An indigenous church is one that has been planted in a new environment, taken root and grows and thrives without outside support. People in the community do not see a cultural barrier between themselves and members of the church and conclude that any differences between them and the members of this church are due to their spiritual beliefs. The faith remains true to its roots, unmixed with local spiritual beliefs and practices, but lifestyle and culture have adapted to the new environment.
The three self principle
These principles of an indigenous church in another land or culture were first described 150 years ago by a Christian missionary. I was a little put off at first because Communist China has appropriated the three self label for what is essentially a state-controlled church. But I haven’t found a better way to describe the working of an indigenous church.
1) Self-governing. The faith has taken root in the new location and local leaders can be trusted to replace the missionaries. They are grounded in the faith and following the lead of the Holy Spirit. From now on the local church will make its own decisions with an understanding of the local culture that a missionary can never quite attain.
2) Self-supporting. Members are giving sacrificially to their church and it is able to meet its own needs. Outside financial support, except in cases of dire emergency, will undermine the local church and damage relations between them and the churches in other countries.
3) Self-propagating. This church will extend its ministry in its local area and beyond without outside help. If we wish to spread the gospel around the world we need to establish churches that will then start other churches.
The Great Commission says “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The Greek word that is here translated teach is the verb form of the noun that means disciple. Thus, Jesus is telling us to go and make disciples in all nations. It is not enough to baptize new converts, they need to be discipled: taught, mentored, and encouraged so that they are equipped to help disciple others. “. . . the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).