In planting a new church, how should the missionary provide for the continuing care of the congregation after he is gone? Or, to put it another way, how do you know when you are “done” planting a church? In not a small number of cases, missionaries in Thailand have established churches with a modus operandi something like this: evangelize and disciple until there is a sufficient number of Christian believers such that there are people to lead various elements of Sunday worship service and there are more or less sufficient finances to rent a building and call a full-time Bible school educated Thai pastor to lead the church. If these elements are mostly in place, then the church is considered planted and the missionary feels free to move on to a new location. Often there are some kind of appointed or elected church leaders which may or may not resemble Biblical elders. In many cases, I have seen a church committee which makes decisions about finances and church activities substituted for the Biblical model of elders, namely mature Christian men who govern and shepherd the congregation, bearing spiritual responsibility for the souls of the people.
If a missionary gets the number of believers up to level where the church won’t dissolve, and then calls a native pastor (whom a small church often times can barely pay), is this really the best model for establishing healthy Biblical churches?
While I am fully convinced of the Biblical foundation and high desirability of calling a full-time paid pastor, I believe that we are skipping a step here in emphasizing having a full-time paid pastor instead of having several elders who shepherd the church together while keeping their secular employments. Of course, I am hardly the first one to have given some thought to this subject. Here is what John Nevius had to say over one hundred years ago:
“Our mission churches under the charge of elders are possessed of a Scriptural organization without the addition of a paid pastor, such as is found in most of our western churches; and the appointing of such a pastor might prove injurious rather than advantageous.
In enlarging on this point I will quote the language of Dr. Kellogg, formerly professor in the Theological Seminary at Allegheny, Pa. It has special weight as coming from one who is not only a highly esteemed theological teacher in our Church, but has been for years a missionary in India and has the advantage of large experience and observation of mission matters. The quotations are taken from an article in the “Catholic Presbyterian,” November 1879, page 347. Dr. Kellogg says:
‘We fear there is much reason to think that our missionaries have often been in too much haste to introduce the one-man pastorate of the European and American churches, and that the growth of a church bearing the true individual character of the particular people or race has been thereby seriously retarded. Fixed in the conviction that the primitive form of Church government was Presbyterian, men have apparently jumped to the conclusion that therefore the present form of Presbyterianism is the primitive and Apostolic arrangement - a point, we may venture to affirm, which has not yet been established, nor is likely soon to be. Under this belief they have not only felt that if they established churches they must give them a Presbyterian form of government - in which they have been right - but that it must be that particular form of development of Presbyterian principles which has obtained among ourselves; wherein, as it seems to us, they have been as clearly wrong. For to take any one of our full grown ecclesiastical systems and attempt to set it up bodily in our heathen fields, regardless of the widely differing conditions of the case, is, we submit, a great mistake... In too many instances, the course pursued has proved a mistake by its practical working...
“But, it is asked with some confidence, What is the missionary to do? Shall we leave the young church without a pastor? We ask in reply, Where in the New Testament is there any intimation that the Apostles ordained pastors, in the modern sense of that word, over the churches which they formed? We read over and again of their ordaining “elders” in every church, and that, having done so, they left them and went elsewhere. Where is there the slightest hint that, at this early period, any one from among these elders was singled out and appointed by Paul to a position like that of the modern minister or pastor of a church, or that until such an officer was found they did not dare to leave the church?” (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.73-74)
Having quoted the above from Nevius, some may wonder if I am against churches having pastors. The answer is no. I am fully supportive of churches having pastors at the appropriate stage of the church’s development. If a church has elders already and desires that one of those elders devote himself more fully to teaching the Word of God, and the congregation has the ability to provide a salary to free that elder up to allow him to do so, then great. However, if you have a small, poor congregation that is lacking elders, then getting elders should be a much higher priority than finding a pastor. This may take more time, energy, and prayer than finding a Bible school graduate from the outside who can come in and be pastor but it will provide better for the long term health of the church precisely because it follows the apostolic pattern of appointing elders in every church (Titus 1:5)