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Western Missions and Dependency

Author: Robert Reese
Published: August 2011

MD 2.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

In the postcolonial era, with the new emphasis on globalization and interdependence, the author reminds readers that dependency from colonialism still exists and hampers the completion of the Great Commission. While interdependence is held to be the solution to global poverty and world evangelization, the legacy of dependency remains powerful. The author examines how dependency works and suggests ways to overcome it in postcolonial missions.

When my wife, baby daughter, and I moved to Zimbabwe to be church-planting missionaries in 1981, we were looking forward to working in the postcolonial period. As the child of missionaries to Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was formerly called), I knew how colonialism operated. We white people were firmly in control, and we represented Christendom, the alliance of state power with the worship of Jesus Christ. In Rhodesia (named for a British imperialist), we prayed at school assemblies for the queen of England in an Anglican worship service using the same prayer book and hymnal as school children in England. Even though I am an American, I knew the sun never set on the British Empire.

When Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, Africans were euphoric. As we arrived and settled in, we assumed that the previous century of white domination would fade away and dependency would be a thing of the past. After all, dignity was restored to Africans with independence. This was visible on their faces as they contemplated being in charge of their own country. The future seemed bright, and we thought we had entered a new era in missions where white, black, and brown would see each other as equals at last. But it was not possible to erase so much history overnight. The issue of dependency is still a major problem in Western missions long after the British Empire collapsed.

With the end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization, new opportunities have opened for people from all parts of the globe to become involved in world missions. In fact, postcolonial missions can become much more biblical and therefore suitable, if dependency left over from the colonial era can be eradicated. Sadly, dependency has not disappeared, but has grown even worse.

In this article, I would like to address the issue of dependency in the postcolonial period, to understand why it still plagues missions and undermines local initiative. Then I would like to offer some suggestions for overcoming dependency so that Christians in former colonies may rise to their full potential in Christ. In other words, it is time for true postcolonial mission models to take the place of colonial ones.

What is Dependency?

Briefly, dependency is the unhealthy reliance on foreign resources for funding, decisions, ideas, and personnel. It is waiting for someone else to do for you what you could be doing for yourself. As I have implied, dependency is a natural by-product of colonial attitudes. Colonial missions assumed the dominance of Western missionaries, which in turn ensured that indigenous Christians in mission-established churches would be dependent on them, perhaps forever.

The dependency syndrome developed out of the era of high imperialism1 at the end of the nineteenth century. This coincided with an unrealistic optimism connected with the idea of Western progress. Western Christians made the faulty assumption that their culture had absorbed so much Christian faith that Western civilization was predestined to dominate the world. Events on the ground seemed to bear out this assumption as European nations, which formed the heart of Christendom, carved out colonies around the globe. The United States participated in the spirit of the age by taking the Philippines during the Spanish American War in 1898.

The philosophical foundation for this excessive optimism came not from the Bible but from the Enlightenment. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a European reaction to centuries of the domination of society by the church. This reaction hoped to end traditions, superstition, and tyranny, becoming the impetus for the French and American Revolutions.

The Enlightenment upheld human reason as the power capable of unlocking all the secrets of the universe. This led to the scientific revolution with the development of new technology. As humans gained mastery over nature, there seemed to be less need for religious faith. Indeed, faith became a private matter while facts belonged to the realm of science. Secularism was on the rise in Christendom.

Lesslie Newbigin summarized this phase of Western history:

In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment this biblical framework was gradually replaced by one that, continuing the biblical idea of an ongoing purpose and a real end of the human story, replaced God by humans as the bearers of the meaning of history. The “Idea of Progress” was born. . . . The people of the Enlightenment, modern Western Europeans living in the Age of Reason, were the leaders of human progress.2

Despite the fact that the Enlightenment relegated the Christian faith to the realm of opinion rather than fact, Christians participated in the mood of optimism. Missionaries adopted “The White Man’s Burden”3 as a noble task of bringing Western civilization to the rest of the world. They joined forces with secularism to bring Western education and health services to the colonized peoples. In addition, they imported foreign systems of leadership, institutions, architecture, and worship to the churches they planted. All of this combined to create dependency among mission-established churches, because local people had to rely on foreign missionaries to operate these foreign systems.

