Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 2, Number 1



C. Philip Slate
Harding Graduate School of Religion
Memphis, Tennessee

The contemporary interest in retaining converts, expressed in both popular and scholarly writings, is part of a long-standing concern for the welfare of both individual Christians and churches. This concern is justifiable on both theological and practical grounds.

Jesus often taught the need to persist in one's discipleship (Lk. 9:52; 14:25-35), and Paul was deeply concerned about the "bewitched" Galatian Christians who were in danger of leaving faith to return to the "works of the Law" (Gal. 3:1-5). A major thrust in both Hebrews and I Peter is to urge Christians to remain steadfast. A major objective of the Revelation was to cause Christians to overcome in the face of both religious and civil opposition.

At a practical level, neither supporting churches nor individual missionaries cherish the thought of investing years of work and enormous financial outlays in an evangelistic effort only to have nothing remain of that work two to four decades later.

Whether churches remain or disappear may be traced partially to human effort since even though "God gives the growth" (I Cor. 3:6), His workers "plant and water (v. 6a). To shift metaphors, as Paul does in the same text, God laid the foundation, Jesus Christ, but men "build on it" (3:10-15). The manner in which they build can produce differing results (vs. 12-15). Accordingly, Paul exhorted, "Let each man take care how he builds" (v. 10b). The focus in this article is on the divine-human enterprise of producing durable churches.


Evangelists cannot control or influence some factors which historically have caused churches to decline and even disappear. War and economics can force Christians to move to other areas in such numbers that the church is decimated. Persecution can wipe out a church of very committed people. The first wave of Nestorian work in China was completely destroyed by force. In our day, Churches in Beirut have been decimated.

It is not an ignoble thing for churches to be reduced by death (Rev. 13:14) or economics. But it should be of great concern to evangelizers when their own work may have a causative relationship to a church's durability.


From the second century forward, and perhaps even in the first century (Carrington 1940), many churches conducted oral instruction in preparation for baptism and thus church membership (Buchanan 1974:199). The instructional sections in the New Testament may have been presented both before and after baptism. Michael Green (1970:154ff) offers a useful discussion about the teachings on both sides of baptism and the underlying desire to produce durable Christians. Although the catechism movement had as a major purpose the production of meaningful and persistent membership, it may be questioned whether a Western European catechism, for example, has had that effect in other cultures.

In modern times some groups have sought to produce committed and long-term Christians by various discipleship programs which both precede and follow baptism (Ortiz 1975; Jones 1982; Coleman 1964). These programs have had mixed results, depending largely on the extent to which they followed Scripture and the level of intensity and application.

Theoretically, people do not need to decide whether pre or post-baptismal instruction is more determinative of longevity in Christ since both are called for by the very nature of biblical Christianity. But what is of concern here is the way in which individual Christians are formed into a viable local congregation. Many missionaries have learned the painful lesson that collecting a group of converts does not within itself constitute a durable congregation.


It is a given in the New Testament that although people may have been "saved" individually they were ultimately to function as a part of a group. Many of the metaphors of the church in the New Testament portray an organism of interrelated parts (Minear 1960), an example of which is found in Paul's metaphor of the body (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12). In recent years various missiologists have called attention to the need of "incorporation" and "organic growth" (Tippett 1973:149ff). Mellis (1976) has argued vigorously for para-church "committed communities," but he has in mind evangelistic groups rather than standing churches.

It seems additionally possible for a group of people to experience groupness and interrelatedness and still not remain as a viable church (Breytenback 1986). A group must evidently have certain components which will assist it in remaining vigorous and viable over time. Attention is now focused on some of these variables.

Three-Self Formula. In the nineteenth century two missionary executives, Henry Venn of the British Church Missionary Society and Rufus Anderson, a North American Congregationalist, were concerned about the lack of viable churches. They arrived almost simultaneously at what has been called the three-self formula: self-support, self-government, and self-propagation, terms created by Anderson. Theirs was a bold attempt to produce churches that would remain steadfast, but often it did not work. Stephen Neill argues that the premature withdrawal of the mission effort, leaving the church in the hands of the "native pastorate" in Sierra Leone in 1860, "inflicted on the Church a paralysis from which a whole century has not availed to deliver it" (1964:260). That failure could have been because the national preachers occupied a position which was alien to the local culture. For a useful historical and theological analysis of the hundred-year-old three-self formula, see Beyerhaus (1964).

Along this same line, Smalley has shown that a church in another culture may achieve self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating status and still be culturally irrelevant. It may have been taught a form of government, for example, which could be justified neither biblically nor culturally. The national preachers can be a product of a preacher training school whose curriculum is more suited to North America or Western Europe than the country in which they function. Smalley (1958) has clearly pointed out why churches may inaugurate the three-self formula and still remain culturally irrelevant and non-viable. This is not to say the three-self formula was always wrong within itself--only that it did not cover all of the necessary components which produce lasting churches.

