Towards an Indigenous Church

In one of his recent works Dr. J.H. Bavinck of the Netherlands insists that among the most significant lessons which the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church of our day is the truth that missions belongs to the very essence of the church. Let us listen to what this scholar has to say, “A Church which ceases to be missionary in character no longer corresponds to what her Lord expects her to be and sooner or later she will experience the consequences of her neglect. Conversely, a Church which is inwardly strong, which lives from a true faith in Jesus Christ, finds herself impelled to preach the gospel of her Lord throughout the world.”1

In several respects these words might well constitute the record of the Christian Reformed Church in recent years.

For a long-time the missionary task of the church was regarded as something quite extraneous to the normal life of the congregation. It engaged the attention and employed the services of only a few who were regarded as somewhat peculiar and possibly fanatic by the other members of the church. But in recent decades the principles enunciated by the gifted and genial Dr. Abraham Kuyper Sr. at the Middelburg synod of the Dutch churches in 1896 and generally recognized by Reformed leaders everywhere have captured the minds and hearts of many of our ministers and members. Especially since the second World War (1939–1945) our denomination has greatly expanded its missionary program. In spite of the increase in quotas, we have reason to believe that our people are looking forward to even greater expansion, since we find ourselves “impelled to preach the gospel of our Lord throughout the world.”

This trend poses some very interesting questions.

Is this merely the result of the unprecedented material prosperity which our people are enjoying? Do we find here the product of deeper humanitarian impulses than those which motivated our forefathers? Are we beginning to recognize an expanding missionary program as the fashionable thing for a flourishing denomination? Can we explain the rising tide of mission interest in the light of the experience of our boys during the tragic decade which has just passed? More than a few have become “mission-minded” because of their contacts with the non-Christian world in Africa, Asia and the islands of the south Pacific.

Possibly all these factors color the present picture to a degree. Yet we are convinced that they cannot explain adequately the controlling motives behind our mission expansion. The impelling power for these new endeavors we would seek where Prof. Bavinck has claimed to find it—in the ever-present ministry of the Holy Spirit who causes the light of the Word to fall upon the times and seasons of human history and thus brings into sharper focus our privileges and responsibilities as church of the Lord Jesus Christ.



Scripture and Mission Methods

All the above can be said without once dealing concretely with the mission task. But as soon as we discuss. the duties to which the churches are called of God, we are confronted with a maze of problems and perplexities. We must find at the outset some satisfactory definition of the missionary task. We must also know something about its methods and goals. And for the believing church the only adequate answers are furnished by the Word of God.

Studying the New Testament carefully we begin to understand what God demands of us. Mission work must be conceived of as the task of the instituted church under the supervision of its recognized office-bearers. This work is fundamentally that of the Lord himself who is pleased to employ human agencies for the ingathering and edification of his spiritual body. As he has been sent of the Father into the world, so he semis his disciples to preach the gospel of the kingdom among all nations. Affirming this, we must expose the inadequacy of those positions which see the goal of the mission enterprise in the salvation of individual souls. The Bible gives a central place to the church in whim spiritual life alone can reach maturity.

Thus frequently in the discussion of mission methods and objectives mention is made of the establishment of “indigenous churches.” This word is often used in our churches, sometimes seemingly without any adequate conception of what is meant and still more often without an honest appraisal of the difficulties which must be met and overcome.

We believe that the discussion about “indigenous churches” in recent decades is the result of a deeper and richer understanding of what the New Testament tells us about mis. sions. During the past years the work undertaken in many lands has been evaluated in the light of the ministry of the apostles and their helpers. Especially the story of that greatest missionary to the Gentiles, St. Paul, has shed much light on the issues involved. And the results of these studies have often been disquieting to those who take the Bible seriously.

Although the churches today enjoy far more material prosperity and hence can employ the services of many more missionaries than the earl; congregations, the results of our modern labors seem very poor by comparison. What disturbs many people is not the relatively small number of converts but rather the seemingly poor quality of their spiritual life. In many areas mission work has been conducted for more than a century. Yet often the work in those areas clamors for more support and guidance from the mother churches than ever before. This has brought into sharp focus the whole subject of mission methods. Roland Allen, who has been greatly used of the Lord to challenge the world-wide Christian community by his writings, states his case clearly,

Many missionaries in later days have received a larger number of converts than St. Paul; many have preached over a wider area than he; but none have so established churches. We have long forgotten that such things could be. We have long accustomed ourselves to accept it as an axiom of missionary work that converts in a new country must be submitted to a very long probation and training extending over generations, before they can be expected to be able to stand alone. Today if a man ventures to suggest that there may be something in the methods by which St. Paul attained such wonderful results worthy of our careful attention, and perhaps of our imitation, he is in danger of being accused of revolutionary tendencies.2

Yet in spite of initial opposition Roland Allen has won many warm disciples. And although objections may be leveled against some of his positions, we believe that in the main they will commend themselves to all who believe that the New Testament gives guidance also in the matter of mission methods. Hence we would devote a few paragraphs to what is meant by the “indigenous” method and goal which he so heartily recommends. At the same time we would not ignore the thorny problems which must be met in seeking to attain the high ideal.

Our Church and the Indigenous Ideal

For members of the Christian Reformed Church this is an up-to-the-minute subject. The denomination seems to be moving in the direction of adopting “indigeneity” as the principle which shall determine the methods and goals of its mission enterprise.

When our church took over its new fields in India in 1949 and 1950, specific mention was made of the methods which were to be followed by the missionaries who would work there. This insistence on indigenous methods was not entirely new in the history of the church, however. In connection with the adoption of its Nigerian field from the Sudan United Mission in 1939 much stress was laid on the three pillar-principles of indigeneity. Those who had undertaken the work there had always envisioned the development of a “self-governing, self-supporting and seI[propagating” African church. And the Christian Reformed Church, when taking over the work, was expected to adhere to this ideal and the methods which were in harmony with it.

More recently the matter was brought to the attention of the churches by the appearance of two well-known pamphlets, one ardently championing and the other seriously questioning the validity of following a strictly indigenous policy on our mission fields. It can hardly be doubted that our leaders in general are agreed on the indigenous ideal, but as soon as the question of adopting methods in harmony with such an ideal are discussed, opinions and convictions differ radically.

Thus the church today is faced with an anomalous situation.

The indigenous goal and its attendant methods have seldom if ever been stressed in connection with our work among the Navahos and Zunis or in China. Historical precedent has compelled the church to agree to the principles involved in connection with our work in Nigeria. And now faced with further expansion the churches in synodical session insisted that especially in India this policy was to be followed as consistently as possible.

The synod of 1950 also appointed a rather sizable study committee with a specific mandate on the whole matter of mission principles and their application. Until the time of this writing, the report of this committee has not been presented to the churches in full. Hence it is too early to hazard a guess as to the direction which our churches will take on this crucial issue. However, the discussions which are bound to arise will no doubt prove highly interesting and exceedingly fruitful for the further mission history of our denomination.

What is the Indigenous Ideal?

By now some of the readers are undoubtedly asking, Precisely what is meant by an indigenous church on the mission field?

We do well to refer first of all to the dictionary. There we are informed that the term derives from the Late Latin word “indigenus” meaning native. Thus it refers to a person or institution begotten or born or found in a specific territory or area. We speak of flowers and animals and tribes as being “indigenous” or native to certain parts of the world.

