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Finding New Unity through Discovery

24 Aug Posted by in | Comments

A guest post by Dr. Steven P. Steinhaus, DMin


A key issue impacting unity and partnership in mission relates to the role of the foreigner in other cultures, in particular concerning questions about church-in-culture decisions: contextualization or indigenization. Missionaries around the world have long struggled with this issue. Mission history is replete with embarrassing examples of workers foisting their own cultural preferences upon local people. David Bosch summarizes:

In Roman Catholic missions the term commonly used in this respect was “accommodation”; Protestants preferred to speak of “indigenization.” By and large, however, Catholicism endorsed the principle that a “missionary church” must reflect in every detail the Roman custom of the moment. Protestants were hardly more progressive in this regard, not least because of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity … which Westerners tended to recognize more easily in the peoples of Asia and Africa than in themselves. Still “indigenization” was official missionary policy in virtually every Protestant mission organization, even if it was usually taken for granted that it was the missionaries, not the members of the young churches, who would determine the limits of indigenization. (Bosch 1991, 294-295)

            Today similar questions pertaining to contextual issues have led to acrimonious debates about the contextualization “spectrum” (Travis 1998). So how may it be possible to truly move past these debates today and work together in unity?

Paul’s Focus on Obedience, Not Forms

In order to move toward unity in issues pertaining to church planting, practitioners of Disciple Making Movements (DMM) suggest we need a return to more intentionally apostolic paradigms. The Apostle Paul planted simple, oikos-based, Jesus-centered churches in “houses of peace” (Zdero 2011, 348) which multiplied everywhere. But how was that possible? One key seems to be the freedom he gave to new believers. Though all churches were formed upon the same kerygma, Paul and the early disciples did not prescribe specific forms of worship. We search the New Testament in vain to find specific forms or liturgies prescribed to all churches. Arthur Patzia (2001, 245) attributes this to Paul’s tolerance for local variance: “Worship patterns varied among the churches, ranging between the order of a synagogal model and the rather free expressions of worship evident in Corinth.”

The reason for variations in context seem to be rooted in Paul’s own view of himself as an outsider and his insistence on appealing to his listeners to obey the Word of the gospel in general rather than commanding them to make specific applications. As Robert Banks discerns, Paul’s attitude is summarized in 2 Cor. 1:24, “we do not lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy” (italics mine). Banks (1994, 178) continues, “The apostle—for all his divine call, diverse gifts, and founding labors—does not set himself in a hierarchical position above his communities or act in an authoritarian manner towards them. He refuses to do this since Christ is their master.” This emphasis is imperative for us today as well: we are not making disciples of ourselves (or of our theology or denomination), but of Jesus.

Thus, only if we release control of secondary issues and specific contextual applications can we hope for true indigenization. Steve Addison writes of Paul’s ministry:

An important element in Paul’s strategy was the establishment of new churches. He did not just win converts, he gathered them into communities of faith. … The churches met in homes for worship, teaching and mutual support, and were largely run by local believers. Paul’s aim was to bring each new church to maturity so he could move on to the next destination, with the church as a partner in his mission. Christianity’s stubborn intransigence combined with flexibility in methods was a key to its success. (Addison 2011, 114)

Recent literature such as the above echoes the principles of some of the great missiologists of previous centuries, including Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, Richard Nevius and Roland Allen. Venn and Anderson argued in the mid-1800s for a “Three Self Model,” saying that only when foreign control was removed would new indigenous churches see local leadership, resources and theology emerge. John Nevius (1899) argued for the Three Self Model because it worked, while Roland Allen argued that it worked because it was biblical, that is, Pauline (Steffan 2011, 19). In his 1912 treatise, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, Allen contended that Paul’s strikingly brief time in most places he visited was precisely part of the reason for his success. The brief time in each city was strategic because it forced Paul to use incredibly flexible and rapid means to equip new believers. Allen believed that Paul’s basic training of new believers focused only on the most essential basics of the faith: the creed, the two sacraments of baptism and communion (but without prescribing the manner in which they were to be done), orders,[i] and the Holy Scriptures.[ii] Thus Paul’s quick departure was actually not a hindrance but a means of speeding growth, for new believers were immediately put to work (Allen 1962, 77).

Similar to the Pauline model, in Disciple Making Movements today new believers are immediately put to work sharing what they are learning, leading their own groups (starting as group facilitators and later often becoming church elders or church planters), and holding each other accountable to apply new truths they discover. This is, of course, very similar to the thinking of Allen et al. above. However DMM offers a radical new twist: outside leaders do not normally attend insider groups for very long. They instead encourage seeker groups and new believer groups to study and make applications on their own while the outsider mentors an insider(s) to lead. This intentional strategy helps the group make their own applications and determine their preferred styles of worship appropriate to their culture from the very beginning. This stands in contrast to traditional teaching/instructional approaches where the outsider teaches for some time, then eventually attempts to pass the baton to a local believer (ex. Hesselgrave 2000; Steffen 1997). Thus the classic church-planting question, “What will the church look like?” becomes unanswerable for DMM practitioners because they honestly don’t know the answer. Instead, new believer groups will make those decisions. David and Paul Watson write:

