And to the Jews
I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews... to those who are without law, as without law,
though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win
those who are without law... I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means
1 Corinthians 9:20-22 (NAS)
Early in my ministry, as soon as I started thinking seriously
of foreign fields, I was taught the value and necessity of "indigenous
missions." It's something Ive continued to believe in and have never
questionedand which seems so obviously scriptural and wise to me that Ive
sometimes wondered why others dont see it as clearly, or how they justify some of
their methods and practices.
Webster defines indigenous as "existing, growing,
or produced naturally in a region or country; belonging to, as a native..."
When this is applied to missions it means the church in any given nation should be
homegrown, a natural expression of Christ within its own culture; not unnecessarily
influenced, controlled, or supported by foreigners, even though they may have originally
introduced the gospel.
Practically, this falls into
two broad categories. God wants His church to be: (1) Culturally in
context without losing or veiling the unique biblical message of
the gospel, and (2) self-sustaining without being fiercely independent of the rest
of its brethren around the world. We see this pattern clearly in the New Testament.
The Jewish and Gentile churches had significant cultural and social differences,
which sometimes caused some friction (see Acts 15, for example) yet both managed to
maintain the integrity and content of the message itself. They were independent of
each otherthere was no paternalism on Jerusalems part, no overbearing
government or outside financial supportyet they enjoyed fellowship and spiritual
support, and helped each other now and again as there was need.
Unfortunately this has rarely been the case in modern
missions. In the last few centuries of church history the sending countries have
considered themselves culturally and socially superior to the host countries, and there
has usually been a great economic discrepancy as well. Missionaries have seen
themselves as being sent to countries enshrouded not only in spiritual darkness, but
social and technological darkness, too. Their mission has been not only to save
peoples souls, but also to correct their misguided social customs and set their
cultures straight. They have taken these "poor child-like creatures" into their
care, supported them, built schools and hospitals, and done their very best to westernize
As a result, the church is viewed in many lands today, not
only as a foreign presence, but as an insult to the integrity of the indigenous people.
It demeans them, it makes them culturally and economically beholden to ambitious
foreign empire-builders. It fosters a subservience in the hearts of the national
Christians and a patronizing superiority in the hearts of the missionaries and their
And it creates all sorts of problems for the national church.
In many places, for example, missionaries have emphasized proper and modest dress as a
testimony to the gospel. Women are dressed in western frocks or dresses, and told not to
wear jewelry and other vain things. But that jewelry may be part of their wedding
dowry, and to remove it the equivalent of disowning their husbands; furthermore that frock
may cover their breasts and bellies more properly, in accordance with western custom, but
bare their calves, something a modest, upright Indian woman, for example, would never do.
Western missionaries are always raising money to build
churches, but do the national people feel comfortable in giant, cold structures with
benches? Their custom may be to sit in a circle where they can see each others
faces, rather than in rows of benches, seeing only the backs of their fellows while
watching a performance on a stage that seems more like politics or theater, than a humble
spiritual man guiding his disciples. The worship may seem strained and stiff too, because
of the unnatural seating, and the unfamiliar music style (many missionaries will not adopt
the "heathen devil music" of the host country, but instead make clumsy
translations of western hymns and choruses).
These attitudes and opinions are picked up by national pastors
and evangelists, and they find themselves opposing many of the innocent customs of their
people, and trying to overcome formidable barriers to their message that neednt have
been erected in the first place. These workers frequently dress western, send their
children to western colleges, and buy into western concepts of successful ministry like
the accumulation of lands and buildings. The end result is a church that is as foreign and
out of context in the host country as a flying saucer might be in an American suburb.
