Thursday, July 26, 2007

Is the Three-Self Formula Still Relevant?

As a recently published article reminds us, the Three-Self Formula is much better known in mission circles than it is practiced. Most students of missions have heard of the principle that a newly planted church is mature or indigenous when it is self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. But this belief is rarely or inconsistently applied in actual practice. Further, it has even come under attack in modern times for reasons ranging from it being impractical, unbiblical, stingy, a hindrance to partnerships, self-centred, or culturally questionable.

The latest edition of Mission Frontiers, the bulletin of the U.S. Center for World Missions, has published an article by Robert Reese, of World Missions Associates, entitled "The Surprising Relevance of the Three-Self Formula." For those of us who are concerned that the creation of dependency on Western funding actually hinders rather than furthers the advancement of God's kingdom, this article is a welcome addition to the discussion. I would encourage you to read it.

I would also encourage you to consider purchasing When Charity Destroys Dignity, the recently published book by Robert Reese's colleague, Glenn Schwartz.


Arnau said...

Being a missionary myself and having been confronted with this situation a number of times, I am not convinced that the Three-Selves are relevant anymore - if they ever were. A few reasons why I have this viewpoint:
1. Who determines when a church is mature? The indigenous church or the (mostly) Western church that planted it?
2. The "self" becomes the goal. Once it has achieved its goal, it has arrived! This is not the goal of the church. The goal of the church is to reach the world for Christ.
3. In many places church independence was seen in the same way as political independence - something to strive for so that we can prove that we don't need the West. In China the Three-Selves movement was adopted in 1950 which led to the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement which eventually became a tool used by the Marxist regime to propagate its goals of political independence.
4. Looking at John 17 where Christ prays for the unity of the church, the Three-Selves movement actually says that the "sending" church is no longer an integral part of the newly formed church, which I think is unbiblical.
5. The congregation in Laodicea (Rev 3) met the ideal qualification about the Three-Selves (especially being self-supporting, but God says some harsh words against this church.
6. The two categories of churches, independent and dependent are not found in the Bible. The Bible only distinguishes between the Church of Christ and the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9)
7. Lastly, in my experience Western (or supporting) churches often propagate the Three-Selves in order to get rid of the responsibility of supporting a church. Their goal in other words is not to see a young church grow to independence, but to find a way of getting out of a the task of supporting a church (often so that the money spent in this way could be used in their own church).

I am not against independence. But I think that our solutions may be too simplistic and not necessarily correct.

Glenn Penner said...

I wonder if you read the article, Arnau? Reese addresses many of the concerns that you express.

But let me address a couple of your points. You are right that there was no categories of churches, dependent and independent in the New Testament. They were all independent! Each church assumed responsibility for their own needs and there was no long term support from one church to another. Roland Allen points this out well in his classic, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours?

Being self-supporting was not the reason that God condemned the Laodicean Church either. True self-supporting churches look to God to meet their needs. The Laodiceans lived as if they did not need God.

I think you have misunderstood the 3-self Formula and would benefit from reading more from those who support it and have seen it work.

Arnau said...