Missions in the Age of Imperialism

The result of the White Man’s Burden was a legacy of dependency among mission-established churches and institutions. Missionaries widely assumed that Western culture was so influenced by Christianity that it was necessary to transplant it to pagan cultures. Civilization would precede evangelism, because the gospel and Western culture were seen as one package. But by making Christianity seem foreign in the places it was planted, this ensured long-term dependency would be the result.

For example, missionaries to India found that the most receptive group to the gospel were the lowest castes. Converts from these groups would often remain dependent on the missionaries and have little influence on the higher castes. Some thought that the solution was to reach higher castes through Western education. Alexander Duff was such an educator missionary from the Church of Scotland. By incorporating the study of the Bible with secular subjects in a school for elite Indian students, he hoped to succeed where others had failed in evangelizing the higher castes. In the end, however, students were more attracted to the secularism that accompanied Enlightenment ideals than to Christianity.

Ruth Tucker summarised the results of Alexander Duff’s educational mission with these words: “The major criticism of Duff’s work was that the vast majority of his students came to his school only for the secular education, and of these thousands there were only thirty-three recorded converts during Duff’s lifetime.”4 While Tucker noted that these few converts became highly influential in Indian Christianity, Duff became more famous as a missionary statesman who effectively spread his method to Christian missions worldwide. Western education and medicine were seen as indispensable to the spread of the gospel throughout the colonial period and beyond.

Graham Houghton was critical of mission methods in India that produced so much dependency on the missionaries. He claimed that God’s blessing was withheld from the Indian Church because of missionary paternalism, and that some of the best candidates for ministry did not put themselves forward for Christian work for fear that “they would be patronized by the Missionary.”5 Houghton suggested that some Indian Christians would have approved of the idea of a missionary moratorium as early as 1908, quoting one pastor as saying, “If by some providential catastrophe all the foreign missionaries had to leave the country for good, it would prove to be a blessing in disguise.”6

It is possible to make a claim that Indian church history is the history of people movements among the lower castes. In fact, there were so many “mass movements” to Christ in the early twentieth century that the National Christian Council of India, Burma, and Ceylon became alarmed, since it was assumed that salvation is valid for individuals only. The Council appointed J. Waskom Pickett to investigate ten such mass movements; his findings are in his classic book, Christian Mass Movements in India, published in 1933. Pickett discovered that these movements occurred away from missionary presence among the lowest castes who preferred to make communal decisions. Although the new converts were extremely poor, they were not dependent on outside funding at first. Significantly, all ten movements became dependent on mission aid once the missionaries began to reach them.7

Pickett noted that those movements that succeeded in supporting their own pastors became significantly stronger: “When these mass-movement groups support their pastors, great benefits accrue to them. The result is most stimulating. Their self-respect gains, and they value the ministry of their pastor more highly. This is not mere theory.”8 Pickett estimated that 80 percent of all Indian Christians were the product of such mass movements at that time,9 so he concluded that this was “the most natural way of approach to Christ.”10 He cautioned, however, that these movements could easily be retarded by rapid economic rise or by social shifts that broke the converts’ connections with their groups.11 He urged missions to cease activities that created dependency: “Missions should take special care to discontinue or revise all of their processes of work that have interfered with the development of initiative.”12

Much later in that century, J. P. Masih characterized Indian church history as “the history of ‘people movements,’” but noted that three current people movements were halted by “a silent game of money bargaining” by new converts with the heads of different denominations in a quest to receive relief aid.13 It is clear that foreign funds can derail promising movements to Christ.

The Effects of Globalization

With the end of colonialism came the new phase of globalization. Briefly, globalization is the shift toward a single global economy, with the added components of a single superpower since the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and greater connectivity due to the Internet. Tom Sine refers to globalization as “McWorld”14 because of the rapid spread of American ideas and values along with capitalism, as epitomized by the McDonald’s Corporation. Thus, globalization is primarily economic, but also cultural.

Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who advises the United Nations for its Millennium Development Goals, as well as governments of nations in many parts of the world, sees globalization as a continuation of a movement that began with colonialism. He believes that prosperity spread because of technological advances that came in various waves and accompanied European colonialists as they moved out to occupy foreign lands.

