In ministry, we must think and work like a missionary. It doesn’t matter where we live or how we serve. Our effectiveness is contingent upon our ability to work with a missionary mindset. That means we are going to have to read the culture, engage the people with the gospel and, more than anything else, work to raise up indigenous leaders.

Indigenous is defined as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place.” Indigeneity, its derivative, is the term we use when referring to a specific way of doing ministry. David Garrison says indigeneity means “to be generated from within.” It means we work in a way that is natural, normal, and not fabricated. It is a strategy for doing ministry that limits outside resources, tools, methods and leaders. Everything that is unnatural must be limited.

Cultural missionaries raise up leaders from within a culture in order to reflect the people they minister to and serve. On the most basic level, it is developing leaders from within a culture and using them as leaders, and if this is a biblical strategy that works on foreign fields, then it will work in the United States as well.

Working to develop local leaders is crucial to a ministry’s long term growth and development. If we are not creating leaders from within, we will eventually hit growth barriers that limit our effectiveness causing eventual death. Someone has compared non-indigenous ministries to a greenhouse plant that requires special care to keep it alive. Non-indigenous ministries require plenty of outside leaders, external financial sources and abnormal methods to keep them growing, and as such, they eventually face seasons of decline and death.

Raymond Tillman describes indigeneity as an agricultural term, and there is an interesting relationship between its agricultural and missiological use. Our effectiveness is contingent upon our ability to develop every day leaders for the kingdom of God. It may be easier in the short term to do everything ourselves or to pay professional staff to do it, but without a strategy to develop local leadership, our ministries are greenhouse plants at best, and their growth will only be seasonal.

Working to develop local leaders is crucial to a ministry’s long term growth and development.

We need to constantly evaluate our ministries to see if we are working indigenously. Asking hard questions will always pay off in the end. Here are a few questions to thoroughly consider.

  1. Is it simple? Does it take professional, well-trained staff people with seminary degrees to pull it off, or, can we train the average person in our community to do it?
  2. Is it sustainable? In other words, if we left, would our ministries continue to function at a high level? For decades, missionaries have described sustainability in terms of “The Three Selfs.” Are our ministries self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating? If we have raised up solid leaders from within, the ministry will be financially, missionally and structurally healthy. If not, it will always need outside help.
  3. Is it affordable? If it takes a significant amount of extra money to function, it will not stand the test of time. Extra money always runs out.
  4. Is it reproducible? Can someone else do it in an effective way within their own community setting? With minimal cultural adjustments, can it be duplicated in another area?

Jerry Rankin, former president of the International Mission Board, defined an indigenous church as one that meets regularly for worship, proclaims Christ to unbelievers in their community, chooses its own leadership and administers the ordinances.

Multihousing missionaries are a great example of this principle in practice.  They use the acronym PEOPLE to outline their work. They pray fervently for the community.  Then they engage the people and open and share the Word of God. They prepare key leaders to launch sustainable ministries.  And once local leaders have a handle on their ministry, the missionary exits carefully.

What a great model for doing indigenous ministry.  So let’s take a long hard look, evaluate what we’re doing and make course corrections where needed. In the end, our ministries will be better off for it.