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Self-Supporting Indigenous Churches:

This “pillar” of the indigenous church is perhaps the most talked about of the three… and the one that will
receive my most lengthy treatment due to a common misconception! Many view self-support as simply a level that is reached when the church no longer receives or depends upon outside funds for its internal runnings. Using this definition, things such as buildings, land, property, etc. can all be purchased by foreign sources; but, as long as nationals finance their own weekly expenses, the church is considered “self-supporting.” While this
understanding of self-support is widely-accepted today, it doesn’t mean that it accurately reflects what we see from Paul and others in their New Testament church-planting endeavors. We need to ponder a few questions
before moving on to see the New Testament principles and patterns of church-plant financing. Would it really be accurate to say that a church is “indigenous” if it depends upon outside funds for buildings, properties, and
the like? Has the church been produced naturally in that country? When the church plans on starting another autonomous church, will it not look to the missionary or foreign sources for funding (after all, that was how the church was started)? By purchasing land, buildings, etc., what are we teaching the nationals about church? Are we not, by our actions, training them to look to these external things as “essentials” for the establishment of a church…things which they cannot naturally finance?

Roland Allen writes an excellent chapter on missionary finances in his thought-provoking and challenging book,
Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? 

In his discussion concerning the missionary practice of funding churches, Allen writes,

“Paul… did not take financial support to his converts [and by extension, churches]. That it could
be so never seems to have suggested itself to his mind. Every province, every church, was financially independent [from its inception].The Galatians are exhorted to support their teachers. Every church is instructed to maintain its poor. That one church should depend upon another for the supply of its ordinary expenses as a church, or even for a part of them, would have seemed incredible in the Four Provinces. From this apostolic practice we are now as far removed in action as we are in time… Our modern practice in founding a church is to
begin by securing land and buildings in the place in which we wish to propagate the gospel, to provide houses in which the missionary can live, and a church fitted with all the ornaments of a Western church, in which the missionary may conduct services, sometimes to open a school in which we supply the teachers…
Thus, the foundation of a new mission is primarily a financial operation [which cannot, in any way, be reproduced by the national].[1]

On pg.52-53. Allen provides astute insight into the reasoning behind these common financial practices. First, the
missionary thinks that the new church will need the many external things that he has been accustomed to in the homeland for proper “churching.” Secondly, he believes that the stability of his work will depend upon the permanence of the buildings he is able to provide. Allen then unfolds the crippling results that take place as this unbiblical line of thinking fleshes itself out in our current mission’s methodology:

We train the nationals to be passive recipients (pg.56)[2]

We teach people to rely upon the foreign missionary instead of taking personal responsibility to supply their own needs (pg.56)

The people, as they watch our structures go up, get the idea that our “religion” is something foreign and not native (thus, we are seen as promoters of a Western religion instead of preachers of the culturally-transcendent gospel)

Our missionaries are tied down to one place, thus becoming more like pastors instead of mobile evangelists (pg.57)

Self-support is far more than a church merely providing the necessary finances for her internal running. From
the example of Paul’s church-plants, we see a self-supporting church as one which responsibly takes care of her own support, fully drawing from her own native resources to supply her needs. This would include not only physical things such as property and equipment, but also her own personnel to take care of the preaching, teaching, and administration of the church. Thus, the church is being financed and functioning in every way by nationals without foreign aid.

My beliefs concerning this New Testament concept of self-support would of necessity rule out the possibility
of me purchasing land, building a building, or buying expensive items for church-planting purposes. This may seem to be an extreme position in light of today’s practices, and one that would hinder the church from experiencing quicker numerical growth. I believe, however, that this is the closest position to the Biblical model (using the apostle Paul as my example… see all of the above mentioned info) and ultimately essential for the goal of seeing the gospel propagated from this initial church plant in the establishment of additional churches. I will explain why I believe this to be true later in this paper.

I have had to wrestle with a couple of big questions as I have sought to conform my practices to this indigenous
principle: “What about the initial expenses a missionary will face in planting a church? What if there are no ‘native resources’ such as Bibles or Bible study helps to strengthen the people in the faith?” Let me briefly explain our answers to these dilemmas.

No doubt the missionary will have to spend money for the church’s initial expenses. This also will be the case for
nationals starting churches. The missionary needs to determine, therefore, if his initial help will provide a pattern for, or could be reproduced by the future national church-planter.[3] In regards to a lack of “native resources,” I was greatly encouraged by the example of the apostle Paul in providing his churches written “traditions” or instructions to guide them in their doctrine and practice (ex. The epistles, Ro.16:17; I Cor.11:2,17; 2 Thess.2:15; 3:6; Jude 3). In light of this consistent Pauline practice, I think that it is appropriate and highly advantageous for the missionary to leave behind written materials for the spiritual growth and development of the church.  Currently, I am working on some distinctly Ghanaian literature for this and other future church-plants.[4]


[1]    Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishers, 1962, 2001), 51-53.

[2]    This is particularly true in many countries in Africa where people are seemingly wired to depend upon the generous handouts of others (particularly, Caucasians) for the provision of their needs.

[3]    I would contend that everything the missionary does needs to be done with the goal of providing the national a “doable” pattern to follow.

[4]    From Missionary Micah Colbert’s Philosophy of Indigenous Church Planting.

 

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