Sachs classifies the colonial period as “globalization under European domination.”15 He links the “white man’s burden” to this phase of globalization, and defines it as “the right and obligation of European and European-descended whites to rule the lives of others around the world, which they blithely did with a contradictory mix of naïveté, compassion, and brutality.”16 He also readily admits that globalization has led to some parts of the globe growing dramatically in wealth while other areas become poorer. The last two centuries have produced “vast income inequalities.”17

With all this negative history in the process of globalization, what does Sachs recommend for the future? He advocates “Enlightened Globalization” as the remedy for the excesses of the past, by which he means, “the kind of globalization championed by the Enlightenment—a globalization of democracies, multilateralism, science and technology, and a global economic system designed to meet human needs.”18 In other words, he wants more of the same with the simple removal of past injustices. The underlying ideology would continue to be the Enlightenment with human reason as the highest power to achieve global stability and prosperity. The ideals of Western civilization would continue to drive the agenda.

Tom Sine, writing from a Christian perspective about globalization, warns: “The aspirations and values driving globalization are a product of the Enlightenment and modernity and are in many ways directly counter to the aspirations and values of God’s new global order.”19 Nevertheless, many Christians take the era of globalization as heaven-sent for missions. This is because of the increased connectivity and interaction taking place between Christians from many nations. This would seem to herald a new era of cooperation between churches around the world. The problem lies, however, in the long-term dependency that remains as a legacy of colonialism.

Globalization, Poverty, and Interdependence

In an interview with Christianity Today, Jayakumar Christian, the head of World Vision in India, made the following statement about poverty: “My assumption is that the poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their lives. Human beings were designed to submit their spirit only to the Creator. Any attempt to take the place of the Creator leads to poverty.”20 It is certainly tempting to play God in the lives of the poor, as many think they know best what the poor need and that the poor have no ideas themselves. The era of globalization is also the era of extreme global inequalities.

No one epitomizes globalization more than Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who with his wife formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in order to combat disease and poverty with science, technology, and Western wealth. On one occasion, Bill and Melinda Gates toured a New Delhi slum called Meera Bagh, and a reporter for Time magazine later interviewed a woman named Sushila whom the Gates chose to visit on that tour. The reporter wrote:

I asked Sushila whether she knew the names of the people who had visited that morning. She said that she did not but that they were very nice. I told her the man in the khaki pants was the richest man in the world. Sushila smiled and said it didn’t matter that he was the richest. All foreigners were rich compared with her, she said.21

This illustrates two aspects of globalization. On the one side, wealthy Western people are seeking technological solutions for poverty, while on the other side the gap between rich and poor is so vast that to the poor all foreigners seem rich.

Western Christian missions have joined this wave of philanthropy, forming alliances with people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, and the rock star Bono to rid the world of poverty and disease. One might even be tempted to say that the focus of missions has shifted from outreach through the gospel to eradicating poverty. Certainly there is an emphasis on wealthy Western Christians assisting poorer Christians and non-Christians elsewhere.

In the global war on poverty, Jeffrey Sachs advocates a renewal of the Marshall Plan instituted by the United States to rebuild economies shattered in World War II. This would be done in the form of grants rather than loans.22 Similarly, a recent book on missions suggests that American churches should institute a “Missionary Marshall Plan” for the twenty-first century. John Rowell says, “[The] Marshall Plan offers a valuable model for modern mission involvement. I am proposing that Western Christians should adopt the general format of this historical philanthropic milestone as a guide for giving today.”23 Rowell does not distinguish between Christian and non-Christian poverty in his advocacy of giving. He emphasizes that Christian evangelists in the developing world are generally poor as are the unreached people in the same places. All would benefit from a radical new level of Christian giving from America: “America is uniquely poised to serve the kingdom of God and the lost world as the War Chest for World Missions!”24

Rowell’s solution to the dependency issue is for Western giving to be without conditions:

As a premise, I am suggesting that dependency need not be a problem, even when outside funding predominates, if Western contributions are made without strings being attached and if national leaders are able to assert themselves by taking their rightful role in casting vision and initiating ministry.25

In other words, if Western giving can come without depriving non-Western Christians of their leadership roles, then it will be helpful.

