Nineteenth-century missionary leader Henry Venn developed what is known as the “three-self formula.” Drawing from his own experience, he concluded that most missionaries were far too dependent upon resources from the West.
Accordingly, national Christians in Africa, Asia, and also were perpetually dependent on resources from Western churches. He challenged this pattern by promoting the goal of fostering churches that are self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting.
His goal was to develop indigenous churches that are not dependent upon the leadership of missionaries, their organizations, or funds from outside the local context.
The end goal of movement work should never be the advancement of the missionary organization or the missionary. Movements flourish when they heed the three-self formula. Leaders emerge from the local context. Growth occurs through the work and funding of those within that context.
The Three Selfs
Henry Venn’s teachings were radical during his day, and they remain quite radical today. This is especially true of the principle of self-supporting. When I began my work in Southeast Asia, I didn’t want to develop a strategy that depended upon me being personally present or, in the long term, upon Western funding. In fact, we have resisted any strategies that required external funding, even when organizations wanted to give us money. We knew that if we wanted to see a movement that grew in an organic and self-sustaining way, it must be largely self-supporting from the start.
I entered this work with no ambition to develop a missionary organization that funneled funds from the West to developing nations. In fact, many who have supported me financially have inquired about why we have set up things as we have. They want to know why we don’t have a larger organization, more trainers, more fundraising, and more moneyflowing through our systems to the “mission field.”
Many organizations engage in movement work take a different approach. They raise money and use funds to attain ahearing for the gospel in a local context through various projects, such as schools, orphanages, medical facilities, etc. This money opens doors for the gospel in the minds and hearts of those whom they impact, and then the purpose of the foreign money is served. I’ll never forget sharing with a friend in a companion organization who was so impressed with the ability of his colleague to “raise money.”
In my personal experience, however, this approach sets the stage for financial dependency by the “have nots” upon the “haves” that can be very difficult to change later. I think some of the best commonsense wisdom about this is this: “The way you start is the way you finish.”
When people hear the gospel introduced using money, Western wealth will always be associated with the kingdom of God. In many cases, this results in more harm than good, especially when we think about the long-term effects on a movement.
In our strategy, we begin with self-propagation. Those whose lives have been impacted by faith in Jesus through hearing the Word carry the gospel to friends and family, sometimes accompanied by healings, dreams, miracles, or simply the testimony of a family member or friend. The spreading of a Jesus movement depends upon those within the movement, not leaders from the outside, from the very beginning.
Those who develop movement networks and start additional networks naturally “govern” because they are the leaders who mentored other leaders. Now we are touching on self-governance as well as being self-funding.
We are self-supporting because we teach everyone to give money to the Lord from the very beginning. They are shown how to give instead of simply receiving. No grassroots leader is paid a salary, and there is little to no Western financial support infused in the system. In fact, our house churches, all living below the “poverty level”, recently raised $100,000 of their own funds to help hurting widows living in their towns and villages. How can poor people give $100,000 out of their own income and invest in the “least of these”, not only money but their lives?
We take Venn’s three-self formula a step further. Rather than having it as a goal for the future of mission work, we have learned to start movements with the three-self mindset from the very beginning.
Again, “The way you start is the way you will finish” serves as a guiding principle for us that continues to bear fruit. Wedon’t start with money from developed nations and then wean the movement off that money at a certain point. We begin the movement using limited Western funds in very cautious ways.