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Americans Rob Nationals
In light of decades of experience in African missions, the author examines dependency in international partnerships. After briefly considering some examples and explanations of this problem, the article concludes with six solutions.
The Problem: Dependency
Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19, “go and make disciples of all nations,” are imperative. What is the best way to carry out this evangelistic command? Should more Americans be sent out who have been trained and encouraged for such work? Should missionaries partner to train local evangelists who could evangelize? Or should money only be sent to national workers in foreign countries? Is there a problem with American churches or individuals supporting national preachers and works in other countries?
What is best for the kingdom of Christ should be at the heart of all that we do in missions. A true partnership of foreign and national brothers is essential if we are to take the gospel into all the world. We don’t do it for them, we do it with them. Sending churches, missionaries, or individual Christians with honest and good hearts must not bypass national Christians or churches by doing for them what they should be doing for themselves, including making decisions unilaterally, building a church house, or paying a local preacher. The work may appear to move more slowly, but in the long run it will have been built on a much surer foundation that will endure long after missionaries have gone. Christians of all nations must share equal responsibility for kingdom growth.
Gailyn Van Rheenen, veteran missionary to Kenya, former professor of missions at Abilene Christian University, author of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, and founder of Mission Alive, lists four models of US/foreign use of finances in missions:
1. In the “American Support Model,” US Christians and churches support and oversee national preachers. All that is required is to write a check and perhaps visit sometime. Because of language and cultural barriers, American Christians are not able to discern the true church situation in a foreign culture. Most of the abuses of finances fall under this model.
2. The “Indigenous Model” occurs when a US church supports American missionaries to plant churches, mature young Christians, and equip leaders who are supported by their own churches and resources. Sometimes nationals view this model as the missionary being stingy.
3. Under the “Partnership Model,” a mature American church networks with a mature national church to mutually oversee and support local missionaries establishing new churches. A fault of this model is that the American church can become paternalistic, by making most of the decisions for the national church because of the great separation of the two churches in maturity, level of wealth, and geography.
4. In the “Indigenous Partnership Model,” an American church supports American missionaries to plant churches and nurture growth. They then partner with maturing national leadership to develop structures of continuity that include the ability of churches to select local elders, develop evangelistic teams, train lay evangelists, and so on.
In order to accomplish Christ’s Great Commission there must be a partnership between foreigners and nationals. But what kind of partnership can sustain growth? Luis Bush defines partnership as “an association of two or more Christian autonomous bodies who have formed a trusting relationship, and fulfill agreed-upon expectations by sharing complementary strengths and resources, to reach their mutual goal.” Partnership is two sided.
Steve Saint, missionary, businessman, and founder of I-TEC (Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center) says:
When, in the name of Christ’s commission, we do for indigenous believers what they can and should do for themselves, we undermine the very church that God has sent us to plant. It is understandable that we make mistakes, but it is inexcusable that the mistake of creating dependency has become the rule and not the exception.
He distinguishes between dependency and interdependency. Dependency is bred by a donor contributing all planning, financing, and fulfillment of a project. Interdependency occurs when both parties contribute time, resources, and work responsibilities to accomplish a stated project.
Using the New Testament as our guide, we see that Paul never stayed long with a new church. He did not financially support them. Rather he encouraged indigeneity by correspondence, prayer, and by occasional visits. He helped them choose local leaders, gave them advice, answered questions, and sometimes rebuked them for error. When Jesus sent out the 12 and the 70, he directed that they not take any support but be totally under the care of those they were teaching. His thesis was that the laborer is worthy of support by those he ministers to (Matt 10:9–13; Luke 10:4–9).
Decades ago, J. C. Choate gave unheeded advice about the dangers of perpetuating dependency:
Hiring local preachers destroys the initiative of the local members. They will sit back and allow the missionary to tell them what to do and not to do, for after all he is responsible for all of the financial support for the work. Then why should the congregation feel any responsibility in giving since all of their needs are already cared for? People are human enough in any part of the world to let the other fellow support them if he will do it.
