Even today, the image that comes to mind when many people in Europe hear the word “missionary” probably includes pith helmets and the British Empire.
Those days are long gone. The work of mission organizations like BMS is thoroughly contemporary, involving work with local partners and usually under their direction.
But there’s still an assumption that in order to be involved in foreign missions, Westerners must either go themselves or support those who do.
No one suggests that is a wrong approach, but one European Baptist project takes a different line altogether. Instead of spending time, money and energy equipping someone from one culture to be effective in another, the Indigenous Mission Project supports church planters in their own countries.
Under the direction of Polish Baptist minister Daniel Trusciewicz, the IMP, based at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague and now in its third year, supports at least 40 church plants throughout Europe and the Middle East.
It’s hard to pin down an exact number, because some of the new churches have already gone on to plant other congregations. But whether in the freezing temperatures of the Arctic Circle in Siberia or the fast-growing Baptist unions in the mountains of Georgia or Armenia, the IMP is helping new churches grow.
One of the most successful planters is Igor Seremet from Moldova, home to one of the fastest-growing Baptist unions in Europe. Seremet’s initial church plant has gone on to plant two more.
That is despite opposition from local authorities. When the mayor sent someone to attend the meetings to investigate them, she was converted, and in turn told the mayor he ought to wish everyone in town was like the Baptist Christians.
“Indigenous missionaries are more successful,” Trusciewicz said. “They know the language, they know the culture, they have contacts–and they are the cheapest.”
The nature of the IMP program is to facilitate and upgrade the ministries of indigenous missionaries. “They do the church-planting,” Trusciewicz said. “They read their Bibles. They are mission-minded. They just need the resources, and we help them do a better job.”
Trusciewicz says the concept is not just about saving money, but money is always an issue in mission. He argues the UMP is a wise use of resources.
A typical church-planter in Eastern Europe costs about 300 euros a month, a fraction of the cost of supporting a Western missionary, and each project is owned and supported locally.
“The church-planters are selected by local unions, and supervised by them,” he said. “I provide the bridge between the unions and the partners. My job is to share information, discover the needs and provide a flow of information. They make the approach.”
An important IMP principle is that outside support for the projects lasts for only five years on a decreasing basis. Local involvement gradually increases until the churches become self-supporting.
But often the context for the work is difficult, and Trusciewicz is realistic about the possible outcomes. “We have had failures,” he said. “One person withdrew because of ill-health, and two others were failures. That’s inevitable, but in general the project has been successful.”
With more than 40 projects altogether, that confidence seems justified. Trusciewicz says that is because almost every European union is mission-minded.
“The majority of unions I work with have church-planting departments and church-planting schools,” he said. “They’re well-prepared in this area.” Even small unions in the Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Lebanon, which may have only 70-80 churches, still have people who are trained in church planting and growth.
The project goes much wider than traditional European borders. “It’s not just Eastern Europe,” he said. “We’ve accepted Middle Eastern missionaries too.”
There are now indigenous church-planters in four Middle Eastern countries–one in Jordan, and two each in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.
“The situation is different there,” Trusciewicz said. “There is no atheistic influence, but there is Muslim influence, in some countries more than others.”
Trusciewicz is adamant that the local unions run the project themselves. That is the strength of the strategy–that their local knowledge makes them more effective. But each one is supported by him and by the resources of the EBF, and he makes regular visits.
“In the beginning I usually meet with union leaders,” he said. “They share with me their evaluation. And it’s very important for me, because they are mentors and supervisors for church planters. Later I meet with missionaries. I ask them about their situation, methods of work, successes and problems.
“It’s excellent occasion for me to match the situation of people on site with a picture which I have from a written report. It’s also a natural occasion to meet a family, since a home is the base for a typical church planter.”
Trusciewicz is particularly well-qualified for his role as mentor. Before beginning to work for the IMP he was pastor of the largest Baptist church in Poland. His church in Wroclaw had more than 400 members and planted five daughter churches.
Trusciewicz often puts his evangelistic skills to work on his visits. “It often happens that a mission conference for church planters is organized with me being the speaker,” he said. “Sometimes they also organize an evangelistic meeting, and I can see how they do it.”
Still, Trusciewicz says the day of cross-cultural mission isn’t over.
“There is place for cross-cultural mission,” he said. “Such missionaries can provide information and expertise which is not available otherwise. They can share knowledge and facilitate indigenous mission.
“But they ought to back up and promote indigenous missionaries. With regard to church planting, foreign missionaries are most effective when they stay in the shade and indigenous leaders are in the front.”
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Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.