By President for Vision LA, Austin Gardner

The Three Characteristics of the Indigenous Church
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The Three Characteristics of the Indigenous Church

The indigenous church is not mentioned in the New Testament. It is, however, obvious in the sense that the church took root and grew naturally. In the New Testament we see no outside involvement and help. Paul and others were planting churches but they did not stay long enough for the people to become dependent. 

The one time that Paul does stay too long he apologizes because he has caused them to be an inferior church. In staying he had worked another job, making tents, without having them pay his salary. They had a church that cost them nothing. That meant Paul wasn’t burdensome (didn’t cost them anything) and this caused them to be inferior. It is expected that a pastor who is so valuable to the church and ministry would be costly!

2 Corinthians 12:13 says, “For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong.”

Paul had worked among these people and not been a burden to them. He had not charged them anything including a salary. They were the people who least respected him. They took advantage of him. That would be the biblical basis for this study.
Here are some of the proponents of the “indigenous principle” that should help you to learn the necessity of achieving the indigenous principle. You can learn from the mistakes of others and from their wisdom.

Henry Venn (Anglican) and Rufus Anderson (Congregationalist) developed a strategy of indigenization in response to the extreme paternalism that had been exercised by western missionaries in the 19th century. It was obvious to them that “rice” Christians were only loyal as long as they received the free food. The missionary acted as a parent and expected complete authority and control.
Dixon Hoste who followed Hudson Taylor as director of the China Inland Mission is credited with making the Chinese churches apply the principles of self-government, self-support, and self propagation. Melvin Hodges (Assemblies of God) believed that foreign money created dependence and established the paternalistic pattern that created an unhealthy, anemic church.

Consider with me, each of the three principles and how they are applied. We will get into much more depth in the following chapters of how to apply these principles. This will simply be a stating of the principles and how they are to work.

First, the church is to be “self-governing!” That means that the church will develop leadership from within as the Holy Spirit works among those that He has saved as in Acts 13:1-3. The missionary or church planter ceases to be the leader. The national leaders are trained and the missionary is phased out. The church has learned to make its own decisions.

This can be seen biblically in how Paul trained and appointed leaders in Acts 14:21-23. Paul told the church to govern itself in the discipline of a member in I Corinthians 5:45. In Acts 6 the congregation and the apostles picked their first leaders, probably deacons.

Second, the church is to be “self-supporting!” That means that the church does not subsist on outside or foreign money. Each church should be able to meet its own needs. From the beginning God’s people gave sacrificially to support their church and its ministry, Acts 4:32-37, 6:1-3. The Philippians supported Paul as a missionary, Philippians 4:10. If a church cannot pay its own way and must depend on outside supply then we will greatly hinder them, damage relations between us, and hinder the starting of future churches.

Third, the church is to be “self-propagating!” Self-propagating means that the church will extend its own ministry in its region and beyond without external help. If we are to evangelize the world in our generation then we will have to start churches that are able to start churches. There is simply no way that we can raise up enough missionaries to start all the churches. In 2 Timothy 2:2 we find, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” As those who hear find others that they can train we will be able to accomplish the task that we have been given.

Disciples must disciple. That is how we will get the gospel around the world. As go the disciples so will go the church. If you have a discipling church it will be a reproducing church. The discipling church will plant other churches.

The Greenhouse Principle

The discussion of the indigenous church is a heated one among missionaries that have to live out its principles on the actual field. They are very animated about the pros and the cons. They tire quickly of the ivory tower specialist that has never had the privilege of starting a church in a hostile environment. They love the new believers. They feel great responsibility for them. They hurt when they hurt and are happy when they are happy. They literally do feel like these people are their spiritual children.

I do not want to hinder your work. I want to enhance it. I do not want to frustrate you but to help you understand just how to achieve this indigenous principle. You know that it is necessary. There is no way that you can deny the reality that one day they will have to manage church life on their own.

Yet you cannot abandon them or leave them to flounder. You hurt for them. It is not a selfish feeling it is really love. I believe that what I want to share with you in this chapter is a balanced view of what you will try to accomplish. It can work. You can achieve the indigenous principle while still helping them as they grow.

Plants that are indigenous may get their start in a greenhouse. The greenhouse provides an artificial climate and the care of an expert to get the seed or small seedling to grow. Everything is managed by another. The seed or seedling is not left to itself.

Kudzu took naturally to the climate of the Southeast United States. Other plants that are indigenous do so much better when given extra care at the beginning of their life. Tobacco is a plant that is native to the US. Europeans discovered it upon their arrival here. The American Indian was already using tobacco since the time of Christ. However farmers use tobacco beds to help the seedling grow quicker and better for their crops.

