Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

The Three-Selves Formula (3)

I was in a meeting on Tuesday where it was once again said (I’ve heard it many times before) that the future of missions to a large extent will be initiated through Africa and Asia. The Western church, which was responsible for bringing the gospel to large parts of Africa and Asia, are no longer and will no longer be the main role-players in the act of reaching the unreached.
If the West is unable to impact the world effectively and, due to various circumstances, Africa and Asia are presently better equipped to do this work, then the question may be asked whether the Western churches still have any role to play. Are they going to disappear from the scene in order for the churches in Africa and Asia to fulfill God’s vision of the gospel being proclaimed up to the ends of the earth? Chris Marantika, a theologian from Indonesia, does not think so. He sees the world as God’s playground in which He wants to have total control. Marantika then proposes an alternative to the Three-Selves paradigm in which he invites churches from all over the world to take hands and to play together, pray together and pay together in order to proclaim God’s salvation through Christ in all places. In that way, according to Marantika, all churches can still be part of the work that needs to be done. The Western churches will obviously not be the ones dictating how the work should be done, but they will still be part of the solution.
Personally I do have some reservations about Marantika’s viewpoint, as it could so easily lead to a situation which is experienced by many missionaries today that all obligations are fulfilled once people have prayed and sent a cheque to have the work done. I don’t think that Marantika has this in mind, but knowing people, it could very easily lead to such an undesirable situation. But I mention this as one of a few alternatives to the Three-Selves formula which seem to have become outdated or at least misinterpreted in our times.
Rowell also proposes an alternative – not a threefold formula, but one principle which he believes may be crucial in future mission projects, and this is sustainability. Quoting John 15:16 where Jesus commands us to bear fruit that will last, he says the question should not be whether we invest in missions but rather where and how we invest to generate lasting results, even after the missionary had left.
And this, I think, may be one of the greatest challenges which Western churches will be facing in missions. This calls for much greater involvement on a personal level, where churches prayerfully seek God’s will, not whether they should be involved, but where and how they could become involved in order to help in a sustainable way. And if this should start to happen, then I foresee that Marantika’s vision of churches worldwide taking hands to play together, pray together and pay together within God’s world, may not be farfetched.


Thursday, September 13, 2007 - Posted by | Building relations, Giving, Indigenous church, Mission, Partnership, Poverty, Rowell, Schwarz, Sustainability, Swaziland, Three-Self, Three-Selves


  1. The three-self idea was introduced to me as something to pray against (over 25 years ago) as it was greatly hindering the gospel and hurting believers in China. I was a fairly young person at the time, so I don’t remember all the arguments. However, my mistaken impression was that the three-self movement was a generation of communist oppressors and a vile thing to be combatted in spiritual warfare.

    In Bible College in Canada the principles behind the three-self idea were taught as the goal of all missionary endeavor in cross-cultural ministries. It was not labeled for us, it was not packaged as “three self-movement,” it was just explained as good and biblical practice.

    In missions departments in local churches in various denominations (Christian and Missionary Alliance, Foursquare…, Southern Baptist, GaRBaptist, unaffiliated community churches) in which I have served, the three-self ideas were both the criteria by which we judged and the excuses we used to plan programs (and drop support).

    Do the ideas have merit for personal reflection on the status, performance, obstacles, and potential of a church in a specific cultural situation? Possibly.

    Have the ideas done enough damage to merit a rampant attack and pervasive attempt to re-evaluate them. Probably.

    Where do we go? What about to “family”?

    I have grown up thinking of every Christian — regardless of similarity to me in definition, practice or appearance — as my brother or sister. If I own this relationship to its fullest, I may find a great sense of responsibility and care welling up in expressible need to share, support, strengthen and enable. Within a family there are great needs to maintain personal identity, to accept mutual responsibility, to express individual talents, to find common ground and to stand on your own. Within a family there is no room for not caring, for cutting-them-loose, for distancing. We call that behavior (among others we practice against our brothers and sisters) dysfunctional.

    I have a feeling that if we evaluate the results of our application of the three-self ideals we will find our family to be very dysfunctional.

    May God give us great wisdom and even greater love!

    Comment by CGross | Friday, September 21, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thanks for a few very thoughtful remarks. What you probably refer to in your first paragraph was the establishment of the Three-Self Movement in 1950 in China (in other words after the Communist takeover). The full name was the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement. This movement, over time, replaced the National Council of Churches in China and developed into an effective instrument of the Marxist governemnt against all forms of imperialistic (read: ecclesiastical) “interference” from outside.
    I like your use of the words to “family”. I abhor a situation where people sit and wait for something to happen from outside without taking any responsibility. But within a (functional) family situation this should never take place. Within a family there is safety in admitting that certain things cannot be done without help but there is also safety in asking for more space to try and do things independently. I’m all for motivating churches in poorer areas to be less dependent upon help from outside, but this can only be done in an edifying way within the family situation, or, to put it in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26: If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
    You’ve put my mind onto something which I will try and write about tomorrow.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Friday, September 21, 2007 | Reply

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