We have now come to the final pillar of the indigenous church. Raymond Buker notes that self-propagation “is perhaps the best thermometer over a period of time to test whether or not a church is truly indigenous.”[2]
Self-propagation refers to the church reproducing herself through the spread of the gospel and establishment of additional autonomous churches of like faith and practice. Self-propagation is 1) done solely through the labor of national converts; 2) initiated by the gospel-spreading impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit; and is 3) “fleshed out” in a manner that is native to the people. 

Self-propagation was clearly seen in the churches established by Paul and others in the New Testament. Thus, the great pioneer could boldly say in Romans 15:18-24 that he had “fully preached Christ” and thus had no more room for gospel-labor in large areas where he had never established a church.[3] He could praise the Thessolonican believers for their propagating efforts throughout Macedonia, Achaia, and “every place” (I Thess.1:6-10). He could go to places he had never been and find believers already there who had assembled themselves together to form local churches (example, Tyre in Acts 21:4). This took place through the labors, finances, and Holy Spirit initiative of “national” converts… apart from any foreign funding, supervision, or resources! If the churches had not indigenously reproduced, then the gospel could not have spread over the vast Roman Empire (and beyond) in such a short period of time.

For the most part, we are not seeing this healthy, natural spread of the gospel taking place today churches planted by missionaries on foreign soils. If these churches are not reproducing, then are they truly New Testament churches? Have they really “taken root” in the country?

Below I have listed some personal thoughts on how perhaps the missionary’s practices may be the biggest hindrance to this spontaneous, Holy Spirit-led self-propagation in the churches we are planting.

 Potential Hindrances to Self-Propagation

  1. We have a shallow understanding of and commitment to discipleship.
  2. Our churches are not planted in a manner which can be duplicated by our converts.
  3. We have not adapted well to the culture. We fail to understand the deeply ingrained barriers in the minds of the people that keep them from true repentance and faith.[4]
  4. Our churches have not adapted well to the culture (How many of our churches look, worship, and function exactly like churches in the homeland despite vast cultural differences?). Thus, people view the church as a “white man’s church”… something foreign and unnatural.
  5. Our churches are highly complicated and labor intensive.
  6. We have brought over too many “bells and whistles” from America that we feel are essential for churching.
  7. We are establishing missions and not autonomous churches.
  8. We are creating dependence upon foreign powers, whether men or money, for the work of ministry.
  9. Converts are not given real responsibility in decision-making, leadership, or ministry work within the church.
  10. We are either under-educating or over-educating our ministers, thus making them novices or taking them away from the simplicity and sincerity of the Christian faith.
  11. We are not seeking “insider’s” counsel from national pastors who have established autonomous churches in the lands where we are laboring.
  12. We have never actively planned, prayed, and prepared the church for reproduction. We have simply been content to transport our “American church” oversees.

Dr. Buker makes the following insight that I think the reader will find most helpful as we close our discussion on the principle of self-propagation: [This] test [of self-propagation] comes after a period of years. Have these Christians been nurtured and developed along the line of a continual witness? It is so easy to deaden this desire and outlet of Christian zeal. Satan will use all methods to hinder this deadly entrance into the battle lines of evil and unbelieving forces. One of Satan’s most effective tools against this formidable weapon of the Holy Spirit is to have the missionary continue a paternal direction and to keep to himself and a few of the older members under his particular guidance the functions of evangelism. Unless the missionary is aware of this subtle
situation, he will find the mission churches doing much the same things as happen here in America, the old Christians settling upon their lees, letting their pastor and a few in the church carry on the evangelistic efforts, efforts that really belong to every member of the church. If, therefore, the missionary can be aware of this and insist by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that the self-propagating evangelistic efforts of the church shall be by the
nationals, to that extent will the church continue to grow and expand and spread this gospel as enthusiastically ten years after its first beginning as it did during the first years.
Then the self-propagating element of the church will reveal itself as the healthiest element of the three characteristics of the indigenous church.[5]

For a church to be considered truly indigenous, it must govern, support, and propagate itself naturally. Only as we see all three of these pillars working together will we be able to accurately assess whether or not New
Testament churches have been planted by missionaries in foreign soils.

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

[2] Dallas Theological Seminary, Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 111 (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1954; 2002), 111:253.

[3]    What Paul said in Ro.15:18-24 is one of the most staggering statements made by a man in the Bible! I would strongly urge the reader to carefully study this passage with a map of Paul’s missionary journeys in hand to “take in” the full ramifications of this passage.

[4]    This point is especially relevant when dealing with syncretistic or superstitious people who consider themselves Christian (see a large portion of Africa). In cultures like Ghana, where the white pastor is highly revered, people will do almost anything the missionary tells them to do. Many will readily “pray prayers” or “believe in Jesus.” In reality, they are simply adding the missionary’s teachings to their own, thus resulting in more theological confusion.

[5]      Ibid., 253-254., emphasis mine


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