Towards an Indigenous Church

Christianity alone can lay claim to being truly universal in scope and success—and that she does only in hope awaiting’ the consummation of the ages.

Even Islam, that clever imitation of the true faith, has never been able with easier and more worldly methods to lay claim to the allegiance of such multitudes as rallied around Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The cross—not the crescent or the hammer and sickle—is the focal point of human history. In its shadow are decided the great issues for men and nations. Therefore in obedience to her Lord the church throughout the ages must proclaim the gospel in a thousand tongues. From the rising to the setting of the sun the name of God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ must be glorified. Never is there a time or season where the voice of adoration may be stilled.

Diversity in Unity

For all who accept the finality of the Christian faith this phenomenon is merely the historical authentication of the Word of God. Although a source of great joy this fact occasions no surprise. From the beginning God has assured his people that his cause will triumph. The Old Testament clearly predicted this world-wide reign of the Messiah.

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, And from the rivers unto the ends of the earth…The kings of Tarshish, and of the isles shall bring presents; The kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: All nations shall serve him… (Ps. 72:8,10,11 )

This is repeatedly echoed by the prophets. Thus we listen to the words of Isaiah, radiant with hope of victory,

Arise and shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isa. 60:1,3)

Even Malachi writing in the dark days after the Captivity is filled with boundless optimism when he contemplates the future of the Lord’s cause, “For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11).

Essentially all these prophecies were fulfilled on the Pentecost feast. In the record of those miraculous events we read about the ingathering of multitudes from many nations. These were some of the other sheep whom Jesus had and whom he would seek. Like a springtime torrent which no bank can hold within its narrow confines the preaching of the apostles by the power of the Holy Ghost spilled over all the world. By it the gloom in which the nations spent their years was banished, and the tide of peace and love and joy through the knowledge of God in Christ rolled in.

This story of the spread of the gospel is much more than the record of the redemption of individuals. It is most of all the story of the establishment, development and spread of the church of Jesus Christ.

How could it be otherwise, since the church is “his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in am.” The men of every color and caste who heard Christ preaching peace and believed—both rich and poor, bond and free, prince and peasant—received the new life of fellowship with him and his mystical body. Nor does the apostle leave us in any doubt as to the essential nature of this li fe in the spiritual body of the church, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together (or an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19, 22).

It would take us too far a field to discuss in detail the relevancy of this passage to the subject at hand. Yet a few cursory remarks ought to be made notice if you please, how the status of these new converts is changed. No longer are they foreigners but fellow-citizens. No mention is made of a long period of testing or apprenticeship. This church as the spiritual body is rooted and grounded in the teaching (doctrine) of the prophets and apostles. Thus only when built upon the Word may a church lay claim to being a manifestation of the true church. In all this the central figure is Jesus Christ himself. He is the cornerstone; thus the building rests on him, finds its unity in him, is indissolubly joined to him. Yet Paul realizes full well that this figure does not exhaust the reality. Hence he interjects another idea. This building is alive; it throbs with a spiritual vitality expressing itself in growth. The living building becomes increasingly a fit dwelling place for the living God, Such is the mystery of the church in and through which God is pleased to work out his sovereign plan for his glory and man’s redemption.

Too often the subject of the church has been neglected in the missionary outreach. At best it figured as an after-thought on the part of many. It is one of the hopeful and fruitful signs of our age that Christian thinkers throughout the world are focusing their attention increasingly on its importance. For never will missions come into its own, until the place which the church must play here by divine appointment is realized.

The glory of that church is not inherent in herself; it manifests itself in the transforming energy of the Spirit of Christ who indwells her. He alone can unify men of all classes and conditions as a spiritual brotherhood in Christ which will transcend all the limitations and imperfections Imposed by our present life.

Sin has destroyed the unity of mankind. Because of its tyranny everywhere, our story is one of stress and strife. Our world is turned in to a Babel with frustrating monotony as the years pass. And none of the panaceas conceived by man has been able to heal the wounds of our rebellion and pride.

Only the God-man Jesus Christ has been victorious over this disunity. He binds his disciples together in the new and beloved community as those who are first reconciled to God through his atoning death. Upon the rock-foundation of who he is and what he does acknowledged and appropriated by his own, this new fellowship is established by God. In spite of all their differences they are one, and increasingly this unity is confessed and experienced and demonstrated by them.



Indigeneity and the Growing Edge

This restorative process is still going on.

Nowhere does the growing edge of the Christian church, which in the abiding presence of the Holy Ghost possesses the infinite resources to perpetuate herself in a chaotic and dying world, come so consistently into focus as on the mission fields. Here we behold a repetition of what happened in those refreshing years which followed hard upon Pentecost. Not only are individuals delivered out of the bondage of death; we see every· where in evidence the beginning restoration of the social fabric.

Here the new fellowship comes clearly into view. Never is the believing man required to repudiate his traditional loyalties to family and clan and community and nation. Rather, he must confess that he now has higher loyalties which by their very nature purify and transform those original ties into that for which God ordained them in the beginning. Thus the pressures which so often have made society a prison are relieved, and the traditional ties become by grace avenues for spiritual self·expression. The church which lives by the gospel of the Crucified and Exalted Savior possesses in that grace the medicine which soothes and saves the tortured, frustrated, hopeless life of men and nations.

The almost infinite variety of expression which characterizes human life comes thus to expression also within the church. And as long as she remains truly church by her loving and loyal acceptance of the ‘Word, such variety will not obscure but rather enhance her basic spiritual one-ness in Christ.

