Previous article in this series: December 15, 2020, p. 138.

A fourth example is the foreign mission work of the Netherlands Reformed Churches (NRC) in Irian Jaya in the 1960s and 1970s. The NRC was not the only Reformed denomination laboring in that part of Indonesia, but the NRC published a small book about their mission work that gives some helpful insight into their methods and goal—a work that was truly foreign, that is, among people who in their generations had never heard the gospel.

The book, Mission on Irian Jaya: Church Visitation and View of Building and Destruction of the Station Nipsan, was written in a popular style, along with color photographs, for mission awareness and promotion among the Netherlands Reformed congregations in the Netherlands and in North America. This book gives details about a visitation in May 1973 by a foreign mission committee delegation to the mission of the NRC at Irian Jaya. Irian Jaya is the Indonesian, western part of New Guinea, while the other part to the east is Papua New Guinea.

The NRC mission work in Irian Jaya began in 1963 and continued into the 1970s through the labors of Rev. G. Kuyt, Rev. G. Vreugdenhil, and several assistants. The NRC mission work began in Abenaho (1963), added another mission station in Landikma (1967), a third mission station in Nipsan (1971), and a fourth mission station in Langda (1973). Each station was usually central among several villages, so that by 1973 worship gatherings were several hundred villagers from the Dani and the Jali tribes. Because each tribe had their own distinct dialect, the mission work included translation of the Scriptures into the Dani and Jali languages. The native religion of these tribes was characterized by animism (spirit worship) and much superstition.

The delegates visited native congregations that had been gathered under the preaching of the Word by the missionaries in their mission stations. Although there was regular weekly gatherings in the mission stations of believers and their seed under the administration of the Word of God by the ordained missionaries, yet, up until the time of the visitation in 1973—ten years after the mission work had begun—these gatherings had not yet become visibly instituted, with the ordination of local men into the offices of pastor, deacons, and elders.

Nevertheless, the goal of the NRC missionaries in their patient and persistent mission labors in Irian Jaya was more than just instituted gatherings of believers and their children under regular weekly preaching of the gospel and catechism training. Their goal was not merely congregations with their own native officebearers. The goal was specifically that they “become independent.” 1 The goal of “independent” meant that the gatherings of converts and their children needed to be taught, prepared, and eventually established as self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting instituted churches. As such, they would be expected to fulfill, by their own officebearers, their ecclesiastical calling in obedience to Christ within their unique cultural, linguistic, and economic setting. Reaching that goal of independence then, “the Reformed character of these congregations [would] be clearly visible.”2

In this fourth example, we can observe that the goal of foreign missions, even over a lengthy period of more than ten years, remained an enduring mindset among the missionaries and their overseeing churches. Together, they remained committed to the goal of local, autonomous churches within their own unique place in the world. Significantly, they expressed that their goal of the threeself formula was an essential element of the Reformed character of indigenous church institutes in Irian Jaya.

One example (our fifth) among Presbyterian churches that the three-self formula is needed for faithful mission work comes from the broad foreign mission experience and wisdom of Dr. John M. L. Young, found in his book, Missions: The Biblical Aim and Motive (c. 1962). He was born into his Presbyterian missionary family on a mission field in Korea, his father an ordained missionary of a Canadian Presbyterian church. After his years of education were finished, Young was ordained as a Bible Presbyterian missionary and sent to labor in China.

He labored there from 1938-1941, and then, after a pastorate in the USA from 1942-1948, presumably as a result of the effects of World War II, he briefly resumed his mission service in China until the communist revolution in China forced him and his family to move to Japan. He continued his mission labors in Japan from 1949-1966. Later in 1981, he returned to Japan to continue laboring in mission work.

With that broad experience and knowledge of foreign mission work among those who in their previous generations never had the gospel preached to them, Young wrote, as he had practiced, that “the goal of a missionary… envisions the establishing of indigenous churches as a direct growth of missionary endeavor. A truly indigenous church will be self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting.”3

He repeated this conviction about the three-self formula and the goal of missions when he wrote:

Thus, an indigenous church is considered here to be a body of believers organized for worship, the edification of the saints, and the spread of the Gospel, planted in a soil foreign to the Gospel until the arrival of missionaries through whose labors a native church was produced, founded upon Jesus Christ as He is [revealed] in the Scriptures, sharing the life of the land, self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating from devotion to Christ, and aiming at the extension of His kingdom.4

In this fifth example, we can observe an interesting connection between a commitment in foreign missions to three-self formula of indigenous churches and those churches being “founded upon Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures.” This example interestingly points out a connection between the foundation of the church, Jesus Christ, and the work of the church institute. This example demonstrates that the church that is built upon Christ and His truth will also be faithfully devoted to Christ in her exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven as a self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating institute.

While many differences and variations of the implementation of the three-self formula may be observed from the histories of missions of other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, yet the few selective examples provided show, generally speaking, that Reformed missionaries since the late 1800s and into recent mission history more and more understood the correct goal of foreign missions according to the three-self formula.

Through almost 60 years of experience in foreign mission work, the PRC has learned and expressed the importance of the goal of newly established, indigenous church institutes according to the three-self formula. In the next article, we will look at some examples of the evidence of a growing understanding and commitment to the three-self formula in PRC foreign mission work since the 1960s in the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

1 Rev. H. Rijksen and Rev. A. Vergunst, Mission on Irian Jaya: Church Visitation and View of Building and Destruction of the Station Nipsan (Rotterdam: Mission of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, no date), 19.

2 Rijksen and Vergunst, Irian Jaya, 113.

3 J. M. L. Young, Missions: The Biblical Motive and Aim, (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, reprint 2007), 119.

4 Young, Missions, 120.