Anyone involved in world missions will come face to face with choices about missionary methods. Methods to carry the gospel vary, depending on many factors. The culture of a small town church in the deep south of the U.S. will differ from a city church in the heart of Seoul, South Korea. A church in an impoverished village in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba will differ greatly from a metropolitan church in Detroit. Notwithstanding the differences, there are missionary methods that apply universally, regardless of cultural factors.
The Bible is our primary source for missionary methods. Whether it is missionary work in first century Rome, with all its idolatry and paganism, or backpacking across the mountains of Nepal to plant a church in a remote Buddhist village, there are apostolic methods that apply equally in all places, among all peoples, and which are able to produce equally dynamic results. There must come a time in every person’s walk with God wherein we desire the purest and most pristine way, the tried and true methods of God, over our burdensome, usually borrowed, traditions. Indigenous church methods for missions are biblical, and therefore are the needed prescription for present-day apostolic missions. To [not] know indigenous church principles, or worse, to ignore them, is unacceptable for the missionary carrying the title “Apostolic.”
“In order to have a New Testament church, we must follow New Testament methods,” says Melvin Hodges, author of The Indigenous Church. [i] Failures in missionary efforts stem from a failure to adhere to apostolic principles. David Garrison, in his article “Church-Planting Movements,” says the term “indigenous” literally means “generated from within” as opposed to started by outsiders.” [ii] “The first church or churches in a mission field may be started by outsiders,” says Garrison, “but very quickly momentum shifts from outsiders to insiders … For the growing number of believers, the movement looks, acts, and feels like their own.” [iii] Ideally, the goal of world missionaries should be to plant indigenous churches around the globe that will take root, grow, and reproduce themselves in other unreached areas—without the constant aid of a foreign church.
Indigenous church principles are synonymous with apostolic principles for missions. These fundamental principles were established by Jesus Christ and his Apostles, and pioneered by the first missionaries of the early church. As a missionary, Paul stayed a limited time in one area, but he left behind a church that could “govern itself, finance its own expenses, and extend the gospel throughout the region.” [iv] “The apostle Paul committed his converts to the care and guidance of the Holy Spirit and to the grace of God. He did not think it was necessary to continue with them for long periods of time in order to keep them from failure.” [v] Paul did not linger in a city once he accomplished his primary objective of establishing a Self-governing, Self-supporting, and Self-propagating indigenous church.
Apostolic missionaries ought to learn indigenous church principles and how to apply them before going to the mission field. “Sending a missionary without training is like commissioning a carpenter without tools,” says Larry D. Pate, author of “Pentecostal Missions From the Two-thirds World.” [vi] What business do we have sending anyone to a mission field who has little to no history in missions work, no training in inter-cultural ministry, and no language proficiency in the native language?
What corporate business has ever sent out representatives that lacked training in the prospective field to which they are sent? What government sends ambassadors to another country that have not first been trained in specific criteria pertaining to consular affairs? What coach sends a player into the heat of a game who’s had no prior training at the level necessary for the field?
Consider what it takes for a person to become a Commissioned Naval Officer:
- Twelve weeks of OCS (Officer Candidate School)
- Days begin at 5am and end at 10pm
- Each day includes PT, meals, naval classes, drills, study time, and inspection prep (all focused on the ultimate goal of the commissioning)
- No down time except when you sleep, which is from about 11:30pm – 4:30am
- It is all for learning discipline and indoctrination into the Navy way of life
- Ten courses: including ranking structures, chain of command, seamanship, damage control, navigation, weapons, military history and more
- In sum, about 1,500 hours of intense training and indoctrination … BEFORE YOU RECEIVE YOUR COMMISSION! [vii]
No one is suggesting we send prospective missionaries through military-style indoctrination, although the Bible does use such analogies. “Endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” [viii] “Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them.” [ix] Jesus first trained the Twelve, then the Seventy; and then ordained them and sent them out. The Apostles made converts, trained them as disciples; and then ordained them and sent them out. The missionary’s commission comes after training.
Three indigenous church principles absolutely necessary for apostolic missions: Self-Governing, Self-Supporting, and Self-Propagating.
To develop a self-governing church, the missionary must trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of national believers, including the nationals’ ability for administrative/governing leadership. “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” [x] Successful missions also depend on right attitudes about culture, which will require much prayer and study. The bulk of knowledge will come from immersion in the new culture; however, the missionary should have a working knowledge of the culture before leaving for missionary service.
A biblical approach to finances and giving is important to establish a healthy, self-supporting church that can carry on the work without being dependent on a foreign church. Personal responsibility, personal initiative, and commitment are just a few necessary qualities of a healthy missions church. As long as a mission work is dependent upon foreign finances they will fall terribly short of God’s intended design for His people. First-century missionaries taught new believers to give sacrificially and to support their ministers financially. “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” “They which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” and “the laborer is worthy of his reward.” [xi] The Apostles trained indigenous churches how to finance and propagate their own works, without the constant help of a foreigner. Consider the fact that not one Gentile church looked to Jerusalem for funding.
Finally, The self-propagating church develops as nationals reproduce themselves (national believers begetting national believers; national leaders begetting national leaders), without the aid of a missionary. Every apostolic missionary should be a leader in his or her own right. Experience (i.e. length of time) as a pastor or minister is not enough. The mission field needs true leaders. Like begets like. “And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind” … “And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply” Only leaders can produce leaders. The mission field needs indigenous leaders.
The missionary’s greatest achievement will not be how much financial support he or she was able to raise. Neither is it the initial Bible study or the first baptism in the field. Nor is it a series of evangelistic crusades or a large national conference. It is not even in the establishment of a Bible school in the mission field. (As important as all of these are!) The missionary’s greatest accomplishment comes when he has left behind a fully mature, indigenous, apostolic church that is Self-governing, Self-supporting and Self-propagating.
[i] Melvin Hodges, The Indigenous Church (Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1953), 22.
[ii] David Garrison, “Church-Planting Movements,” in Discovering the Mission of God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2021), 458.
[iv] Ibid., 23.
[v] Ibid., 41.
[vi] Larry D. Pate, “Pentecostal Missions From the Two-thirds World,” in Called & Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective, Ed. Dempster, Murray, Byron Klaus and Douglas Peterson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1991), 256.
[vii] Personal Interview with U.S. Navy Lieutenant
[viii] 2Tim 2:3
[ix] 2Tim 2:4 (NLT)
[x] Acts 14:23
[xi] 2Cor 9:6; 1Cor 9:14; 1Tim 5:18