Self-Reliance in the Indigenous Church

How to development self-supporting churches in the mission field.

By ERIC M. MELEEN, Missionary on Furlough From India

Much of a helpful and appropriate nature has been said and written about the development of a self-reliant, self-supporting, and self- propagating indigenous church in our great mis­sion fields. Surely we have approached the time when we need not only to think and talk seriously about this matter but to speedily make practical application of the good counsel and suitable theo­ries advanced.

Those of us who have labored long in the mis­sion fields, and who have seen our church grow from no members at all to one of considerable numbers, who have toiled and sacrificed for it, who have prayed and wept over it, who have sorrowed and rejoiced with it, naturally have very tender feelings for it, as parents who dearly love their children. There is danger, however, that we may fail to realize that this child of our labors is to grow up to normal manhood, to develop initiative and resourcefulness, and to exercise its own in­herent energies in the direction of self-reliance and self-support.

We have much to learn from Paul's methods in these matters. This is really essential if we are to build for permanency. The spirit of the pioneers in the advent movement must be planted in the hearts of our members and workers the world around if we are to achieve anything worthy of the name. It does not seem that Paul provided a budget from some foreign source for every church he raised up. He and his associates preached the message, raised up churches, appointed elders from among the newly won members, left them to carry on, and went on to preach elsewhere while the new churches became sources of income to carry on the work. Is it unthinkable that the proclamation of the message can still be promoted by that spirit and method in our great mission fields?

Not for a moment should we be reconciled to the idea that foreign money and foreign missionaries must evangelize these great fields. They never can do it. The indigenous church is chiefly to do it. We need not elaborate on the economic and racial advantages. One who has no religion of his own, that he values, has no interest in winning others. He finds no joy in giving of his service or his means to propagate the gospel. His hands are cupped to receive what he can induce others to give him. As long as our indigenous church is supported by foreign money, it will feel no responsibility for the extension of its work and have little interest in it. But a truly Christian church cannot live to itself alone without feeling a responsibility for-the propagation of the message.

The very nature and spirit of Christianity de­mand that the church shall expand. Therefore, the larger the membership of an organization, the stronger should it be, not only to maintain itself and to provide for its own needs but also to expand into new regions and into a larger work. The church that does not have this missionary experi­ence inevitably becomes atrophied, dwarfed, and enfeebled.

We have been told repeatedly, "But, brethren, you must be patient and give the national church time to grow up. It is still in its infancy." I ask, How long is it to temain in infancy ? Is the infant never to grow up ? Are we always to be like those parents who never will realize that their children have become adults and are able to care for them­selves? Is the alleged juvenility of the church to have no end, and to be forever a reason for its dependence on foreign support? If age and in­creasing constituency demand more and more dependence on General Conference support, when can we ever look forward to the attainment of a self-reliant, self-propagating national church ? The longer we continue, the farther we will be from the goal.

Our aim and ideal must be in­digenous support for indigenous work. Foreign work and workers should continue, for the purpose of training and developing indigenous evangelists, and should be supported by foreign money. But in some mission fields we are making no progress worthy of the name. Much of that which we have achieved is built on exceedingly unsound founda­tions, for a church built entirely of foreign money rests on a foundation of sand or crumbling clay.

In recent years all our foreign workers have had to withdraw from some lands. In other lands similar experiences have threatened our work. Is the indigenous church able to carry on the work? If not, then surely our foreign work­ers have failed in achieving one of the first and greatest of the essentials of missionary service.

Now that some of the threats to our work did not fully materialize, are we to settle down to a state of complacency and carry on as in the past? Are we to take it for granted that nothing is going to happen because it did not happen before? Surely this is the time when we should work with haste and earnestness to train the church in mission fields to carry administrative and financial respon­sibility so that it might survive and grow, even if all foreign man power and financial support should be withdrawn. The danger is by no means remote, and unless we give our church in the mission fields experience in doing its utmost to support itself, we will have failed in building for endurance.

