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.