Previous article in this series: April 1, 2021, p. 308.
Evidence of the PRCA’s commitment to the three-self formula can be observed in the synodical decisions and missionary reports of the PRCA’s foreign mission work. Growth in the understanding of the three-self formula and a commitment to it is evident in PRCA’s past mission work in Jamaica, the first of four examples I will reference here.
Initial involvement of the PRCA in missions in Jamaica began in 1962. At some time in that year, the Mission Committee (which in years later became known as the Domestic Mission Committee) was contacted by a Rev. H. Morally from London, England, who had heard the broadcasts of the Reformed Witness Hour (PRC-sponsored radio program) through the Transworld Radio network at that time. Through the correspondence of this British contact, the Mission Committee was made aware of a group of churches in Jamaica whose members were recent converts to Christianity, who were not well established or well connected, and who needed the guidance and support of missionaries. Although correspondence apparently discontinued with this original contact, the Mission Committee was soon involved with some pastors, congregations, and mission stations. Soon, the PRCA declared Jamaica a field of mission labor under the oversight of the Mission Committee and First PRC in Grand Rapids, MI. Only two missionaries were called and sent to labor in Jamaica at separate times during the thirty-year involvement of the PRCA in Jamaica. The first missionary was Rev. George Lubbers with his wife, from 1970-1974. The second was Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma who, with his wife and children, served on the field from 1984 to 1989. In addition to full-time missionaries, the work was also served by many pastors and elders who brought preaching and instruction on periodic short-term visits among the Jamaican churches and mission stations. After thirty years of labor, the PRCA Synod made the difficult decision in 1993 that, because “all the methods which have been attempted over the course of thirty years (missionaries, emissaries, conferences) have not resulted in strong, indigenous churches…,” the involvement of the PRCA in Jamaica as a denominational work should be brought to a close.1
Through that history of Jamaican missions, one can observe a growth in the understanding of the three-self formula as applied to that work. In 1963, when the synod officially committed the denomination to the mission work in Jamaica, it stated from the very outset regarding the goal of the mission work “…that we work in Jamaica with a view to establishing there an indigenous church….”2 Of course, “indigenous” implied the elements of the three-self formula. These elements became evident in a document proposed to synod by the Mission Committee in 1965 entitled, “Suggested Program for Working Toward Sister-Church Relations between the PRCA and the PRCJ.”3 This document, with a few amendments, was adopted by the synod of the PRCA, and it was intended to guide the mission work with congregations and mission stations to the goal of indigenous churches and an indigenous federation of the PRC in Jamaica, which could then develop a sister-church relationship with the PRCA.
The adopted program stressed the need for doctrinal, church political, and liturgical unity between the PRCA and the PRCJ for the maintenance of a healthy, future sister-church relationship. The document stressed the importance that the PRCJ maintain self-government over its preaching, liturgical, and ecclesiastical affairs, and the document conveyed the recognition by the PRCA of the local churches and officebearers of the PRCJ. The document mentioned interest by the PRCA in the self-propagation of the PRCJ numerically by faithful preaching in the Reformed faith. The document mentioned the need of the PRCJ to be supporting of its own work by a reference to the necessary collections in the worship services. At that time, it was understood that those collections would be for the general fund of the local churches and the care of the poor.4 Although this Jamaican mission program of 1965 did not express the three-self formula word for word, all three concepts of the three-self formula were present to some degree.
Nevertheless, there seems to be evidence that the three-self formula was not fully understood or consistently applied in subsequent years. For example, within the next ten years, the synod gave its approval that the PRCA pay the salaries of the pastors of local PRCJ congregations or pay for church buildings of the PRCJ. Interestingly, while in 1973 synod decided that no more money would be spent on church buildings in Jamaica and that payment of salaries to the local pastors needed to be curtailed, this decision was not entirely followed in 1974. Synod approved in 1974 the payment for a suitable building for one PRCJ congregation. Realizing that this decision was obviously in conflict with the 1973 decision, synod included this disclaimer note: “This is to be an exception to the restriction imposed by Art. 116 of the 1973 Acts.”5 In addition to that “exception,” synod approved the payment of the salaries of four local pastors. Apart from the fact that synod 1974 may have been convinced it was serving the good of the indigenous PRCJ churches, this financial practice seems to be inconsistent with the self-support principle of indigenous churches.
This phenomenon was repeated again in 1983. At that time, the PRCA Synod adopted another policy regarding the mission work in Jamaica in a document entitled, “Policy for Missions in Jamaica.” According to the minutes, the synod approved the document, but with one significant amendment in the section entitled, “Goals and Objectives.” In that section after the word “indigenous,” the words “self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating” were added by amendment.6 By approval of that outstanding amendment, the synod expressed that an indigenous church institute is characterized by the three-self formula and that this understanding needs to be applied in its foreign mission work in Jamaica and, by implication, in all of its work in foreign missions.
However, it appears that the synod, the Mission Committee, calling church, and the Jamaican churches did not fully understand the complete ramifications of the three-self formula. After the 1983 Synod had adopted the significant statement of the three-self formula in its mission policy for Jamaica, the synod approved that it would pay the salaries of local pastors and a seminary student of the PRCJ. It seems there was a lack of understanding concerning “self-support” not merely as a goal, but also as an essential part of the character of indigenous church institutes.
Eventually, however, the PRCA brought its practice in line with the principle expressed in its 1983 policy. The direct financial support of the local PRCJ pastors from the PRCA was brought to a brotherly closure over a seven-year period. The synod did this having realized the inconsistency of its actions with the financial aspects of the three-self formula and having become aware of that by many reports of the money problems that its inconsistency had caused within the PRCJ. In 1990, the synod was informed by the Mission Committee and the calling church that all of financial salaries to the pastors of the PRCJ had been phased out completely.
From this history, it can be remembered that adoption of the three-self formula requires a full understanding and consistency in its application in mission work. Consistency is understandably difficult and challenging for any churches who have engaged in cross-cultural, cross-economic, foreign missions. The history of missions chronicles the evidence of that unavoidable struggle of the application of the three-self formula. As a result of that common struggle, we should not be reluctant and afraid to submit to healthy and humbling self-examination in regard to the three-self formula so that, if there might be some inconsistency or an error perhaps, the mission work can be reformed and restored to a complete, healthy, and wise commitment to the three-self formula in faithfulness to the Lord of the harvest.
A full commitment is necessary because even foreign mission history demonstrates that the three-self formula is a unity, like a stable, three-legged stool. If one of the three ‘legs’ of the three-self formula is not being taught, embraced, implemented, and maintained within the indigenous mission groups and, eventually, church institutes, then one cannot expect such local churches to maintain stability in the face of spiritual opposition and trials on the wobbly support of only one or two ‘legs.’ With even one ‘leg’ missing or with the ‘legs’ not capable of holding any weight, it is expected that such local churches will suffer greatly or topple over completely when the Lord sends them through tribulation and trouble.
In the next article, we will observe and learn from a second example of the PRCA commitment to the three-self formula in its mission labors in Singapore from 1979 to 1986.
1 PRCA Acts of Synod, 1993, Art. 26, A, 4, a.
2 PRCA Acts of Synod, 1963, Art. 91.
3 PRCA Acts of Synod, 1965, Arts. 139-154.
4 The “general fund” collection was taught to support financially the ministry of the gospel, particularly, pastors (according to the biblical principle of Art. 11 of the Church Order), the seminary training for new pastors, and all related ecclesiastical work.
5 PRCA Acts of Synod, 1974, Arts. 84, 125-128.
6 PRCA Acts of Synod, 1983, Art. 25, B, 4.