One of the great joys of being a missions leader is getting to travel and see the work of God in the least-reached places of the world. Generally, this is centered on seeing the work of the sent ones from our church. This week I've had the unique joy of spending time with national pastors in Southern India and writing from the plane as I visit more. I will always have a heart to send out people from local North American churches. After a week like this, I am even more convinced that our North American churches need to have a strategy for empowering the work of indigenous believers.
Most pastors I visited in this Hindu-dominated culture came to Christ through the proclamation of the gospel accompanied by visions, dreams, and miraculous healings. Often without basic education, these men boldly proclaimed the gospel amongst those in their rural villages and began to pastor them. Through gospel preaching accompanied by miraculous healings, these pastors gathered together a fledgling, but fervent, group of believers. While intent on serving Christ and proclaiming his name, these pastors lacked training and discipleship to break the cultural strongholds of Hinduism and grow their church in maturity.
North American churches need to have a strategy for empowering the work of indigenous believers.
The ministry I had the opportunity to visit started in 2006 with a vision to see 20,000 pastors trained in basic theology, spiritual formation, and church planting. Their ministry strategy is to identify pastors that would receive value from this kind of training. Pastors are gathered monthly for five years in groups of twenty, and each pastor in the program is given the vision to start five churches in neighboring villages.
One such pastor (we will call him Pastor Rog) jumped on board with this ministry in its early stages. His face showed the wear and tear of spending his early life working the tea fields of Southern India. His eyes, however, were of a young man, full of vision and hope about how God might use him until he meets Jesus.
In his early ministry, Pastor Rog was blessed with many converts and the vision to see churches planted. By simply walking the winding and rugged roads of his surrounding villages—and having a few near-death experiences with Asian elephants—Pastor Rog saw the gospel go forward and churches started.
As he faithfully proclaimed the gospel, he dreamed of more villages reached and churches planted, and he desired the training to do so. In 2006 he began partnering with this ministry and received the theological, spiritual, and church planting vision. He passed this training on to eighty other pastors, many of whom he had won to Christ. These eighty pastors took hold of the vision and have seen over 360 churches planted in neighboring villages.
That's incredible! What's even more staggering is that this ministry has demolished its original goal and has now seen 20,000 pastors trained and 100,000 churches planted. When you hear numbers like these, it can be easy to be skeptical. After visiting multiple locations and conversing with pastor upon pastor, however, skepticism changes to hopefulness and celebration. God is doing this, through indigenous believers, in the least-reached areas of the world!
The interesting part in hearing about these pastors is that none of them have encountered North American missionaries. Their story of coming to Christ, being trained, and planting churches began through the influence of local indigenous believers.
The movement of the gospel in the least-reached places will likely be carried out on the backs of those outside of North America.
Even though indigenous believers carried out this vision, the church in North America played a critical role in even a ministry like this in multiple ways.
The first is that the training was developed by Americans with strong theological and cross-cultural experience. Western Christians have a wealth of Christian history, theological development, and practice that can greatly benefit indigenous believers. While careful contextualization is important, we can greatly benefit these indigenous movements.
The second is through finances. The beauty of this ministry’s funding model is that all the funding is directed toward expanding and church planting, not supporting the livelihood of these pastors. The pastors are given a small stipend for their travel and expenses around the training but nothing more. This model keeps them dependent on their local congregation for their support, not on Western finances, which not only creates long-term sustainability but also accelerates the growth of churches. So Western Christians can support the work without inadvertently creating dependence among these national pastors.
The reality is that the movement of the gospel in the least-reached places will likely be carried out on the backs of those outside of North America. God is clearly moving in this direction. While we should always strive to send or own overseas, are you also considering how to partner with effective, indigenous believers?
If you are interested in partnering with indigenous ministries but don't know where to start, or if you would like help evaluating some of your national partnerships, we’d love to hear from you. You can email Mike Ironside to set up a conversation.
Mike Ironside is the International Program Manager for Reliant Mission. Prior to that Mike was the Missions Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa, for eight years, where he got to experience the ins and outs of being a sending church. He served on staff with Cornerstone 2006 to 2022 in varying roles–from college ministry to pastoral staff to being an overseas missionary sent from Cornerstone for two years. Mike is the Director of Content for the Upstream Collective. Mike, his wife, Emily, and their four kids continue to live in Ames, IA, and serve at Cornerstone.