Sustainability & Missions


Indigenous People Groups & The Indigenous Church

Indigenous refers to the original local people or culture of a nation. An indigenous church or churches are biblically rooted and culturally engaged, and are able to govern, support, and reproduce themselves.

Foreign-Related Dependency

Over the past 150 years Western mission theorists have produced a vast amount of literature on indignity, in which they have argued that dependence on foreign money is harmful to indigenous church leaders and Christian organizations. This tension is an ongoing debate that leads back to the birth of indigenous thinking during the
mid-1800s (Schwarz, 2007).

Healthy Self-Reliance

The first mission efforts in the modern mission era to articulate principles of healthy self-reliance of indigenous churches came from the writings of two 19th-century missionaries: Briton Henry Venn and American Rufus Anderson.

Today’s contemporary missionaries have expressed concern about the “self” within the formula and its seemingly Western individualistic emphasis. Therefore, Five Stones Global encourages replacing the “self” with “local” to capture the communal nature of the majority of people outside the West: local-supporting, local-governing, and local-propagating.

Henry Venn is credited with independently developing ideas that became known as the three-self formula. The three-self formula concisely states that a church can be (and should be):
Henry Venn's Three-Self Formula

This principle was promoted by several missiologists, including John Nevious and others, who asserted, “Indigenous churches should be able to support and manage their own affairs” (Schwartz, 2007, p. 59).

Rufus Anderson summarized his conviction about the three-self paradigm: “The grand object [of foreign missions] is to plant and multiply self-reliant, efficient churches, composed wholly of native converts, each church complete in itself, with pastors of the same race with people. Such churches, and only such, are the life, strength, and glory of missions” (Beaver, 1967, p. 13).
The Three-Self Principle
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First, a church that is self-governing receives leadership from within its own congregation. Then, leadership has the freedom to set its own priorities, cast its own vision, and pursue its calling without foreign interference. This does not negate spiritual unity with other congregations as taught in Scripture. It also does not negate the spirit of interdependence among various parts of the body of Christ, even applied on a transnational scale. What it does indicate is that the governing body of a local church is not controlled, another word for governed, by foreign authorities from a mission agency or denomination (Nevious, 1958).

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Second, a self-propagating church carries within itself, by the Holy Spirit, the impulse that motivates it to actively evangelize in its community, bring unbelievers into the fellowship of the faith, and advance the kingdom of God within its cultural sphere of influence. Without this impulse, the local church will become lifeless and ineffective within a generation, once the original members have passed away. Or, the local church will become dependent on foreign personnel to provide this outward impulse and look to them to carry the burden for evangelism and mission efforts (Nevious, 1958).

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Third, a self-sustaining church has the ability to maintain its core functions by the means of its own local resources and without resorting to funding from foreign donors. As previously mentioned, this is helpful for a number of reasons. First, local believers carry the ownership and responsibility for ministry occurring in their community. Second, it motivates the local church to develop culturally appropriate expressions of Christianity that can be reproduced without access to foreign funding sources. Third, it helps weed out those who would exploit membership in the church for access to foreign income sources, although this is never foolproof (Nevious, 1958).

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Tippett’s Six Marks of a Self-Sustaining Church

In 1973, Tippett expanded the three-self principle to include six total marks of an indigenous church. Tippett illustrated six categories that define how a self-sustaining church should look:

Tippett’s Six Marks of a Self-Sustaining Church
1. Self-Image:
Does it view itself as the Body of Christ in its own community?
2. Self-Functioning:
Does it contain all of the parts necessary for caring for itself and its own outreach?
3. Self-Determining:
Is this church autonomous—capable of making its own decisions? Or is this church on a life support system which, if it were cut off, would leave the body unable to function? If that foreign life support system is critical to the existence of the church then it can hardly be called an indigenous, self-supporting, self-governing church.
4. Self-Supporting:
Does it carry its own financial responsibility? Does it finance its own service projects? Or is it dependent on [another]. . . . organization to support it?
5. Self-Propagating:
Does the church have its own missionary outreach program?
6. Self-Giving:
Does it manage its own service programs? (As cited in Schwartz, 2007, pp. 171-172).


The operational definition of sustainability refers to the foundational and continued capacity of local people and entities to birth, take responsibility for, resource, lead, and multiply their own initiatives.

Sustainability suggests continued well-being and survival of the project objectives within the subjects’ ministries; it not only broadens leaders’ perspectives, but it also increases capacity to conduct resource mobilization, implement innovative projects, and expand spiritual, social, physical, and economic opportunities for local communities. We use this definition to understand the holistic concept of sustainability.

We believe sustainability may be more of a journey than a destination. Therefore, the burden for non-Western Christian churches is their inherited forms of ministry from past and current missionary endeavors. Their challenge is to reshape those ministries by drawing creatively upon resources inherent in the local communities and cultures. It is within this burden and challenge that Five Stones Global encourages local sustainability and multiplication in global missions.

Arguello, V. (2012). Exploring The Relationship Between Learner Autonomy and Sustainability in Global Missions: A Case Study of Kenyan Leaders. ProQuest, UMI: 3532751.

Beaver, R. P. (Ed.). (1967). To advance the gospel: Selections from the writings of Rufus Anderson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Nevious, J. L. (1958). The planting and development of missionary churches. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed.

Schwartz, G. (2007). When charity destroys dignity: Overcoming unhealthy dependency in the Christian movement. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.