Indigenous Church and Partnership (38)

(Van Rheenen, 179-205) pre-class reading World Missions, pp. 133; 222-227; 286-287

                In the 19th century Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn developed  the Three Self Formula as  criteria that could measure  whether a church was indigenous. This consisted of the following elements:




This concept came to be known or referred to as the “indigenous church” concept. Later was added the “4th self”—Self-theologizing.

Critique of the indigenous church concept

Assumption that three-selfs of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson (self-propagating, self-supporting, self- governing) = indigenous. This assumption now widely challenged. A church can have all these qualities without being indigenous, and a church can be indigenous without having these three qualities.


“…this formula (3-selfs) is applicable only where the church grows rapidly. In resistant populations where individuals come to Christ slowly and only a few at a time, it is impossible to aim at a three-self church. Churches will not be large enough to carry out these principles or support auxiliary structures…. Furthermore, the three-selfs do not invariable lead to increased rates of church growth. Some large churches have grown up on the basis of paid pastors and evangelists managed by foreigners. It is true that over time they moved in the direction of the three-selfs. But their beginning and expansion were not due to following three-self principles.”

(Dayton and Fraser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization, 246).


Definitions of Indigenous Church

            Melvin Hodges: A native church…which shares the life of the country in which it is planted and finds itself ready to govern itself, support itself, and reproduce itself. (Van Rheenen, 186).


            William Smalley: A group of believers who live out their life, including their socialized Christian activity, in the patterns of the local society, and for whom any transformation of that society comes out of their felt needs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.

Develops patterns of interaction common to those who live within that culture. (Van Rheenen, 187)


            Daniel C. Hardin: A church in which God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, in contact with people of a particular cultural setting, give rise to a Christian body that is outwardly and uniquely molded by that culture over a fixed framework of fundamental scriptural doctrine. (D and F, 246 note).


Today indigenous church theory moves beyond the three-selfs understanding to suggest that mission churches must appropriately reflect their culture (Van Rheenen, Missions, 188).


Dr. Diles’ Definition: A church that grows naturally in its particular cultural setting.


Challenge to indigenous church perspective

1)         “Generally, indigenous perspectives appropriately apply to rural, face-to-face cultures, which do not have a high degree of specialization and do not relate extensively to the international arena. Urban situations are frequently quite international, and models of partnership are more likely to empower the church…. In most urban settings developing church movements have an extremely difficult time beginning without some type of partnership with churches and agencies of other countries. Building standards are stringent, and partnering is necessary to provide the urban space necessary where rents are high…” (Van Rheenen, Missions, 202).


“Indigenization developed more out of experience with small, rather isolated people groups. We now face a globally interrelated world” (D and F, Strategies, 249).


2)         “The perspective of the indigenous church contains at least one significant weakness. ‘Indigenous’ implies that the church must become part of the culture. The term literally means that which is ‘born from within’—what is local, innate, or native to a culture as contrasted to what is foreign, alien, or exotic. Cultures, because of their fallen nature, seldom uphold the values of God…. John testifies that ‘the whole world is under the control of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19)…. While acknowledging that the church must speak the language of culture and be sensitive to peoples’ understanding of reality, the indigenous perspective fails to prepare disciples of Christ for countercultural living in pagan culture. If Christianity becomes totally indigenous, it loses its divine distinctiveness” (Van Rheenen, Missions, 188).


Alternative Perspective         

“A better phrase for the indigenous concept is ‘building responsible churches.’ The term responsible implies many of the intended meanings of indigenous, without much of its baggage. Responsible implies that the church has grown to maturity in Christ and can now walk alongside those who founded her…. The church is able to propagate itself, support itself, govern itself, and demonstrate the attributes of God in the midst of pagan society. Responsible churches are those that have grown to maturity and are fully able to reflect the attributes of God in appropriate ways within their cultural contexts” (Van Rheenen, Missions, 188-189).


Dayton and Fraser suggest contextualization that takes into account the global system. (249)


God “is willing to start with Christians where they are and move them forward toward greater peace, unity, and love, God is more willing than we often are to start with groups which do not meet his holy standards. He will more and more transform them into the image of his kingdom…. The ultimate result we plan for and seek is a cluster of congregations able to complete the evangelization of their own people.” (D and F, 250).


Edward R. Dayton and David A. Faser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization, revised ed. Eerdmans, 1990.


Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, Zondervan, 1996.



Partnerships: Van Rheenen 189ff.

                Vital in international, multicultural, urban contexts

Definition: “An association of two or more Christian autonomous bodies who have formed a trusting relationship, and fulfill agreed-upon expectations by sharing complementary strengths and resources, to reach their mutual goal” (Luis Bush, quoted in Van Rheenen, 190).


Seven Principles: 1) agree on doctrine and ethical behavior; 2) share common goals; 3) develop attitude of equality; 4) avoid dominance of one over other; 5) communicate openly; 6) demonstrate trust and accountability; 7) pray together


Potential Problems of Partnership:

                1). Cultural misunderstandings

                2). Economic disparity

                3). Leadership (who’s in charge?)