I Believe in the Indigenous Church
You may wonder why I have chosen that title for this essay. It is because an awareness has been gradually dawning in my thinking. Over the years of ministering overseas I've had the privilege of working alongside indigenous churches in many different countries. "Alongside" is the operative word here. The Body of Christ is indigenous in many nations in which American missionaries are at work. And it is wonderful to see the measure of cooperation that has developed over the past several decades between expat missionaries and foreign nationals. This is how I prefer to do missions, because this is how I think missions was done in the book of Acts.
When the church in Antioch sent out Barnabas and Saul, it never intended their missionaries to set up a chain of institutions to be kept under the control of the sending church. Whatever churches were planted would be deeply rooted in their host countries. They would be "home grown" congregations, integrally identified with those people who would both lead and follow in those churches. As a church planter, Paul never intended to become the pastor of the work at Corinth or elsewhere. He facilitated the work of others who would be appointed by the Holy Spirit for leadership there. We make a very grave mistake, I believe, when we think expatriates such as Timothy and Titus were the "pastors" of the churches they were involved with in Ephesus or Crete. Their ministry, as Paul's personal representatives, was the selection and training of local responsible brothers to lead the work.
Here, as elsewhere, Paul's servant attitude comes forcefully into play. He took as his model for ministry the kenosis pattern of Jesus Christ, a model of other-orientation and costly servanthood (Phil. 2:5-11). Paul consistently labored in the best interests of others rather than himself. Even as an apostle, Paul refused to arrogate to himself exclusive powers. He eagerly sought to train others who would carry on his pioneer ministry.
In Antioch, Barnabas and Saul worked side by side in discipling the church in the ways of Jesus. Little wonder that the church at Antioch, once it had been well established in the teachings of Jesus, had a burden for the nations. Barnabas and Saul went on to be commissioned by the church for the work of church planting. Within 10 years, Paul had gone on to plant churches in the Roman provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia. In all of these places the perpetuation of the Gospel ministry was predicated upon members of the local congregations becoming leaders of the churches among them. Ministry training was accomplished through local training, not by sending church leaders away to seminary.
John Frame ("Proposals for a New North American Model," Missions and Theological Education in World Perspective, p. 377) proposes that we abandon "the academic model once and for all -- degrees, accreditation, tenure, the works." In its place Frame suggests a "Christian Community where teachers, ministerial candidates and their families live together, eat together, work together" (p. 379). Today, forms of distance learning include seminars, guided self-study, internet chat rooms, Skype, and interactive video links via satellite to widely dispersed students, allowing them to study without interrupting and disrupting their customary lifestyle. My own Greek DVD series is being used all over the world to provide instruction in beginning Greek to pastors who otherwise would have no access to such training. Discipleship thus takes place in a living local church context. It is people-related rather than textbook- or professor-related.
When the church in the book of Acts became centralized in Jerusalem, God scattered it through persecution. Without decentralization, the church could not reach its maximum potential as a witnessing community. But scattered, the church preached wherever it went, carrying out the Great Commission. Within these scattered congregations, God provided leaders directly. In Acts we read, "Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust" (Acts 14:23-24). Nationalization is an act of trust: trust in God to further His church on earth according to biblical principles, and trust in believers to whom the leadership of these local churches is to be entrusted.
By insisting on control (or leadership) of national institutions, as some missionary organizations seem to do today, expat missionaries belie their professed commitment to servanthood. The apostle Paul pioneered the local ministry model. It deserves emulating today. Wherever I travel, my goal is to come alongside the national churches and assist them to the best of my (very limited) abilities. My approach is intentionally cooperative. I seek to take no leadership role. I am there to serve, not to be served.
It is this true "partnership in the Gospel" (Phil. 1:5) that makes missionary service so rewarding for me.
October 8, 2011
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.