International Churches as Launching Pads for Mission to Indigenous Peoples

A Synopsis of Research by Dan P. Bowers
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International churches appear to be uniquely positioned to serve as launching pads for mission to indigenous peoples. Today there are over four hundred million English speakers in the world and hundreds of millions more that speak English as a second language. There are approximately a thousand international churches scattered around the world seeking to reach and to serve English-speaking expatriates living abroad. When these two communities mix, the Great Commission can happen.

The author served as the pastor of the International Christian Fellowship, an English-language expatriate church in Caracas, Venezuela for two years from 2000 to 2002. During that time it was thrilling to see a number of Venezuelans, as well as expatriates, come to faith in Christ and became members of the church. As in other world-cities, the middle and upper classes in Caracas had been resistant to missionary outreach. From its inception the ICF has had a vision for reaching out to the indigenous people. In 1997 it had planted a national church. For my doctoral thesis, I decided to investigate the potential of international churches in similar locations to become launching pads for mission to indigenous peoples.

I began the research by studying the church-planting ministry of the International Christian Fellowship of Caracas (ICF) using the case study method. From its inception in 1995, upper-middle class Venezuelans had been attracted to this English-language fellowship of expatriate Christians. Under the leadership of Pastor Rick Wilson, a missionary with CBInternational, the ICF made outreach to nationals a top priority. At first they were integrated into the expatriate congregation. Then, as the number of Venezuelans grew, plans were made to start a Spanish-language congregation. Eventually, the new congregation became an independent and self-supporting church. It appears that planting a national church has actually helped the ICF maintain its identity as an expatriate ministry.

What kind of Biblical support is there for international churches taking on the role of missionary to indigenous peoples? In his book on international churches (Expatriate Ministry: Inside the Church of the Outsiders), David Pederson viewed the church at Antioch as a model for expatriate ministry. I decided to focus on the evangelistic activity of Jewish Christians who had been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution and ended up in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:19-26). These evangelists, who lived as expatriates, initially limited their outreach to other Jewish expatriates. When they reached the city of Antioch, they launched out to the indigenous people, with the result that many Greek-speaking people came to faith in Christ. The church at Antioch, which included both Jewish and Gentile Christians, became a launching pad for taking the Gospel to the great cities of the Roman Empire. Thus, the concept of international churches launching out to indigenous peoples seemed to be reflected in the mission of first-century expatriate Christians.

What theoretical support is there for international church (IC) outreach to indigenous peoples? This can be inferred from the writings of a handful of missiologists that have written on the subject of IC ministry. David Pederson suggested that IC’s can be both an “oasis” for expatriates and a “launching pad” to the indigenous people. Ken McHarg, of Latin America Mission News Service, has written several articles supporting this view of IC ministry. William Wagner, who supervised Southern Baptist missionaries in Europe, has advocated the use of the English language as a “missionary medium” for reaching Europeans for Christ. In the European Baptist Convention there are sixty expatriate churches that have the potential to reach out to Europeans by means of English-language ministry.

J. Christie Wilson, author of Today’s Tentmakers, served as the pastor of the Community Christian Church of Kabul, Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover in 1977. He was advocate for international churches serving as bases for witness to the indigenous people, especially in restricted access nations. He cited the exciting possibility of IC’s “plowing up the tough ground” in areas where missionary activity is restricted or prohibited. It was his conviction that IC’s, working with foreign missionaries, hold the key to the kind of cross-cultural witness that is needed to fulfill the Great Commission.

Because very little research had been conducted on international church ministry, I decided to survey IC’s in order to find out what missionary impact they are currently having on indigenous peoples. There are several international church associations that have directories on the Internet. There are hundreds of IC’s on every continent of the world, and most are located in world-class cities. Using these networks, I was able to contact through e-mail one hundred and sixty IC’s. Forty-two of these churches participated in the project by completing the IC survey. This research is included in my doctoral dissertation.

A significant number of nationals were involved in the worship and ministry of every one of the international churches surveyed. Although the attitudes of leaders and church members toward outreach to indigenous peoples was mixed, nearly all the international churches were involved in some form of outreach to the nationals. Although most IC’s felt that church-planting was not their role, twenty percent had been involved in planting a national church.

Norman Horner has suggested that international churches may hold a key to reaching indigenous peoples and planting national churches in the Gulf States of the Arabian Peninsula. The same may be true in the major cities of the world, where the middle and upper classes have been resistant to missionary efforts. Daniel Sanchez has urged IC’s to plant congregations among the nationals or non-national refugees that attend their churches.

Not all IC’s have the opportunity to be directly involved in planting national churches. The Evangelical Church of Kuwait ministers in a country where conversion of Muslims is prohibited by law. Yet there are forty-five Kuwaitis, born into the Christian faith, involved in this international church. This church has a unique opportunity to not only reach out to expatriates from many nations, but also to help Kuwaitis be a witness to their own people. (See the article by Ken McHarg in Christianity Today, May 24, 1999, p. 22).

In my dissertation I have included suggestions and models for those IC’s that desire to plant a national church. Christian Associates International (CAI) has developed a ministry of planting international churches as bases of operation for reaching the indigenous people. CAI is devoted to planting “high-impact,” international churches in the major cities of Europe. Linus Morris, director of CAI, has written a book describing this approach (The High Impact Church: A Fresh Approach to Reaching the Unchurched).

During the first century after Christ, the influence of the Greek language and culture facilitated the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. In a similar way, the use of the English language and the influence of Western Culture today may present new opportunities for reaching unreached peoples in the major cities of the world. Today there are over 400 million English speakers in the world and hundreds of millions more that speak English as a second language. There are approximately a thousand IC’s scattered around the world seeking to reach and to serve English-speaking expatriates living abroad. International churches appear to be uniquely positioned to serve as launching pads for mission to indigenous peoples, and thus to help fulfill the Great Commission in the twenty-first century.


Copyright © 2004 Dan P. Bowers

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