Dale Meade, who spent 23 years in Colombia, South America, maintains that the paying of national evangelists by American churches deprives the local church of its responsibility for proper oversight of its paid employees, creating “crippling dependency.” The evangelist does not answer to the local church leadership but rather to those who support him from outside. His allegiance and teaching will align itself with those who pay his salary. Meade concludes:
As a general rule, paying of national workers is a dangerous and a destructive policy. We should not be paying them to do what the local church can and should be doing on its own. . . . Let us not be guilty of destroying the future of the Lord’s work by trying to buy our way to the quick or cheap success.
Choate further warned that careless financial support of foreign evangelists could actually cause harm:
Why is it that we hardly have a self-supporting church anywhere in the world outside of the United States? . . . Not only have we made a sad mistake in going in and hiring a lot of preachers, but we have made even a greater mistake in encouraging congregations in America to directly support them. How can a congregation in America intelligently support and direct a man that they have never seen . . . in most cases they don’t know the difference in economies of the two countries . . . doing more harm than good for the cause of Christ there.
Examples of the Problem
In 1973 our team was barely on the ground as new missionaries. We were busy learning culture and language and trying to begin churches. One day a young man came to my house and said that he was presently preaching for another mission group. But, if I would pay him more than they were paying, he would be happy to preach for me.
We attended the annual national meeting in Kisumu, Kenya, in December 1999. This meeting is attended by missionaries and national Christians from all over Kenya. In fairness to the many people who wanted to attend this meeting but would have to travel by public means, I required those riding in my car to pay an equivalent amount for transportation, plus their own course fees. When we arrived, I paid the fees for my wife and me only. The African hosts said, “We thought you would pay for those who came with you too.” They thought that it was the missionary’s responsibility to pay for the transportation and meeting costs of the nationals they work with.
When American churches or missionaries continuously pay for things that the local Christians and churches should be doing for themselves, they cripple those people. This is a serious problem we missionaries often develop because of our desire to see things done immediately without looking further down the road to see how it might adversely affect the national church.
Roger Dickson, founder of the International School of Bible Studies in Capetown, South Africa says:
It is not good to provide any outside financial assistance for conducting a seminar. One purpose of the seminar is to provide the occasion for leadership responsibility. By providing the financial necessities of the seminar, one is actually defeating the purpose for the seminar. . . . I have found that when African brethren understand that there is no source for outside support for a seminar, they do just fine in providing all that is necessary. I think some foreign sources are too quick to offer help, and thus, steal from local brethren the opportunity to do for themselves.
My wife, Janet, and I teach marriage and family seminars across Africa that are funded by the local churches. We expect the seminar hosts to plan the meeting and supply the food and sleeping arrangements for the guests. We pay our own transportation costs, often pay for our own lodging, and we provide teaching materials for the course participants. By using this form of partnering or interdependence, we successfully train couples throughout Africa.
On Mt. Elgon, where we lived and worked for sixteen years, the churches plan and fund their own meetings by themselves. The fact that the churches have learned that they have the ability and strength to do it without outside help will ensure that they will continue to do it. These people, who are some of the least privileged in Africa, are now funding their own work, which strongly indicates that all African churches are capable of doing the same. We partner with them in building church buildings—they secure the land and put up the structure, and we help roof the building. It would be easier to give in to the pressure to pay for it all. But, by doing everything for them, we would rob them of the chance to grow and become mature. We would steal the Christian’s spiritual self-esteem and initiative by doing the work for them.
Reasons for the Problem
In 1997, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in conjunction with the World Bank, suspended donor aid to Kenya because of misappropriation of funds and other issues. This caused Kenyans to begin asking questions about how they were going to survive. The government began calling in outstanding debts from government officials. It began to cull redundant employees and streamline government agencies and privatize government-owned corporations. This in turn caused the populace to begin to demand transparency and accountability in the government.
Mutuma Mathiu, editor for one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, shed more light on the reasons for this dependency:
Africa on the one hand, sent out an impassioned plea: Please make the debt burden lighter. It was a typical case of Africa confronting the world, cap in hand, begging bowl extended. . . . To some in the West, it is a psycho-ideological “sorry” for the “injustices” committed against the continent in the past. They believe that by extending loans to the continent, they are “helping” Africans. . . . Others view it as an extension of Africa’s dependency, justification for the contempt they feel for a lazy, generally hopeless continent, . . . the continuity of colonialism.
