The 3-Self Principle – Which end of the telescope?

It was Henry Venn, the CMS pioneer missionary who coined the 3-self principle for guiding the development of church plants, over a century ago.

He proposed the principle from his experience of taking the gospel to new cultures in other continents. His aim was to see the growth of indigenous faith communities that were neither shaped by the missionaries’ culture nor dependent on the mission agency’s ongoing resourcing. The three “Self’s” that he came up with, are:

  • Self-governing
  • Self-financing
  • Self-reproducing

These principles link very well with another pioneer mission thinking, Roland Allen who in his works such as “Missionary Methods – St Paul’s & Ours”, proposed that the resources for God’s mission were always present in any context.

Some within CMS, drawing on the later missionary insights of Vincent Donnovan and others, have proposed a fourth principle to be added of “Self Theologising”. This is about the need for any new work in a new culture to express the gospel in ways authentic to that context.

Now church planting and the pioneering of fresh expressions of church has become common in our post-Christendom mission situation in the UK. This has led some to propose that this “3 Self Principle” should be applied in the assessment of the maturity of such initiatives. In particular this application is set out in the Mission-shaped Church Report on pages 121-122.

Clearly we have the highest respect for the “Three-self” insights themselves, coming from some of the most experienced and wisest mission pioneers of previous centuries. Therefore at one level, when they have been referred to as a helpful part of the body of good practice for church planting and mission in the UK and Western Europe, we have been completely happy. However, at another level we have always had a slight unease about how these principles have been applied in the area of providing a goal for maturity. Somehow, it tended to feel that these principles were setting the bar too high for the pioneer projects that we knew of, especially those in deprived inner-urban contexts. For a long time we have lived with an inner conflict between a missiological assent to these concepts and a unease about how they seem to be working out in both recent literature and practical accompaniment and support of actual projects.

We ourselves would repeat the “3 Self Principle” when teaching on this area and when questions arose in consultations with church plant leaderships. However, those with discernment may have detected that there was always a degree of half-heartedness which came from this often subconscious conflict.

Over the past 30 years of working out our calling in church planting we have been increasingly encouraged by new streams within the movement that were light-weight and low maintenance and seemed to offer much greater potential for multiplication. Since our guiding vision had always been to see a movement of missionary church planting, we certainly were completely committed to the self reproducing ideal. Also our experience of mission and variety of church plants in urban priority areas, had led us to appreciate models of leadership that were far more akin to the shop floor than to managerial models often popular in Western church writing. Hence this informs how we interpret the self-governing criterion.

However, it is only much more recently that we have tumbled on the root of our discomfort and come to a new measure of clarity about how we can wholeheartedly and unreservedly affirm the 3 self principle and its application to projects we work with! The revelation that came to us can be summed up in the analogy that we felt we were being asked to ‘look down the wrong end of a telescope’! Let us explain.

As we have said, the context in which we first had the 3 Self Principle expounded to us and in which it was almost always found since then, was as a measure of maturity for projects seeking to plant new expressions of church. Now while characteristics of self governance, self financing and self reproduction may have a relationship to maturity, our recent partnership with CMS mission movement has led us to realise that this was not Henry Venn the originator’s original intention. Far from setting a yard stick to which all such projects had to attain (and which all too often in our western church situation would mean we judged new projects as only succeeding if they measured up to all our heavy weight assumptions about leadership, funding and daughter church reproduction), these three principles were in fact, the lenses through which we were to rediscover what was appropriate church in new and diverse contexts.

Yes the 3 Self Principle could be used for judgment but the primary direction of judgment had to be in relation to the artificial assumptions that the outside missionary brought to the question of what sort of church was to be planted. The sort of church in any given context that was to be planted, should be defined by what could govern itself, finance itself and reproduce itself in that context. This indeed is a true missiological touchstone that will liberate us from the endemic disease of most cross cultural church planting that seeks to reproduce the sorts of church from which it was sent out (cf Vincent Donnovan). With “The telescope this way round” we rightly judge what is appropriate contextual church as it grows towards maturity.

Thus if we are planting a church into a poor Asian community where the average income can be measured in a few bowls of rice, then this will determine both the sort of leadership and the level of financial viability that a tithing of bowls of rice will produce to support a local pastor who is able to survive on the same living standard as those he is leading and gospelling amongst.

Aha! Aha! Now we have the telescope the right way round! Now my missionary heart sings and I can rejoice at the liberating effect of this wonderful 3 Self Principle that helps us be protected from the awful natural human tendency of cultural imperialism when it comes to cross cultural church planting. A tendency no less prevalent in twenty-first century UK mission.

No wonder our hearts have been warmed at insights first from cell church where a single cell with appropriately trained lay leadership required little financing and offered great hope for reproduction but could still be considered as fully church. So to is our excitement about base community projects in the shanty towns of Latin America fully explained when we see these principles worked out with the telescope now the right way round. We’re not putting burdens on wonderful movements of multiplying expressions of the life of the Body of Christ, but are rather ensuring their mission effectiveness, appropriateness and vitality. Even more recent initiatives going under the heading of ‘simple church’ again can be welcomed and affirmed when we use the 3 Self Principle to set such missionary movements free from arbitrary Christendom impositions which would seek to demand that they measure up to our massive developed economic and managerial society.

All this is not to say, as I mentioned earlier, that there is no real relationship between the 3 Self Principle and the maturity of mission endeavours to create new faith communities. Such planting can be judged mature when they show the potential for self governance, self financing and self reproduction. However, this has to be only the secondary question to be asked. It is only appropriate once we have first used the principles to ensure that our discovery and discerning of appropriate expressions of church within the context (en-culturated) both mirror the economic, social and leadership patterns and are also sufficiently light weight and low maintenance to permit of multiplication.

Of course if we then also add the self-theologising principle, this again can only rightly be used with the emphasis on setting free the new expressions of church in the host culture to allow the gospel to engage with the culture such that an incarnate expression emerges, both affirming and transforming different elements of that culture.

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