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Three self-principles build partners in sharing faith

John Eisenhauer led Friday evening singing of camp songs from the N-Sid-Sen song book, using the setting of Pilgrim Firs to draw on fond memories of camp experiences.

Preaching for the morning worship at Annual Meeting, Conference Minister Mike Denton pointed out that gathering at Pilgrim Firs for many draws memories of happiness, because it is a place that has formed and shaped many in the PNC.

One of the “geekiest” things Mike said he owns is a T-shirt with an image of Rufus Anderson, a dapper, stiff-backed man in 1800s garb.

The T-shirt has led to some awkward conversations about who Rufus Anderson is and why he is Mike’s hero.

Mike Denton preaches on Rufus Anderson’s idea.

In the mid-1800s, Rufus was secretary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) and suggested some “radical things” for the missionary movement. He is known for the three-self principles, that a missionary should stay in the field only until those at the mission site are educated and evangelized enough to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating, which means the community has enough people to sustain its work.  Once these elements were in place, the missionary is to leave.

“These ideas also reflect the basic responsibilities of a church in an congregational system,” Mike said.  “These ideas compelled me to learn more about Rufus.”

The three-self idea sounds practical, he said, but emerged because of several problems.

“One was assuming a missionary’s task was to bring in the Gospel and civilize native people,” Mike said.  “Civilizing meant using religious, military and commercial power to force communities to interact with, be subjugated by and become dependent on Western European and American institutions.”

Missionaries talked derogatorily and patronizingly about “rice Christians,” who associated with Christianity as long as the missionaries fed them.  

In addition, too many missionaries made themselves so central and powerful at some mission sites that people’s needs and the Gospel call became secondary,” said Mike, sharing a quote about Hawaiian missionaries: “They went to Hawaii to do good and did very well indeed.” 

As secretary of the ABCFM, Rufus read reports from missionaries so he could direct support and set policy.

“The three-self idea came out of what he saw as corruption in the missionary community,” Mike said

Mike pointed out that at times of crisis, when churches are trying to figure out what to do and wondering about their existence, he lifts up these principles as the things a church must aspire to, recreate or renegotiate to be effective and stable, and to have the resources for a vital congregational life.

“Calling a church to seek ways to become self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating was, to me, a call to life,” Mike said.

However, he is now convinced he has been wrong.

He read Isaiah 55:12-13: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

“Would being self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating send us out with joy and lead us back in peace? No!” he said.

They would not make the mountains and hills burst into song or the trees clap their hands.  Focusing on them does not have “the majesty and powerful growth of the cypress and the myrtle tree.”

Mike notes that focus on them may leave people stuck in thorns and briers.

“Are they what we need or want to be a sign of our love for God and God’s love of us? Nope,” he said.

Mike realized he mixed up the ends and means: “I’m not a Christian and didn’t go into ministry because the idea of being self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating was compelling but because of the unrelenting call of a loving God, a liberating Christ and an empowering Spirit.

“Most institutions start to solve a problem or serve in mission as long as the mission is needed, but often institutions reach a point where their main goal is to perpetuate themselves,” he said.

“Most of us have been raised with the idea that institutions serve us or a greater good, but institutions over time usually shape us more than we shape them,” he said.

Mike said Rufus suggested the three-self principles as tools for missionaries to help new faith communities participate as partners in the movement to share the Gospel with the world. 

A video presentation by UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer about the emergence of the church, dovetails with what Courtney is doing in taking the first year to discern what vitality means for the PNC.

The ideas of Micah 6:8 are not new.  The UCC uses them to justify the call to do justice along the continuum from charity to advocacy, Mike said.

“In doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly, we are sent out with joy and led to peace, freeing us from thorns and briars, and being a sign of our love of God and God’s love for us,” Mike said.

Two words he uses as a tool, “so that,” invite people to understand they are rooted in a mission, rooted in a task.

“The church is concerned about its future and it’s building, so that the people have a place to worship and gather, so that they will be in community so that they will serve the community,” said Mike.

“If a church does justice, loves kindness and walks humbly, then its building is a gift, not a burden,” he said, noting that the words are not a slogan, but a tool; not a formula for church growth, but to re-center to use our resources and ask for what we are using our building and resources.

“The principles serve the mission instead of the mission being to serve the principles,” Mike said.


Pacific Northwest Conference UCC News © Summer 2017


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