There’s a burden we carry for our people when we realize that still after generations into Christianity, our primary theological resources come from voices who are well-meaning, but are intrinsically and understandably biased towards other traditions and other cultures. This means we aren’t quite yet full-circle.
Recently I garnered on Facebook an interest in developing a theological community composed of Southeast Asian-Americans and those who have worked/lived closely with them. There was a great response. I should’ve thought through in advance how to better collect information. But it’s not too late!
Please subscribe to the email list here and I’ll personally keep you up to date with the development of this community. After filling out this form, you’ll receive an email that you’ll need to open in order to confirm your subscription.
In the meantime, enjoy this quote from Dr. J.D. Payne’s book Discovering Church Planting. Dr. Payne was my church planting professor in seminary and has grown to become a friend. In this chapter, he describes the maturation process of an indigenous church and the “Seven Selves” it must journey through to become fully mature. The Southeast Asian-American Theological and Missiological Community will have a specific focus on what it means to be self-propagating and self-theologizing.
Though there are many ways to plant churches, it is wise to plant contextualized churches. A contextualized or indigenous church springs from the soil and manifests many of the cultural traits and expressions of the people themselves, rather than being a church that consists, primarily, of an outside culture imported onto the new believers.
For example, I grew up in southeastern Kentucky. Many of the churches there had a great appreciation for the use of a piano in the worship services. They also believed that a vital part of church life required a fellowship hall where the congregation periodically gathered for meals. Though the people in my hometown still favor these elements of church life, a piano and fellowship hall would probably be seen as an oddity in a church planted among a nomadic people group of Africa.
In the nineteenth century, missiologists Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn discussed these matters and developed what became known as the “Three Selfs” of indigenous churches: self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. A self-governing church makes its own decisions. Though seeking the wisdom of others is helpful, there is no need to consult an outside body in all matters of church life. There is no governing official or authority overseeing the local congregation and mandating what that particular church will do or not do. For example, the local congregation is free to govern itself regarding the purchasing of property, appointing leaders, organizing its own order of service, and developing ministries.
A self-supporting church supports itself financially. If the congregation needs a new building, the congregation provides the money for such a structure. If it is necessary for the church to provide a full salary for the leaders, the church provides the income. A self-supporting church is not dependent on outside funds to meet the day-to-day financial requirements for ministry.
A self-propagating church is able to spread the gospel across its own local geographic area and throughout the world. Everything the local church needs in order to share the good news with others is already present among the members. No outside and separate authority (e.g., Western missionaries) is needed for the church to carry out the Great Commission.
Though Venn and Anderson popularized the Three Selfs, over the years other missiologists—those who study the science and art of missions— have included other characteristics in the list. For example, a self-identifying church has its own identity as the local church in its area. To be considered a church, those who gather as a group must identify themselves as the local expression of the body of Christ. The group is not a mission, chapel, Bible study, or a preaching point. The group is not seen as a ministry of another congregation or a second campus. Self-identifying is the concept that the membership of a congregation has come together to clearly identify itself as the local church in its area.
Charles Brock, in his book Indigenous Church Planting, a Practical Journey, wrote about churches being self-teaching and self-expressing. Self-teaching means that the individual members of the church family are able and willing to teach one another (Romans 15:14; 1 Corinthians 14:26, 31). For example, members can share with one another what the Lord reveals to them during their time in the Word.
Brock also noted that indigenous churches have the freedom to express themselves in a worship style according to the guidelines of the Scriptures. Therefore, churches in African contexts should have the freedom to express themselves through music with African instrumentation, rather than using a North American praise team. If a Nepalese congregation desires to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in accordance with its melodies, harmonies, and meters, then it should have the freedom to do so. If believers from a Muslim background want to use a preaching methodology that expects elders to sit on the floor while teaching the Scriptures, rather than standing in a pulpit area, then such freedom must be allowed. Some churches may expect their pastors to preach sermons in a monologue manner; other churches may find this insulting and expect sermons that involve dialogue with the people.
Self-expressing also includes the idea of the church being able to organize itself according to culturally appropriate patterns. For example, many Western churches operate with numerous committees in place and periodic business meetings. Such structures are not appropriate in other cultures of the world.
Indigenous churches should be self-theologizing as well. This means that they have the freedom to develop their own theologies regarding the unique cultural issues of their contexts. Self-theologizing is not the liberty to decide what parts of the Bible they will follow and what parts they will reject. The Scriptures establish the parameters whereby all theologies rise or fall. And though there is value and importance in church tradition and community wisdom, the Scriptures are paramount. No church has the freedom to tamper with, adjust, add to, or discard the teachings of the Scriptures. However, there are certain localized issues that impact churches but are not transcultural.