Working Towards an Indigenous Church (3) A Self-Propagating Church

Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article: April 15, 2008, p. 322.

John Nevius suggested that an indigenous church ought to have three distinctive characteristics: self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. In this article we focus on the second characteristic, self-propagating. We will do this from the point of view of the missionary’s role in this effort.

If a mission church is truly going to stand on its own and be able to free itself from dependency upon the sending church, it has to have the desire and ability to grow in numbers. Self-propagating refers to the activity of the mission church to reach outside of itself, to do its own mission outreach, so that it can sustain its calling as a church of Jesus Christ independent from the calling church. In our last article we focused upon the goal of an indigenous church becoming self-governing. As we saw then, this includes the ability to function as a church within the local congregation and federally, together as churches. This knowledge of the church to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, and to protect both by faithful administration of Christian discipline is the backbone of church government. This includes trained leaders who can function in the offices of Christ, the pastors, elders, and deacons.

Now we focus on the calling to propagate. A few things come to bear on this aspect of the mission church. It is important that as the members of the mission church function in their newfound faith, they must grow in that faith in order to maintain stability in the church. It is very common in mission work that recent converts leave out of the back door as fast as new converts come in the front door. When that happens, the mission’s propagation will not result in a growing in numbers and strength. Also, it is vital that the local congregation understand the importance of God’s covenant of grace and the care of children for the coming generation. This will open the way for propagation from within the church itself. Finally, they must also realize that it is the duty of every local congregation, by the effort of its members, to bring the gospel to others, so that they grow in numbers as well as in faith. Such self-propagating encourages the mission churches to stand on their own and gradually free themselves from needing the sending church in order to function.

I might insert here that the goal of establishing indigenous churches, including all three aspects (self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting), is crucial for the survival of much work in foreign countries. Often mission work is done in countries whose governments are hostile to foreign missionaries. The history of India is a good example. Years ago, when the Hindu party gained enough power to throw out all foreign missionaries, it left the mission churches in shambles. They had not been trained to be independent but rather to be dependent on foreign resources. As a result, the local congregations could not function on their own when the sending churches were gone, and to solve this problem they merged together and formed associations such as the Church of South India and the Church of North India. This took place only through much compromise and toleration of differences. The fruits of it are seen in the weakness of those churches to this day.

The sending church must work with all urgency because, in most of the world, we do not know how long the opportunity to do mission work will be given to us. The day may come when missionaries and calling churches are forced to leave. From day one we must work towards making the church independent, and now also self-propagating.

In this article, we will limit ourselves to a few decisions that a missionary must make that will have an impact on the propagation of the gospel in that country. We will condense a few points made on the subject by the three authors, John Nevius, Roland Allen, and J. H. Bavinck.

Nevius insists that if the gospel will be propagated it must go forth from a solid foundation of truth.

Some have supposed that we are warranted in the first presentation of Christianity in withholding those doctrines which antagonize Chinese systems and are calculated to excite prejudice and opposition, presenting only those features which are conciliatory and attractive, thus drawing the people to us and gaining an influence over them and afterwards giving them instruction in the complete system of Christian truth as they are able to bear it. I doubt very much whether such a course is justified by the teaching and example of our Savior and the apostles. God may and does in His mercy and grace make use of our incomplete presentation of His truth and an imperfect apprehension of it to the conversion and salvation of men; but have we not still greater reason for expecting His blessing in connection with His truth when given in its completeness? I believe there is no doctrine of Christianity the full presentation of which we need fear. …It is for us, however, to make our teaching as full and clear as possible (Nevius, Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, p. 88).

Bavinck writes in his An Introduction to the Science of Missions:

It is equally obvious, however, that gradually they acquire the need for their own confession of faith, in which they can express what they themselves have found in God’s Word. Such a confession must be formulated in opposition to the forces opposing them, in opposition to the communism that is everywhere rampant as a world religion; in opposition to the old religions still followed by many in their environment, and against Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and against the phenomenon of syncretism, the inclination found everywhere to mix all religions together. Such confessions of faith cannot be made, they must grow, they must be born out of a need (p. 204).

Scripture and the confessions form the foundation for building the church in the truth and also propagating it. It may be that, in the early years of mission work, the local church expresses briefly what the Christian faith is in a self-composed confession, but the goal ought to be that such a church identifies herself with the historic confessions of the Reformed churches. This is the way not only to develop true ecumenicity, but also to take advantage of the work of the Holy Spirit done in the past and for the benefit of the church today.

I find it interesting that experienced missionaries recognize that the location of the initial work in the country has a tremendous impact on the propagation of the Word in that country. Nevius recognizes that Paul, and subsequently most missionaries, began with spreading the Word wherever the Holy Spirit allows them to preach. Christ directs the shepherd’s voice to the sheep, but the missionary does not know where they are, so he begins with a general approach. As time goes on, he soon learns that he needs to concentrate his labors lest he spread himself so thin as to be of no effect. At that point it is crucial what place he chooses to locate the mission work for the sake of propagating the Word. One perspective is the relationship between Paul’s home and field of labor. Nevius explains:

The great centres where he (Paul) spent most of his time were apparently not selected by him in accordance with a predetermined plan, but were providentially indicated to him in the ordinary course of his apostolic tours. But most missionaries, however much they may itinerate, will require a fixed place of residence that is a home in selecting which the chief consideration should be health, facilities for acquiring the language, and a place which is an influential centre in itself and affords easy access to the unevangelized regions about it. Such a home the apostle Paul had in Antioch, where he spent the intervals between his itinerating tours (p. 78).

Roland Allen gives another perspective, on the location of the missionary within the country in which he works.

It is not enough for the church to be established in a place where many are coming and going unless the people who come and go not only learn the Gospel, but learn it in such a way that they can propagate it. It has often happened that a mission has been established in an important city, and the surrounding country has been left untouched so far as the efforts of the native Christians have been concerned because the gospel was preached in such a form that the native convert who himself received it did not understand how to spread it, nor realize that it was entrusted to him for that purpose. By establishing the church in two or three centres St. Paul claimed that he had evangelized the whole province. Ten years after his first start from Antioch, he told the Romans that he had “fully preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem and round about Illyricum,” and that he had “no more place in those parts.” In that single sentence we have the explanation and the justification of St Paul’s establishment of the churches in important centres in a province. When he had occupied two or three centres he had really and effectually occupied the province (Missionary Methods: Saint Paul’s or Ours?, p. 13).

Next we want to address the need for a missionary to learn the language of the people among whom he labors. When we read of the pioneering work of missionaries in countries such as Africa, India, and Burma, we see that the need for the missionary to learn the language was critical. The only way he could bring the gospel to people of a different culture was to learn their language as a means to adapt to their culture. Because America has made a global impact on most countries, and English is the universal language, missionaries can make use of local men who know English and are able to serve as interpreters. But even then, almost all missionaries insist that any effective work done by a missionary in a foreign culture requires the missionary to learn the local language. Dependency on interpreters limits and negates effective propagation of the Word. Even Nevius (the old veteran) expresses his regret for not putting forth more effort to learn the local language even better.

It has been to me a matter of constant regret that a portion of time was not strictly reserved, especially during my first five or ten years in China, for laying a broader and deeper foundation for future usefulness by a more extensive and methodical reading and memorizing of Mandarin and Classic literature. Suitable and adequate plans were made for such study, but other occupations in the form of direct missionary work, promising immediate results, were allowed to interfere with and set aside those plans. In this way, as in many others, we are too easily induced to sacrifice a greater future good to a less present one (p. 76).

Very soon, the missionary and sending church become keenly aware that besides the Bible there was need for instructional material in the local language. The Bible takes precedence over all others. One of the pioneer missionaries, Adoniram Judson of Burma, gave his entire life to learn Burmese and write a good version of the Bible in that language. Today, Wycliffe Bible Translators, also known in Southeast Asia as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, specializes in this arduous work. They continue to publish Bibles in tribal languages. In the Chin State of Myanmar, the churches had to be content with The Good News for Modern Man in their dialect. Subsequently, the churches have worked together to produce a reliable version of the King James into Chin. Missionaries play a key role in the work and recognize its importance for the spread of the gospel in their land.

Next to the Bible, good study books are in greatest demand. Missionaries of the Reformed faith know how difficult this is. Some general books about Christianity may be published in the local language, but missionaries need books that expound the Reformed faith. In most instances, they have to function as instructors for future ministers and Bible workers. The demand for books in the local language becomes paramount. Many missionaries put a lion’s share of their time into preparing such material or guiding others in their publication. Nevius had this to say about books:

If I were asked what in my opinion is the most important of all departments of mission work in China, I should not be able to answer categorically. All are important. The most important work for each man is undoubtedly that for which he is best fitted and to which he is specially called. Book-making is the ripest and richest fruit of all. Its influence extends over nations and continents and goes down to successive generations (p. 77).

No matter how hard a missionary may work in helping a local congregation, no matter how diligent he is in training others to function as pastors in outlying areas where new congregations are formed, one aspect of his labors is crucial for propagation, and that is training the converts to speak of their faith to others and spread the gospel in this manner. Usually, in the early years of mission work, a convert naturally takes on this task. Sometimes missionaries have to labor for years to gain one convert, but when that convert is there, things begin to happen. A local person is able to speak the local language, relate to the local people, understand their superstitions and hang-ups, and be used by the Spirit to lead to conversion. Such people are useful for the missionary and ought to be incorporated into his labor of working towards the institution of a local church. Nevius has this comment:

Some will say that depending largely upon the voluntary and unpaid labor of native Christians for the propagation of the Gospel is pre-supposing a larger amount of zeal and devotion on their part than is found among Christians at home. If this is true, so much the worse for Christians at home. I believe the contrary, however. There is a great army of active workers at home as well as idlers. As to young converts in our country stations, it is a fact that they are willing to do this work and able to do it, and still further that they do it. 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 they 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 (p. 25).

Later, Nevius writes:

When a man becomes a Christian the fact is known through the whole circle of his acquaintances, male and female, far and wide. It is generally believed that his mind has lost its balance. He is shunned for a time, but before long his friends visit him either from sympathy or curiosity. They find him in apparently a normal condition and working quietly in his shop or on his farm, and are curious to know what this new departure means. An opportunity is thus afforded of presenting the claims of Christianity as not the religion of the foreigner but the true religion for all mankind (p. 43).

It is apparent that such a convert needs much encouragement and instruction from the missionary to fulfill his newly commissioned role of prophet on behalf of the Lord Jesus.

A final observation that ought to be made as it relates to the missionary’s involvement in the spread of the gospel is the training of children. These may be children who come to faith by means of the missionary effort, or the children may be children born to believers. This is a big we can offer only a few thoughts.

Missionaries have addressed this need to instruct children in different ways. Within the fellowship of the congregation must be a special effort to train the children in the fear of the Lord. Yes, parents must be trained to do this teaching for their own children. In some situations this may be difficult due to the lack of maturity of some of the parents. In such instances the church fellowship has to assume more involvement for the instruction of the children. This may be Sunday Schools, special ministries for the children on Saturday, Vacation Bible School during holiday periods, and such like.

Christian schools in the mission field are sometimes possible as the means to meet the needs of children. At other times the children have to attend local schools, usually due to financial reasons. Efforts are usually put forth to supplement this training with religious education in the evening, weekends, or holidays. More than likely homeschooling cannot be considered due to the immaturity of parents and because the houses may not be conducive to teaching. In some instances I know, even schools are not fit (due to extreme heat), and classes are held under a shade tree.

We have simply highlighted a few areas that the diligent missionary has to consider, decide, and carry out. All of them will have an impact on the spread of the gospel through his efforts. Each area is full of challenges as he seeks to be faithful in his calling to propagate the Word. Such missionaries need our daily prayers for God’s guidance and wisdom.