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Rev. Kortering is a minister/missionary emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.


What is an indigenous church 

In the history of missions, there has been tension in the Reformed churches as to the proper perspective of what a mission church, established in a foreign land, ought to be.

Years ago, when the Dutch government was heavily involved in the colonization of the world, the Reformed churches of the Netherlands combined colonization with mission outreach. This took place through the Dutch East India Company. Let me use Malacca, Malaysia as an example. The French controlled Malacca and, with it, its wealth of palm oil, spices, and whatever resources were there for the taking. Then the Dutch moved in and, through armed conflict, gained a toehold in Malaysia in Malacca. During this time of occupation, the Dutch East India Company controlled the harvesting and shipping of the natural resources. Part of their activity was religious: they realized there was a need to meet the spiritual requirements of the Dutchmen who were involved in this work. The Dutch built Christ Church in Malacca, with strictly Dutch architecture and Dutch-style pews, for the purpose of holding Dutch worship services for the merchants and laborers involved in the work in Malacca. The church in the Netherlands called and installed a Dutch preacher in this church.

We could not find a record of any effort to reach out to the Malaysian people of Malacca. In fact, you can see even today how they existed. They built a literal fortress to keep out any intruders, whether foreign or domestic. They lived in a secure compound. This kept them safe long enough to gain their money by merchandise—but only until the British came along and blew their fortress to pieces with their long-range guns.

When we researched this some years ago, it struck us that this is considered mission work in the history of the Dutch churches. In fairness to the Dutch, there were some countries where they did put forth effort to reach out to the locals, and in some instances they were successful. For the most part, however, the church they organized in the foreign land was a transplant from the home church. The locals had to learn the Dutch language if they were to worship there, they had to learn to sing Dutch Psalms, they had to conform to the Dutch ways. Later, things changed, and the mission work became more focused on making the church reflect the local society. An example of this is the influence of the Dutch in Indonesia.

This mission activity by the church of the past is called the “colonization of the church.” It generally was integrated into the efforts of their own government, through independent societies or companies such as the Dutch East India Company, to colonize other peoples and absorb them into the territory of their own government. These governments would set up administrative councils to rule these people and return the benefit, especially financial, to themselves. It was quite natural for the church to take advantage of such an opportunity to gain entrance, enjoy security, and advance the gospel in these foreign countries. History shows, however, that precious little consideration was given to the local people as to the function and formation of the church. They usually formed clones of the mother church in these foreign lands. In the long run this caused all sorts of problems in the churches.

One thing in particular that caused serious problems in such a colonial setting was that the foreign church became completely dependent upon the sending church for everything. Foreign missionaries assumed all leadership roles. Little or no effort was expended to train local pastors. Eventually, when the need for local men became apparent, they learned that the local men could be better pastors and were better able to do mission outreach in their own country. A power struggle developed between the missionary and the locals. Eventually the local men were paid with foreign money just as the missionary. This tempted the village church planters to focus on money and the things it could buy. Dependency upon foreign funds developed, and the incentive for sacrificial-giving ended.

During the post-colonial period of history, the churches began to rethink mission work. Some of the churches did not go along with this practice to begin with, and they offered criticism. The world wars brought about national independence throughout Europe and Asia. For the most part, colonialism failed, its days were numbered, the world entered into a new era of international recognition of foreign powers and the legitimacy of national independence and individual rights. International trade, enhanced by economic prosperity, opened the door to developing countries.

This fresh “spirit of the age” generated in the church the idea of working for an indigenous church in mission outreach. By stating it this way, we do not intimate that it was some worldly influence on the church that caused her to change her objective in missions. Rather, the fresh spirit enabled the leaders of the church to study the Word of God without the prejudice of the cultural blinders of colonialism. Through this searching of Scripture they concluded that the goal of missions ought to be an indigenous church.

What is an indigenous church?

For the etymology of the word, we turn to the dictionary and learn that its roots are in Latin,indigenus, which means native, born in a country. In general, when we speak of an indigenous church we mean a church that takes on the character of its own people and country. To use another term, it is a church that is culturally sensitive: it reflects the local language and takes into consideration the thinking and manners of the local people. It allows these people to learn leadership roles and to assume those roles in both the teaching and government of the local church.

