Baptist World Mission’s emphasis on “planting churches worldwide” is more than a slogan; it encapsulates our understanding of mission theology and praxis in the New Testament. It is the outworking of the Great Commission, as demonstrated by the Apostle Paul’s tireless efforts to plant and mature churches on the mission field. But how can the missionary church planter establish churches cross-culturally that are both doctrinally sound and culturally appropriate? And are these two goals necessarily at odds with each other?
Just as pastors in America must vigilantly counter the eroding effects of moral decline in their culture, so missionaries must distinguish between moral and amoral aspects of culture if they hope to plant indigenous churches that will remain faithful to their founding principles. This distinction is the difference between pragmatic capitulation and legitimate acculturation. While missionaries justifiably fear culture as a potential pathway to syncretism, they must also understand the necessity of acculturation. Adapting in matters of dress, food, language and customs is an external starting point, not an ultimate goal. The most effective missionaries understand how the people of their culture think. They study their worldview, religious concepts, lifestyle, traditions, language, values, manners and customs and are able to interact with the indigenous people on these levels.
Failure to plant culturally appropriate churches violates the principle of indigenity by ignoring legitimate cultural norms. At the other end of the spectrum is compromise under the banner of cultural relevance, which ultimately results in syncretistic churches that no longer hold to the “faith once delivered” (Jude 3). Additionally, failure to plant self-sustaining churches violates the principle of autonomy. Failure to plant churches which are both indigenous and autonomous will result in short-lived ministries.
The tension of this dichotomy between cultural compromise and cultural assimilation relates to the outworking of what missiologists have long called the “indigenous principle.” By the later nineteenth century, men on both sides of the Atlantic were alarmed by the long-term dependency (paternalism) of foreign churches on missionary personnel and funds and by the erosion of doctrinal fidelity in nationalized works. They took a fresh look at Scripture, and men such as Henry Venn of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in England and Rufus Anderson of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) independently began promoting indigenous principles, which Melvin Hodges later formulated into the well-known “indigenous principle.” Hodges’ three-fold expression of the indigenous principle states that the mission church should be self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.
That expression focuses on three aspects of the function of the mission church. While function is a vital emphasis, the concept of indigenity must also relate to the form of the mission church. Although missionaries often use the two terms synonymously, the concepts of indigenity and autonomy relate more directly to form and function respectively. A mission church may function autonomously, but not be culturally indigenous in form. The missionary cause benefited greatly from the contributions of the aforementioned men and from the resultant corrective measures, which missionaries took with respect to the function of the mission church.
Perhaps we could suggest that our generation of independent Baptist missionaries would also benefit from a greater focus on the form of the mission church, because the establishment of an autonomous church is not the only essential goal of the church-planting missionary. It is entirely possible and in many cases, probable, that the self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating church will apostatize. What has the missionary accomplished in such cases?
While doctrinal drift may result from any number of root causes, failure to plant culturally-appropriate churches is a major cause of failure among mission churches. This oftentimes is because of issues that confront the national pastor after the missionary leaves. On the one hand, the national pastor may be left with a “foreign” or “Americanized” church. While the church may have appeared healthy under the missionary’s leadership, its non-indigenous form presages its decline under national leadership.
On the other end of the spectrum, the missionary may have unwisely welcomed cultural elements into the church under the banner of indigenity, which are either inherently unscriptural or dangerously suggestive of a path to compromise. In this context, doctrine is not only creedal, but also the practical living of those beliefs, including a willingness to live biblically separated lives that embrace the necessary alienation from aspects of popular culture. In such a case, it is unlikely the national pastor will recognize the danger or have the power to change course. Thus, the importance of indigenous policy, the missionary’s approach to culture, can hardly be overemphasized.
This question not only relates to distinctions between ministry in one’s own culture and cross-cultural church planting, but it also correlates to how servants of God conduct ministry within their own cultures. This is because all culture, whether native or foreign, contains many unbiblical values and practices from which an obedient Christian must separate. This is exactly Paul’s point in Romans 12:2, “and be not conformed to this world.”
This brings us back to our second question. Are the two goals of doctrinal fidelity and cultural appropriateness necessarily at odds with each other? Yes! Every honest missionary who has carefully considered the implications of indigenous policy will admit that he sometimes struggles to distinguish between his own culturally shaped preferences as to the form the church should take and his identification of genuine collision points between culture and Scripture. Not only is the missionary obligated to be faithful to God’s Word, but he also needs to understand that doctrinal compromise, for the sake of cultural acceptability, will ultimately result in a syncretistic church—one which blends non-Christian tenets with biblical truth.
Neither can the missionary afford the luxury of rejecting culture “out of hand” for the sake of protecting the church against doctrinal compromise, because doing so violates indigenous policy, which is essential to successful church planting. A good biblical definition of syncretism is found in 2 Kings 17:33, “They feared the Lord [Jehovah], and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations.” Idolatry is the Old Testament word for syncretism, when it includes the blending of rites associated with other gods with the worship of Jehovah. Jehovah’s condemnation of Israel’s syncretistic idolatry provides a theological answer to today’s syncretism. Insulating mission churches against syncretism is a challenge because syncretism is sometimes difficult to distinguish from mere cultural expressions.
Identifying syncretism is a theological, cultural and academic exercise that the missionary must master and mentor because seemingly innocuous “seeds” will grow into truth-choking “weeds.” If the ultimate goal of New Testament missions is the multiplication of indigenous churches to the glory of Christ, then the successful development of national church leadership must be of paramount importance. The New Testament bears this out with much emphasis on the development of God-called pastors. It is not the establishment of a church, but the grounding of it that occupies the most attention in the New Testament.
Study of New Testament methods should not distract one’s attention from the product of missions, which is enduring, biblically orthodox churches. That leadership development is the key is almost a moot point. Whether it is couched in academic terms, such as pastoral training or leadership development, or in more personal terms such as mentoring or discipleship, the development and equipping of national leaders is the single most important factor relating to the successful indigenization of any church-planting ministry. Solutions must lie with issues that address this process. National pastors have often waned in their commitment to the theological convictions upon which the missionaries founded their churches. Viable solutions must ultimately redress this shortcoming by emphasizing both function and form when mentoring national leadership. Churches will not replicate until missionaries replicate themselves in God-called national preachers who, among other things, are committed to biblical separatism. Perhaps an anecdote from my ancient college days can best drive home this capstone truth. I commented, in a paper presented in a missions class, that producing indigenous churches in fulfillment of the Great Commission is “simply a matter of training nationals to carry on the work.” When I examined the graded paper, I noticed that my veteran missionary instructor had circled the word simply several times in red ink and had remarked, “Is this really such a simple matter?” The wisdom of that comment became increasingly evident over seventeen years of ministry in South Africa. Producing successful national leadership has always been a key, if not the paramount challenge of the Great Commission mandate. It takes biblically separated, culturally sensitive missionaries to mentor biblically separated, culturally sensitive national preachers to plant biblically separated, culturally sensitive churches.
Reprinted with permission. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the BWM Messenger.