“Indigenous”: What we are really talking about
When we use this extra-biblical term, what we are really discussing is the cross-cultural missionary’s commitment to genuine disciple-making. To be “indigenous” simply means that a church, in whatever culture or circumstance it is found, is obedient to Jesus Christ regarding its life and ministry. Obedient bodies of believers follow godly leaders and thus govern themselves. They support their spiritual leaders and gospel ministries. They fulfill the Great Commission. This they do without dependence upon outside leadership or resources to sustain them. Our task is to make such disciples by the grace of God.
Sometimes churches fail to be indigenous because they simply refuse to be obedient to Christ. We must do all that we can to encourage obedience to Jesus’ commands about the local church. We must intentionally encourage obedience through how we do ministry, trusting God to lead His people on to maturity. If we are not careful, our ministry methods may create unnecessary obstacles to that maturity. It is at this point that this discussion becomes intensely practical.
“Day 1 affects day 100.” -Jean Johnson
Whether we begin with one new convert or many, the best thing that we could ever do to encourage growth in grace and obedience in a new church plant is to assume an indigenous ministry from the beginning.
It is true that a small group of new believers will not yet have mature spiritual leaders to follow. Missionaries must assume this role of spiritual shepherd until another takes his place.
There are many things, however, that we can do from the beginning that will help posture the church for a more rapid arrival and being fully indigenous. We can involve all of God’s people in as much decision making as possible. Instead of setting the agenda, creating programs, and determining local church life and ministry details ourselves, we can allow the believers to decide these things themselves. By allowing them to make these decisions, we give them ownership, responsibility, and provide ourselves with opportunity for discipleship.
What other things can they help decide? Such things as the name of the church, where and how often to meet, the time of Sunday worship, when to have prayer meeting, how to perform weddings and funerals, or how often to have the Lord’s table. Each can involve a discussion about God’s Word and its application.
Evangelistic ideas could come from their own burdens as God leads them. The use of the offering money, how it is given, and even the location where it is given and kept—these are opportunities for discipleship. Yet some missionaries make nearly ALL of these decisions alone. They simply expect the believers to fall into line with the full program that they have put into place.
Teach the church that to be a man is to lead. From the beginning, have men lead singing, pray in services, take and count the offering, and have full part in discussions about church matters. As we faithfully disciple this way, investing ourselves in them, and their wives, we will see some men rise to leadership.
Maintain New Testament simplicity
The New Testament describes a very simple local church program. Even as decades pass on the timeline of NT revelation, we see no hint of more than a simple approach to local church ministry. What does this mean for the church planter?
Churches met in homes. Individual churches did not have their own private corporate land or buildings. These things were not the goal or the measure by a church was considered “planted” or mature. Therefore, if national indigenous churches want to such a step, let them do so when they are ready and able, when they see the need and are willing to give.
The level of church organization, the level of pastoral ministry expectation, the education level required to be ordained---these things must be kept at levels a national pastor can obtain to. This applies even to the way we preach and teach. Our own preferences or desires for “excellence” can intimidate otherwise qualified men.
The more complicated the ministry is, the more money coming from outside to sustain it, the harder it will be for a man to follow the missionary into leadership.
Yet only somewhat indigenous
Some reading this admit to damaging mistakes already made. Your ministry might not have begun in the best way. Now is time to change those methods of ministry that have unintentionally hindered discipleship. It may be a difficult road, but it can be traveled, by the grace of God.