The Multiplying Church:
How New Testament Practices Shaped the Assemblies of God Worldwide
By Randy Hurst
More than 4 billion people still have not received an adequate witness of the gospel. How can we reach them?
After 94 years of Assemblies of God missions, we have more than 58 million believers in more than 300,000 congregations. But this represents just over 1 percent of the world’s vast, unreached multitudes. When we consider this challenging task of reaching our world, how can we hope to see the Great Commission fulfilled?
In recent years the term best practices has become common. This term describes a management approach that seeks the most efficient and effective processes and methods to produce a desired outcome. Best practices, then, are based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time. Early Assemblies of God missions leaders were committed to a best-practices approach long before the term came into popular use.
We frequently quote a resolution made in 1914 at the second Assemblies of God General Council: “We commit ourselves and the Movement to Him for the greatest evangelism the world has ever seen.” These words were not born out of fervent optimism or self-confidence, but a heartfelt, intentional response to the command of our Lord to go into all the world. Their tone reflects both a comprehension and an apprehension of our Lord’s promise concerning the Spirit’s empowerment to accomplish the task.
Another resolution passed 7 years later at the 1921 Council was even more significant in the history of our mission because it determined how we could fulfill the declaration made in 1914.
The 1921 resolution stipulated that we would guide our mission using New Testament practices. Among the six practices listed were these: (1) “The Pauline example will be followed so far as possible, by seeking out neglected regions where the gospel has not yet been preached, lest we build upon another’s foundation” (Romans 15:20); and (2) “It shall be our purpose to seek to establish self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing native churches.”1
A vital correlation exists between these two practices. The apostolic character of the first practice means that the mission will prioritize establishing Christ’s church where it does not yet exist. The missiological character of the second practice defines the methodology. Effective fulfillment of the first practice depends on commitment to the second.
What the resolution describes as “self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing ‘native’ churches” is now known by the term indigenous churches. Indigenous describes churches that begin, grow, and live in their own natural setting or environment. Our early leaders determined that the Fellowship’s mission was not to transplant the American church, but to plant bodies of believers that would live and grow without being dependent on the U.S. church that sent the missionaries.
Several missionary leaders were influential in establishing indigenous church principles and practices. The first, Alice Luce, was significantly influenced by Roland Allen, an Anglican missionary to China. Allen’s book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, was published in 1912. In the spring of 1921, Luce wrote a series of three articles for the Pentecostal Evangel entitled “Paul’s Missionary Methods.” These clearly had significant influence on the 1921 General Council resolution.
Since 1965, the number of churches in Myanmar has increased 1,078 percent,
with a 2,074 percent growth in membership. In Cuba the growth is even
more dramatic: 2,354 percent in churches and 11,791 percent in membership.
Both national fellowships were established firmly on indigenous principles
before missionaries were forced by new governments to leave.
After Noel Perkin became foreign missions secretary (now executive director) in 1927, he championed the New Testament practice of establishing what we now call indigenous churches. No one was more influential than Perkin in comprehensively integrating these principles into Assemblies of God missiology.
Thirty-two years after Luce’s writings, Melvin Hodges, missionary to El Salvador and Nicaragua from 1935 to 1953, documented the primary missiology of the Assemblies of God in his book, The Indigenous Church. Published in 1953, Hodges’ work set the course for missions, not only for the Assemblies of God, but also for many other evangelical missions agencies.
The pervasive and lasting success of indigenous church principles, however, is due to the many little-known missionaries who practiced these New Testament methods throughout the world. In the 1920s through the early 1950s, AG missionaries began to aggressively plant indigenous churches around the world. The growth of those indigenous churches escalated. In 1953, the number of Assemblies of God believers outside the United States surpassed the number in America. (See sidebar Indigenous Church Growth.)
Empowerment and Indigenous Principles
The approach taken by the Assemblies of God in establishing churches throughout the world can be summed up in Paul’s command to Timothy: “The things which you have heard from me … these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2, NASB).2
The apostle Paul instructed Timothy and Titus to appoint elders and deacons in every new church. This practice set a pattern for an ecclesiology that acknowledges the Holy Spirit’s ministry of raising up leadership. The Spirit equips believers for leadership wherever the church is established.
Recognizing a dependence on the Spirit’s power is characteristically Pentecostal. Pentecostal missionaries expect national leaders in every culture to receive the same Spirit empowerment that the missionaries themselves received. What secular analysts might view as egalitarian is simply spiritual humility and obedience to God’s Word. The confidence that the Spirit calls and enables national leadership drove Assemblies of God missionaries to develop ministry training institutions around the world, now exceeding/numbering 889 Bible schools and 1231 extensions in more than 143 countries.
A New Testament Example
Luke records the power of discipleship and multiplication in the early expansion of the New Testament church. Paul, on his second missionary journey with his companions, “passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia;3 and when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them” (Acts 16:6,7, NASB).
It seems puzzling that the Lord sent Paul to proclaim the gospel, yet the Spirit prevented him from going into Asia, where he had not yet preached the gospel. But the Spirit had a better method for reaching Asia. Immediately after the Spirit stopped him, Paul received a vision, often referred to as the Macedonian call. In that portion of his missionary journey, he established churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth.
What about the unreached in Asia? After going to Macedonia and Achaia, Paul came to Ephesus. Luke records: “He entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:8–10).
Had Paul followed his own inclination and planning, he would have traveled throughout Asia proclaiming the gospel in one town at a time. Instead, the Spirit placed him in Ephesus at the school of Tyrannus, where the message multiplied through those he discipled. The result was that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord.”
Sustainability and Multiplication
A convincing test of effective parenting is what happens to children after they leave home and are no longer dependent on their parents’ leadership. A similar litmus test takes place in missions — but in reverse. What happens when the missionaries leave? At times in our Fellowship’s history when missionaries were forced by governments to leave certain countries, strong indigenous churches not only survived, they thrived.
When missionaries left Cuba in 1963, the national church consisted of 290 churches and approximately 4,200 members. Today, there are more than 7,100 churches and more than 500,000 members.
Prior to the decision to stop paying national pastors and make the church
indigenous, the Togo fellowship had less than a third as many churches as
Liberia. Nearly 20 years passed before Togo fully recovered. Today, not only
is its increase in churches and members much more pronounced, but the
average church attendance is much higher — 247 in Togo to Liberia’s 112.
When a change in government took place in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1966, officials forced missionaries to leave the country. Other missions agencies working in Burma had adopted the practice of paying national pastors’ salaries from abroad. But U.S. Assemblies of God missionaries had established the Burma Assemblies of God as a strong, indigenous church.
Ray Trask was the last AG missionary to leave Burma. At the airport, Trask met a missionary from another denomination that had paid its national pastors from denominational funds. When the church could no longer utilize outside funds, this missionary had to inform pastors that they would no longer receive pay. They lost every pastor, and the denomination folded in Burma. The missionary told Trask, “You people did it right.”
When American AG missionaries left Burma, the national fellowship had 172 churches with 12,668 members. Today, there are 2,027 churches and more than 275,369 members.
As Assemblies of God World Missions has expanded its outreach during the past five decades, a clear perspective has emerged. Wherever indigenous church principles are applied, the national church grows strong, healthy, and becomes self-multiplying. Wherever missionaries do not practice indigenous church principles, the national church remains weak, is dependent, and in some cases, missionaries must re-established the work.
Simple, but profound evidence, confirms how essential indigenous practices are to the success of our mission:
- Other Pentecostal groups that share AG doctrine,but not the samemissiology, have not experienced the same long-term, exponential growth worldwide.
- Dependence on the Holy Spirit’s empowerment is essential to the effectiveness of a Pentecostal mission. But even non-Pentecostal groups that practice indigenous principles see greater results than Pentecostal missions that neglect or abandon indigenous practices.
- Our overseas statistics are usually quoted as an overall figure, but our growth is not the same in all countries. Some people look at the aggregate church growth overseas and compare it with that in the United States. However, averages are not norms. Our success stories overseas may overshadow the failures, just as the statistics of flat, declining, and closing churches in the United States can eclipse our view of the many thriving, healthy, growing churches.
Our history reveals this fact: In countries where we have been true to the course established by the Spirit through our early leaders, we have succeeded beyond their greatest hopes. In nations where we have compromised, we have failed. We are not only our own best example, but also our own worst example.
In some countries, Assemblies of God missionaries attempted to take shortcuts and adopted paternalistic approaches to planting the church, such as paying salaries to national pastors. Consequently, the health of those national churches suffered.
Liberia and Togo — a Contrast
An example in which AG missionaries did not practice indigenous principles is the nation of Liberia. Missionaries did not encourage nationals to live a Christian life in their villages. Instead, missionaries brought nationals to a mission compound, where they received food, clothing, and pay for most of the help they rendered. Missionaries paid pastors to go to Bible school and fully subsidized their church salaries. These missionaries had good motives. There are 45 AG missionaries buried in Liberia as testimonies to their commitment. Nevertheless, they started a nonindigenous system that was difficult to reverse.
In other countries where indigenous principles were lacking, missionaries have been able to re-establish the church on indigenous principles. Togo is one example. National and AG missionaries from neighboring Burkina Faso started the ministry in Togo, and national pastors received their pay from U.S. funds. But in the early 1960s, African Field Director Everett Phillips requested that this nonindigenous church principle cease. The national Fellowship immediately lost 63 of its 74 pastors. Transition was slow and painful, requiring about 15 years to re-establish the work. But the national church of Togo became strong, and its growth doubles every few years. It now reports 536 pastors, 926 churches, and 228,921 adherents. (See sidebar Indigenous Church Growth.)
When we pay the price to re-establish a church on the right foundation, indigenous principles work.
From Parenting to Partnering
As a national church grows and matures, the missionary relationship progresses from spiritual parenting to spiritual partnering. This progression became increasingly evident in the 1980s and 1990s. As missionaries and national churches committed themselves to intense evangelism in the 1990s, the strategy of partnering with indigenous churches produced the greatest growth in the history of our mission. In the last two decades, Assemblies of God fraternal fellowships throughout the world have increased in membership from 16 million to more than 58 million believers. The founders of this Fellowship could not have imagined what we see today. The long-term results have most likely exceeded their greatest hopes and expectations.
Indigenous principles and practices have proven effective throughout the world. The results in Latin America and Africa — where the consistent application of indigenous church principles has been the most widespread and pronounced — have been especially dramatic.
In the last 15 years the number of churches in Latin America has grown from 110,098 to 187,392 and membership has increased from 16,875,401 to 25,641,347. The number of churches in Africa has grown from 13,953 to 45,145 and membership has increased from 2,801,536 to 13,917,391. Countries where missionaries have strongly practiced indigenous principles have shown the greatest growth.
In early 1990, the Assemblies of God in Malawi had only 226 churches. Today, there are more than 3,600. The Kenyan Assemblies of God is planting an average of 10 churches every week.
Churches in other regions also have experienced astounding growth. In Chennai, India, New Life Assembly, pastored by David Mohan, has more than 35,000 members and has mothered more than 120 churches in the city. Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, founded by David Yonggi Cho — the largest church in the world — has more than 800,000 members.
Many churches in Latin America have tens of thousands of members. More than 3 million people — more than the entire U.S. Assemblies of God constituency — attend Assemblies of God churches on any given Sunday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
We can trace the accelerating multiplication and lasting growth in Assemblies of God fraternal fellowships throughout the world to the New Testament practices to which our early leadership committed themselves in 1921.
The solutions to the challenges we face in the present and the future are not in new strategies but in a restored commitment to those the Lord established.
1. The combined wording of those two practices is still in our Constitution and Bylaws today. See art. 13, sec. 1.
2. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).
3. Not modern Asia.