Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Indigenous Church Planting: Lessons from Middle America

To the left and below are pictures of a recent church planting seminar I was privileged to lead in southern Mexico. God is indeed moving all over the world, and His presence in Mexico is evident in the fact that the churches of that area want to plant a new church in every "municipo" (county seat) in the state of Chiapas. I was privileged to lead a team from our association to respond to an invitation by the churches of Mexico to assist them with setting up a church planting process to acheive this goal.

It has been said that during international missions endeavors, one often learns as much as he or she teaches, and is often blessed as much as he or she is a blessing. I can certainly attest to the fact that I learned as much, of not more, from these committed pastors than they learned from me. Unfortunately, what I learned from them is something that they don't yet seem to recognize about themselves: namely, that they have every resource they need to facillitate a church planting movement without American help.

If anything, we have "helped" enough already. By this, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't seek to work with our brothers and sisters in other nations. In fact, our plans are to continue where we left off in subsequent discussions next year. However, during my time in Mexico I couldn't help but notice that the barriers to a church planting movement faced by the Mexican church are almost identical to those we face in the states. And I can't help but believe this is tied to the culture of dependency we have often created while doing missions in Middle America.

For example, one of our favorite things to do for our brothers and sisters, especially in the "third world," is to erect a church building for them. Our second favorite thing to do is to fund the salary of the pastor who will preach in that building. While I am certain these efforts are the result of the best of intentions, and a genuine desire to see disciples made, in many cases the opposite is what happens. The pastor doesn't teach his people stewardship, because the source of income for himself and the church comes from outside. The people of God don't give, because the Americans are picking up the tab. The mission dies, because the Americans aren't there to perpetuate what they started. Most tragically, no more churches are planted . . .that is, until (you guessed it) the Americans show up to erect another building!

It is in this context that we now find ourselves . . .a "culture of dependency" wherein the Mexican church has been, by and large, disempowered by its well-meaning American counterpart. Regrettably, the trouble gets worse from this point. When American money, American buildings, and American ways of doing church are interjected into Mexican (or any other) culture, American problems almost always follow. The result?

. . . The established Mexican church is now "up in arms" because Mexican church planters are telling their people that it really is OK to dance.

. . . The established Mexican church believes it cannot sustain a church planting movement on its own because of the lack of "trained professionals" to lead these churches.

. . . The established Mexican church believes it will take lots of financial resources--certainly more than they posess--to multiply churches in the way they envision.

All of this sounds eerily familiar.

The problem with indigenous church planting in ecclesiological contexts like this one is that many of the established churches themselves are not indigenous . . .they are American! In starting churches, they adopted our leadership models, our decision-making processes, our financial expectations, our programmatic approach to ministry, our "campus-centered" orientation, and in some cases, even our architecture!

Contrast this picture with that of the truly "indigenous" church . . .one that is in no way dependent on outside "suppport" or "help" to maintain its ministry. One that can reproduce itsself in ever-more contextual ways as it plants other churches in other areas. One that truly preaches a "counter-cultural" Gospel message while at the same time looking and sounding like the culture in which it finds itself.

So my question in the midst of all this is as follows: How on earth do a bunch of white guys from an upper-middle class area in Maryland help to propogate a movement like the one I've described above? While I haven't yet figured it all out, there are a few principles that I think have to guide American missionaries--short term or otherwise--as we seek to facillitate the multiplication of churches in other parts of the world. These principles are, in my view, solidly Biblical, unsophisticatedly simple, and interesting enough, very Baptist!

1. The Principle of Global Minsitry: Because we are presently the richest and most powerful nation in the world, our tendency as Americans is to think ourselves superior in every way. We think anyone without central air conditioning or an electric Viking range is "poor and unfortunate" when in fact many who live in mud huts are quite happy with their living conditions. Similarly, we think any church without a brick structure, or any pastor without an auto allowance or seminary degree will automatically produce a "sub-standard" ecclesiology. The fact is that churches in many nations of the world exist and thrive without buildings or theological seminaries. With all of our resources, education, wealth and power, the American church is anemic when compared to the church in other parts of the globe. It would do us well to remember this so that we don't encourage our brothers and sisters in other nations to do it the way we do it.

This was, I believe, a very helpful point we made during a panel discussion with Mexican church planters and pastors on the second day of our seminar. When told by state convention leadership that their culture was to "copy" what we did in America, my response was simple: "We are the only continent on planet earth where Christianity is not growing. Why on earth would you want to emulate that?!?!" The church is indeed global, and if we are to have any significant part in helping it expand globally, we must give up our preference for western culture and allow the church to be the church wherever it is found.

To be sure, God has given us in the states a grand opportunity to empower the churches in other nations. But to take advantage of this opportunity, we absolutely must check our "national pride" at the door!

2. The Principle of Church Autonomy: Once during the seminar, one of the pastors asked me my opinion about a subject that, as it turns out, has become very controversial in Mexico. Though it wasn't a "cardinal issue" such as the deity of Christ, or even a "Baptist distinctive" such as a commitment to immersion, this tertiary issue had already caused quite a stir among God's people in Mexico.

As he was asking the question, I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise. Oh, how I wanted to simply give my opinion and encourage them to follow my lead. But in the end, my opinions, however strong they are, do not matter! What matters is what the Scriptures teach. And what matters even more is that the church be able to arrive at the right conclusion via their own study of God's Word.

While we should make every effort to teach national pastors and laity how to read and study the Word, and while the basic principles of interpreting Scripture should be laid before them, the task of theological education abroad should be the same as it is here: teach God's people "how" to think, not "what" to think! It would have been very easy for me to answer the pastor's question directly . . .and set a precedent for "spoon-feeding" them theology. It would have been very easy for us to insert the church planting process we utilize in Maryland into Mexico. But God's people should instead be empowered, as the Bereans in Acts, to study the text, and their culture, on their own.

3. The Principle of "Scripture alone": With all of our talk about strategy, contextualization, "target" and "focus" groups, behavioral assessments, and demographic and psychographic observations, the fact remains that a true New Testament church cannot be planted if the Word of God is not the final authority for that faith community. I have attended church planting seminars in the states where days were spent musing on the enigma that is postmodernism, but there was nothing said about Scriptural authority. I agree with Mark Driscoll, who says that those who do such things are "practicing liberals" even if their theology is "conservative." If we are to have any significant part in a church planting movement, here or abroad, all of our strategies, studies, and tactics must ultimately find their appropriate place in submission to Scripture.

I have experienced very little Latin American culture, and as a result, I am the last person to deliver instructions to a group of Mexican pastors about how to reach their own people. My authority during this seminar was not found in my cultural "savy," but in the Word of God, from which all the principles I taught were drawn. Once we empower God's people by arming them with the Word, and lay out the principles for how to teach the Word in a way that connects with their culture, they can take it successfully from that point.

The church in the US has before it an enormous opportunity to facilitate the multiplication of congregations, both stateside and international. But if such churches are to be effective, they must also be indigenous, which means that the lessons learned as we walk this road together with our brothers in other nations, will be reciprocal.

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