One of the pioneers in promoting an indigenous church was John L. Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary laboring in China during the latter part of the nineteenth century. During these years he saw the sad consequences of churches practicing missions at the expense of the involvement of the local people. Especially he saw that when foreign money was used to pay the village church planters, it spoiled everything. It made the local workers discontented with what they had, and it made them lazy. In 1890 Nevius was invited to join seven young missionaries working in Korea. During the first two weeks of his labor there he lectured to them about his principles concerning how to labor for an indigenous church. These lectures set forth in seed-form the three self-help ideas of an indigenous church: self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. The young missionaries in Korea, assisted by this experienced man of God, went to work, and, as they say, the rest is history. The strength of the Presbyterian Church in Korea today is a testimony of God’s blessing on those long-ago labors.

One thing that is often overlooked in the pioneering work of Nevius is that he not only emphasized the wrongness of paying local workers, but he also insisted that, in place of money, the emphasis must fall upon the need spiritually to excite and enhance the duty and ability of every member of the mission to engage in outreach.

In the early history of the Church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, Christianity spread chiefly through the voluntary zeal of ordinary church members and the work of the Apostles consisted mainly in superintending and organizing the companies of Christians thus gathered. Their zeal was so great that persecution could not repress, but only intensified it. If there is not that zeal and effort in the Church at home, it is much to be deplored. Perhaps the want of it is due in a great measure to a growing habit of leaving work for Christ to be done by those who are paid for it. Where such an idea prevails, whether at home or on missionary ground, it tends to paralyze the power of the Church for good (Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, p. 25).

Nevius wrote up a manual, which he placed in the hands of every inquirer. One of the chapters of that manual is entitled, “The Duty of Every Christian to make known the Gospel to Others.”

About the same time, another missionary laboring in China developed similar principles. Roland Allen was there as an Anglican missionary from 1895-1903. After this experience, he wrote on missionary principles, a work that did not come to public attention until about 1927, when he published his first edition of Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? These principles were not seriously considered by the church until after his death in 1947. The second edition, in 1962, gained the attention it deserved. The strength of his book is the careful treatment of the New Testament as it relates to missions. He was still of the mindset that considered it mandatory that missionary methods be rooted in the Word of God. This can be done in two ways: by applying biblical principles, or by following the practices of Paul and others as recorded in Scripture. In his book, Allen connects the goal of an indigenous church with that of the work of the great missionary Paul. The work of Paul was under the direct guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is not man-generated, but divinely ordained.

There are many authors who address the subject of the indigenous church. We want to include one more man of God who wrote about missions from a Reformed perspective. He is J.H. Bavinck. He lived during this same period of time, 1895-1964. He served as missionary from the Dutch churches to Indonesia and later taught missions in a Reformed theological school in the Netherlands. His book, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, is a more detailed and more mature treatment of missions, including the issues of self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. The burden of his writing is to expose the error of mission work being done by societies and independent organizations. Missions is the work of the exalted Christ through His church. This is important because the goal of missions must be set by Christ through His Word. It follows from this that those engaged in this work can then enjoy and be blessed by the Sending Christ.

In conclusion, we ought to consider a moment that it is important in our mission labors that we have a goal. What kind of church are we setting out to establish in a foreign country? Are we going to repeat the mistakes of history and focus on a colonial type of mission, or are we going to learn from the past and concentrate on an indigenous church? Only with a clear perception of what the church ought to be can we include the steps that are necessary to achieve this goal. This is homework that the calling church and the foreign mission committee have to do.

This was brought home to me some years ago when we engaged in animated discussion with missionaries who were also teaching third-world pastors in Yangon, Myanmar. We were covering some aspects of the three self-help concepts of Nevius. They obviously had quite a bit more experience in field work than I did. A point that one brother made stuck with me. He said, “If I am asked to come to Myanmar to assist a church in teaching their pastors, I address two questions to them. What is your goal, and what steps do you propose to attain it? If they have no clear idea of what they envision the church to be, or of what their ministry should work toward, I am wasting my time trying to help.” That gave me pause.

The goal has to be the salvation of the lost according to God’s sovereign purpose; the establishing of a local church that reflects the kind of church Christ describes in the Bible; and through this labor bringing glory to God and to Christ, the King of the church.

In this endeavor, an indigenous church plays a key role.

In future articles we hope to explore this in a bit more depth.