February 10, 2015

The Biblical Basis for Supporting Indigenous Missions

by Brittany Tedesco, with Bob Finley, Raul Hernandez, and Amie Cotton

Bob Finley (right) talks with Billy Graham and Walt Smith at a Youth for Christ meeting in 1947.

Back in the olden days (i.e., the 1950s) Bob Finley wasn’t the most popular guy around. In fact, some people viewed him as Public Enemy No. 1.

He’d introduced a new, and highly controversial, way of doing missions that was very different from the traditional model of sending missionaries overseas to foreign countries.

I can imagine the questions and misunderstandings. Indige-what? Are you suggesting we stop sending out missionaries? Don’t you care about the Great Commission?

Being a pioneer is tough. It takes strength and fortitude and a really thick skin.

I’m grateful he stuck with the vision God gave him. Fast forward to more than 60 years later and you’ll find many people have adopted this vision. As the effectiveness of native missionaries is more widely recognized, an increasing number of organizations have sprung up to support our hard-working native brethren. But not everyone is on board…

It’s Not All About the Benjamins

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In talking with people who are skeptical of the indigenous way, I've been quick to refer to the cost-effectiveness of supporting native missionaries. Because it’s an easy argument to make—no one can refute that it’s less expensive to support native missionaries, living the same meager lifestyle as those among whom they live, than it is to support an American family living in a foreign country. And don’t we want to be good stewards of Kingdom resources?

The problem with this argument is that God’s way of doing things isn’t always the least expensive way. I mean, He does own everything. Resources aren’t exactly a problem for Him.

Is there a better reason for supporting indigenous missions than just the cost-effectiveness? Can we find a biblical basis for it?

The Bible’s Model for Missions

Would it surprise you to learn that there’s no record in the New Testament of Christians going to share the gospel in foreign countries where they didn’t know the local languages? Nor is there a record that any of the original apostles ever went to a foreign country as foreign missionaries.

To the contrary, the strategy we find in the Bible is strikingly similar to the indigenous missions model.

But what about Matthew 28:19 (i.e., The Great Commission)? Does it not say “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”?

To correctly understand this passage, we need to first look at that word “nations,” which was translated from the original Greek word ethnos, meaning a group of people having their own distinct culture and language. The passage isn’t referring to countries with geographical boundaries, but people groups or ethnicities.

Okay, so how did Jesus’ followers “teach all nations” without traveling to faraway places to find them?

Answer: God brought the nations to them.

Every year, for the 50 days between Passover and Pentecost, pilgrims from all nations of the Roman Empire would gather together in Jerusalem. Josephus, the ancient historian, recorded that around one million of these pilgrims would have been present during these 50 days.

There in Jerusalem, where Jesus had commanded his disciples to wait, He poured out His Holy Spirit upon them and they began to speak in foreign tongues—tongues that were recognizable to the foreign visitors present.

You know what happened next. That day, 3,000 of these souls from nations throughout the Roman Empire believed and were baptized. For a time, they stayed together to fellowship and grow in faith…that is, until Saul of Tarsus showed up on the scene and started persecuting them (Acts 8).

All of them returned back from whence they came. And they brought the gospel back with them. “Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).

The disciples—the very ones who were given the Great Commission mandate—stayed put in Jerusalem.

The gospel spread throughout the world by native missionaries, if you will, who heard the gospel while away from home and brought the message back with them to their own people.

It’s likely Andronicus and Junias were two of these native missionaries who were present on the Day of Pentecost. Paul mentions them in Romans 16 as having been in Christ before he was. In fact, there were house churches all over Rome—and no foreign missionary had ever been to Rome. Paul tells them in Romans 1:8: “your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.”

But What About...

So let’s say you recognize the biblical model for doing missions as laid out in Acts, but you still have some questions about the indigenous way. For instance…

What about the risk that native missionaries will become dependent on foreign funding?

It’s a concern we hear quite often. To answer this, let’s first look to God’s Word. In the Bible, we don’t find any passage that discourages Christians with means from assisting those without means because it might cause dependency. To the contrary, we find nearly 100 verses encouraging God’s people to assist those less fortunate.

Obviously, this isn’t a green light to just indiscriminately start throwing money at any ministry that lacks resources. Careful oversight and accountability are crucially important when money is involved.

