionaries thirty years to found one church. And not all these churches are thriving.
THE PROBLEM STATED
A French colleague started me thinking about this. He commented facetiously that the first thing American missionaries do upon arrival in France is to look for a chateau to buy. (His implication was that afterwards they tried to work out a ministry that would justify their purchase.) He went on to remark that Americans give for buildings; the French give for people.
I could have responded that I was just one small evidence that Americans give for people, too. It was thanks to givers at home that I was in France. But instead, I began to look more closely at American Christianity.
I began to observe the attitudes of American Christians visiting Europe. They were almost always struck by the lack of Bible schools and seminaries. They were appalled by the dearth of Christian literature. They saw the need for a positive evangelical apologetic to contest prevailing European atheism and traditional religiosity. They said missionaries needed to build attractive church buildings as concrete evidence of the evangelical presence in Europe. And I could add to this list.
It occurred to me that these reactions poured forth because U.S. Christians are fully accustomed to a developed and institutional Christianity. They take for granted the superstructure of the auxiliary ministries, as if they were the essence of biblical Christianity. They seldom realize that these ministries are more the result of than the basis of evangelization and church growth. Christian training institutions flourish where numbers of young people seek a full-time ministry, and where multiplying churches seek more trained leadership. Christian literature flourishes where there is a big market of Christian readers.
The problem in pioneer or resistant fields is that the evangelical community is small and weak. Bible schools with five to ten students are not uncommon. Christian books for saved and unsaved are few in number and costly. Funds and personnel do not go for church buildings or training apologists because they are needed just to maintain the life of the churches themselves.
The basic need then is for more believers and more churches. The fastest growing religious groups in the areas I’m acquainted with are not noted for their training institutions, their rich literature, their apologists, or their buildings; they are characterized by zealous, every-member evangelism and a strong sense of identity.
Missions strategists all agree in principle that the basic need is for church-centered evangelism . The parachurch ministries will develop more or less spontaneously as the Christian community grows and senses the need for them. Overemphasis on auxiliary ministries can even hinder church growth. If the development of parachurch agencies outpaces that of the churches themselves, the weak foundation of churches cannot support the superstructure of specialized ministries If these agencies are supported from the U.S., promising and gifted men will be inclined to accept positions that provide steady support from American Christians, instead of the uncertainties of a struggling local church ministry.
Which brings us back to the problem of planting local churches. Missionaries see the need of this ministry, but most of them are not seeing the results they would like to. Why aren’t they more effective? What is the root problem?
THE REASONS WHY
Besides the other explanations that have been offered, I think there are two reasons that stem from the Christian environment in North America.
The first is that few, if any, missionaries were discipled in an atmosphere of church -planting. Even what we would call "pioneer" or "struggling" churches in America would be considered "established" in comparison with churches in pioneer and resistant areas of the world. Also, few missionaries, if any, are from churches that have church-planting in America as their goal. They only started thinking about that when they began looking toward the mission field. It’s out of their realm of experience. They are out of their element.
Nor have missionaries really been trained for church-planting. The second reason for their ineffectiveness is conventional Christian training in North America. Generally speaking, schools were founded to provide for the needs of American Christianity. Only gradually did they evolve a missionary emphasis. Even this was much influenced by the way things are done in America.
This is especially true of seminaries. Much like medical school grads, seminary- trained men generally are prepared to minister to an already established "clientele": they expect to pastor a church or teach in a school.
Seminary grads therefore may find it very difficult to adjust to the mission field. They arrive to find very few to teach, or to pastor, because the task of pioneer church-planting hasn’t been accomplished. They tend to look for a teaching position, or to get involved in a specialized ministry like student work.
It’s the most natural thing in the world for them to want to do what they’re prepared to do and what makes them feel most "at home." The may still be "in church-planting," but it will be oriented around what they are used to doing.
Those having difficulty coping with the situation may, on the other hand, feel led to pioneer a new parachurch institution or movement. They are more prepared for this; to adjust their ministry to church-planting demands time and struggle. The more thorough the training, and the more professional it is, the greater is the difficulty to adjust.
This tendency increases as North American training becomes increasingly specialized. (Again, this is in response to the needs of American Christianity.) Someone whose training centered on, say, Christian camping, is very naturally going to feel the need of doing just that on the mission field. And now that the various specialized ministries and parachurch organizations want to reach out into foreign countries, it is natural that missionary candidates trained for these ministries gravitate to them rather than to church-planting.
A more glaring lack in traditional training is that few missionaries have had any experience in church-planting before arriving on the field. Christian service experience in jail, rescue mission, nursing, home, hospital, radio, literature, youth work and even open-air evangelism ministries has little direct application to the multifaceted and long-term ministry of founding churches.
Even where they have had "church experience" it was not pioneer church -planting. Most of the sending churches were born and are sustained more by "transfer growth" than aggressive evangelism. Many of these churches were started by a nucleus of Bible-believing dissenters who left other churches to start a new one. Others joined in as the new church grew. Few missionary candidates, if any, faced a new area devoid of believers or even church-goers.
Recently one of my supporting churches launched a branch work. Four keen elders of the mother church met with about forty believers to call a pastor (who, in God’s providence, was the son of the pastor of the mother church). At their first Sunday service in a rented hall, there were sixty present. In a month, attendance was up to eighty. We praise the Lord! Almost over night this new church was self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.
But even this "church -planting" venture is very different from the situation in pioneer and resistant fields. Even if the outreach is from a mother church, that "established" church probably has no more than sixty members – the same size as the branch church planted in America. And the target area will be devoid of believers or even church-goers. The missionary must lead the "man on the street" (there are almost none "in the pews") to the Lord and into fellowship in a community of Bible-believing Christians. This must be done where Christ is not known, or where there is a twisted notion of the church.