This attempt on the part of the church throughout the ages to ex· press herself in thought-forms which may he apprehended and appreciated by her members in every land gives rise to the indigenous churches. Although the definition adopted as a basis for discussion at the Tambaram conference is open to criticism on some scores, it is of sufficient significance for our purposes to be reproduced here. From it better than from many another attempt to define the term we may learn what is meant.

An indigenous church, young or old, in the East or in the West, is a church which, rooted in obedience to Christ, spontaneously uses forms of thought and modes of action natural and familiar to its own environment. Such a church arises in response to Christ’s own call. The younger churches will not be unmindful of the experiences and teachings which the older churches have recorded in their confessions and liturgies. But every younger church will seek further to bear witness to the same Gospel with new tongues also; that is, in a direct, clear and close relationship with the cultural and religious heritage of its own country.

In the main missionary leaders throughout the world recognize the validity of the indigenous ideal. Even the closely knit Roman Catholic church realizes that there must be room for a measure of variety among her congregations in the several nations. But on the question of the proper methods by which this ideal may be attained the differences of conviction are both numerous and irreconcilable.

Two Views Contrasted

Possibly we can best point up these divergences by speaking of two basic views regarding mission methods. This we do chiefly for the sake of convenience and clarity, even though we realize that we are laying ourselves wide open to the charge of oversimplifying the issue. Yet that there are in the main these two approaches cannot be properly questioned. The one may be called the “comprehensive approach” and the other the “indigenous method.” It must be cheerfully granted that there are many emphases within each group, and possibly within neither is there anyone who desires to apply its fundamental principles to their logical consequences. Yet everyone must choose in the main for either of these two. Also here no man can rightly serve two masters.

In recent years both approaches have come into much sharper focus.

All those who more or less consistently champion the “comprehensive approach” argue that the gospel must make its impact on the totality of life as it is lived from day to day within any given community. Naturally such language warns the Reformed heart which has a deep appreciation for the organic unity of life. They point out the defectiveness of the methods of those who satisfy themselves with proclaiming by word of mouth the gospel of Jesus Christ. And often with much justification they have argued that this more limited approach does an injustice to the inherent riches of the Christian message of salvation. This gospel is the radical leaven which must transform life in every relationship. Hence those to whom it is preached must be able to sec the gospel in action.

As a result the mission enterprise, according to those who argue for the “comprehensive approach,” includes the erection and maintenance of institutions. The church should not only send out preachers of the Word but also commission doctors and nurses and educators and social workers awl agricultural experts. In all these areas and many more the gospel must challenge men and women to live to the glory of God in obedience to his revealed will. God’s saving grace in Christ must be exhibited in the totality of its love and grace and power to a sin-sick world.

Because such a total impact on any given heathen culture cannot be effected within the span of a generation or two, all churches engaging in the mission enterprise should commit themselves to a long-range program of settling down in foreign parts. In the beginning it is expected that the foreigners who come to preach and teach and work will take all the initiative. Their demonstration of the Word in action is the entering wedge of the Christ of the Scriptures in the land and village which hitherto has not heard of him. But as gradually the native congregation grows, the gospel impact must become identified with it. This is the process of “devolution” by which the missionaries decrease in influence and leadership and the younger church increases. For a long time the two remain co-workers, until finally all leadership is relinquished when the new Christians can take over entirely.

No answer has yet been given as to how long this process takes. Nor can this properly be expected, since the laws of spiritual growth and maturity cannot be stated with mathematical exactitude. But what has generally happened is the retrenchment of the foreign enterprise long before the younger churches which were to develop to maturity under this scheme of things have been ready. Political and social revolutions have time after time forced the missions to close down. And invariably this has been accompanied with great concern for the newer Christian communities who were not deemed ready for full responsibility. Much good can be said of the goals which the “comprehensive approach” has outlined. It cannot be denied that no village or nation is Christianized until all of life comes under the sway of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. However, it must be asked whether it is the duty of the church as an organization to enter actively in to all these fields. Does she have the right to build and maintain schools and hospitals and social centers and workshops of all sorts? Or should these rather grow up because of the awakening consciousness of the younger churches that all of life belongs to our Redeemer-King?

By way of,contrast we speak of the “indigenous method.” Usually this has been associated with the name of Roland Allen. However, others long before him have in principle advocated the same approach. We need only mention the name of the well-known John L. Nevius whose approach has been so signally used of the Lord for the establishment of a strong Christian church in Korea.

Although there are many differences of emphasis on certain points among those who champion this as the proper method of doing mission work, all are agreed that the impact must be made in and through the preaching of the Word. This still leaves room for some difference of opinion as to the proper place of schools and hospitals and clinics on the field. Yet even the most ardent supporters of institutions who champion the indigenous method agree that institutions at best are auxiliaries to the preaching. These avenues of service should not attempt to make an appeal to the natives apart from the direct teaching and preaching of the Word.

The justification for this complete subordination of institutions to the preaching the champions of this position claim to find in the New Testament. Because the days of miraculous healing have passed, the church as institute has only an indirect concern with the body. Appeal is frequently made to the teachings of St. Paul. Thus his word to the church at Corinth is often repeated, “For it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). This same apostle also wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). To that end, so the argument runs, no schools and hospitals are really essential.

To a greater or lesser degree, and not without several inconsistencies, the Christian Reformed Church seems to have committed herself to the “indigenous method.” Now she is faced with the problem of the proper implementation of some of her far-reaching decisions. And only when she (as well as other churches facing the same crucial issues) takes full cognizance of what is implied in pursuing this course and has an answer to some of the salient objections which must be faced will it be possible for her to think and act consistently. This, it seems to us, can only mean that those who truly envision an indigenous church will be prepared to adopt and apply the indigenous method. What this requires we hope to see the next time.