Viral Churches in 19th Century Missiology

In 2010, Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird published Viral Churches, sounding a call for church multiplication movements through "churches planting churches that in turn plant churches."  As trendy as the title sounds, its idea is far from original. Prominent missiologists dating back to at least the 19th century have called for the development of self-propagating churches as a key objective of mission work.  In this context, self-propagating or self-extending describes churches that after having been started by missionaries, take up their own evangelistic and mission efforts.  This brief essay will draw attention to the calls for viral churches in the work of Rufus Anderson, Henry Venn, and William Taylor.

This theme emerged virtually simultaneously from Venn and Anderson.  While both were driven by a tri-partite vision for developing indigenous churches capable of self-support, self-governance, and self-extension, subtle differences of emphasis and justification are discernible.

Rufus Anderson was leader of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions from 1832-1866.  Anderson believed that “missions are instituted for the spread of a scriptural self-propagating Christianity” .  Hence, the other two “selfs” where largely regarded as means to this end.  R. Pierce Beaver, captures Anderson’s thinking: “Churches are never to be ends in themselves, but means to enlargement and extension of the mission.”   Anderson believed that a church which is self-governing and self-supporting will naturally be self-propagating, which is its true purpose.   Though Anderson does express a rather chronological ordering of the three “selfs”, he stresses that mission-planted churches “should be self-propagating from the very first.” 

For Anderson, self-propagation is first and foremost a duty: “Nothing is more truly binding on us than the obligation to impart the gospel to those who we can reach, and who will perish if they do not receive it.”   Moreover, Anderson considered it a mark of a church’s health and maturity.  Missions and individual Christians, Anderson observes, are under the same law of spiritual vitality: there is no standing still because “advancement is the condition of health.”  Indeed, for Anderson full-maturity was evidenced by the capacity to not only engage in local evangelism, but by participation in foreign missions.

Henry Venn was honorary secretary of the Church Missionary Society in England from 1841-1873.  As a Church of England clergyman, his emphasis among the “selfs” was most heavily on establishing properly self-governing mission churches.  Financial independence for these churches was also top priority.  While arguably the weakest of Venn’s three “selfs,” Venn nonetheless regarded the development of churches that engage in self-extension as a key marker of missionary success. 

Venn also understood self-extension as a duty incumbent upon all churches and all Christians.  Hence, he called for every convert to be instructed from day one in the obligation of financially supporting missions, and viewing oneself as a missionary among family and friends.   Speaking of the responsibility resting upon the indigenous church to “cultivate and exercise a Missionary spirit” given its situatedness “in the midst of a heathen land,” Venn invoked Isaiah 60: ““Arise, shine, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” Yes thy light, Sierra Leone, is come!”

For Venn, more important that the duty of self-extension, was its reward.  Embarking on missionary endeavors, Venn suggested, “would have a blessed reaction upon the Native Church itself and bring into its own bosom richer blessings than it dispenses to others.”   Elsewhere he described self-extension efforts as a means of invigorating native Christianity.   To illustrate, Venn tells the story of a community that mustered the funds to send a native missionary out for one month.  At the end of this month, the native missionary returned and reported his labors and “at once light and life entered the minds of the Native Converts, they had tasted the sweets of doing something for Missions"—they resolved to support two Catechists for the whole year.”  

William Taylor, a globetrotting missionary from 1849-1897 inspired by Charles Finney’s revivalism, echoed the need to establish self-propagating churches.  Taylor considered it the task of “Christian countries” to “introduce the Gospel into heathen lands” and then depend upon the exertions the indigenous Christian population for its spread.   Concluding his book Ten Years of Self-Supporting Missions in India Taylor summarizes his approach: “It has been our aim to let the Gospel become self-propagating, or, in other words, to go forth as evangelists preaching the Word, and organizing those converted into Churches, financially self-supporting, and spiritually aggressive and self-sacrificing.”

Taylor, Anderson and Venn embraced planting independent, self-extending churches as the primary task of foreign missions because of an underlying conviction that this was the most efficient and effective approach, and cited Pauline warrant. Taylor enthusiastically quotes Dr. Underhill, Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, as witness to the potency of self-extending churches:  “the where the work of spreading the Gospel has become the spontaneous and voluntary act of the converts, there the truth had most rapidly spread and the Word of God taken the deepest and strongest root.”   Venn expected the “Native Church” to become a more efficient Missionary agency—good news given the “impossibility of evangelizing the heathen world by the agency of European and American Missionaries.”   Furthermore, these three giants of 19th century missions expressed the convictions that participation in missionary efforts was a duty to which indigenous churches were bound, a mark of their maturity and a certain fountain of vitality.  With this strategy in view, all three dreamt of witnessing a sequence of “sending, conversions, churches, evangelism and further sending ad infinitum...until the whole world has been converted.”   More than 150 years later, the impact of this vision is still reverberating, as Viral Churches testifies.

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