NO OFFENSE INTENDED
I do not mean to condemn American Christianity. U.S. training institutions are constantly learning by experience. It takes time to see clearly how best to prepare missionaries for various fields. Specialized or "professional" training is not a bad thing. Since a wide variety of people and training are needed on every field, all types of schools and training will complement each other in team ministries. Besides, not all schools specialize in specialization. Those sometimes considered "old-fashioned" have held to the priority of soul-wining and church expansion, and have trained their students accordingly.
Then, too, training institutions do not force students to prepare for certain ministries. Rather, they attract students who value what they have to offer. Those wanting to teach go to places that emphasize teaching, "preacher boys" go where preaching is emphasized, and so on. The schools are more or less responding to their constituencies; they want to know what the needs are. It’s up to mission leaders to see those needs and communicate them to the schools.
Nor are all churches blind to the importance of church-planting. The above example of church extension is just one of many. As North American churches catch this vision, they will need and demand more church-planters. Training institutions will respond to that demand. I hope more and more young people will grow up in a church- planting atmosphere; it will be part of their Christian experience. Those training for full-time ministries will be able to be placed in churches with this vision for their Christian service.
Church-planting could become a "specialty" esteemed by American Christians. Highly trained new missionaries would no longer feel frustrated that they never use most of the information carefully preserved in their files of course notes. Instead, they would rejoice in the privilege of confronting the unsaved with the claims of Christ in the clearest terms possible. They would delight in seeing the Lord change lives and unite them in his church. They would have the satisfaction of doing what they have been prepared to do.
SOME IMMEDIATE SUGGESTIONS
The American situation can never provide a complete preparation for church-planting in other cultural contexts. And, much progress must be made before church-planting will be the common experience of churches and Christians. But there is much that can be done to improve the situation.
1. Missionaries can forward the cause of church-planting in North America by prayer and personal example when home on furlough. Without trying to rock the boat too much, they can show others that in the book of Acts the gospel spread through the multiplication of churches. They can encourage the vision of vital churches in every area and community of North America, which mobilize all their members in total outreach.
2. Missionaries can explain the need of church-planting experience to responsible people in Christian training schools. Christian service departments will be able to assign prospective missionaries to churches with a vision for church -planting. And even if such churches are few, these schools can begin to develop imaginative programs (such as a summer in a nearby country where church-planting is being done).
3. Mission boards can incorporate church-planting experience into their orientation programs. They can encourage prospective candidates to spend time in a church-planting ministry, or in a foreign country with church-planting missionaries. I know of one mission that is developing an internship program in an unreached part of North America. Though the language is the same, there is a cultural barrier to overcome, and candidates gain the important experience of coping with a pagan, unchurched area. All this is to be experienced as part of the candidate program before leaving for the field.
4. There are many possibilities for on-the-field training at the beginning of the first term. Our mission in France has the following program:
After a year of intensive spoken language study, new missionaries spend another year in a university center where there is also a training center organized by a French evangelist. It offers a one-year program for lay people. Half the time is spent in practical work of various kinds, all related to local church-planting and development, and all specifically related to the French milieu. In that city there are several evangelical churches at various stages of growth, plus unreached areas for pioneer work. Everything is done in French.
This means that new missionaries can learn more of French language and culture in a pagan university context where they are to shine as lights in the darkness. At the same time, they are learning how to evangelize and plant churches under the gifted and experienced guidance of a French man of God. They are being trained, but they are also already "in the work" because they are forwarding the growth of real churches. They serve and are trained at the same time.
During this year they are able to visit other mission centers to seek the Lord’s leading as to which team they will join after their orientation period. Meanwhile they are involved with dynamic, growing churches, so they develop an optimistic attitude from the beginning. And they demonstrate to our French brethren that they are there to learn from the French as, well as to teach them.
These are just a few suggestions. Once missionaries understand the basic problem, they will no doubt think of many more solutions. But the main need is for North American Christianity to be biblical not only in its message but also in its outreach. A strong emphasis on church-planting would do more than bring untold blessing at home. It would also spread that blessing by producing experienced, knowledgeable missionaries who are deeply committed to pioneer church-planting. Even after crossing an ocean, they will be right in their element.
1. Roger E. Hedlund, The Protestant Movement in Italy (William Carey Library, South Pasadena, Calif., 1970), pp. 156-157.
2. See Howard Snyder’s excellent position paper given at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism entitled, The Church as God’s Agent of Evangelism, especially the section entitled "Church Structure and Para- Church Structures. "
3. This experience demonstrates the effectiveness of using a nucleus of believers from a "mother church" to establish a branch work. Besides the advantage of having a solid core to begin with, so that new people do not feel conspicuous, there are other advantages. There is the mother church’s constant support in prayer and in other ways. The new church finds itself immediately in relationship with other existing groups of believers. Also, the missionary knows that if he is forced to leave the new work prematurely, and the believers cannot carry it on to maturity, they can always be reabsorbed into the mother church without leaving precious souls adrift and uncared for. There will always be room for them in the mother church.
4. This points up a cause of misunderstanding between sending churches and their missionaries. When the latter feel they should help an existing work that is struggling, their supporters may oppose them, convinced they should be "pioneering," i.e., starting new works. These supporters would think otherwise if they realized that the so-called "established church" has only 40 to 50 believers, and is barely able to support its pastor. They would see that "established" churches on some mission fields would be called "mission" churches or "closed" churches that need to be rejuvenated if they were in the North American context. These supporters would then understand better the burden and vision of the missionary who feels led to help an existing work.
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