A Church Growth Study of the Zuni IndiansRalph Bruce Terry
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5.3 FORM OF THE CHURCH

 

The problem. Some missionaries assume that the church in the mission field will be exactly like the church back home. This is not necessarily so. Even though the content may be the same, the form that the church takes may vary from place to place. For example, although all churches would engage in singing, the language and tunes may vary in different places. Of course, it is not wrong for a church in a non-Western culture to sing Western-type songs, but it is much more natural if the songs are of the same form as sung in their own culture. In addition, if the church music is indigenous rather than imported, the church will be a lot more likely to grow and a lot less likely to have serious setbacks. A church will usually grow best when it is in a form indigenous to the culture.

Distinguishing between content and form, or gospel and culture, is not always easy. Although most missionaries in the Churches of Christ have agreed that it should be done, few have been able or willing to do it. For example, one student of missions described the typical missionary church he saw on a world trip as follows:

It had Western songs; four-part harmony; non-confrontational seating arrangements, i.e., mono-directional, facing only those who directed worship; primary emphasis on the sermon; typical American meeting times and length of service; a similar homiletic form and content; multi-cupped Western-made communion ware; a brief Lord's Supper on Sunday mornings; extemporaneous prayers by one person at a time; and one scripture reading by a member of the congregation.39

And many times not only American customs but also American cultural traits are forced on foreign churches, e.g., materialism, individualism, aggressiveness, and enthusiasm.40 The missionary must be careful lest his own culture stands in the way of people coming to Christ.

In order to see the fastest church growth, the church must be thoroughly indigenous in nature. People do not borrow indiscriminately; they borrow only what will best fit in their own culture.41 Where it is necessary to suppress a cultural element to remain biblical, a substitute should be found to take its place. "Substitution will minimize cultural loss, and reduce disorganization and the likelihood of counterreactions."42

A Zuni church. If the church is to effectively replace the Zuni religion, it must partake of Zuni form while abstaining from the content. Care must be taken not to confuse the two for they sometimes go closely together. In order for the church to truly be indigenous the Zunis themselves must decide what form it will take. Nevertheless, the missionary should be aware of the different possibilities. For example, a Zuni church might decide to have its meetings at night in private homes. They would probably not start at an exact time. The services might well last far into the night, just as Zuni religious ceremonies do now. Perhaps at these meetings long passages of scripture which had been memorized would be recited. The singing would most likely be in a repetitive chant form. Weekly communion might be on Sunday night such as it was in the first century church.43 The service might include prayers of blessing and thanksgiving for rain and fertility.44 Perhaps the church would not only have elders, deacons, evangelists, and teachers, but due to its matrilineal society, it would restore the functions of deaconesses and widows as well.45 The organization of classes, study groups, devotional groups, etc. might very well be very complicated in order to provide the integration to the social structure that the present religion does. This would be natural at Zuni. In referring to this idea, Adair has written:

Division of function and responsibility is to be found in the numerous curing societies, dance groups, clans, etc. at Zuni. I feel that there is a traditional distrust of the grouping of any sort--two or more make it reasonable, proper, and beneficial.46

Some sort of Christian substitute would probably be found for the many ceremonials.47

An indigenous church. For a church to be truly indigenous, however, it must be spiritually interdependent and physically independent of other churches and of the missionary. This is usually stated by saying that the nature of the church is expressed in the three-selves formula: self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. These three principles do not make up the totality of indigenous character by any means, but they will be usually found in any truly indigenous church. Also, a church can be all of these things without being Christian. Above all, a church must be Christ-centered.

A church must be self-governing in order to be orthodox. First century churches were autonomous, each under its own set of elders. These elders were in the plurality, equal in authority to one another, and chosen from among the local converts. To deny a church its own elders and place it under an ecclesiastical or missionary organization in order to preserve orthodoxy is to deny its right to be orthodox in the area of church government. Paul appointed elders in churches that were less than a year old. The missionary today must also train men for this task. The self-governing church has a better witness to the community, a more indigenous nature, and a surer form of discipline.

