Towards an Indigenous Church

(Part Four)

This time we would begin with an apology and a request.

Our original intention was to write a brief article or two pointing up some of the more important aspects of the challenge which Christian missions face in our modern world. Soon it became evident that unless we spent some time dealing more fully and adequately with the underlying issues, it would be foolish and even dangerous to pursue the discussion. Thus we ask the indulgence of the readers as we attempt to deal further with the subject at hand. Even now the series will barely skim the surface of the difficulties involved and hopes envisioned of establishing throughout the world such congregations winch shall be in the refreshing biblical sense of the world “in but not of the world.”



The Church and this Present World

Here it seems to us the crux of our problem is exposed.

The true church has not been, is not today and may never become “of this world.” Any movement in that direction, no matter how unintentional or well-meant, is tantamount to a denial of the first principles of the Christian Faith. It constitutes a vitiation of everything for which the gospel of our Lord and Savior stands. By such compromise on the vital realities of the church’s heavenly origin, character, and calling we are in effect denying the nature and necessity of divine redemption for the race. And such a compromising church soon finds herself without an actual message, because she has catered to this world with which she has more or less identified herself.

By the laws of spiritual necessity the church as the body of Christ, entrusted with the gospel which alone can make men wise unto salvation, must remain “alien” to our present world—a stumbling block to the pride of the natural man and folly to his intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities. Yet the true church is heaven’s light kindled in the darkness of our age; salt in the wounds of a bleeding, dying world; the purveyor in Christ’s name and for his sake of the heavenly medicine which alone soothes the lives of men and nations.

Yet this church, always at odds with the world by virtue of the unique quality of that life which is her precious possession by the grace of Christ’s indwelling Spirit, is in the world.

She must preach her message in language which the man in the street can understand. She must demonstrate love for her heavenly Lord in deeds which will arouse the wonderment of all who see. She must ever wrestle anew with the vexing mystery of her existence in a hostile world from which she may not escape, since this is the environment in which and to which she is called of God to witness and worship and work.

All this demands a careful formulation of goals and a vigorous pursuit of ideals. She finds herself wrestling with the rising nationalisms of East and West which alienate the children of men from each other. Only in so far as she is convinced of her unique status and challenge will she be able to speak eloquently and persuasively to the world.

In this process of becoming increasingly articulate also on the mission fields the church ought to choose her methods in full awareness of what she is doing. Too long this has been tragically neglected. Many supposed that as long as the churches were “doing something” for the spread of the gospel, it mattered little how the work was conducted. In this respect the past few decades have witnessed a signal change which augurs well for the future of Christian missions. Our last article called attention to the two basic methods of approaching the missionary task—the comprehensive approach and the indigenous method. Since the Christian Reformed Church at least theoretically in some of her official pronouncements seems to be moving in the second direction, we do well at this juncture to consider some of the salient objections which are repeatedly raised against this way of conducting tile work. Another article dealing more directly with the indigenous method in some of its practical aspects will follow. The last article will attempt a summary of some of our findings and suggest the areas in which further fruitful discussions may be pursued. Only by a frank and free interchange of ideas, based on the Word of God and geared to the needs of the church at home and abroad, will the convictions of the church sufficiently crystallize to enable her to prosecute her missionary calling wisely and well.

The Problem of Finance

Undoubtedly the first and often the weightiest objection registered against the indigenous method is its supposed lack of realism in dealing with the poverty of the people on the mission fields. How, so the opponents contend, dare the churches back home, so richly blessed with the goods of this world, withhold the necessary funds for the proper prosecution of the missionary task?

On the surface this seems to be a particularly potent argument.

We need only to take note of existing conditions on our fields to realize the impact which it immediately makes on the minds and hearts of those who are concerned with the spread of the gospel. No one can deny that the American Indians among whom we work, the Navajo and Zuni tribes, are desperately poor. In the past the former have received from the government large tracts of land which seem almost worthless. They live in a section of the country where literally acres of land are needed to feed one sheep. Their homes are simple huts. Ready cash among most of them is practically non-existent. What little they produce is needed to pay the trader for the few staples which supplement their meager fare and for some clothes to cover their nakedness. How can such people be expected to support the ministry of the Word which they so sorely need, let alone the schools and hospitals which have been erected for their benefit? And unless these facilities be continued by the churches back home, how can native leadership for the congregations ever emerge and be developed?