I can’t speak on behalf of other organizations that support indigenous ministries, but I know that Christian Aid Mission has a built-in safeguard against ministries becoming dependent on foreign funding. One of the criteria that ministries must meet to receive funding from Christian Aid is to already be at work, sharing Christ, in their own countries. We’re looking for people who won’t be stopped by money. They aren’t waiting for outside help—they’re using what little they have to do what they can. If the money stops, they might not be able to do as much, but their ministry won’t stop.

What about Western Christians who feel called to missions? Does the indigenous missions model deprive them of participating in the Great Commission?

To answer this question, we go back to the model we see in Acts. People from all nations were reached in Jerusalem by the apostles. We live in an increasingly global world. Most of us live in towns and cities comprised of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Reaching people of other nations (keeping in mind that “nation” in the Bible refers to people not places) right where you are is possible, and is of no lesser value than traveling overseas to do so.

In fact, if you’re willing, God can powerfully use you right in your own city. Just look at the example of Philip in Acts 8. While in Jerusalem, God directed him to share the gospel with a foreign visitor: the treasurer of Ethiopia, who was saved and baptized that day due to Philip’s witness.

In addition, you can participate in the Great Commission by praying and financially supporting indigenous ministries in other countries. The Bible teaches that Christians—no matter where we live—are one body and one family. We must approach missions as a global family. This means that we who have resources should help those who are better positioned to reach the unreached but who lack resources. We work together with them to establish a witness for Christ among all nations.

What about people who are completely unreached who don’t have a native missionary among them? Someone’s going to have to cross cultural barriers to reach them.

Correct, someone will have to make the step across that cultural barrier. How is this best done? To answer this question, we go again to the Scripture and look at the example of Paul, the first indigenous ministry leader. He planted churches among a people with whom he was culturally similar. In missions-speak, we call that “culturally near.”

Paul was a native of Cilicia, which was a part of Greece. Greek was his mother tongue but because he was a Roman citizen he could also speak Latin. After he came to Jerusalem as a foreign student to study with Gamaliel, God called him to return to Asia Minor as an apostle to his own people. Paul’s life work was among people who spoke his native languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (Acts 22).

To learn more about the biblical basis for supporting indigenous missions, watch this masterful presentation by Christian Aid Mission founder, Dr. Bob Finley, to whom credit is due in large part for this blog post.

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Brittany Tedesco - posted February 24, 2015
Dear Bryan, Thank you for your comment. The intent of this post was to demonstrate a biblical basis for the support of indigenous missions, not to denigrate cross-cultural missions. The ultimate reason Christian Aid Mission exists is to reach unreached people groups. To do this, we equip native missionaries with the resources they need to share Christ with the unreached in their nations. Contrary to “mobilizing” and “harnessing” them, we do not direct or instruct them in how to reach the unreached. Rather, we serve them by listening to their visions, goals, and needs; and then make those needs known to Christians in developed nations who can financially help them.You are correct that there are many groups of people in the world who’ve had no contact with a Christian. We believe these people are best reached by someone who is “culturally near” to them versus someone with whom they share no similarities. The reason for this is contextualization, which is so important so as not to portray the gospel as something foreign. God bless, Brittany
Bryan - posted February 24, 2015
I believe entirely in the need to mobilise and harness indigenous missions. I am involved in that myself. The idea though that cross-cultural missions cannot be supported biblically is erroneous and there are clear examples of apostles going "remote"and not so remote in church history. Also persecution came when the early disciples did NOT obey the Great Commission. It is a command to GO not to wait and have the nations come to us! Thomas going to S India is a clear example of an apostle going cross-cultural and very remote. The reason why most unreached remain unreached today is because the vast majority of those peoples do not KNOW a Christian. Jesus commands us to GO and until there is a percentage of people inside a a given UNREACHED people group they remain unreached. And need outside help. I believe in indigenous missions, but you cannot make a doctrine out of this as the ONLY WAY to do missions. Scripture and the commands of Jesus do NOT support it.
Kendrick - posted February 12, 2015
Good article. Another safeguard would be that missionaries are only paid about what the average person of their area makes. And another way Christians can engage in missions from where they are is online, such as the way Global Media Outreach does it.