Dickson reasons that foreign governments colonized Africa and did for the people what they had no knowledge to do for themselves: provide infrastructure of all kinds—roads, medical care, schools, court systems, and government. They launched Africa into the twentieth century with the “crutch of colonial support.” The effect of that was that Africa developed a mentality that they needed to be taken care of. The colonialists left in the 1960s but the mentality of “foreign aid” and “we can’t do it by ourselves” remains even today.
Dickson believes that this mentality has greatly affected the church:
Churches in many areas believe that if any mission work is done, it is to be done by foreign workers, or at least, supported by foreign funds. Local preachers are continually supported by foreign sources. . . . The local church stopped growing a decade or so ago, but the comfortable arrangement continues. Multiply this many times over and the “foreign aid” mentality is thus perpetuated throughout the continent. Africans still have their hand out for foreign aid.
In an article in The East African newspaper, entitled “How Religious Leaders Exploit Social Tensions,” John Githongo reported that in 2000 there were more than 600 registered denominations in Kenya and several hundred others which are not registered. This mushrooming of the number of church groups often has monetary foundations. Githongo said that “today even Kenyans who are not that cynical admit that many of the new sects and cults are actually vehicles for greedy evangelists to enrich themselves. Indeed religion in Kenya is big business.”
But there seems to be a new wind blowing among many African Christians who feel that it is time they carry the baton of evangelism to their own continent. They can clearly see the problem of complete foreign financing of their own works. They want to provide most of the support for their own efforts, and they truly must if they are to succeed in evangelizing Africa. They are waking up to the need to teach their own churches at home about their responsibility to financially support their own work and to obey the Great Commission. The oldest churches of Christ in Kenya are now fifty years old. There are many such churches throughout the continent. Many of them are now shouldering their own loads.
In April 1992 Sunday Ekanem from Nigeria addressed 200 participants from 15 African nations at the first Africans Claiming Africa conference in Kenya. The theme was, “We can do it financially.” In his speech he said:
We Africans can do the work of Christ; that we can convert those on this continent and finance it on our own. . . . It is estimated that about 2000 missionaries have been sent out by the African indigenous churches to Africa and Europe. Churches who start in Africa, and Africans support those missionaries. . . . Friends, giving is a test of love . . . we need to demonstrate that love to the lost, to the orphans, and to the widows. We need to sacrifice to maintain them. Therefore, we could do it friends. . . . Let us not deceive ourselves. We are rich. We can support the gospel so that our people can be saved.
In the same conference, Washington Mhlanga from Zimbabwe stated:
I really believe that we have to do it financially. We have no option but to do it ourselves. . . . Brethren we need to recognize that we have a problem in Africa. . . . We can recognize the problem, resolve to do something about it, but if we are not committed to the cause nothing will be accomplished. I may go so far as to say that if we are not prepared now to change the title of this session from, “We can do it financially” to “We have to do it financially,” we might as well pack our bags and go home because brethren, we don’t have a choice.
On Mt. Elgon, Kenya, where we lived, we partnered with the local community to build a primary school. In 2000 this school had classes for kindergarten through the seventh grade and had an enrollment of seven hundred fifty students. About two hundred parents were represented. That year all these parents combined paid more than $4,162 in building fees, $4,900 in general fees, plus $530 in lunch fees. Each year the school conducted a large fund raiser in which money was donated from the parents, the community, and invited special guests. Because the Church of Christ is the sponsor of the school, we also contributed to this fund drive and solicited funds from friends and churches in the US. In addition, Janet served as the unpaid principal, and both she and I served on the school committee.
This type of partnering with the local church and community helped them build a strong indigenous church that will be capable of carrying out its full responsibility by itself. It may not be the easiest or quickest method of growing a church, but we are convinced that it is the most lasting and durable.
Some Solutions to the Problem
I offer the following thoughts for US churches and missionaries concerning partnering with foreign national churches:
1. Never make a hasty decision to support a foreign mission effort. Give the decision prayerful consideration. Do a thorough background check on the individual who is requesting the financial assistance.
2. Insist on contacting the overseers responsible for the individual requesting funds. Talk to them personally to know their feelings about the individual and the requests he is making. Ascertain their goals and visions for the work that is being undertaken.
3. Make sure that all US funds be sent through the overseeing body. This may be an eldership, committee, or board. Never give money to an individual. This will help avoid the misuse or the temptation to misuse those funds. It also encourages accountability.
