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Indigenous Missions
by Kim Harrington


     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 save some.

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 I’ve continued to believe in and have never questioned—and which seems so obviously scriptural and wise to me that I’ve sometimes wondered why others don’t 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 other—there was no paternalism on Jerusalem’s part, no overbearing government or outside financial support—yet they enjoyed fellowship and spiritual support, and helped each other now and again as there was need.


Cultural Offences

     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 people’s 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 them.

     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 foreign sponsors.

     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 needn’t 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 we’ve discussed.

     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 any nation.

     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 they’ve never been trained to tithe and support their leaders—it’s 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 little—it’s only Christian to give to them.

     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 foreigners—and, 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 I’ve never questioned the principles of indigenous missionary work. It’s 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 don’t want to just cut off support and guidance and leave the work to fall apart, yet the gradual approach doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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. It’s more complex than we ever dreamed.  It’s 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 it’s 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.


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