Glenn, I'm not attacking you. I got to know the Three-Selves concept 29 years ago and had to do a lot of research on it for my PhD. So I do have some background knowledge about it. And yes, I did read the article before I responded. It is just that I have been on a number of mission committees in my life where the Three-Selves concept were propagated as if it was the gospel itself, which is not the truth. In my experience, this concept only becomes relevant when the "mother church" or supporting organisation wishes to withdraw from their financial responsibility. Then the young church suddenly need to become self-supportive. This is definitely not as Venn and Andersen intended it, but that is what often happens in practice.
I could have added another reason for my viewpoint on this, which is that the Western church often moves into a third world country, planting a church according to Western standards (church building, administration, church office, etc) and when the supporting church or organisation withdraws, the young church is left with responsibilities which they just can't keep up with.
Let me give you a practical example: In our church in Swaziland, over a period of many decades, property was bought by the "mother church" and other property was received as gifts. All of this are Western style houses and church buildings, in need of regular maintanance. Then a few years ago the "mother church" decided - one-sidedly - that they are now going to hand over all this property to the indigenous church. What has happened now is that the indigenous church has to pay rates and taxes on all of these properties and buildings which are built in urban areas. Due to the value of the properties, all of these buildings have to be insured. And these buildings also have to be maintained - painted, roofing has to be replaced where necessary, etc. And as part of the process of the indigenous church which needs to become self-supporting, all these responsibilities have now been handed over. Money collected by the church members and which had been used in the past to ensure that the work is done effectively, is now being used to sustain a system which was brought in from outside.
What I am trying to sketch is a true-life situation where the Three-Selves system have gone wrong. And this is not an isolated occurrence. In Africa this is extremely common.
I am also struggling to find the right way to do this. I also believe that the chain of dependence should be broken. I have ordered Reese's book some time ago from Amazon (still waiting for it to be delivered) as I think the topic is relevant. But I am still not convinced that Venn & Andersen have given us the final answer. While still a student at university I also believed that they had developed a wonderful theory. After 23 years in practice I know that we have to find another workable answer.
Sorry for the long answer and sorry again if it sounded if I had attacked you. This was not my intention. Together we will have to try and find a practical solution. Watch my blog. As soon as I receive Reese's book and have read it, I will be writing about this.

Glenn Penner said...

I appreciate your comments. I understand where you are coming from. Part of the problem arises when projects are begun on the field that are unsustainable without foreign funding. To try to impose the 3-self formula on such situations is an unwinnable situation and, in no way, reflects poorly on the principle as much as it reflects on the practitioners. This principle needs to be practiced consistently from the day that a work is begun, not imposed after the damage has already been done.

Schwartz's book should be helpful to you, given his extensive experience in Africa with just the scenario that you brought up here

Arnau said...

Thanks for your response. After posting the last comment I realised that I had typed "Reese" instead of "Schwartz". I am looking forward to have the book, once it has gone the route of shipping and customs!

Tertullian said...

I agree with arnau. I read Shwartz's article in Mission Frontiers and think that it would be a waste of time and money to order the book.

The three self formula is based on Western enterpreneurial understanding on what mission is about, not on a solid biblical concept. This wrong understanding is perpetuated by the love of money, or the world's support system, on both the sending and the receiving end. There is a trick here that the devil successuflly plays both sides---the rich missionaries help because they are rich and have to do something with their wealth, and even feel guilty about being rich; the poor receving churches see a higher power in wealth and lust after it and manipulate with their poverty. However, when the motivation is right this same dynamic could turn into a blessing instead of a cruse that brings resentment, envy, division etc. I am grossly simplifying here, but just for the sake of space.

An honest reading of the New Testament reveals that the churches were both independent and interdependent. They were independent from the WORLD's system of economics. This made them interdependent with each other - by relationship, letter writing and traveling ministries. Sharing of money was an act of belonging to one another and Christ in the faith, and a genuine concern for the poor (many examples in NT, Acts 11:27 is one). It was not some "denominational policy." Return to Christianity as a relationship between men, as opposed to one between "institutions," can bring a new perspective of how Christians have their identity first as Christians, thus brothers, and then as nationals, or doctrinal, or denominational identities.

I think Schwartz's main mistake is that he thinks that being proactive in Africa is the same as it is in America. There is whole system, culture, and an oppressive one at that, that rules the minds of people in these places (Ephesians 6). It's witchraft and Islam in Africa. I work in E. Europe - it's the same. Just there it's E. Orthodoxy or communism's residue. A person who's a failure in Bulgaria or Romania, can do very well in America, speaking of making it in regards to wealth. an American in those countries can totally fail in business because business there is done differently, not honestly and on a fair playing field.

I am also a missionary and believe that the wealthy church must support the poor church. This is right and it is in the NT. But it has to be done with the right motive, and takes faith and perseverence to believe and see fruit from this model.

BTW, Penner, I've linked to your blog from my "anonymous" blog on freedom of religion and speech. God's blessings in our Lord to both of you.

