Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

The Three-Selves Formula (2)

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Maya asked why the three-selves is an issue? I think it is an issue, because for many people this formula is almost as indisputable as the gospel. Obviously, if they are correct in believing that the three-selves formula summarises everything we need to know about indigenous churches, then I’m happy with the situation. But what if they are wrong? How could this influence people’s involvement in missions?
Rowell discusses the background of this paradigm as formulated by Henry Venn in detail. I’ll try to summarise in a few sentences what he writes in an entire chapter: For more than 30 years, Venn was the director of the Anglican Church Mission Society. He had three primary goals which he wanted to achieve:

  1. to end the African slave trade
  2. to assert the basic rights of indigenous peoples living under British rule in the various British colonies
  3. to reform the British missionary practice of insisting on foreign control of national congregations

If Rowell is correct (and I believe he is, as this history is well documented in his book) then it seems as if the three-selves were formulated, not primarily to convince the mission churches to become more indigenous, but rather to force the missionaries and the home church in England to allow the mission churches to become more indigenous. Mainly Venn was concerned that the local people should govern their own church instead of having people from outside deciding how things should be done.
Another interesting fact which he mentions is that Venn, when implementing the self-supporting part of the formula in practice in his own ministry, had little concern that financial assistance was given from outside. What he was more concerned about was that there should be one fund only into which all money is paid and that the local church leaders then take responsibility on how to distribute the money.
My personal concern (Maya – the reason why I consider this to be an important issue) is that many Christians may be using a misinterpreted understanding of Venn and Anderson’s Three-Selves formula to free themselves of Godly obligations towards Christians who are truly in dire need. Should we understand the background of this formula more correctly, it may mean that we could become involved with churches who are not financially as strong as we are, without jeopardising their wish to be truly indigenous. But we’re not through with the topic yet, because I also realise that its not a matter of either this viewpoint or that viewpoint.
A last remark for today: I’ve had quite a lot of thoughtful responses on this topic. I really appreciate you spending your valuable time reading my posts and then spending even more time in leaving your thoughts. Please keep on reading and responding.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - Posted by | Dependency, Giving, Indigenous church, Mission, Partnership, Poverty, Rowell, Schwarz, Swaziland, Theology, Three-Self, Three-Selves


  1. The danger is when the receiving church views its ministry as being dependent on money. Jesus told Peter to go get the tax money from the mouth of a fish. God is able and willing to provide. Churches must always view themselves as dependent on God for resources, even if the funds come from a church from another country.

    Also, nationals have to own their church. They are responsible for the building (if they have one), paying the leadership (if they pay leadership), and for carrying on the gospel ministry (which they better have). I can share a testimony of my wife’s church in Kazakhstan.

    This church is a multi-ethnic church in a multi-ethnic country, though most of the members are Kazakh. The church views itself as a Kazakh church. Which is quite something since Kazakh’s traditionally view themselves as Muslims (though they really aren’t, okay, some are, but most aren’t). SBC missionaries from America came into the country shortly before the fall of the wall in 1989. They led many of the first Kazakh believers to the Lord. My wife’s twin sister, at 14, was the first Kazakh believer in her village. All the while American missionaries were making converts, a perservering S Korean missionary was gathering a church. For 10 years the church functioned under a G12 cell-group model. They did gather weekly in rented halls as a whole body, but the function of the church went on mostly through the cell groups (I think). All the while, the S Korean missionary functioned as the head pastor, though he was raising several Kazakh pastors. After 10 years, the pastors, note the plural, felt God wanted them to have a building. Russians have their orthodox buildings, Muslims have their mosques. They believed God was calling them to erect a building as a testimony to Kazakhstan that Kazakhs don’t have to be Muslims. They only needed $500,000 to purchase the land!!!

    It was nice land, in the best part of the largest city in Kazakhstan. Where would they get that money? They not only needed $500,000, but they needed it in a month to purchase the land from the owners. They prayed as a church. The first thing they did was pledge their own money. Then, people began to auction off their valuables. Some sold their apartments and bought smaller domeciles, giving the difference to the church. Some put off advanced education in order to work and put money to the project. AND…

    The pastor shared his requests with his Korean supporters. American teams who had visited in the past, were notified of the need.

    The church raised, I believe, $75,000 themselves. The rest was given, no strings attached to the church. KEY: NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

    They bought the land. Unfortunately, the government has yet to issue the church a permit to build, but in the meantime the land value has skyrocketed to over $3,000,000.

    What happened in Kazakhstan is that the church did not and does not see itself as dependent on outside financial support, even though it has received such support. I think one thing that has helped them overcome any temptation there is that the church is a missionary sending church. They have sent missionaries, including national pastors to China, Mongolia, the capital city of Kazakhstan and several smaller cities and villages. The fact that the church is self-propogating, and that frequently, trumps any charges of dependency, for them.

    I wonder how other churches in the receiving position could learn from that situation. That church owns the gospel. It is not a foreign religion, but a new way of living, as it should be.

    Comment by wlh | Thursday, September 13, 2007 | Reply

  2. What a great testimony! Thanks for sharing that. I can just sense that this is the type of thing which should be happening all over. Three things which you mention which I think is of the utmost importance is that the local church did not sit back and wait for help to come from outside before doing anything. Secondly, that when help was given, it was given with no strings attached (I had already made a note before to post something about this, as I also believe this to be of the utmost importance) and then thirdly that the local church “owns” the gospel. We still have so much to learn from these young churches (young in age, not young in spiritual maturity).

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, September 13, 2007 | Reply

  3. “The goal of maturity is not independence but interdependence, as we are a body.”

    Comment by Epeuthutebetes | Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | Reply

  4. I agree with you, although I would consider interdependence not as THE goal of maturity, but as ONE of the goals of maturity – but definitely a very important goal (John 17)

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | Reply

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