Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

The Three-Selves Formula (1)

One of the blogs I regularly read is http://persecutedchurch.blogspot.com. Some time ago Glenn Penner posed the question: Is the Three-Self Formula Still Relevant? What followed after that was a bit of a heated discussion between him and myself (but to be honest, I wasn’t heated and I do believe he misunderstood me and things were put right afterwards, for which I am very thankful 😉 If you are interested in this topic, you should read what he says and then also read the comments (at present 17 of them). Then you will also better understand why I have been reading the books of Schwarz and Rowell over the past few weeks.
I assume that all students of missiology are familiar with the three-selves formula. But then, I’m not writing here only for missiologists and therefore a very short explanation of the three-selves formula is appropriate. In 1854 and 1856 (specific dates debatable), two missionaries, Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, independently of each other, said that the three signs of an indigenous church are that they should be self-propagating, self-governing and self-supporting. John Nevius, who also lived in the times of Venn and Anderson, further popularised this so-called “three-self” paradigm. Since that time it has almost universally been accepted that these three characteristics should be present before a church can be considered to be indigenous. I was taught these principles at university and have on more than one occasion heard, during mission meetings, how important it is that these principles should be adhered to in the church in Swaziland.
It was only when I started working on my PhD that I found to my surprise that serious missiologists were actually questioning this viewpoint. Somewhere along the line, while busy with me preparatory studies, I had to evaluate this formula critically and then realised that I’m not so sure that I could fully agree with this anymore.
I have many concerns about this issue and will be returning to this topic over the next few days. My main concern is that, of the three points of the formula, only one is really important for people in Western churches. No prize for the correct answer! Western churches don’t want to be in the position any longer where they have to support “mission churches”. Many are looking for ways to get out of their commitments and this seems like an honourable way to take this step. (I may be generalising but I am also speaking from personal experience where a group of churches in South Africa who had been supporting our work in Swaziland for many years have now decided to withdraw and this is one of their – almost Biblical-sounding – arguments used to motivate the decision). If I can withdraw my money while convincing those who had received help that I am in fact doing them a huge favour otherwise they will never become an indigenous church, then it doesn’t sound so bad!
Obviously this is not how Venn and Anderson meant it when they formulated their viewpoint. But with time, this is what it has become (to a very large extent, at least). So my question remains: Is this formula really relevant today? Are there other things we need to look for in an indigenous church? And what about support from churches who have more? Is this right or is this wrong? What about co-dependency?
Please feel free to join me in this discussion. I must be honest and say that I don’t have a final answer. I’m looking for a better answer than the one we have at present. Writing about this is therefore my way of trying to get my thoughts in place. If you have a contribution to make, please do so.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007 - Posted by | Dependency, Giving, Indigenous church, Partnership, Poverty, Rowell, Schwarz, Swaziland, Theology, Three-Self, Three-Selves


  1. What first comes to mind is how we should go about formulating a policy on this? Should we look to scripture (particularly Acts)as normative? Should we not be bound to that, but view today with purely modern eyes? Should we make an across the board policy for all “indigenous churches” or should it be a case-by-case process?

    If I read the New Testament correctly, Paul spoke of certain churches supporting others (namely the Jerusalem church). If we are all ONE BODY, then why would it be wrong, incorrect, co-dependent, etc. to share what we have with others as the need arises?

    I do think, however, that as ANY church becomes more established and receives more members, that the members should do all they can to support their own church through volunteering, tithing, etc. If a church is in desperate poverty, then they can share what they have, but also know that other churches who G-d has blessed materially can and will share with them.

    Sometimes I think theologians, et all over think things like this. But then, I’m sure you’ve been thinking of this for far longer than I have and there may be serious reasons why this would be an issue.