Many missionaries have asserted that the na­tional church cannot become self-supporting and self-propagating because of the poverty of its Mem­bers. The question is asked, "How can national workers live on the tithes and offerings of such poor people?" That is indeed a difficult question for the foreigner to answer ; but is he under obliga­tion to answer it? In these same lands there are non-Christian organizations that flourish finan­cially and otherwise by the support of an eco­nomically poor population. In India there is at least one Christian community numbering three-quarters of a million who claim to have existed and prospered for nearly two thousand years with­out foreign support.

The nationals in these lands know how to do some things of which foreigners know nothing. That which seems like poverty and hardship to a foreigner is often accepted as comfort and abun­dance by the native. The poverty of the people is no adequate reason for carrying on as we are now doing in some places, nor for crying for larger appropriations from the General Conference when­ever we expand a little. Our national church will never be a missionary church unless we give the constituency opportunity to develop a spirit of self-reliance.

We talk about evangelizing the great mission fields, and surely that must be our objective. But who is to evangelize them? We seem to conclude that the General Conference must carry the sole responsibility, and from year to year increase its appropriations to the mission fields. The pioneer missionaries went out to evangelize non-Christians,' and they thought they had to be supported in every way by the churches in their homeland.

It would be most unreasonable to demand of the church in the mission field that it support the for­eign workers; but now that the national church in some of these fields is older than the General Con­ference was when it became a foreign mission or­ganization, is it not high time that national workers begin to take the place of foreign missionaries in the evangelization of their own people? Does it not seem very evident that if these great fields are ever to be evangelized, it must be by their nationals and not chiefly by foreigners?

It is the function of the foreign missionary to plant the gospel in unentered regions, but it is the function of the indigenous church to propagate it and maintain it when such a church has been estab­lished. The national church is in just as great need of this missionary experience as is the church in the homeland, and to deprive the church of this experience is a serious failure in missionary serv­ice.

National administrators are giving good service today, and many of them are doing the work formerly done by foreigners. In fact, there are entire mission organizations and institutions in which there is not a single foreigner. But, unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean real indigenation of the work, because the financial support is almost entirely foreign.

Our denominational form of organization is without a doubt suitable to national needs; with some slight adaptions now and then which may be advisable and helpful. Our national workers often have good ideas that never occur to foreigners, and which are sometimes frowned upon by foreigners when expressed. National leaders frequently know of methods and means of which foreigners are ignorant, but because of the restrictions of well-meaning but ill-advised foreign workers, these methods and means are not put into operation. It surely does seem difficult for many of us to com­prehend the fact that the national church has grown up, and is capable of taking care of itself if left to do so in its own way.

Administration functions best and most intelli­gently in the local community. There the prob­lems- are perceived with greater clarity, because they are close to those who have to deal with them, and are on a scale within their understanding. When our national churches and committees are not allowed to carry responsibility in administration and support, their elf-reliance is destroyed, and they develop the habit of looking to others to solve every little difficulty for them and to carry every burden.

The remedy does not lie in greater contributions from the General Conference for the support of national work, for regardless of what these con­tributions may be, they will always be more than counterbalanced by demands. The remedy lies in the improvement of the administration of the work so as to encourage the development of the mission spirit in the national church, and zeal for the work among our workers. One really consecrated worker who is willing to sacrifice in order that his people may know the gospel, is worth more than entire crews that work only for money.

Our national churches can become self-support­ing and self-reliant to a much greater degree than at present if we will permit them to do so. They are subject to the same influences as our people in the homelands. The spirit of sacrifice, without which the church can never thrive, will also seize our people in the mission fields when they see and feel the need of sacrifice. They will carry responsi­bility if others do not do it for them, and by so doing they will grow in grace and in knowledge. Reforms in these matters would, no doubt, result in some paper losses, but all would not be lost by any means. In these lands there are honest, con­secrated, self-sacrificing workers and church mem­bers who would stand by the cause, and constitute the glorious reality of that which we are earnestly endeavoring to build.

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By ERIC M. MELEEN, Missionary on Furlough From India

August 1945

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