Foreign missionaries do not create churches, but simply help local converts develop their own spiritual gifts and leadership abilities and gradually develop their own churches. Missionaries provide teaching and pastoral care alone. The church is thus indigenous from the start. It has always been self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.
What is an “Indigenous Church?”
William A. Smalley defines an indigenous church as “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 the society comes out of their felt needs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures (Smalley, 1978, 498).” This definition communicates that the church planting missionary must be willing to allow the indigenous church to have different manifestations of Christianity rather than export their denominational or personal patterns that are rooted in the missionary’s history and culture.
The missionary must understand it is not their place to make cultural decisions for the indigenous church. The missionaries can be valued advisers with their knowledge of scripture and history. In fact, it is the missionary’s responsibility to be a source for cultural alternatives for people to select if they want and need them (Smalley, 1978, 500). However, the indigenous church leaders themselves should make cultural decisions based on their needs, problems, values and outlooks.
God Relates to Humanity in Culture
The Bible reveals that God has always dealt with people in terms of their culture. God intentionally worked his law, spirit, and relationship with humanity within a particular culture. The missionary must act the same. The missionary must read and understand the Bible in its cultural perspective and God’s dealing with humanity through different cultural situations. The missionary must be careful not to impose and decide what course a new church should follow, with having little to no knowledge of the cultural background of the people. The primary mission should not be to corporatize Christianity on people nor should it be to impose Western cultural norms. This is why some mission bodies do not like indigenous churches because they do not want the indigenous culture to embarrass the mission body.
The Goal of the Missionary
The missionary’s goal is to preach that God, in Jesus, is reconciling the world unto Himself and the Kingdom of God in near. The goal is not to colonize or Westernize indigenous populations into our worldview and culture. Therefore we must trust the Holy Spirit to grow and guide the indigenous church. “An indigenous church is precisely one in which the cultural changes taking place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit meet the needs and fulfill the meaning of that society and not of any outside group (Smalley, 1978, 499).” The indigenous church leaders, not the missionary, should decide whether abstinence until marriage, monogamy, and the wearing of clothes are proper expressions of a Christian in that society. With that in mind, it would be ridiculous to say that missionaries can preach a noncultural gospel without making judgments (Kietzman & Smalley, 1978, 505).
Since God is directly involved and deals with humanity in culture, preaching can only happen in cultural terms. Therefore, it necessary for the missionary to present alternate forms of cultural behavior to new Christians tactfully and thoughtfully based on God’s dealing with diverse peoples in Scripture (Kietzman & Smalley, 1978, 505). In other words, suggestions must be biblically focused and supported. The missionary is also responsible for helping with prayer, in study, and in experimenting with alternate cultural forms that allow that indigenous church to express themselves to God.
The Danger of Syncretism
What is role of the missionary when the indigenous church blend incompatible aspects of their former religion into their new found Christianity; for instance, other gods or rituals? There are few things the missionary could advise the new church to do. The missionary can advise the indigenous church:
1. To develop a leadership council to report heresy and errors in life and teaching.
2. To ensure all church customs and teachings are derived from Scripture.
3. To use visual or audible elements to illustrate biblical truths; for instance architecture, worship, and art (Lausanne, 1978, 524)
The missionary must trust the indigenous church leaders with reflection on Scripture and culture (Lausanne, 1978, 525). Moreover, they should be present to advise and to teach the Word of God in its context and teach the indigenous church leaders to exegete Scriptures. These are difficult tasks for the missionary. However, it is not in their place to be the CEO or lead pastor for the indigenous church. Their purpose as a church planter is not to create policy. The missionary must advise, guide and teach the indigenous church and give them the knowledge and tools they need to do the work of Christ in their village. The missionary must trust the Holy Spirit will be present and shape the new indigenous church.
- Kietzman, Dale W. and William A. Smalley. “The Missionary’s Role in Cultural Change.”
- Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. “The Willowbank Report.”
- Smalley, William A. “Cultural Implications of an Indigenous Church.”