The Three Selfs
The second implication of indigeneity is self-reliance, though
not at the expense of Christ-reliance of course. The church on the mission field
should be self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting, just like
the churches in the sending countries. To be dependent upon foreigners in any of
these areas is just as demeaning and unhealthy as the cultural aspects weve
Nationals can more easily reach their own people than
missionaries and foreign evangelists who have serious linguistic and cultural barriers to
overcome: self-propagation is obviously preferable. If nationals are working the
field, they should have the authority to govern it, too; policy cannot be dictated from
denominational headquarters thousands of miles away by missions boards who have no
practical knowledge or experience of the people they affect by their decisions:
self-government is a necessity to maintaining the integrity and dignity of the church in
The third element of the self-sustaining church is a little
harder for many to embrace because of the practical implications missionaries,
national leaders, and sending congregations are all hesitant when it comes to
self-support. The national pastors are concerned that their income will be cut out
from under them, that their own congregations will not step in to make up the
difference... and rightly so, for theyve never been trained to tithe and support
their leadersits always been taken care of by their benefactor, the
missionary. The missionary himself is afraid that there will be no church to speak
of, that all his labor will be in vain if the financial support from abroad is cut off.
And the congregations back in America have been trained by the missionaries to
expect to support the missions churches... and after all, they have so much and their poor
brethren in third world countries have so littleits only Christian to give to
Yet all three "selfs" are essential to the health
and integrity of the work of Christ. Take any of them away and you have a national church
that lacks credibility in the community around it. Non-Christians look upon the
believers as people who have been bought off for a bowl of porridge, who have renounced
their own culture and loyalties for gain. Native church leaders are seen as
ingratiating, subservient hirelings who kow-tow to foreignersand, sadly, many of
them are just that. The national church is deprived of the struggles, the growth,
and the discipleship that comes with growing, governing, and supporting itself.
The Indigenous Dilemma
This is why Ive never questioned the principles of
indigenous missionary work. Its scriptural and it makes sense. The practical
outworking of it, however, is not always as clear-cut as it seems to the idealistic young
missionary on his first trip to the field. Many organizations have been trying
unsuccessfully for years to wean their foreign churches... they dont want to just
cut off support and guidance and leave the work to fall apart, yet the gradual approach
doesnt seem to be working either. Others who plant indigenous churches right
from the start find that many of them eventually join up with some other mission
organization that will support them. The missionary who receives foreign support for
himself, but insists on indigenous support for his national workers and churches has to
somehow explain why he lives so much better than them, and why he doesnt share some
of the wealth.
When it comes to hospitals, schools, and other large
endeavors, the dilemma is all the more pronounced. Even American colleges, whether
religious or secular, are not supported by the tuition of the students alone; they rely
heavily upon government subsidies, grants from various foundations, and gifts from former
alumni. How much more a Bible School in Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, where the standard of
living is far lower?
Cultural lines are not so clearly delineated today, either.
Film and music industries have popularized American culture in many parts of the
world, and the young people are especially drawn to it. The missionary who tries
tribal/folk music and a village approach in Bombay or Mexico City will find himself
seriously out of step with the very ones who would otherwise have been the most receptive
to his message. Its more complex than we ever dreamed. Its difficult to
draw a hard line on the issue of indigeneity.
The principles nevertheless hold true. Missionaries must
be knowledgeable of the people they work among, and must stay in tune with every
development. They must pray earnestly for direction; they must analyze every new
outreach in the light of its possible impact, not just for the immediate future, but for
long-term effect. They must decide whether or not to financially underwrite certain
programs, where to draw the line, and how to keep it from getting out of hand. They
must avoid making the national church dependent and start developing programs that help
them become self-sustaining. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach
a man to fish and you feed him for life."
Supporting churches back in the States must be more
discerning. They must develop a missions philosophy instead of allowing themselves to be
swayed by every emotional appeal; they must become informed of the realities of modern
missions and throw away the old stereotypes of white bwanas in pith helmets living in
thatch huts. They must ask the right questions and make the right decisions when it comes
to who and what to support in other lands.
We are on the verge of completing the task of world
evangelism. There is still much to do, and literally hundreds of millions of yet
unreached peoples. Yet it is within grasp, and there is a great revival waiting in
the wings which will accomplish the remainder of the job in a few short years once it
starts. The existing church must be poised to offer help where its needed most
and send laborers where they will be the most effective. Understanding the concept
of indigenous missions is a major ingredient in this preparation.
Copyright © 1998 Kim
Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.