Others have sounded the same call to change the role of American missions from sending missionaries to funding non-Western evangelists. Perhaps the best known of these is K. P. Yohannan, founder of Gospel for Asia. He called on North American Christians to sponsor Asian evangelists for as little as $30 to $50 per month per evangelist, citing this as “a wise investment of our resources because the native missionary works more economically than foreigners can.”26 Furthermore, the native evangelists already understand the local languages and cultures, and therefore can communicate more effectively than Westerners. Yohannan called for Western support of one million Asian evangelists at a cost of $600 million per year.27 He claimed that such a strategy would complete world evangelization in the shortest time, and it would prove to be “the quickest way to help Asian churches become self-supporting.”28

Similarly, Paul (Bobby) Gupta understands the era of globalization to be a time of interdependence in the worldwide body of Christ, as it is in business. While colonialism represented the era of dependency, and nationalism represented the era of independence, viewed as autonomy, now globalization represents international cooperation at its best. He cites the actions taken by the Ford Motor Company in India as an illustration of this evolution. Ford was first a foreign company that took advantage of colonialism to sell its products in India, and then was expelled during the period of extreme Indian nationalism. But “under the current paradigm of globalization, they chose to partner with Mahindra, a national automobile manufacturing company,” so benefiting both.29 Gupta challenges Christians to follow this example: “If the Ford Motor Company can do it for profit, surely Christians, called by the Holy Spirit, can partner together to fulfil the mission of God.”30

Ultimately, the goal of Gupta and Sherwood Lingenfelter is to champion the same kind of Western giving to non-Western evangelists as Yohannan and Rowell. Lingenfelter indicates that Western Christians often think nothing of spending several hundred dollars for such things as car payments, credit card purchases, cellphone bills, cable television and Internet use, but “they do not comprehend that they could fully support seven Indian missionaries or trainers of trainers with those same dollars. . . . The Lord is waiting for the rich to partner with the poor to make disciples of the nations.”31 Gupta even claims that the work his organization in India has done in planting churches could not have succeeded without foreign partners.32

Continuation of Dependency

Some important questions remain to be answered. Does the shift from colonialism to globalization mean that the issue of dependency has faded away? Does this shift inaugurate a new era of beneficial international cooperation and interdependence? Is the role of Western missions now to cease sending missionaries in order to fund non-Western evangelists? Is placing Western missions in the role of providing the funds needed for missions the new paradigm for postcolonial missions, as its proponents claim? Is the gap between the rich and poor so great that mission has become essentially the eradication of poverty?

While missionaries have often taken advantage of historical movements in order to spread the gospel, this has never meant that these historical movements were somehow sacred history. On the contrary, attaching mission methods to human movements comes at a price. For instance, attaching the gospel to colonialism insinuated that racial superiority and military power helped to spread the gospel, yet the gospel itself teaches the exact opposite of both. It is for such reasons that many have misunderstood the gospel message.

In particular, globalization is a movement that comes from the same kind of mindset stemming from the Enlightenment that produced colonialism. Globalization is not only about international cooperation and interdependence; many of the same attitudes from colonialism that fueled dependency remain. Even a champion of globalization like Thomas Friedman acknowledges that it can be likened to the pursuits of those who built the Tower of Babel:

What was the problem with the Tower of Babel? Isn’t it what globalizers dream about today—a world in which we all speak the same language, have the same currency, follow the same accounting practices? It was precisely their sameness that allowed the people of the world in biblical times to cooperate and build that Tower of Babel.33

The Tower of Babel is in essence the story of humanity trying to build a city without assistance from God, so in this respect it is similar to Enlightenment thinking. The attainment of global unity in order to rise up toward the heavens to make a name for humanity is also part of the agenda of globalization. Lesslie Newbigin adds that the story of Babel is

the sad story of the effort of the nations to create their own unity. It is the archetype of all imperial adventures, for “imperialism” is the name we give to programs for human unity other than those initiated by ourselves. Its name is Babel—archetype of megalopolis, of Nineveh and Rome.34

We should therefore carry no illusions that globalization is neutral or that Christians can simply join missions to globalization without diluting the gospel. Nor should we think that globalization represents a new phase of world cooperation when the world will become interdependent instead of promoting national interests above all else. No, the history of the world will continue to be a sordid story of nations dominating other nations for profit. And Scripture’s message of the kingdom of God will continue to demand our sole allegiance to the Lord who will demolish all earthly kingdoms to replace them with his own in due course, as prophesied in Dan 2:44.