4. Don’t allow your feelings to get in the way of wisdom in these matters. Pouring money into a mission effort may not be the wisest choice for sustained church growth.
5. If you are presently supporting a foreign national preacher or congregation, you should dialogue with those individuals about their roles in evangelism and their obligations to themselves and those they serve. You should begin a phased withdrawal of monetary support, with the full understanding of those being supported, to encourage them to support themselves. Until that withdrawal is complete, some type of accountability system should be put in place through an independent body who can make unbiased reports.
6. Be careful about establishing or perpetuating works that local Christians cannot support on their own or, at least, in a partnership arrangement.
Mission work should always be carried out with the goal of creating a work that will stand on its own. It should be indigenous. Missionaries, their supporters, and other interested churches or Christians should ask the question, “Will what we are putting into this work cause it to be strong and able to stand and continue long after we discontinue our support of it?” If the answer is no, then we had better rethink our approach to missions. If foreign churches are made dependent on missionaries or US monetary support, they are being robbed of their rights and obligations as a church of Christ. Evangelism and church growth is hampered if it is being propped up and sustained by outside sources when it is capable of propagating itself through God’s strength. As we pray about these matters, may God give us the wisdom we need to make the best possible decisions about how and to what extent we get involved in foreign missions.
Fielden Allison has been in Africa since 1972 serving as a missionary and teacher in several countries. He and his wife, Janet, both from Arkansas, have been at Africian Christian College (http://africanchristiancollege.org) since 2009, teaching part time and continuing their traveling Marriage and Family ministry three months out of the year. Fielden has a master’s degree in Bible from Abilene Christian University and teaches Bible and leadership courses at ACC. He also co-directs students in evangelism.
Bush, Luis, and Lorry Lutz. Partnering in Ministry: The Direction of World Evangelism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990.
Choate, J. C. Missionary Problems. Winona, MS: J. C. Choate Publications, 1970.
Dickson, Roger. Preaching through Africa: A Journal of a Seminar Safari through Africa. Bellville, South Africa: International School of Biblical Studies, 1998.
Ekanem, Sunday. “We Can Do It Financially.” In Africans Claiming Africa: Claiming the Vision, ed. Sam Shewmaker, 21–24. Queensland: Drumbeat Publications, 1998.
Githongo, John. “How Religious Leaders Exploit Social Tensions.” The East African, March 27–April 2, 2000, 11.
Mathiu, Mutuma. “Why ‘Donors’ Refused to Waive African Debt.” Daily Nation, September 5, 1999.
Meade, Dale. “The Power and Peril of the Paycheck.” Christian Standard, August 25, 1996.
Mhlanga, Washington. “We Can Do It Financially.” In Africans Claiming Africa: Claiming the Vision, ed. Sam Shewmaker, 25–27. Queensland: Drumbeat Publications, 1998.
Saint, Steve. The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely. Seattle: YWAM, 2001.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies. 2nd ed. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2014.
1 Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, 2nd ed. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2014), 421–28.
2 Luis Bush and Lorry Lutz, Partnering in Ministry: The Direction of World Evangelism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 46; emphasis added.
3 Steve Saint, The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely (Seattle: YWAM, 2001), 56–66.
4 J. C. Choate, Missionary Problems (Winona, MS: J. C. Choate Publications, 1970), 52.
5 Dale Meade, “The Power and Peril of the Paycheck,” Christian Standard, August 25, 1996.
6 Choate, 52.
7 Roger Dickson, Preaching through Africa: A Journal of a Seminar Safari through Africa (Bellville, South Africa: International School of Biblical Studies, 1998), 72.
8 Mutuma Mathiu, “Why ‘donors’ refused to waive African debt,” Daily Nation, September 5, 1999.
9 Dickson, 66–67.
11 John Githongo, “How Religious Leaders Exploit Social Tensions,” The East African, March 27–April 2, 2000, 11.
12 Sunday Ekanem, “We Can Do It Financially,” in Africans Claiming Africa: Claiming the Vision, ed. Sam Shewmaker (Queensland: Drumbeat Publications, 1998), 21–24.
13 Washington Mhlanga, “We Can Do It Financially,” in Africans Claiming Africa: Claiming the Vision, ed. Sam Shewmaker (Queensland: Drumbeat Publications, 1998), 25–27.