Now the term has come to be applied also to churches, more particularly to churches in those countries to which the gospel has come in a significant way during the past few centuries. With increasing clarity the older churches in Europe and America have realized that within the unity of the Christian faith there is room for a certain type of diversity occasioned by differences in cultural climate, racial characteristics or historical antecedents. It cannot be denied that such an admission is fraught with peril. Here we must face earnestly the deep-rooted and mooted question of the adjustment of gospel-preaching to the thought and life of the peoples to whom it is directed. On the surface this matter may not seem so complicated. Most of us readily admit that there are differences between Dutch and American, English and Indian, African and Chinese Christian churches. Nor do these differences imply in all cases that one or the other must be in radical error.

But as we begin to investigate and define these differences, we find ourselves face to face with problems of first magnitude. Years ago the Roman Catholic Church was forced to take a stand on this very issue, when serious charges were leveled against the Jesuits who had undertaken mission work at the imperial Chinese court. Brothers of rival orders within that church accused the disciples of Ignatius Loyola of obscuring the uniqueness of the Christian faith by the methods which they pursued. In varying degrees Protestants have had to face the same problem, especially since the tremendous stir created by the appearance of Rethinking Missions in 1932.3 Among evangelical Christians this report has been generally regarded as suspect on the same grounds of obscuring the distinctiveness of the gospel. Yet in spite of these dangers most Christians recognize the presence of legitimate differences within the Christian fold. And these may be accentuated as the gap widens from nation to nation and race to race.

With this in mind missionary leaders have envisioned the establishment of churches in the various countries of the world which are thoroughly “at home” in their cultural climate without compromising the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified.4

The champions of this ideal look for a church which is able to govern herself without outside help or interference, to support the ministry of the Word and the sacraments for its own edification in the faith without leaning on foreign churches for clergy or financial assistance, and to propagate itself not only by training its own members and their children in the faith but also by evangelizing its own community and sending its members as missionaries to unevangelized areas.

Some very important principles undergird this conception of the missionary enterprise and its goal.

Such a goal can only be seriously entertained, if the mission is regarded not as a permanent institution in a foreign land but solely as an entering-wedge for the preaching of the gospel. The mission then exists for the sake of the establishment of the native church; not the native church for the sake of the mission and the missionaries. The work is to be thought of as temporary. As soon as the church is solidI y grounded, the missionaries either move on to new areas or return to the homeland.

Also, as soon as a number of heathen have turned to the Lord, they are to be organized into congregations. And these congregations, young and inexperienced as they may seem when judged by European and American standards, are in possession of all the authority which Christ as Head of his church delegates to the lawfully elected and installed officers. These powers must be exercised by them, in the first years under the guidance of the missionary but never at his behest. These officers must exercise Christian supervision over themselves and their fellow-members. They must see to it that the congregation assembles regularly for the ministry of the Word and the sacraments. They must stir up themselves and others to provide the necessary gifts for the continuance of the church’s ministry among them. They must be burdened by the plight of their fellow-men who are still lost in the darkness of superstition and sin. To them they must bring the glad tidings of salvation through Christ Jesus who has become their strength and song.

Naturally, this is a lofty ideal.

Taking notice of the many problems confronting the missionaries on the fields, we may deem it impossible of attainment. Yet it can hardly be questioned that precisely this is what the New Testament envisions in connection with the Great Commission given by Christ to his apostles and through them to. his church of all ages.

In another article we hope to deal with some of these problems. It may be that this will shed a bit of light on the work which the missionaries of our churches have undertaken in various parts of the world. We must it may also work in our people a greater interest in, a deeper devotion to, and more fervent prayer for the establishment of Christ’s church throughout the whole world.

1. J.H. Bavinck: The IMpact of Christianity on the Non-Christian World (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1948). p. 11.

2. Roland Allen: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (World Dominion Press). p. 4.

3. Rethinking Missions : A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years (Harper and Bros. Publishers, 1932).

4. For a discussion of some of the problems involved cf. Bavinck, op. cit., especially ch. III “The Cultural Heritage of the People in the Mission Fields”; ch. IV “The Impact of the Gospel Upon Native Cultural Life” ; ch. X “Indigenous Conceptions of Jesus.”