In the meantime, dependency has not gone away but has increased during the period of globalization. Even in nations like India that have benefited from globalization, churches remain dependent on outside help although their members are becoming more prosperous. The only reason can be that attitudes spawned during colonialism have not changed. The infusion of outside wealth does not automatically produce self-supporting churches, but it can certainly retard the move to self-support. What then is the solution for dependency?

Toward a True Postcolonial Mission Methodology

First of all, we should be clear that the need for missions has not diminished at all, despite past successes. Many regions of the globe remain without an effective witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the postcolonial period, mission is changing from the preserve of the wealthy to a shared obligation by all segments of the world Christian movement. In some ways, mission is returning toward a similarity with the first three centuries of Christian expansion, when ordinary Christians from multiple ways of life and cultures joined in spreading the faith, even in the face of opposition and official persecution. Then, as now, there was a single world superpower, but the gospel then was spread not by those at the apex of political power so much as by the weak and marginalized in the world system. We have a unique opportunity to return to this method of missions in the postcolonial period, but only if we can move beyond the dependency syndrome.

The problem with most proposed postcolonial mission methods is that they continue, even unintentionally, to envision Western Christians as remaining in control. Although they see non-Western Christians as providing the work force, they leave Western churches as the funding agents. This effectively continues financial domination by the same parts of the world that ruled in colonialism, so it is not really a new paradigm. In addition, it continues to see the world in the same groupings that prevailed during colonialism, the “developed” versus the “undeveloped.” There is no recognition that in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free (Col 3:11). On the contrary, the unspoken assumptions driving many mission methods today are the same as those that drive globalization, namely that every society should have the goal of resembling the Western nations.

Newbigin again forcefully rejects such notions:

The people of the world will not permanently accept a situation in which a rich minority determines what and how much knowledge, healing, and skill shall be made available to the rest. In the second place, and more fundamentally, it is by no means self-evident that the rest of the world will or should develop the kind of society that has been developed in Europe and North America during the past two hundred years.35

True postcolonial mission methods will reject domination by any one national group as the world leader in missions. A return to biblical models will insist that each part of the body of Christ has much more potential than has been previously recognized, including the potential to operate and fund its own initiatives. Not only has much of the strength of non-Western Christians been overlooked, but it also has been marginalized to the extent that accomplishing the goal of world evangelization is impossible.

Steve Saint discovered that dependency set in among the once-vibrant Waodani Indian Christians of Ecuador. His Aunt Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot led these Amazonian Indians to Christ, but after several decades of well-meaning attention by North American Christians, they had become accustomed to receiving help instead of initiating their own work for Christ. Saint called this sidelining of people such as the Waodani “the Great Omission,”36 meaning that dependent people groups are no longer available to help fulfill the Great Commission. In that case, Saint says, the completion of that commission is no longer possible, since it requires committed believers from all cultural backgrounds and languages.37

The first requirement, therefore, for a true postcolonial mission method is to treat all Christians as equals both in terms of brotherhood and sisterhood in the body of Christ as well as in potential for initiative in the Lord’s work. Furthermore, Western standards for operations will no longer be the criterion for work, as each locale may set standards based on local resources, history, and culture. Technology will be what is locally appropriate and easily maintained. Local ownership of the operations will be essential, in terms of legal, financial, and psychological ownership. With local initiative comes local accountability, something usually missing in current mission models based on the Enlightenment, which assume that Western leadership is essential for progress.

The second requirement, then, is local solutions to local problems. This has been a major failure of globalization, as global initiatives often undermine local initiative and global campaigns often ignore local contexts. Speaking about official government-to-government aid, William Easterly, a former World Bank official, estimates:

The West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families.38

Easterly’s recommendation is to change from global planning done primarily by Western nations to an emphasis on local solutions to thorny problems. He contrasts the utopian planner who typifies Western aid at present with what he calls the “Searcher” approach to problems: “A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.”39 Although Easterly comes from the secular world, he demonstrates a frustration with what are considered normal practices there. Translating his ideas into missiology, his concerns are nothing more than a stress on contextualized methods.

