They’re Saved. They’re Baptized. Now What?
I sat on a colorful straw mat and looked around at the faces of thirteen newly-baptized believers eagerly waiting for me to lead them the next step toward becoming a fully-functioning church. Life in the provincial town of Pursat in 2006 was still hard for these first-generation Cambodian Christians. Most were uneducated. Although we were committed to do all that we could to encourage obedience to Christ, we had serious questions about how this would look. Through wise counsel, we were soberly aware of how initial ministry decisions would be key to these people taking full ownership of their local congregation in a future that on this day seemed very far away.
We searched the Scriptures, asking ourselves questions like: What does God expect of us as church planters? How can we lead a small group of believers to obey Christ in church life from the very beginning? What activities are non-negotiable? What activities might be an unnecessary burden on them? How can a missionary prepare national believers to follow his example in church leadership roles?
The outcome led us to make several commitments that would encourage the Pursat church to be autonomous:
We would involve the believers in decision making from the beginning.
We realized that there are many practical things that we could do from the beginning that would greatly help posture our church to become independent of us. We involved the adults in as much decision making as possible. Instead of us setting the agenda, creating programs, and determining local church life and ministry details ourselves, we allowed them to decide these things. By this, they had ownership, responsibility, and much opportunity for discipleship.
We were amazed by how many decisions needed to be made in one small local ministry: the church name, where and how often to meet, the time of Sunday worship, the length of services, when to have corporate prayer, how to perform weddings and funerals, how often to have the Lord’s table, how to use offering money, how to collect offerings, where money should be kept, what activities to pursue in evangelism, how to have fellowship meals together, and whether or how to celebrate Christmas and Easter. Each decision became an opportunity to go to God’s Word together. I would explain meaning and facilitate discussion as they applied the principles to their church.
We would emphasize that to be a man is to be a leader.
We also strove to emphasize that men are to lead at home and in the church. From the beginning, we had men lead worship and take and count the offering. We had the men take turns giving devotionals because they were men. Their words needed to have the greatest weight in church matters. They met regularly. As we discipled this way, investing ourselves in them, we saw some men exhibit leadership qualifications. The church body was also able to recognize the capability and spiritual strength of these men.
We would maintain New Testament simplicity.
We saw that the Scripture described a very simple local church program. We also knew that the simpler and more focused our ministry was, the easier it would be for a Cambodian pastor to lead.
We met in a home. We understood that church buildings were not the goal or the measure by which a church was considered “planted.” If our church wanted this when they saw the need, they would be able to give and to plan. We could focus on discipling people through the teaching of the Word.
We knew that we needed to model leadership that could be reproduced. We needed to preach and teach clearly and simply. Before Cambodia’s surge in development, we would even hand-write teaching notes on paper and in Khmer. We knew that our own preferences or desires for “excellence” could create an impossible standard and intimidate otherwise qualified men. We saw that the more complicated and money-intensive a ministry was, the harder it would be for a man to follow us in leadership.
Over the years we have watched this body of believers choose leaders, organize outreach, and exhort and teach in various contexts. We have enjoyed spiritual fellowship with them as equals in Christ. They still have hard lives, but now they have their own church family.
How we begin strongly impacts the achievement of autonomy.