    Just some of my thoughts at nearly 2am in the morning. 😀

    Comment by Maya | Tuesday, September 11, 2007 | Reply

  2. I’m still planning to come back to what I’m writing now, but according to Rowell Christian Americans (that’s the only info I have) are giving away in total about 2.6% of their income. Only 6% are tithing. Seen the other way around, Rowell says that Christians are keeping 97.4% of their income for themselves. This doesn’t sound Biblical. Yet, many Christians are defending themselves by using the Three-selves argument. But I’m also interested in the topic because our church is slightly on the receiving side. I have to test myself to ensure that we are still doing the right thing.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Tuesday, September 11, 2007 | Reply

  3. Great post!

    It’s ironic that Western agencies don’t want to be fincancially supporting churches any more, but many of those same churches want to have a firm grip on the theologies of those churches

    Comment by wlh | Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | Reply

  4. Nonetheless, one of the facts in the case of foreign money is that is may (not always) stifle the growth of the church. In many unreached areas, missionaries are very careful about introducing foriegn money. They don’t advocate church plants having paid pastors. They are moving toward house churches (a la Wolfgang Simson Houses that Change the World ) so churches won’t have to buy the buildings they can’t afford. In some contexts, like South America, American mission teams come in a build a building for a local church. If something happens to the building, the church expects the Americans to come and take care of their building. These are some of the dangers of foreign money. BUT…

    How could a ministry, like yours, tackling AIDS be combatted solely by local financial support. The problem is so pervasive and so devastating, to aid in providing medicine, proper medical care, education, etc, it takes more money than G8 is willing to provide. This is not to say that the gospel cannot advance. The gospel has always advanced through such plagues. Take the ministry of the Puritans during the plagues in London, for example. Christians adopting exposed children during Roman times. Christians ministering to the dying during the barbaric sieges of the late Roman Empire era. Christians didn’t need money to accomplish the great acts of mercy in those days. NOTE: This Islamic Brotherhood, for instance, in Egypt, isn’t dependent of large sums of money to play an important social role during times of crises. Their “ministries” are one reason why radical Islam has survived strongly in Egypt (Wahabi Islam, think Osama bin Laden, was born out of Egypt).

    Our problem is that we feel obligated (and are obligated in light of our great financial blessings) to assist in these two-thirds world situations because part of the problem was caused by Colonial Christian Expansion. Our forefathers helped cause this problem, we should try to help resolve it by all means we have. So, in some contexts, the three-selves formula will have to be applied differently because of different histories.

    In China, home to Nevius and others, the idea of indigineity took so long to take root because of years of abuse. Its not that missionaries wanted dependent churches, its that they had to move churches from dependency to independency without recking them. God intervened with Communism in 1949, but the church has survived and thriving. In the 21st century, we have become impatient, more willing to take our money and run for the sake of a principle without considering the history of the situation. Yeah, churches will survive, they might not thrive as well because of the pain inflicted by other Christians; its easier to blame communists than brothers.

    Comment by wlh | Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | Reply

  5. wlh, your remark about theology is absolutely true. I will be coming back to this later, but both Rowell and Schwarz mention this and feel that something like “self-theologising” should also become important for an indigenous church.
    I really appreciate your second remark above. Well thought through and true. I have a draft copy of Simson’s book. Interestingly, this concept does not seem to work well in Swaziland. We’ve tried it, but the feeling seems to be that they are imposing themselves upon others when coming together in houses. I’ve not been able to determine why they feel like this, as they are normally very open to visit each other and during times of sickness or death the community seems to more or less take over the household. But whatever the reason, I’ve failed to establish this concept in Swaziland. They still prefer a central place to meet for “official” church services.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | Reply

  6. […] The Three-Selves Formula (1) […]

    Pingback by Self-supporting churches: Are we there yet? « A Mission-Driven Life | Saturday, September 15, 2007 | Reply

  7. Not all missions organizations that have funded indigenous church planting are interested in imposing Western theology on their foreign counterparts. Much of the conversation in the Assemblies of God theological circles centers on the importance of non-Western theologies informing the entire body of doctrine in the global church.

    Comment by Murphy | Thursday, March 21, 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks for that comment. I fully agree with you.

      Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, March 21, 2013 | Reply

  8. […] –       Three-Self Formula: three signs of an indigenous church are that they should be self-propagating, self-governing and self-supporting. https://missionissues.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/the-three-selves-formula-1/ […]

    Pingback by Missiology Terms | JoshLassiter | Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | Reply

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