I am not advocating the use of tobacco. I just want you to see that a plant that is native or indigenous does receive help to gain more success in the crops. The seeds are planted. They are covered with a cloth to keep the frost from harming them. When they reach a certain point of maturity they are taken from the tobacco bed and placed in the field where they will be cultivated.

The same is true for the tomato plant. They are indigenous. They grow fine but to achieve more growth and production they too are raised in a seedling bed. They are covered as you see in the picture to keep them warm and protect them from the cold and frost. They are then planted where they will be able to produce.

Could you consider this principle with me as a church planter? You will go to a foreign land. The land may be hostile to the gospel and the church at the beginning. I challenge you to start the church on what you know from the Bible. You cannot simply win some to Christ, hand them a Bible, and hope that they figure out what to do.

In the beginning you will have full control. You will tell them what a church service looks like. You will teach them how to read the Bible. You will teach them what it means to preach. You will disciple them. You cannot allow them to develop a church along the lines of their culture. They do not understand enough about church to work that way.

You will have a great deal of influence. This places a great deal of responsibility on your shoulders. You are not there to spread American culture. You are not there to make Americans out of them but to teach them the Bible and let God develop His church among them.

That means that you will have to principally teach them the Bible. You will need to teach them what it actually says and not what your culture taught you that it said. You will have to be very honest with yourself and see what you believe and practice that might be cultural and that you cannot support from the Bible. Teach them the Bible. Let them be themselves. Change only what the Bible clearly teaches that needs to be changed.

They do not need American church buildings, American church schedules, American culture in any way. We are citizens of another country. We have another constitution and it is God’s Word. The Bible is our only rule of faith and practice will have to become a reality for you and not just a cliché.

In the greenhouse you will, in the beginning, have all the control. You will decide how a service looks. You will show them how to baptize. You will show them what preaching looks like. But every day you should have in mind that you will back off just a little. In the beginning you have full control and they have none. Over the next several months or years you will relinquish control and they will assume control. You will go from 100% control to 0%. They will go from 0% to 100% control.
You must be very careful. If you take them out of the greenhouse to quick they will die. If you leave them to long they will be dependent. It is a hard line to walk and understand. You must remember that you will be tempted to keep control too long. You will want to protect them too much. A little is good and too much will be worse than none at all.

Raising Children

Planting churches has a lot in common with raising children. No one would expect for you to give birth and abandon your children. Everyone would be outraged if they saw you do such a thing. Children need time, tender care, training, and teaching. Yes, they need to become independent but that comes in due time. No more than you would give birth and abandon your child should you win souls, plant a church, and leave.

Again, in the beginning the child makes no decisions, cannot govern itself, cannot support itself, and cannot reproduce. But that will all come with time. In the beginning the only thing the child does is demand. They demand to eat and to be changed. They demand to be loved and held. They can’t talk. They can’t care for themselves in any way. They can’t prepare their own food. They can’t protect themselves.

So what do we do to help our children. We take complete charge. We do not ask them if they want to live at our house. They do not choose their food, their clothes, their activities, we do as parents. We do not ask them if they like the vitamins or the medicine that they need to take. We do not ask them if they want to take baths, brush their teeth, take a nap, etc. We decide and we command. We do not allow them to decide how to study and educate themselves. We do not allow them to decide what model of family they want or activities.

They will decide these things later in life just not now. We would be pitiful parents if we allowed them to make decisions too soon. We would be negligent. We would actually be criminals charged with child abuse if we didn’t ensure that our children ate correctly, were bathed, educated, cared for medically, etc.

As they grow we give them more and more freedom. We give them more and more choices. They decide what to wear. They dress themselves. They take over many of the decisions that we were making for them. They are reaching maturity. We know as parents that we need to have them to a place in their lives that they can support themselves and govern themselves by 18 to 22 years of age. Soon after that they will reproduce. That is life.

Can you think of a church like that? Can you imagine teaching and training them so that every day they took on more responsibility? Do you realize how much you harm your children when you give them too much and do not make them work for it? Spoiled children do not make good, responsible adults. Churches that have been spoiled will not make good, responsible, indigenous churches either.

So again you have the same diagram, controls relationship to responsibility. So as Control diminishes Responsibility increases.

I would love to hear your comments. I will refine what i think if you simply let me know where I am failing to make a clear decision or thought process. If you like it, comment. If you do not like it, comment! I would love to hear from you!


About the Author

Austin Gardner is the founding Pastor of Vision Baptist Church and a veteran missionary to the country of Peru, South America for over 20 years. The Lord blessed his ministry and allowed him to train pastors and leaders in the ministry that have started 80+ churches all over the world. He is a sought-after speaker on missions and travels extensively as a part of his continuing ministry of training missionaries.
He has started multiple schools for ministry including the Peru Bible College and the Our Generation Training Centerwhich continues to train young men and women pursuing a life of full-time world missions.
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Austin Gardner