An indigenous church is also self-supporting. The native religion did not need any financial aid, and neither should the church. Referring to their own experiences in Guatemala, two missionaries point out the following:

It is a fact that the new national Christians were supplying their own physical needs before they were converted, and that they should continue to do so. They should never learn to be or be led to become dependent on others or expectant of economic favors.48

The church's financial situation should be such that if the missionary had to leave, the church would not flounder. The missionary should not erect a building for his converts that is much nicer than they could afford themselves; otherwise they will become financially dependent and sometimes tend to not consider the building their own. In referring to church buildings, a missionary to China says the following:

No matter how poor a little group of Christians is, if they continue in prayer and patient effort they will surely be able to provide for themselves a meeting house that is as good as their own homes, or a little better.49

If this policy is followed, it will give the church a better rapport with the community and the missionary more time for evangelism.

A third aspect of an indigenous church is that it is self-propagating. Churches that grow fast are churches where most of the members are working. If the missionary tends to set up a clergy-laity system, rapid growth will be retarded and the members of the congregation will suffer spiritually for not exercising their Christian witness. Often a person can be reached with the gospel by his Christian neighbor when he would not begin to listen to a missionary. The missionary should teach his converts to teach others and to baptize them when they believe.

One way in which to help achieve an indigenous church is to let the converts have their own meetings. They may well decide to meet in houses as the early church did.50 But wherever they meet, they should be taught to have their own meetings in their own meeting-place. As a member of a Chinese indigenous church has said, "Believers must pray themselves, study the Word themselves and assemble themselves, not merely go to a meeting-place prepared by others and sit down and listen to others preach."51 If there is no member who has the ability to preach a lesson each Sunday, this is quite all right. It is scriptural to have mutual edification instead of preaching.52 The important point is that the service, as well as the whole church, should primarily involve the native Christians.


39Phillip W. Wilkins, "The Foreign Mission Enterprise of Churches of Christ from 1957 to 1967 Viewed in the Light of the History of these Churches" (unpublished Master's thesis, The Hartford Seminary Foundation, Hartford, Connecticut, 1969), p. 159. [return]

40Lynn Anderson, "An American Preacher in a Canadian Situation" (unpublished Master's thesis, Harding College Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, Tennessee, [n.d.]), pp. 76, 77. [return]

41Conrad M. Arensberg and Arthur H. Niehoff, Introducing Social Change (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1964), p. 63. [return]

42Felix M. Keesing, Cultural Anthropology (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958), p. 420. [return]

43Acts 20:7. Some scholars take this to be on Saturday evening, using Jewish time, but the expression "on the morrow" would seem to indicate Roman time. [return]

44At prayer groups, something might be said about the nature of prayer: that what God wishes is prayer and that prayer for rain should be offered even in the season for rain. Zechariah 10:1. [return]

45Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:11; 5:9-10. [return]

46John Adair, personal letter to Robert Bunker, cited by Robert Banker, Other Men's Skies (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1956), p. 46. [return]

47Cf. James Sunda, Church Growth in the Central Highlands of West New Guinea (Lucknow, U.P., India: Lucknow Publishing House, 1963), p. 43. [return]

48Jerry Hill and Dan Coker "Work Plan in Guatemala" (Abilene, Texas: ACC World Missions Office, [n.d.]), p. 1. [return]

49Mabel Williamson, "Have We No Right--" (Chicago: Moody Press, 1957), pp. 122, 123. [return]

50Cf. Abraham J. Malherbe, "The Household of God," Mission, III (November 1969), 14l-145. [return]

51[Watchman] Nee To-sheng, The Normal Christian Church Life (Washington: International Students Press, 1969), pp. 78, 79. [return]

52Cf. ibid., p. 120; and I Corinthians 14:26. [return]

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