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At the end of his classic work, “The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches”, veteran missionary John Nevius has a chapter of advice to new missionaries, including many relevant comments on language study and the timing of beginning the work of ministry. Here’s some excerpts:
Avoiding Distraction from Language Study“It may well be a matter of congratulation that the newly arrived missionary is exempt for the first year or two from the pressure and responsibility of deciding the many questions of mission policy upon which he must form an opinion at a later period. Whatever department of work he may devote himself to in the future, there is no room for doubt that his first duty is to give his time and energies to the thorough acquisition of the language as a necessary prerequisite to usefulness in work of any kind. For this it is of the greatest advantage to be free, as far as possible, from cares and interruptions of every description.” (p.83)
It has been asked whether missionaries should support themselves with secular employments (rather than accept full-time paid support) for the sake of being a good example to believers? A missionary working full-time in the secular world without monetary support from home would be a benefit to the church in two ways: 1) gives an example of living out the Christian life in the secular world, with integrity and hard work and Gospel witness, and 2) gives an example of how one can do ministry and work in the secular world at the same time.Many Thai churches are very small (less than 50 people) and can not afford to support a full time pastor or church planter. If the missionary church planter sets the precedent (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that “real” ministry can only be done by a full time paid professional, then the expansion of the church could be hindered as those with a heart for evangelism and serving the Lord think that they need to quit their job and go to Bible school before then can “really” be a minister of the Gospel. For many Thai Christians with a heart to serve, and a call to ministry, bi-vocational pastoring and church planting is probably the most viable option that will not be a burden to them and their families, and beneficial to the planting and development of new churches.
When a church building goes up on the mission field, everybody feels good. The missionary feels good. The local believers feel good. The church back home feels good. Having a church building gives the impression that a church has been established. It is a visible sign of the Christian faith in a community. Everybody feels good that the Gospel is advancing and the presence of a church building is a sign of that advance. Or is it?When the construction of a church building is largely funded by foreign money, the presence of a church building is not a true reflection of the strength and numbers of a local church. Also, if missionaries (or their home churches) are always standing by ready to supply money for newly established churches on the mission field to build church buildings, then this desire to be helpful can foster two wrong ideas: 1) church buildings are necessary in order to be a “real” church and, 2) if you need money, look to the missionary (or the well intentioned short-term visitors from their home church). When the foreign missionaries and their churches are seen as sure sources of money, then the local believers’ motivation to give financially to their own church is lessened and local believers are less likely to make decisions that the missionary doesn’t agree with. If they do, then there is the fear that perhaps the money supply will be cut off. In this way, independent decision making and partnership in the Gospel as equals is diminished. A patron-client relationship harkening back to the days of colonialism is unintentionally nurtured.
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?
It is always good to know that someone is speaking from experience and not just theory. Therefore, following on from my previous post about Nevius’ thoughts on finding local leaders, I wanted to share Nevius’ account of how he and his missionary colleagues made the mistake of appointing elders too hastily:“Twenty years ago our mission in considering this subject reasoned on this wise: We are Presbyterians, and our churches should be organized from the first on Presbyterian principles. If we cannot get men for elders as well qualified as we should like, we must take the best men we can find, men who seem sincere and earnest Christians, and who may develop in character and ability to fulfill the duties of elders by having the duties and responsibilities of this office laid upon them. With these views and expectations several churches were formally and constitutionally organized. It was found, however, in not a small proportion of cases that the elders did not, or could not, perform their official duties, and were an obstruction to any one else attempting to do so. They were placed in a false position, injurious to themselves and the churches of which they had the nominal charge. Some were hardly able to sustain the character of an ordinary church member and others were in a course of few years excommunicated. We then took action as a Presbytery, determining that
Every missionary wants to develop indigenous local leaders so that an indigenous church may be established. When there are not many local Christians to choose from, it can be difficult to find the right people, especially those that are Biblically qualified. With many years of experience under his belt as a missionary in China, John Nevius had that following to say on the subject:
"It is only natural that missionaries should at first seek and employ many native agents. They are anxious for immediate results, and home societies and the home churches are as impatient to hear of results as the missionaries are to report them. No communications from the field seem so indicative of progress, and are so calculated to call forth commendation and generous contributions as the announcement that native laborers have been obtained, and are preaching the gospel. While the missionary himself is for months or years debarred from evangelistic work by his ignorance of the language, a native agency stands waiting his employ. His circumstances and his wishes add stong emphasis to the oft-repeated truism, "China must be evangelized by the Chinese." So urgent seems the necessity to obtain native assistants that if such as he would like are not forthcoming, he is glad to avail himself of such as he can get. How many of us have thought in connection with some specially interesting inquirer, even before he is baptized, "What a capital assistant that man might make." (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.21)
There is a church that my wife and I know well where almost none of the people on the church leadership committee are qualified to be there (this church uses a leadership committee instead of an elder board, deacon board, or some other form of church government). Sure they are aware of passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that lay out the Biblical qualifications for elders but those requirements don't seem to be very important to them. As in the time of Nevius,