Much the same situation obtains in India, possibly in an even more aggravated form. Nowhere on earth is the average man poorer than here. While some few have climbed the high ladder to financial success, the masses throughout the land are indescribably poverty-stricken. Their homes are dark, damp hovels; their clothing often no more than a few Tags held together by some string or a stray safety-pin; their food a bowl of rice or wheat gruel without any trimmings. The lean, emaciated forms of most men and women and the swollen bellies of most children eloquently proclaim that they are always living· on the fringes of starvation. Children usually run around naked not so much because of custom as of necessity. Add to this the fact that especially in India the gospel has registered its most signal triumphs among the poor and despised of the land, that is among the scheduled or depressed classes who [or centuries have been called by the unsympathetic realism of others the “untouchables.” Usually such people have earned their living by doing coolie work in the villages or slaving in the fields for avaricious landlords. At best they barely eke out enough to keep body and soul together, while in times of drought and crop failure they are given no work at all and left to starve. Dare we even suggest the possibility of self-support to such as these? Can we expect anyone to take spiritual leadership among them, unless we promise foreign funds for support?

The answers to the above questions seem to be self-evident. Yet we would urgently warn against drawing hasty conclusions.

In season and out of season we must remember that missionaries (and others as well) almost invariably judge the economic plight of the peoples in mission lands by the unprecedented prosperity of America. Naturally we who are accustomed to all the luxuries provided by a mechanically-perfected civilization are shocked when we see the primitive conditions found in most parts of the world. And as long as we fail to judge these conditions against the background of the simpler needs and social regulations which obtain here, we will be unable to approach the problem realistically and Scripturally.

Possibly we ought to ask first: What precisely does the indigenous method require of these people in the way of self-support? Briefly stated, no more than that they erect their own church and school buildings and salary the preacher and/or teacher whom they desire. And if this is weighed by actual conditions and possibilities, the demand may not seem so unreasonable after all. These people usually build their own houses and cattle sheds. Why can’t they by joint effort build a suitable structure for public worship? They don’t need a cathedral. In villages where money is scarcer than in towns, there are seasons in every year when they can do this work. And if all the families of a given congregation (or two or three congregations together) give a little of their meager food supply and funds (small as these gifts may be), they will soon have enough to take care of their teachers and preachers.

To us it seems that most missionary strategists become starry-eyed, as soon as the gospel preaching begins to register some triumphs on their field. They envision for every village pastorate a fully-trained minister who must command a reasonable salary. They want buildings erected which will immediately impress the non-Christians of the growing power of the Christian community. But nothing we are convinced removes the leader farther from the hearts and lives of those to whom he is to minister than his large salary paid by foreign funds. Moreover, such a policy will soon cause the new converts to lose all sense of financial responsibility for those who labor on their behalf. It is the easy way out of a major difficulty, but following this way will only breed easy-going Christians who gravel y weaken instead of strengthen the growing Christian community in foreign lands. And by putting these leaders in a class by themselves, associated more closely with the missionaries and the churches back home than with the native church on the field, they become an easy prey to pride and love of money.

In its incipient stages the organization of the church on the mission field ought to be kept simple and uncomplicated. Only then will the new converts be able to understand and appreciate it as part of their lives. To import creeds, church orders and liturgies from the sending churches without any simplification or modification will wreak havoc with the ideal of indigeneity. We readily admit that many will dissent from our position. This is evident from the position taken on this and other matters in such articles as the one written by T.C. Chao on “Training and Maintenance of the Christian Ministry in China” found ill the International Review of Missions for July, 1948. But when once we begin to appreciate that the worship of the false god cost these people money and food in times past, we will not be so loathe to teach them some of the fundamental principles of Christian stewardship as an expression of their gratitude to God. And as the ideal of the dedication of time and talents and goods to the Lord’s service is consistently held before the younger churches, we may well be amazed at the sacrificial spirit in which many will respond.