DMM is about doing what was done in the first century—giving the Gospel to a people and teaching them to obey it; seeing them become faithful disciples of Christ; leaving them to struggle in obeying the Word of God in their own context and history; and allowing them to develop their own unique practices of worship, leadership, and governance within the confines of biblical obedience. (Watson and Watson 2014, 26)

De-culturization Clears the Way

DMM practitioners tend to discuss the topic of de-culturization more frequently than contextualization or indigenization. Watson and Watson explain:

 The cross-cultural witness must be able to identify the cultural areas and eliminate them from his or her teachings. The best way to do this is to use only Scripture for curricula, and allow local people to answer questions about Scripture, not listen to our answers. We must learn to teach by asking a minimal number of questions, not by giving the answers to every question or having an expressed opinion about everything. (Watson and Watson 2014, 14)

Outsiders seek to de-culturize the message by allowing seeker groups to study and apply the Word of God directly. Then insiders contextualize the message as they read and apply it through the lens of their own cultural forms.

The Discovery Group

The paramount way outsiders de-culturize the message and allow insiders to lead in most movements today is by using simple Bible study formats such as the Discovery Group (or Discovery Bible Study). This allows the Bible to speak for itself without an additional layer of human teaching. While there are several variations of basic questions used around the world, normally the group facilitator simply asks questions such as the following:

  1. What are you thankful for today?
  2. What are you struggling with today?

Questions 1-2 are used before reading/hearing the Bible passage. Each person present should respond. Then a passage from the Bible is read, or an audio file of a Bible passage is played. After the Bible reading, each group member then retells the story/passage in his or her own words. They then discuss these questions as a group:

  1. What does this passage say about God?
  2. What does this passage say about humanity?
  3. What will you do to obey it?

Each person is asked for a specific and measurable statement of how they will obey, beginning with “I will…” Groups members will then respond to these questions:

  1. Is there something we could do to obey as a group?
  2. Who would you like to tell about it?

Each person is expected to state someone to whom they will pass on the Bible story and/or their application.

The genius of the Discovery Group is that the same simple but profound questions are used each week, thereby allowing groups to learn and reproduce them rapidly. No matter what story or passage is read, the same questions are used.[iii] As groups of seekers begin to study the Bible on their own using the same questions in each meeting, this easily reproducible DNA is established and the expectation of obedience is created. Thus there is no need for an outsider to lead or to tell insiders how to obey in response to the Word. Seekers and new believers very quickly become used to the discussion questions and the process of making their own decisions. Usually groups are led by insiders (local people who often have not yet come to Christ) after one or two meetings. Disciple makers do meet routinely with group facilitators outside the group, but they exercise great discipline to avoid answering group facilitators’ questions based on their own ideas. Instead they continually suggest Bible passages for further study. As the group continues, facilitators often mature and become elders of the new church. In this way a prototype to develop is given to the fledgling church, instead of an imported model to imitate.

These ideas presented in this blog are not mere theory. They are a theological and missiological reflection on God’s work in bringing millions to faith and establishing tens of thousands of new churches in previously unreached cultures. If we are willing to trust the Word and the Spirit to let people discover what the Bible really says, without importing our own ideas on contextualization or cultural forms, we will find that we have put in motion a huge key for biblical and healthy reproduction and also the key to ending many of our theological disputes.



Have you heard about Multiply: DMM Summit coming up on September 6-8 in Wheaton, Chicago?  Jerry Trousdale, Roy Moran and David Watson are among the speakers. See for more information and to register.


Reference List

Addison, Steve, Alan Hirsch, and Bob Roberts Jr. 2011. Movements That Change the World: Five Keys to Spreading the Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Allen, Roland. 1962. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (Orig. pub. 1912.)

Banks, Robert J. 1994. Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Bosch, David J. 2000. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. New York: Orbis Books.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Patzia, Arthur G. 2001. The Emergence of the Church. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Steffen, Tom. 1997. Passing the Baton: Church Planting that Empowers. La Habra, CA: Center for Organizational and Ministry Development.

______. 2011. The Facilitator Era. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Travis, John. 1998. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ Found in the Muslim Context.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34, no. 4 (October): 407–408.

Watson, David L. and Paul D. 2014. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Zdero, Rad. 2011. “The Apostolic Strategy of House Churches for Mission Today.” Evangelical               Missions Quarterly 47, no. 3 (July): 346-353.

[i] By orders Allen meant appointing elders or leaders.

[ii] Primarily the Old Testament since the New Testament was not yet completed. Later, letters from the apostles including Paul also began to be circulated. These were also studied by the new churches and also regarded as Scripture (2 Pet 3:16).

[iii] As noted above, there is often some variation to these questions in order to fit specific cultures. For example, with concrete thinkers often the questions “What does this teach us about God/man?” are changed to, “What do you see God/man doing in this passage?” Other changes are sometimes made and other questions added, including questions to aid in deeper Bible study.

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