Three Basic Movements. Another approach to the stabilization of churches is that of Daniel von Allmen (1975), a European then teaching in Sierra Leone. In historical perspective, as Christianity moves into new territory and eventually becomes relatively permanent, he claims, "it is difficult to distinguish temporally successive states in the way things developed;" but he feels three basic "movements" can be detected. (1) First comes the missionaries, those who engage in hard-line and mostly oral presentations of the Good News message. (2) Later, "translators" are needed, those people who are capable of translating the received faith for people of a different mentality (von Allmen 1975:42). Saayman presents three postures for such work (1990). Among other things, this may involve a faithful translation from Hebrew and Greek to the modern language in question, but it also involves preaching and teaching. (3) Eventually, a church needs an indigenous hymnody, what von Allmen calls "the poets." Poetry and hymns have an emotional as well as an intellectual component, and together make their way into the depths of the human being. Who can assess the facility the Psalms gave first to Israel and then to Christians who affirmed their faith? Von Allmen quotes Edmund Schlink as saying "the basic structure of God talk is not the doctrine of God but the worship of God." Both are necessary, but having an indigenous hymnody is a significant component of having a durable church (Goudeau 1980).

Additionally, von Allmen contends (4) that the church needs its "theologians," people who will be able to (a) serve the critical function of distinguishing Christianity from its rivals--in a sense, defending the faith--and (b) give some order to the expression of faith in the particular culture. It would be their function to hold people close to Christ in any and all of the discussions they may have about local concerns, whether spiritism, crass idolatry, cargoism, ritual drunkenness, etc.

Very often it is not until the second or third generation that new churches begin to raise questions about the gaps in what they have been taught. Often at that point reversion and syncretism occur. This raises the question about how people may be produced in another culture who are able to think both constructively and critically as they bring the biblical message to bear upon their own culture. There is no simple or singular answer to this need, but John Mbiti writes eloquently about the African who went to Western Europe and learned English, German, Greek, French, Latin, and Hebrew so he could study both the Bible and Bultmann, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Buber, Kung, Moltmann, Niebuhr, and Tillich; but upon returning to his native village as a wonder boy he had absolutely nothing meaningful to say when his married sister fell to the ground with a convulsion (Mbiti 1976). Long range training programs must be well thought out.


The broad principles, like those described by von Allmen, need to be adapted to culturally specific situations. The corrective measures Paul took among the Jews, as exemplified in Galatians, were different from those he had among the Gentiles, as exemplified in I Corinthians. While there is one Gospel, there are multiple applications of its principles. Sufficient time has not lapsed to give an accurate historical judgment on it, but the three-stage, twenty-eight steps of church development inaugurated among the Quiche churches of Christ in the Highlands of Guatemala is a good example of being biblically rooted and culturally specific. Ideally, each church was measured in terms of whether it had taken all twenty-eight of those steps--from initial contact, testifying to neighbors, and two or three families baptized, through such items as baptizing their own converts, having five or six family heads baptized, to the ability to discipline members as needed, practicing family worship, and starting a daughter church.

It is obvious that durable churches must have a steady supply of appropriate leaders. But leaders must be the type of people who are accepted as leaders in their own culture. In North America, we produce leaders in a kind of hothouse situation. In a number of cultures, one must qualify biologically to be a leader. Consequently, leadership training must be circumscribed by local concepts of leaders while being rooted deeply in Scripture and the nature of Christianity itself. This is a cultural specific which cannot be ignored if people are interested in producing churches that remain over decades.


The effort to start and nurture churches so they will exist over time is a challenging enterprise best carried out by people who are both informed and see themselves as working together with God. Much can be learned from churches and missionary societies that have done their work for 150 to 300 years, since sufficient time has passed to make good historical judgments. But in all those cases one must be sensitive to the differing theological postures occupied by the churches and missionary societies involved. Some churches have built-in limitations on their efforts to produce durable churches. The least contemporary workers can be expected to do is to be personally righteous, well acquainted with the whole thrust of Scripture, and missiologically informed.

Beyerhaus, Peter
1964 "The Three Selves Formula--Is It Built on Biblical Foundations?" International Review of Mission Vol. 53;393-407.
Breytenbach, Cilliers
1986 "The Corinthian Church in the First Century A.D.--A Living Church?" Missionalia 14:4 (April)3-13.
Buchanan, Colin
1975 "Catechism." The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas et al. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House; pp. 199-201.
Carrington, Philip
1940 The Primitive Christian Catechism. Cambridge: University Press.
Coleman, Robert E.
1964 The Master Plan of Evangelism. Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co.
Goudeau, Eugene
1980 Toward an Indigenous Hymnody. M.A. Thesis, Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, Tennessee.
Green, Michael
1970 Evangelism in the Early Church. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Jones, Milton
1982 Discipling--The Multiplying Ministry. Fort Worth: Star Bible & Tract Corp.
Mbiti, John S.
1976 "Theological Impotence and the Universality of the Church." Mission Trends. No. 3. Third World Theologies. Edited by Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Strnasky. Grand Rapids: Wm. JB. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Mellis, Charles J.
1976 Committed Communities: Fresh Streams for World Missions. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.
Minear, Paul S.
1960 Images of the Church in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Neill, Stephen
1964 A History of Christian Missions. A Pelican History of the Church. Vol. 6. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Inc.
Ortiz, Juan Carlos
1975 Call to Discipleship. Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International.
Saayman, W. A.
1990 "Intercultural Evangelization." Missionalia 18:3 (November) 308-19.
Smalley, William A.
1958 "Cultural Implications of an Indigenous Church." Practical Anthropology. Vol. 5 No. 2. 5:2 (March-April) 51-65.
Tippett, Alan R.
1973 Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.
von Allmen, Daniel
1975 "The Birth of Theology." International Review of Mission. 64 (January) 37-55.  

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