Towards an Indigenous Church

(Part Six)

For some time we have been considering the significance of the increasing emphasis on indigenous churches as the goal of Christian mission endeavor. Several important factors demanded consideration. Primarily we were interested in whether this goal and the methods which must be employed to achieve it are in harmony with the principles of the New Testament. Our attention was also directed to the weighty objections which have been registered in the past. Now we would conclude with a survey of its aims and achievements, again paying particular regard to certain conditions which obtain on the field of the Christian Reformed Church in South India.

We have grown accustomed to identifying the indigenous ideal with its triple aim of establishing Christian congregations which shall he from the outset self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. And in view of the almost indescribable and persistent poverty which obtains generally throughout India, we may ask whether such ideals can ever he attained.


For us it may be well to note briefly the attitude of the earliest Christian congregations to this problem under the inspired leadership of the apostles. It is a patent fact that the daughter congregations were never supported materially and financially in any way by the mother church at Jerusalem. Nowhere do we read that buildings were erected for them or preachers salaried on their behalf. They did enjoy the ministry of the apostles and their assignments, but this was always for a brief period only. And although this is an argument from the silence of the New Testament, it should bear considerable weight, especially in the light of what we know concern ing the request of St. Paul that the daughter churches on the field collect for the church at Jerusalem in its time of need.

This emphasis on self-support [rom the inception of congregational life on the mission field is one of chief characteristics of the indigenous method.

We may well ask, precisely what is meant?

Of course, we ought not conclude, as some have erroneously done, that the native church whether large or small is obligated to contribute support to the foreign missionary. Much as he is involved in its life for a season and deeply as he may love the young Christians, he is not a member of that church. Rather, the responsibility for keeping him on the field lies with his sending church.



Nor should it mean that the young church is required to support at once the institutions which have grown up around the mission enterprise. This is a tremendous problem particularly on those fields which have not pursued the indigenous policy from the beginning. In fact, if the indigenous method is consistently followed from the beginning. these institutions will hardly assume the size and scope which they usually have in times past. It would seem that the church at home ought to think of them rather as “auxiliaries” to the preaching of the Word. Of course, many leaders in the Christian mission enterprise will lake sharp issue with such a construction. The word is enough to incense many of them. Loudly and long they argue that no mission board will ever be able to secure the services of any self-respecting educators, doctors and nurses, unless the proper facilities are provided. But we may ask, why then expect ministers of the Word to go out and preach, unless they have churches as large and suitable on the field as there are at home? Precisely here the distinction between the indigenous method and the comprehensive approach comes into sharp focus. And unless the church not only takes a clear decision on this issue and is minded to put into practice its decision, we can never hope for anything like consistency and continuity in our mission pursuits.

But if the mission has erected such institutions without proper regard for integrating them in to the actual life of the Christian community also financially, one may not expect the young Christians whose standard of living is so much lower than ours to shoulder any of the burden. It would seem proper to erect only such medical and educational facilities on the field which would minister to the most acute needs of a growing Christian community, always remembering that also these must be of such a kind that the native church can take them over and keep them going, if and when the foreign missionaries are compelled to leave. This requires a carefully-planned program of training from the beginning such young Christians for certain types or medical and educational work suitable to the vital needs of an indigenous church. Surely it can hardly be argued cogently on Reformed grounds that the instituted church possesses Scriptural mandate for the erection and supervision of large institutions of this kind.

What, then, is meant by self-support? From the beginning the Christi;m community, no matter how small and improvised, ought to provide for its own buildings and native leadership. Even in countries like India, we believe, this can be done with surprising consistency, if only there is a whole-hearted commitment on the part of the churches and boards back home and the missionaries on the field that leaves no room for doubt on this score in the minds of the new Christians, If for years the church has been a sort of “everyday Santa Claus,” handing out its largess left and right, we may not expect a change overnight. Rice-Christians, if once they have been left to multiply in the churches on the field, are a hard tribe to convert or exterminate.