Glenn Penner said...

Well, Tertullian, as you can imagine, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. I always get a charge out of folks who claim that if everyone would justy give the Bible an honest reading, that they would see things their way.

One thing to keep in mind, is that the 3-self formula does not negate churches assisting each other in times of need (Acts 11:28), but no where do we find churches being financially dependent on other congregrations over extended periods of time and for their very survival or growth. It is this latter approach to support that is reflective of Western values.

I certainly disagree that the three self formula is based on Western enterpreneurial understanding on what mission is about. Roland Allen, writing over 100 years ago, came to understand that this was a biblical model based on a careful study of Paul's missionary methods and his admonition that others should follow his example.

Tertullian said...

Penner, disagreement noted. Glad you got a charge out of my posting.

Roland Allen addressed the same issue which is in place today in sending-receiving mission situation. And it is: denominationalism and instittutionalism (primarily their policies) being in the way of relationships which are to be focused on Christ and modeled according to, yes, the Bible. After an honest reading of the NT, where "honest" means Holy Spirit sensitive and led. God bless.

Wesley Handy said...

I see a lot has been said already, but one question:

Were all the churches in the NT independent???

There seems to be a lot of cooperation between churches in cities. Is there room for co-dependency between churches in Christiantity?

It seems to the that the 3-self formula arose in contrast to imperialism and paternalism. There is a real and present danger of swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction.

If all the NT churches were independent, how do we explain Paul's numerous collections to support the church in Jerusalem, for instance?

Thanks for your time.


Glenn Penner said...

Be careful not to commit the logical error of making some = all. Yes, there were perhaps 1 or 2 collections for the church in Jerusalem (not numerous). A careful reading of Paul on the matter, however, reveals that this offering had very little to do with actual financial need of a particular Church, because the famine covered the entire world (cf. Acts 11:28). This gesture was much more than an act of charity. In Paul's mind, it was an expression of love and Christian unity as the Gentile Church ministered to the Jewish saints out of gratitude for what the Jewish believers had done in making it possible for them to know Christ (cf. Romans 15:27). Rather than seeing this gift as a prototype for Canadian Christians to assist poorer Churches around the world, a more appropriate parallel would be if Churches in China sent a gift to the Church in Canada for its role in sending missionaries there in the 19th century.

It is important to note, however, that these were a one-off gifts and in no way can be seen to be
making up for some deficiency in the ability of the Jerusalem Church to be completely
indigenous. They were not an expression of long-term support.

As far as codependency is concerned, it sounds good in theory. But tell me how it really works in practice? How are Western churches dependent on poorer churches in the developing world in any meaningful, demonstratable way? When support and partnership involves primarily the exchange of financial resources, any concept of codependency is usually more fictional than fact and a result of creative "spin."

Wesley Handy said...

Well thought out response. Though I do not think I'm committing the aforementioned fallacy, I can see the danger in it.

Also, I should have made it clear I was not just talking about financial dependancy.

In one true sense, most churches in the two-thirds world don't have the opportunity to participate in financial support of first world churches. However, I came across some interesting collections by the Brazil Mission and the South and North China Missions of the FMB SBC during their 75 Million Campaign (1920-1925). At this time, the Southern Baptists were trying to raise, well, 75 million dollars for their denomination. They ended up falling short due to economic changes. But in Brazil and China (I think also Mexico) the national churches had their own grand campaign. Their goals were much less (100,000 Brazil; 50,000 China), and some of this may have been the contributions of the missionaries, but there were stories of students in China giving up money they could have used to buy mattresses yet chose to sleep on hay so they could contribute. The Chinese and the Brazilians both exceeded their goals. The money was recycled to support missions in new frontiers.

We in the west think missions can only be accomplished by Western finances. Why don't we give our brothers and sisters a chance? Its not a matter of need but of cooperation. Don't arrogantly assume that Western Churches don't need the contributions of the churches of the two-thirds world. I'm not just talking financial.

