The Arabica Principle


What comes to mind when you hear the word, “coffee”?

Perhaps you think of a sun-bronzed hombre in a Panama hat posing with his burro in some mountain pass. Maybe you imagine a perfectly-pulled espresso in an elegant demitasse cup parked next to a piece of chocolate cheesecake on a white linen tablecloth. You might yearn for one of those obscenely over-priced French Vanilla Raspberry Nougat Roasted Organic Hazelnut Cream lattes with two shots and extra foam that you have on the way to work every morning. Maybe you just gag.

Coffee “cherries” grow on trees, and though there are thousands of varieties of coffee plants,* two of them dominate the commercial market. Take the coffea arabica variety, for instance, which grows in altitudes of up to 4,500 metres and is usually harvested by hand. We could pick coffee from the same plant in Costa Rica (they even grow it in the medians of San José streets!) and plant the seeds in Sumatra, Kenya, Java or Brazil. The climate, altitude and soil composition in each place–not to mention harvesting, drying, roasting and brewing methods–would contribute distinctive qualities to the coffee that finally ended up sitting next to that cheesecake.

We should apply this principle of location impact as we plant new churches around the world. Historically, church planters have often taken a different approach. Instead of planting church seeds–the essential elements of a New Testament local church–and then allowing local cultures and environments to shape their development, some missionaries have exported “potted plants” and carefully controlled their growing conditions to ensure that the final products are simply North American churches in new locations.

But the beauty of the Church is that it is trans-cultural. Within biblical parameters, it can assume the many colours and flavours of the tribes, languages, peoples and nations which constitute it. (See Rev 5. 9,10)  Or, a single church can be multi-ethnic, reflecting the demographics of its community. The Church started out that way in Acts 2, with 3,000 people from sixteen distinct groups converted on the first day. The church at Antioch, the first missionary sending church, was also a multi-ethnic church with leaders from Cyprus, North Africa, Palestine, and eastern Europe. (Acts 13.1)

We should not be intimidated by the impact of different cultures on the churches we plant. Just as no children are exactly like their parents, we ought not to expect churches established overseas to be exactly like ours. Transplanting our church schedules, worship styles (including things like music and attire), evangelistic methods and approaches to leadership and training not only puts undue pressure on our missionaries, but also detracts from the character and effectiveness of the new churches.

Instead, I propose the Arabica Principle: training national leaders to plant truly homegrown churches that are biblical, vibrant, culturally appropriate, autonomous and reproducing.

It’s like the difference between freeze-dried and freshly roasted.

*For more interesting facts about coffee, see The Coffee FAQ

This article first appeared in a 2004 issue of WORLDview, a publication of Biblical Ministries Worldwide 

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