What Can Be Done

To point up what this means we would refer to a few concrete examples of congregational life on the field.

In the large village of Kamerchedu a sizable group after some instruction received holy baptism and was enrolled in the Christian church. For months previously they had been meeting in a Hindu shrine which stood in the center of their community. The idols were still there. But since all the people had forsaken the old faith, these were in a sad State of disrepair. Nor did anyone object to their worshipping at this place.

As soon as baptism was administered, these people began to talk about purchasing new properties and erecting a church building. They had m;lllY ambitions. and ideals, none of which were expensive for them since they confidently expected the mission to provide the means. After all, they had become Christians, and now the mission was obligated to provide for their spiritual needs by way of buildings! Saddest of all was the fact that the district pastor, also a national, supported them in their urgent requests. When we pointed out that their present place of worship was quite adequate, that certain necessary changes could easily be made without further expense, and that funds were not on hand for such an ambitious project as they wanted, they could not understand what we meant. Possibly we should not have expected another reaction. They had not been taught any responsibility during their months of instruction. None of them had paid as much as a handful of rice for the teaching which their children were daily receiving from one of the mission helpers, who also conducted prayers for them every evening, They seemed to be much more conscious of having joined the mission organization than of having been joined by faith to Jesus Christ.

Something entirely different took place in Manthralayam. Here too a whole group, but this time much smaller in number, had embraced the Christian faith. For several years they had continued to worship in the old Hindu shrine. Many times they had requested help to erect a building, but because of lack of funds they had to be refused. Under the energetic leadership of a new teacher, these people then took matters in their own hands, For some months they engaged in the task of making mud-bricks, hoping in their leisure time to erect a building. But early that year rains came unexpectedly and washed away all their bricks. Nothing daunted, they began again. Every evening after working all day in the hot sun, all the adults including women trudged to the nearest stone quarry. As best as they could they hewed out with their primitive tools the necessary bricks that would not melt. And when finally the pile was large enough, they built their church. Today they have a building of their own, possibly a bit crude by our standards but the joy of their hearts because it symbolizes the fruits of their sweat and toil for the cause of Christ.

Much the same can be related in connection with support for pastors and teachers, If such men are completely supported hy mission funds, the Christian community soon be, comes pauperized . And when mission funds become insufficient or are needed elsewhere, little can be done to educate people who for a long time have depended entirely on the charity of the churches at home. The best time to teach the blessedness of Christian stewardship is when first the believers realize something of the precious spiritual liberty which is theirs in Jesus Christ.

Yet with proper and persistent instruction much can be done to remedy past neglect. In one part of our field, the isolated town of Pedda Kadubur, there is an old and large congregation, For years it was a festering sore on the mission map. Most of the people were quarrelsome and unspiritual. Many were directly embroiled in conflicts with each other and non-Christians. Several pastors had given up work in disgust. and at least one came to a mysterious and sad end. Finally, no one wanted to work in Pedda Kadubur any longer.

As a last measure the missionaries sent a consecrated pastor who combined the qualities of fearlessness,common sense and unbounded love for Christ and his people. With a heavy heart he entered upon his labors, wondering how long he would be tolerated. But he consistently preached to them the great love of God in Christ and the love which they in consequence owed to him and each other. After a few months these people, whose lives seemed so heavily encrusted with pagan mores and morals, experienced a revival. And increasingly that uncooperative congregation became an example of self-support, even though the ideal was not yet fully realized when the pastor was transferred because of the need in another part of the field.

By keeping such an ideal clearly before the congregation, by realizing that the buildings should measure up only to the standards of need in town or village or be but a slight improvement over these, and by continually preaching not only Christian privilege but also Christian responsibility the native churches learn to see their inherent obligation to support their own congregational life.

In the next article we hope to consider the two ideals coordinate with self-support those of self-government ,and of self-propagation. Also these are grounded in the Scriptures which is the rule for faith and practice in the mission enterprise.