The word indigenous means "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native." The term is often used in mission circles to describe the proper aim of missionary endeavor. Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, two missionary statesmen, initiated the modern concept of the indigenous church. In their view, the goal of missions was planting the Church through preaching the gospel, cultivating leadership, and developing indigenous churches. They articulated a 'three-self' formula to describe an indigenous church: self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. The Venn/Anderson model of missions offered a radical departure from the old paradigm. Later, John Nevius, an American missionary to China and Korea, developed a similar strategy of indigenous methods known as the “Nevius Plan,” which stressed the three-self formula, but added an emphasis on laity training. Roland Allen, an Anglican missionary to China and East Africa, wrote Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (1921), in which he offered a revolutionary element to the indigenous church philosophy. In church planting strategy, the word indigenous can be applied to the planter or to the church. If applied to the planter, indigenous means that the church planter is from the people group and context in which the church is being planted. If applied to the church, indigenous means that the church members, leadership and forms of the new church largely reflect the people group and context in which the church is being planted. Indigenous churches govern, teach, support and reproduce themselves with local, “home grown” leadership rather than with non-indigenous leadership brought in from outside the context of the new church plant. The goal of indigenous church planting strategy is always to start churches that reflect the cultural and worldview context of the Christians in the new church.
By definition, indigenous church planting among unreached peoples is always, at least initially, a cross-cultural process, simply because there are no believers among the people to launch the effort. Cross-cultural evangelism and church planting is largely about recognizing and identifying walls. The different walls within which people live are not physical ones made of stone or brick; they are invisible, yet they determine our values (right and wrong). There are three basic value systems that enclose people:
1. Social System - traditions/customs that determine how people behave.
2. Cultural System – what holds people together as a unit.
3. Beliefs System – people’s religious beliefs.
Our task is primarily one of communication that takes into account these walls, but refuses to leave people behind them where they are shielded from the Gospel. We are to proclaim the good news and victory in Jesus in such a way that people who are walled in by their social customs, cultural forms, and religious beliefs, and enslaved by sin and evil, can hear and understand what we’re talking about. Only when they understand are they ready to respond to the love of Christ.
In other words, our task is not to fight against systems, but to communicate effectively within them. For example, a great deal of evangelism is taking place in India. There are 13 million Christians in a nation of 1 billion; however, a large percentage of these Christians are drawn from tribal societies rather than mainstream Hinduism. The Christian church has largely been ineffective in penetrating the citadel of Hinduism, with the past exception of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Various teams are going out with gospel literature all across the country of India. Gospel programs are broadcast in most of the major languages of India. But for some reason, and for the most part, the Christian message is not penetrating into the minds and hearts of Hindus. Obviously, an essential element is missing, one that effectively communicates the Good News of Christ so that Hindus hear, understand, believe and obey, without feeling forced to scale unnatural or "foreign" obstacles in the process. E. Stanley Jones called this encountering "the Christ of the Indian road."
In our next blog, we will consider the following questions related to cross-cultural evangelism and church planting: