The Three "Selfs" of Indigenous Churches

Mission Briefing: Ideas that Shape World Mission Outreach Today

How the Three-Self Formula Came into Existence

More than a hundred and fifty years ago, Anglican missionary strategist Henry Venn insisted that the churches resulting from foreign missionary work -- including that of his own denomination, the Church of England -- should be sustainable "indigenous" or "native" churches.

That doesn't sound all that revolutionary, does it? However, in the 1800s, many people thought missionaries were sent to other countries to pastor churches of new believers. If and when local people from newly evangelized areas became pastors, their financial support was provided by or at least supplemented with foreign money. In addition to controlling finances, missionaries remained the voice of authority on many levels. As one might guess, such churches frequently felt like foreign transplants to the people they were trying to reach.

Venn, along with American missions leader Rufus Anderson, argued that New Testament-style churches should have local leaders. In addition, those churches would be financed locally, and they would be doing effective evangelism, discipleship, and church planting on their own with local resources.

Venn said these native or indigenous churches would be:

  1. Self-supporting
  2. Self-governing
  3. Self-propagating

Coming up with those three "selfs" was an attempt to highlight how churches needed to move away from being forever tied to missionary leadership and funding. Venn wanted to encourage churches to forsake a deadening dependency on foreign initiative, foreign money, and foreign personnel. He wanted churches in Kenya to feel like Kenyan churches and churches in Brazil to feel vibrantly Brazilian.

The three "selfs" were not out-of-reach, pie-in-the-sky ideals that few, if any, congregations could ever achieve. Nor did Venn see a necessity for decades to pass before churches could put achievement check marks beside each of the "selfs." Venn and others promoted self-support, self-government, and self-propagation as core values or guiding principles that would shape congregational life and ministry from each church's beginning days. The "selfs" were "best practices" standards to help church leaders envision what would be sustainable, culturally appropriate, and reproducible in every context.

Over time, questions arose as to whether Venn's three "selfs" were comprehensive enough. After all, it was possible for a self-supporting, self-governing. and self-propagating congregation to still seem somewhat foreign to its cultural context. For that reason, in the late 1900s, Paul Hiebert and David Bosch began saying that truly indigenous churches would also be self-theologizing. This fourth self meant that indigenous congregations would be thoughtfully applying biblical values, ethics, and principles to the issues and challenges of their cultural contexts.

Three or four other "selfs" have been proposed, including that of self-expressing. Self- expressing means worshiping and ministering in a manner reflecting the church members' culture, including, but not limited to, music styles, types of teaching/preaching, meeting places, and programming.

A case can be made that Venn's original list self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating needs to be a bit longer. Still, we must acknowledge that Venn did the Church of Jesus Christ a great service by suggesting three criteria of truly indigenous churches, criteria which in no way prevented them from being unashamedly biblical as well as firmly connected to a global denomination.

Discussion questions

  1. What were the three "selfs" that Henry Venn said should characterize indigenous churches, and why were they important?
  2. How did the three-self formula come into existence, and what problem was it meant to address?
  3. Why might some argue that Venn's original list of three "selfs" needs to be longer, and what value can be attached to some of the proposed additions?
  4. How can the three (or four) "selfs" be used to help churches be resilient, sustainable, culturally appropriate, and reproducible?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This 500-word mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is one of 12 articles in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.

How the Three Selfs Have Been Misused

The "Three-Self Principles" (the concepts of self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation that have fostered healthy churches worldwide) were co-opted by one government. and used to control Christian churche in that country. Initially presented as a means to help religious organizations be free from undue foreign influence, the Three-Self Principles became a mechanism for controlling Christians.

Here's how a currupted version of the Three-Self Principles has been used to isolate and control churches in one country:

In short, while the distortion of the Three-Self Principles in one large country was initially presented as a desire for the chur hes to be autonomous, those principles, or rather a warped version of them, served to isolate and control churches, ensuring their allegiance to the government and suppressing any challenges to political party's policies and authority.

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