Those of us involved in missions as practitioners’ and those who support the global missions endeavor need to think carefully about what kind of churches we are planting. I believe that the target can be defined in five words: healthy, indigenous, self-supporting, interdependent and reproducing. Where the target is reached, the possibility of significant impact in a whole region is often the result. When just one of the targets is missing, the long term impact of our efforts is compromised.
Only healthy churches can produce healthy disciples so our focus must always be on ensuring that the churches we plant are healthy. This means that they are gospel centered, missional in reaching out to those around them, have a culture of grace and love and humble leaders who serve rather than dictate. They are churches who reflect the character of the book of Ephesians. Emphasis on numbers in church planting often leads to a lack of emphasis on health. Better to have fewer healthy churches than many unhealthy churches. The key to church health is the training of healthy leaders both pastoral and lay.
Indigenous churches are churches that reflect the culture of the people among whom the church is planted while being thoroughly biblical in their practices. Too often, missionaries have inadvertently brought both biblical practices and outside culture as they have planted churches rather than bringing the truth of the gospel and allowing that truth to be expressed within the culture of a local population.
Anyone who has participated in worship services in Africa, for instance, understands how culture affects “how people do church.” The service may last four hours, has African music, lots of dancing and long (even multiple) messages. Then, there may be a long meal together before people disperse. It can last much of the day.
The key to planting indigenous churches is simple: missionaries don’t lead the church but from the beginning, train, equip, empower and coach nationals to lead the congregation – either with them or instead of them. Where pioneer work is being done, new believers are disciple and brought into church leadership as quickly as possible. Missionaries from another culture cannot plant a truly indigenous church – only nationals can so partnering with nationals from the outset – or equipping nationals to do the church planting is the key to indigenous churches. Thus, wherever possible, our task is to develop, empower and release healthy national leaders who can plant healthy churches in their context, their culture but with the same gospel truth.
This is perhaps the most difficult concept for those who live in the developed world to understand. Self-supporting means that the church is not dependent on outside funds in order to exist, nor is its pastor paid from outside the local congregation. It is also based on the conviction that Christ designed the church to exist in any culture, any socio-economic climate, any political climate and to do so in a way that it can organically reproduce itself regardless of the political, social and economic structures in which it exists. When we tamper with that Christ designed structure, we inadvertently destroy or impede the organic growth of the church.
A great example of how the church operates organically can be found in China. When missionaries were forced to leave in 1949 there were approximately one million believers in China and the prediction was that the church would die. Interestingly, the many missionaries who were active in China had imported western ways of doing church including all the denominational distinctives present in the western church.
Instead of dying, the church flourished and did so organically as Christ designed the church to do in spite of a terrible economy, a government that tried to eradicate it and the absence of trained pastors. It flourished much like the early church with lay bi-vocational pastors, house churches neither of which were dependent on funding. China is proof that the church does not need to reflect a western developed model to flourish but that it can flourish organically in any context – if we do not tamper with it.
There are three barriers to church multiplication world wide. These three barriers are practices of the western church that we often import to the church in the developing world. They are the concepts that to be a church on needs a full time pastor, a pastor with a formal theological degree and that the church should have a building and real estate.
Why does this thinking hurt multiplication? Because we live in a poor world. Consider this. Fifty four percent of our world lives on less than three dollars US per day and 91% of our world lives on less than $10,000 per year. What does that say about the ability of most of our world to do church like we do church with full time pastors, degreed pastors and with buildings and real-estate?
The early church was not hampered by these three constraints. The very reason that it could organically reproduce itself – like the church in China was that it did not rely on paid pastors, real-estate or degreed pastors. Where full time pastors developed it did so organically as the church could afford to do so rather than as a paradigm for how to do church.
Because we view church in American terms, we often seek to reproduce our version of church around the world. One of the easiest ways to do this is to pay pastors in developing contexts. So we start to pay pastors so that they can work full time with the thinking that it makes perfect sense and will increase their effectiveness. However, good intentions often have unintended consequences.
Let’s consider some of the unintended consequences of this practice. First, it is no longer an organically reproducible model. Once you start paying pastors, new churches are not started until more money is found to pay that pastor. Second, it is almost impossible to wean these pastors off of that support once they are on it. Third, congregations do not give because there is little need for them to do so. Fourth, these pastors and congregations are not indigenous or independent since they are beholden to those who pay them and finally dependency is created. They church cannot exist without the outside money. The bottom line is that what was done for good reasons actually hurts the church and stifles the growth of the church as well as tampering with how God designed the church to organically reproduce itself in any world context.
If a church is to be healthy, indigenous, and reproducible it must be self supporting. When we force another model on the church it has negative unintended consequences. This is why we must be committed to self-supporting churches.
A word about real-estate and buildings. Great wisdom is needed in when to help a church in the developing context purchase or build buildings. Remember the church does not need real-estate to flourish. When we define church in terms of buildings and real-estate, other churches start to define it that way. What happens is everyone in that locale starts to believe that to be a church one needs buildings but they cannot afford the buildings. Thus in order to reproduce themselves they need help from the outside to purchase and build structures. Again, the organic nature of the church is compromised.
In one city where our organization works, there are five key churches, each of which has been helped with building a building with multiple outside work teams. Those five churches have been very slow to plant new churches. They have said, “we need to be strong first,” which has meant they need to complete their structures and then have enough people to pay for the upkeep of those structures. One must ask the question, did our help in building buildings get in the way of organic multiplication?
Many missions have learned hard lessons in this regard. Those lessons can lead us back to a healthier and more biblical model of self-supporting churches that can organically reproduce themselves in any context, any political climate and any economy. Where it is necessary to help pastors find a way to support themselves, we can help them be self-sufficient through micro-enterprise rather than through ongoing financial support.
Congregations are healthiest when they are in fellowship and are cooperating with other like minded congregations. Thus one looks for partners who value interdependence rather than independence. Interdependent churches work together to bring the gospel to those around them, to train workers and to do missions together.
This does not meant that we should be in the business of starting denominations. In fact, denominational structures often hinder multiplication as leaders focus on their institutional needs rather than the multiplication of the church. It is better to allow organized structures to develop organically and at the right time for the right reasons rather than missionaries taking the lead in making it happen.
Healthy churches reproduce themselves. Movements that are not deeply committed to and actually practicing the reproduction of new churches are simply not healthy. This often happens when denominational structures take greater precedence than multiplication or where the organic nature of the church has been tampered with as I have described above, resulting in multiplication being stifled and hindered.
God designed the church to reproduce itself organically, intentionally and rapidly – once the gospel takes hold. Healthy churches can do that. Healthy missionaries work in a way that fosters this multiplication of the church wherever possible.