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One of the main goals in foreign mission work must be to establish indigenous churches, churches that are able to exist on their own. The goal must be churches that are self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting.

In a previous article (November 15, 2011, p. 90) we looked at what it means to establish churches that are self-governing. Now we consider the second characteristic of an indigenous church, namely, self-propagating.

What is a self-propagating church?

Every church of Christ on earth is called to carry out the great commission. Every church must go forth into the world and preach the gospel. Beginning in her own land, every church must pass on the truth to others.

A self-propagating church is one that is busy in this work. She wants others to hear, to know, and to have the truth. She is not selfish with the truth, but speaks of it boldly to others around her.

What must come first, of course, is that she is a self-governing church. She must be properly constituted as a church, for otherwise she cannot call and send forth men to do the work of missions. Closely related to this is the necessity of her being a church that is well grounded in the truth. For how can she teach others if she and her members (including her covenant chil­dren) are not well taught? A local congregation must be built up in the faith before she takes on the work of missions.

But once she is well grounded in the truths of God’s Word, and also properly established as a Reformed con­gregation, a church self-propagates by doing evangelism and mission work. Emulating the Lord Jesus Christ in His love for and compassion toward the lost sheep of Israel (Matt. 9:36), such a church is busy seeking the salvation of the lost through the faithful proclamation of the gospel. She desires the salvation of the elect, for she longs for the return of Christ. She takes up the work of spreading the Word with the prayer that God might be pleased to use her for the gathering in of His elect.

In this connection, one cannot help but be struck by the need for such churches here in the Philippines. Interest in the Reformed faith comes from many parts of the country. Regularly we gain new correspondents and contacts. Frequently we are asked to provide more preaching and teaching. As a country that is steeped in Roman Catholicism, the Philippines is ripe for the spread of the truth that delivers from the bondage of man’s works and the awful tyranny of superstition. And each new door that God opens reminds us again of the need to have churches here that are self-propagating—churches that take up the work of preaching the gospel to those who have not yet heard it.

But how do we establish churches that are able to do this, and that do it?

Some missionary endeavors fail because they produce churches that are dependent on the sending churches. This is especially true as regards finances. The approach they take is to use foreign funds in order to assist the local church (especially at first) in its work of spreading the gospel. This often results in churches that can continue to exist only by continuing to receive foreign funds.

What usually brings this about is the desire to use lo­cal men for the work of spreading the Word. Realizing that local men are most able to do this, the missionary and sending church focus on training such men for this work. From the outset, suitable local men are chosen and prepared for full-time church work.

This desire and endeavor is good. But sadly, it is often misguided, specifically as regards providing fi­nancial support for such men. Because these men are busy in the work of the church, they are unable to earn an income to support themselves and their families. Therefore, they are paid by foreign funds. This enables them to devote themselves full time to spreading the gospel. Usually the idea is that once the work is well underway, and once the local churches are themselves able to support these men, the foreign funds are gradu­ally discontinued, with the ultimate goal of withdraw­ing this foreign support altogether.

We certainly recognize that local men are needed for and best able to do this work. Experience has shown us it is indeed true that properly trained local men are best suited to preach, teach, and explain the Word of God to their fellow countrymen. We have seen this in concrete ways in the Philippines, both with the work that the Berean Protestant Reformed Church does in the All of Grace Protestant Reformed Fellowship in Gabaldon, and with the work of the First Reformed Church of Bulacan among a fellowship of God’s people on the island of Leyte. The local men know the language, including all the nuances of various words (something that takes years for one who is learning the language to grasp). They understand the lives of their own people. They are thoroughly acquainted with their own culture. They have contacts that a foreign missionary does not have—family, friends, neighbors, and fellow-employees. To train local men to do the work of missions and evan­gelism is indeed the wise way.

But serious problems arise when such men are paid through foreign funds. Jealousy and envy come to the foreground when church members discover that these men are being paid. Novices are appointed for the work, in direct opposition to I Timothy 3:6. Some pursue the ministry simply for the sake of earthly gain, often with the hope of finding a way out of poverty. And a spirit of dependence is created on the mission field, with churches that are unable to survive without the constant input and giving of others.

In the end, this approach is ineffective. The fol­lowing account makes this clear. It comes from an article entitled “Unhealthy Dependency vs. Sustain­ability,” written by Rev. Joel L. Hogan, a director of the Christian Reformed World Missions of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

So what does unhealthy dependency look like? Perhaps it is best, at this point, to give some practical illustra­tions of unhealthy dependency. The first example is from my own past. I worked as a missionary in the Philippines for over 17 years. As a fresh young mis­sionary, I planted an inner city church in the city of….I was working in poor communities in the city and the response was exciting. We started out in a small com­munity hall, but quickly outgrew the little building, which could only hold about 35 people. I then found a building to rent and I paid all the rent with mission money. I thought I was doing a good thing and that the poor folks I was serving couldn’t afford it. The church continued to grow. Finally, we began to outgrow the rental facility and I thought that the only way that this developing church would be able to stand on its own would be to purchase its own facilities. However, the people lacked resources to buy property in the inner city. I helped them to do several fund raising projects to build up a savings account. They were committed to doing all they could to raise money, but if they located in the inner city, it would be a very, very long time be­fore they had enough money to buy a building. Then a supporter visited…and saw the need. He sent a check to cover the cost of buying a piece of property that had been foreclosed and we purchased the property. The money that the church had saved partially paid for some renovations on the building. I initially felt great and the group was very happy to have a nice worship facility in the inner city. However, as time went on, the group could not even generate enough resources to properly care for and maintain the building. Today the building is in very poor condition. I had not been sensitive to the fact that I created an unhealthy dependency by building something that was beyond their ability to even main­tain. Far too many of their resources had to go into the building for repairs, paying taxes, etc. Moreover, that church in…has never planted another church. I had modeled a completely irreproducible church planting strategy. In their minds, they could never get the funds to get a building for another group, so they didn’t even try.

Notice that Rev. Hogan makes the significant obser­vation that a church that is not self-supporting (some­thing we hope to consider in a future article) will fail to be self-propagating. He provides us with evidence of the fact that to inject foreign funds into a mission field creates dependence. Such funding not only runs contrary to the goal of establishing self-supporting churches, but also ruins the goal of establishing self-propagating churches.

Next time we will direct our attention to the positive aspects of working toward the goal of establishing self-propagating churches.