We see this same concern in Scripture repeatedly. God’s election of the human race begins with an obscure man from Ur of the Chaldees, whom he simply commands to move to an obscure part of the planet, Canaan. God does not launch global plans to all parts of the world simultaneously, but he begins in a manger in the poor city of Bethlehem. Jesus is not immediately the obvious Saviour of the whole world, but he begins with the lost sheep of Israel. The worldwide mission to the Gentiles begins with the Holy Spirit selecting one centurion, Cornelius, and persuading Peter to go and meet him. Paul does not typically write theological treatises for all places and times, but he writes highly contextualized letters to specific churches with specific issues. Even the apocalyptic themes of John’s Revelation have specific messages for the seven churches of Asia in their local context. Apparently God is also concerned about local solutions to local problems.

A third requirement for postcolonial missions is that spiritual renewal should take precedence over human ingenuity. Mission models from the Enlightenment rely heavily on human strength and intellect instead of on the power of the Holy Spirit. Western and Westernized missiologists readily adopt the latest ideas from the secular world and adapt them to missions. A return to biblical models will emphasize that God has always worked through those who completely dedicate themselves to him in prayer and faith.

The East African Revival provides a contemporary example. This spiritual renewal produced a remarkable increase in evangelism together with the use of local resources that had previously been assumed to be nonexistent. Describing the effects of the revival that started in 1929 and continues to have an impact around the world, Richard K. MacMaster and Donald R. Jacobs stated:

The East African Revival had been financially self-reliant. When “the saved ones” felt that God was calling them to do something locally or on a broader scale, they simply announced the need and received the funds from the local fellowships. What they could not afford they did not undertake. When they commenced huge projects, like the stratified evangelization of an entire town or city, they did so with their own finances.40

When John Gatu, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa from 1964-79, declared a famous moratorium on missionary personnel and funds, it was not because of liberal theology or anti-Western bias, and it was not intended to signal the end of missions.41 Rather it was due to the influence of the East African Revival. Gatu was aware that revival fellowships offered an alternative to remaining dependent on foreign funding and personnel. He sought a hiatus in foreign oversight of his church’s work in order to give African leaders time to decide their own priorities. MacMaster and Jacobs report that within twenty years, Gatu’s moratorium steered his denomination from receiving 85 percent of church funds from abroad to receiving 85 percent locally.42

Looking at Scripture, the entire Book of Acts is a treatise on the driving force of the Holy Spirit in missions, regardless of human plans or ingenuity. When Peter was reluctant to evangelize Gentiles, God intervened with visions of unclean food and a command to Peter to kill and eat them (Acts 10:11-13). While Peter was preaching to Cornelius as a result of this vision, the Holy Spirit intervened to create a Gentile Pentecost. Peter then, and only then, acknowledged that Gentiles also had the right to be baptized (Acts 10:44-47). Repeatedly in Acts, the Holy Spirit overcomes deep-seated human prejudice to assert divine wisdom in the new age of Christ. Missions was pushed forward even through persecution (Acts 8:1-4). When human strength seems small, and resources seem few, the Holy Spirit can still find a way for the gospel to progress.

The fourth requirement for true postcolonial missions is that the mission will proceed out of apparent weakness rather than strength. Scripture is replete with examples of how God chose lowly people to bring him glory. Barren women like Hannah, who turned to God in ardent prayer, become the mothers of important leaders. Cowardly individuals like Gideon become heroes of faith once they submit to God. Despised men, like Joseph, become the deliverers of Israel, even when they must go through years of misfortune first. A shepherd becomes the most famous king of Israel. A poor family that can only afford to offer the Lord two pigeons as a sacrifice on behalf of their firstborn son is chosen to raise the Son of God. Fishermen become the first apostles who follow Jesus. Tax collectors and prostitutes are invited into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious leaders. A formerly demonized woman is the one who first sees the risen Savior. Even the great missionary apostle, Paul, is given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. The Lord announces to Paul this fundamental principle, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). God’s plan involves using human weakness to show his glory.

As Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives in order to engage in missions in this world, so missionaries who come from backgrounds of human strength will necessarily empty themselves of that prerogative in order to minister like Jesus out of weakness. Since that is so difficult for us to do effectively, it means that we can expect postcolonial missions to be led by the most unlikely people, namely, the poor and despised. God’s glory will be seen best when such people are empowered by the Holy Spirit to go forth in missions without being told to by other people. When the Holy Spirit initiates mission, then the financial conundrums we often find ourselves in disappear. Spirit-filled Christians find themselves going forward to spread the gospel without outside help as it was in the early churches. Indeed, the way the early churches went about missions becomes the paradigm for postcolonial missions.

The fifth requirement is that we should return to Paul’s mission methods, as they satisfy all four requirements mentioned so far. Even though Paul lived in the time of a superpower that controlled life in the territory where he lived and worked, Paul did not use the same methods that the Roman Empire used to spread its influence. Rather, he rejected the tactics that the empire approved of: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor 10:3-4). Paul saw the battle as spiritual, and designed his methods of mission accordingly. Too often, Western missions have seen the battle as technical and designed engineering solutions. These solutions are so foreign to the context that they create dependency on expatriates to implement and maintain their systems. Paul, however, never created dependency because he trusted his converts to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to think for themselves.

In comparing Paul’s methods with more recent missionary paradigms, Roland Allen comments:

The first duty of a teacher is not to solve all difficulties for the pupil, and to present him with the ready-made answer, but to awaken the spirit, to teach the pupil to realize his own powers. . . . As the converts exercise that power, as they yield themselves to the indwelling Spirit, they discover the greatness of the power and the grace of the Spirit, and in so doing they reveal it to their teacher. But we are like teachers who cannot resist telling their pupils the answer the moment a difficulty arises.43

In other words, Allen is accusing missionaries of being paternalists. This flaw is still alive in some popular paradigms that create dependency today. Paul avoided paternalism by moving on quite soon and by expecting converts to learn through their mistakes. Indeed, much of the New Testament is a result of the mistakes that Paul’s converts made. He gave them enough space to make their own decisions, and then interacted with them about the consequences by letter.

Avoiding Dependency

In order to avoid dependency, indigenous churches and Christian institutions must be consciously contextualized to their local situation. Their own leaders should have thought through what it means to be the body of Jesus Christ in the context, taking into account the unique history, culture, and customs of the society in which they minister, and studying what God’s word has to say about these issues. Once a group of churches or Christian institutions has a clear picture of God’s call for them, they will not be so tempted to accept partnerships that create dependency, for they will know what they stand for. They will avoid importing foreign systems and technology that are difficult for them to operate or fund by themselves. They will assess foreign ideas about what their task consists of in the light of God’s revelation to them in Scripture. They will refuse to undertake projects that they cannot sustain, and will seek to empower their own people to develop the skills needed for their own work. They will agree to let no one do for them what they can do for themselves.

Robert Reese is Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Ministry at Mid-Atlantic Christian University. He was part of a church planting team in Zimbabwe from1981 to 2002. Robert was Director of the World Mission Resource Center operated by World Mission Associates in Lancaster, Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2008. His role was primarily educational, in order to foster sound mission principles that would not create unhealthy dependency on foreign resources in the developing world. In addition to various articles published in academic journals, Robert is the author of Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions (William Carey Library, 2010). He can be contacted at


Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

Crouch, Andy. “Powering Down: Interview by Andy Crouch.” Christianity Today 51, no. 9 (September 2007): 38-42.

Easterly, William. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

Gupta, Paul R. and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter. Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision: Training Leaders for a Church-Planting Movement. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2006.

MacMaster, Richard K., with Donald R. Jacobs. A Gentle Wind of God: The Influence of the East African Revival. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006.

Masih, J. P. “‘People Movement’ Problems.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 22, no. 3 (July 1986): 300-2.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Revised edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Pickett, J. Waskom. Christian Mass Movements in India. New York: Abingdon Press, 1933.

Reese, Robert. