Approximate cost to train, equip and send a foreign missionary to Africa: $200,000. Approximate yearly cost to keep him or her on the field $60,000. Monthly cost of training a local African pastor and planting a hub church (including financial support, Bibles, course materials and bicycles): $250. Approximate cost to construct a church building as a ministry base onsite in Africa: $14,500.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Steven Loots thought so. After accepting the Lord in middle school, Loots went on to obtain university and seminary degrees, and pastored a church in his native South Africa for nine years. Then, to see greater evangelism among the unreached, he worked with several mission agencies.
Through his years of experience as a pastor, evangelist and church planter he saw that the black African population was explosively ready to accept the gospel. But there was a problem.
"After five years what was on the ground was merely one church and about three or four preaching points," he says. "That didn't equate with the harvest potential we had discovered--the readiness of people willing to listen to the gospel and make a decision for the Lord."
Loots talked with several African pastors. "Why are you planting a church here in a town where a church already exists, rather than in your native village?" he asked. What he learned was that after a man obtained a seminary education, he had no interest in returning to a village where there was no school, no fresh water supply, no sanitation and no electricity.
At the same time, many mission societies did not allow their black converts to actually lead a church; at most they could speak at a series of preaching points which they would visit like the circuit rider of old. Those local flocks might be maintained that way, but they could never be discipled. The church was the proverbial "mile wide and an inch deep."
With these findings in mind, Loots created the "Hub Church Model" for planting churches, a concept custom-fit for the needs of Africa that takes advantage of the great potential for harvest in that continent. Then, he organized Harvesters International Ministries (HIM) in 1999 to implement it. The process is simple:
1. Train an indigenous African leader who is willing to adapt to the hub church model. (According to Steven, what the missionaries did well was training African leaders. Their weakness, however, was a failure to empower the leaders to fulfill their potential.)
2. Send the leader to a strategic place to plant a church. This is accomplished by evangelizing neighboring villages within bicycling distance with the goal of establishing a nucleus of believers in 10 nearby villages.
3. As groups of new believers gather for Bible study and prayer, the hub leader looks for rising leaders and selects one from each nucleus to come to his church for training.
4. Each leader begins a training course several days a week and returns to his native village to preach what he has learned on weekends. Not only is the leader trained, his people hear a fresh and doctrinally sound message every week and grow in maturity.
The course covers 30 units spread over three years. Keep in mind, throughout this process, the village leader is never removed from his natural environment and is supported locally as a pastor. Although the pastors are not required to pay for the training they receive, they agree to plant one additional church for each year of their training.
The results of this simple process? After six or seven years, 40 churches will be established and 10,000 believers discipled, with attendance ranging from 80 to 300 per church (in addition to the hub church). Those 40 churches also may plant additional churches, so the actual fruit from each hub leader may be even greater.
Loots began this discipling and church-planting program in Malawi in 1999, and a little later in Zambia and Congo. By 2001 he and his team of national missionaries planted 29 churches. Then, as expected, they began to multiply. By September 2003 HIM had 281 churches, and currently there are more than 700 churches.
That's partly because churches in the United States are catching the vision. Abingdon Bible Church in Abingdon, Virginia, pastored by Paul Bufford sent two teams to Africa with Loots to check out the program. They liked what they saw.
"We require in-country oversight for any indigenous leaders that we support," Bufford says, "and Loots provides that oversight."
Fellowship Chapel of Bristol, Tennessee., is one of the program's newer supporters. Missions pastor Bryan Hall said: "They have cut out so much of the red tape that so many organizations have to deal with. They've narrowed their scope of what they want to do, and they're doing it well. And it's working. They're planting churches, discipling pastors and starting more churches."
Another U.S. pastor who realized that the old way of doing missions wasn't working anymore is Larry Nelson. After moving to Kingsport, Tennessee., 20 years ago Nelson planted Agape Life Church. The church soon grew to 500 members, and four other daughter congregations were planted.
As Nelson was flying back from a missions trip to Africa in 1991 he felt the Lord tell him, "I want you to be part of raising up 500 new churches." At first he missed the "be part of" bit and tried to do it all himself, which didn't work.
Then he realized God had a different plan. "My objective was to go and find the person in any particular country who had a vision for raising up churches on a large scale," Nelson said. "After we found that individual, we would try to facilitate helping them fulfill the vision that God had placed in their heart."
To carry out that plan, Nelson formed Agape Global Ministries (AGM) in 1992.
"Our first objective was to develop a relationship with this individual," Nelson said, "and then we began to work with them on a limited basis. We would help them buy a generator, a tent, an automobile, something just to get started, and to see if we could trust them.
"As the relationship grew, we would take people from this country--as many as 20 or 30--on crusades overseas and begin to release funds to help.
"We would never put anything in our name. Whatever we built, whether land or buildings or vehicles, everything always stayed in the hands of the local ministry.
"We found when we developed a relationship with people in any particular country and gave them liberty to work with their people and their leadership, the winning of souls has been phenomenal. In the last 12 years we've seen 917,000 people saved from this outreach."
By 2001 AGM helped plant 500 churches throughout 17 countries. Recently, AGM partnered with HIM to help plant 268 more churches.
Meanwhile Loots has taken his hub-church program into the former communist country of Mozambique, where missionaries are now welcomed.
Loots' current campaign is to raise up 1 million disciples in that impoverished nation, where Islamic fundamentalism flourishes. To do this will require the establishment of 100 hub churches and 1,000 village churches. He is sure the Mozambican soil is ready for such a great harvest. The question remains: Will the church at large care enough to partner with him? For more information on how to partner with HIM, visit www.hope-builders.org.
John Lindner served as editor of Christian Mission magazine for 24 years.