Lead Article

Partnering toward Indigenization

Vol. 11, No. 1

“The time has come for us to experience a more equal partnership!” This proclamation was given by a Chinese leader at the end of a four-day Leader Development Consultation (LDC) held in November, 2008, sponsored by LeaderSource SGA and China Source. This LDC wrestled with how truly indigenized leader development is achieved and the appropriate role of outsiders in leader development work.

Some of the key descriptors of this consultation were “openness,” “transparency,” “respect” and “understanding.” There was a willingness to accept one another and share key ideas regarding leader development. Participants agreed that the time has come for Chinese and overseas leaders to move forward in mutual partnerships.

Three main themes emerged from the four day learning event: principles of indigenized leader development; mutual learning to achieve indigenization; and the pursuit of indigenization in light of globalization.

Principles of Indigenized Leader Development

The term “indigenous” comes from biology and refers to the natural environment of plants and species. For example, a Karner Blue butterfly is indigenous to the south shore of Lake Michigan while the Panda is indigenous to China. Thus, an indigenous church planting strategy is one where churches can survive and thrive naturally in their own environment. Such a strategy avoids planting churches that do not “fit” and are simply a “copycat” of their foreign counterparts. Just as a butterfly has certain natural characteristics in order to be called a butterfly, a ministry needs certain native characteristics to be deemed indigenous.

With regard to leader development, truly indigenized leader development has three critical components: it is defined, designed and done by indigenous leaders. Each of the plenary speakers at the consultation discussed one or more of these three aspects of indigenous leader development. First, it must be indigenous leaders, and not outsiders, who have defined the fundamental nature of leader development for their own environment. Second, on the basis of those definitions, the indigenous leaders must be the ones who design their own leader development programs (curriculum, materials, etc.). Finally, leader development programs are indigenous when they are implemented by the local leaders. Outsiders can profitably help with all the above, but they must respect the indigenous leaders’ right and responsibility to be the primary ones who define, design and do their own leader development.

During the LDC, the following principles clearly emerged.

Principle #1: Outsiders should nurture the capacity of Chinese leaders to define, design and implement their own leader development programs. The outsiders’ role is not to do the work for the indigenous leaders, but it is to help build the capacity of the Chinese leaders to create and do their own leader development. Indigenous leaders should have clear ownership of the entire practice of their own leader development work from start to finish. Several plenary speakers affirmed the need to build capacity and to explore the core biblical components that are consistent in any culture for leader development.

Principle #2: Both ministry partners (outsiders and Chinese) should learn from one another (mutual learning) by adopting the attitude of humility. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul teaches that everyone should esteem his brother as better than himself. The Chinese often are more spiritualthey pray more and often know the Word better than outsiders do. Mutual partnership must be based on genuine respect, not condescending in any way.

Principle #3: Outsiders should nurture the Chinese leaders while helping to build their capacity to design. Many Chinese leaders who attended the LDC expressed their strong need for spiritual nurture, marriage and family help, and spiritual retreats. This is a key role that outsiders can play in serving the church in China. Chinese leaders work in an increasingly complex and challenging ministry environment. They need spiritual fathers and mothers to nurture their spiritual lives.

Principle #4: The role of outsiders should be facilitator and coach. Coaches are change catalysts who help leaders take responsibility for their own lives and leader development programs.

Our discussion on indigenization shifted from materials to mentors, from curriculum to coaches and from resources to relationships. The three-self principles of indigenization including self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating are essential qualities, but several discussion groups suggested a fourth principle: self-designing. The church in China must build the capacity of its leaders to define, design and do their own leader development programs.

Indigenization in Light of Globalization

The pursuit of indigenization in light of globalization was a major theme of the consultation. This involves the Chinese church working with churches around the world on a peer level. It is a partnership of resources within the global church and mutual learning between equal partners. Outside ministries do have something to offer the church in China. God has created his church in a way that we are all part of one body around the world. We need each other to reach the fullness of Christ “in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21).

Chinese leaders at the LDC agreed that ownership and development of their own leader development work is the key, but there must be appreciation for connecting with overseas partners. Mutual learning between the church in Asia, Africa, North America and around the world is already at work. Globalization is the deepening connection between church communities and nations and building up the church worldwide. Indigenous leader development is a piece in the continual movement toward healthy, mutual interdependency.

The strengths and weaknesses of leader development of both the Chinese and overseas churches should be recognized. The Chinese church can offer its precious spiritual heritage to the global church while it still desires more capacity-building.

Healthy Partnerships

The idea of healthy partnership was discussed many times throughout the consultation, showing this was one key impact that the LDC had on the participants. Chinese leaders repeatedly expressed their deep gratitude for the self-giving love that many overseas ministries have given to Chinese people over the years.

Healthy partnership includes:

  • Openness
  • Transparency
  • Unconditional acceptance
  • Genuine respect
  • Communication
  • Walking in humility
  • Mutual learning
  • Sharing of resources

The spirit of mutual sharing and learning among Chinese and overseas ministry leaders was expressed when one Chinese brother said: “We are very grateful to explore partnerships with outsiders. We also feel very heavy. How do we receive the baton and pass it on to the next generation?” This idea is that a paradigm shift is needed for the church in China to have greater capacity. The church must make some generational changes by transferring leadership to the younger leaders. It is that next generation of leaders for which the church around the world is striving!

At the end of the consultation, one Chinese leader said, “My heart was deeply moved during these last few days. I had many reflections. It encouraged me to have some visionary thinking. The first thing that touched me deeply was the realization that over the last 200 years, the overseas body has been supporting us with patience and love. I know the overseas church has the desire for an indigenized Chinese church. But there is another thing I have thought about: What does the Chinese church actually need? Do we need a good model? Good methods? Structure? What we really need are healthy leaders!”

Image credit: 大钟塔(Bell Tower) by Patrick He, on Flickr

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio