SELF-SUSTAINING CHURCH MODELS
A MISSION DIALOGUE
By CLAIRE T C CHONG, Research and Training Associate at SCGM
Short-term mission trips have come to a grinding halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has given Singapore churches a precious opportunity to stop from our relentless busyness and deeply reflect on the way we do missions. An SCGM research team engaged with 18 local pastors and 22 missionaries from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand (CLMT) in one-on-one interviews and focus group discussions. This article presents a summary of their collective thoughts, which were presented at ‘Self-Sustaining Church Models: A Mission Dialogue’ on the 22 August 2020 attended by mission workers from CLMT and mission leaders from about 60 Singapore churches and organisations.
Three key learning points were noted.
Shift the Centre of the Life of Church from Building to Community, Experts to Lay
A Cambodian pastor and denominational leader shared, “COVID has been a challenge, but at the same time an opportunity. Without COVID, we would not have taken the effort to explore new ways of doing ministry.”
The pandemic helped mission workers to realise that in the ‘old’ way, the life of the church is primarily expressed through formally organised programs centralised at church buildings, led by ‘experts’ or specially trained leaders to handle specialised resources (including foreign curricular resource) and methods.
This could be in part a reason for shallow discipleship which is a common lament of many local pastors. It was noted that doctrinal and denominational concerns often take precedence over local issues and matters of the heart, and the application of literacy methods of learning to oral and relational learners makes lessons incomprehensible. A pastor from Myanmar shared, “The experience of how our people receive your [foreigners’] ideas and methods is very different.”
Re-imagining ministry in new ways require a shift in mindset of honouring local wisdom and resources over foreign ingenuity. The life of the church needs to be re-expressed, or expressed primarily, through daily customs and local ways of doing things. In so doing, ministry methods, such as those of evangelism and discipleship, can be rendered more accessible to ordinary God-fearing Christians and thus more reproducible.
Employ Locally-Resourced Methods to Move Towards Financial Sustainability
Concerns of financial sustainability is a prevalent and worrisome problem that weighs the minds of local pastors. One pastor bore his burdened heart, “They [foreign mission leaders] tell us about exit strategy: every year cut 20% of funding, but they don’t show us how to do it. It is like making bricks without straw.”
Self-sustaining mission has been characterised as self-governing, self-propagating and self-supporting. Many are able to give ticks for the first two (or at least what looks like them), but not the third. However, solving the issue of finance may not be just about finding money from elsewhere to operate a certain established way of doing church. It may require a re-modelling of ministry methods.
What are some cost items that local churches need foreign aid? Pastor’s salary, maintenance of church building, maintenance of vehicles for transporting church members from the villages to church in town, paying for annual church-family camp at a beach resort, running Easter and Christmas outreach events and English outreach classes.
Could we not envisage a different approach such that the life of the church does not depend on expensive resources? Pastors could be bi-vocational. Establish house churches in various villages/neighbourhoods. Have a picnic fellowship at a local scenic spot. Do a village/neighbourhood outreach project inviting even the non-Christian community to contribute and participate. Try ‘kitchen evangelism,’ ‘gossiping’ Bible stories, and family to family outreach.
We all know that common idiom: Don’t give them fish; teach them to fish. But what methods of fishing are we teaching?
Develop Constructive Relationships with Local Communities
A seminary lecturer from Myanmar pleads for the re-thinking of the purpose of church’s existence in the society and re-shaping of the church’s standing in local communities. Churches tend to be exclusive and segregated from the life of the community. Churches who depend on foreign funds take pains to maintain foreign relations but neglect local relations. Furthermore, in the eyes of the non-Christian community, Christians do not have a favourable and winsome reputation.
“For a local church to be self-sustaining, it needs to be very much part of the community,” says a missionary who served in Thailand. “Don’t be secretive, build relationship with the village headman,” advises another missionary who serves in Laos. Develop peace-making relations, participate in inter-faith dialogues and activities, make the presence of the church felt in the life of the community through good works and supporting local development projects.
Conclusion: 5-Local (5Ls) Framework of Self-sustaining Church Models
When God sent Moses on the mission to free Israel from Egypt, Moses jittered at the thought of the immense task. In response, God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?” to which Moses replied, “A staff” (Exodus 4:2). We know this story well of how God performed great miracles through the unassuming shepherd’s stick. God used the resource that was in Moses’ hand.
Developing from Henry Venn’s 3-self principles and Paul Hiebert’s “fourth self”, the conference puts forward the 5L framework of self-sustaining church models.
- Local Decisions – In contrast to the approach of indigenisation in which foreigners set up a foreign system and train local leaders to take over; the approach of indigeneity empowers local leaders to be involved in the decision-making process from the start.
- Local Resources – Local churches should use the God-given gifts and assets that they already have among themselves and in their communities.
- Local Methods – Local churches should craft ministry methods that are fashioned after local modes of doing things and that are easily reproducible.
- Local Theology – Biblically-sound, Christ-centred responses need to be constructed by local Christians to local issues and communicated through relatable language.
- Local Community – Local churches should be an integral part of the life of the community and a key stakeholder in society.
The interviews with local pastors and missionaries and the 8 case studies discussed at Mission Dialogue are available on the Mission Resource Hub App.