Also, the relationship between churches in the NT was more than financial. They cooperated in mission. Paul's connections via Epaphroditus, Timothy, Luke, Silas, Mark, Barnabas, Aquila, Priscilla, Onesimus, etc, show that the churches all participated in the gospel mission. Churches need each other to complete the mission. In that sense, independence is sinful. Co-dependency is in theology (both ways), mission (both ways), support (both ways), discipleship (both ways; Romans 1:11-12 It's amazing that an apostle would say he expects to receive a blessing), etc.

I don't think this is spin or idealistic. It would take some thinking and hard work, but it is possible.

Wesley Handy said...


I didn't mean "arrogantly" perjoratively. I apologize if this was offensive. I should have read it one more time before publishing.



Glenn Penner said...


I agree that partnership and support needs to be seen beyond financial support. This, indeed, is my argument elsewhere.

My experience with persecuted Christians leads me to know that the gospel is going forward powerfully without western funds in many countries; often more effectively than if they did have such assistance. As I said, when support and partnership involves primarily the exchange of financial resources, any concept of codependency is usually more fictional than fact and a result of creative "spin." But as you have referred to it, it is indeed far beyond spin and is desperately needed. This is what VOMC is seeking to discover; effective ways of partnering that does not restrict it or even, at time, indeed, finances.

Wesley Handy said...


Thanks for the responses. I am glad for the ministry of VOM. And I can imagine that you have seen the negative influence of foreign money on the persecuted church.

One of the unspoken consequences of creating dependency is fostering a spirit of superiority/paternalism in the donating churches. I think we need to encourage churches in the West to love their brothers and sisters who are being persecuted, our other two-thirds world spritual siblings, and the unreached as equals. One of my missions professors several years ago put it well when he said that most financial support in the US is approached like "tipping God" for the services he has provided us. We see and hear of the lost millions and we give, absolving our own feelings of guilt. (Yes, this is an generalization.)

But western churches have to "own" their responsibility to other churches through cooperation. "Own" is such a bad word here, but they have to realize that God has called them to be encouragers and enablers and then they have to pray how to do it so that dependency is not created. But the key word here is churches, not agencies, nor even isolated missionaries. Missionaries function as representatives of churches or even denominations so churches feel that they are "contributing" to missions via the agency of their workers. But churches become separated from the front lines. Over time, they will stagnate.

Some churches have recognized this problem and are making changes, but "adopting" a people group does not immediately erase feelings of superiority. We need to continue to improve here.

Mission societies and agencies served an important role in the time period where international travel was perilous and communication hampered. But times have changed, and even though we are taking a people group focus, there are very few people groups more than 1 days walk from a church.

If we could find a way to be co-dependent (I need a better term) with other churches, we can reach these people and do so in a way that does not create unhealthy dependency.

Okay, maybe a little idealistic, but it is a vision I am striving for.



Arnau van Wyngaard said...

I think the key is the word which you use: "co-dependent". If we see how often the words "each other" or "one another" is used in a positive sense (for example in Romans) then I believe that this is really a Biblical principle. Glenn is obviously correct when he says that (unfortunately) dependence mostly refers to financial dependence. It should not be like that. This isn't the only thing that can be handed out. My church in Swaziland has a wonderful capacity to teach people how to care for others - something which I find lacking in most Western churches. Is it unrealistic to say that we could invest in Western churches by teaching them how to have true Christian compassion?
I believe that the arrogance of many rich Christians make them think that "poorer" Christians cannot teach them anything.
I've also been struggling with this topic on my own blog and am still looking for an answer < >
By the way, I've finished reading Glenn Schwartz's book and have published two posts on my impression of this book on my blog - the first one negative and the second one positive.

Wesley Handy said...


You're right, the term co-dependency is loaded.

My buddy and I like to use "mutual discipleship" but that refers more to relationships between Christians more than between churches.

Check out my friend Dougalds blog where he is presenting the beginning stages of our adventures in < a href="" > mutual discipleship < \a >.

Anonymous said...

You're right, the term co-dependency is loaded.