Lack of Leadership

Another obstacle in the way of realizing the goal of truly indigenous churches is found in the appalling lack of leadership characteristic of many congregations on the mission field. This would seem to make it almost impossible for them to govern themselves in accordance with Scriptural demands.

But again we plead for a biblical, realistic approach.

It cannot be denied that especially converts from the lower and more impoverished classes usually have behind them a tradition of centuries of oppression. In India this is particularly evident. Although officially untouchability has been banned from the land, actually it is still very much in evidence in many towns and especially villages. Steps are being taken by local and state governments to supply these people with more adequate educational and medical facilities.

In past years their children could not attend school with caste children. Even recently we saw a school where children of both groups were in attendance. Those of the more privileged classes were provided with rude seats and benches, while the children of the lower orders had to sit on the ground in the darkest corners. Although this is contrary to governmental pronouncement, it is being continued by force of tradition even in Christian village schools. Add to this the most significant factor that their lives have been thoroughly immersed in heathen theories and practices, and we begin to understand why the simplest application of Christian principles bewilders so many. Nearly every rule for Christian conduct clashes at some point or other with some accepted social or religious convention. Can we then expect that from among such people there shall early arise a competent Christian leadership?

True as all the above is, it constitutes only one side of the story. The other must also be told. Then we realize that every social group, also the “Harijans” of India, has its recognized leaders. Here such people live somewhat apart from all others on their own “preserves,” either just inside or some distance removed from the rest of the village. Also these outcastes have their “panchayats” composed of the elders who in large measure regulate the life of the group and administer a rude sort of justice. As these groups become Christian, which has so often happened in the “mass movements” characteristic of the onward march of the gospel especially in the south of this land, the church finds a potential for future Christian leaders.

Often we seem to forget that God plainly teaches liS in his Word that he will raise up men who will lead his church. “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11, 12). Usually our difficulty is occasioned by judging conditions and needs on the mission fields by the standards which have evolved throughout long years back home. This is not a plea for neglecting the training of leaders; on the contrary, it is the strongest plea for training, hut then of the kind which will suit the need. St. Paul never neglected the training of workers for the church’s service, but he did not feel compelled to wait years and even decades before he dared to give some measure of ecclesiastical responsibility to new converts. Real training must maintain in large measure a definite, meaningful contact with the life of the Christian community. Too often missionaries have sent promising young men and young women to Bible schools and seminaries in the fond hope that by these means future leaders for the churches would be raised up, only to find that upon having completed their studies these young people could not adjust to village life and ways where they were most needed. A commonsense appreciation of the organic relationship which these training centers should sustain to the needs of the growing Christian community would in large measure obviate these tragedies which are recorded on many pages of mission history. As workers are needed, they will arise largely from within the Christian church by an act of divine grace. And as the missionaries train them in accordance with the level of the church’s actual development and need, much of the responsibility for making these schools really successful will be shouldered by the churches themselves.

On this score the lessons of history can be ignored only at great peril to the we Hare of the growing churches. In nearly every case where foreign personnel and funds had to be withdrawn because of economic or political upheavals, the educational institutions which were supposed to provide the younger churches with leaders had to close down. And usually with this many of the supposed gains which had been registered throughout the years in congregational life were lost. This tragedy, we are convinced, will be repeated with monotonous regularity, until the church learns to integrate these and similar institutions with a truly indigenous approach.

It cannot be denied that today, since the second World War, we are witnessing a strong reaction against Christian missions throughout many lands. This is especially in evidence in those countries which have recently won their independence—Indonesia, Pakistan, and India, to mention no more. Although this is a reaction of the natural man against the impact of the gospel of Christ Jesus, we would be foolish to ignore the fact that such antipathy is usually expressed in terms of national interests. Many leaders in these lands resent the presence of foreign personnel and foreign funds. This they regard as a slur on their venerable traditions and cultures. They are convinced that by these means not merely the mission enterprise hut the native Christian community is gradually being alienated from the corporate life of the nation. And although in a sense the gospel of Jesus Christ must and will alienate believers from unbelievers, we should beware lest the spiritual antithesis degenerates into a merely cultural differentiation. In sum a situation the church in these lands would no longer be church in the biblical sense of the term.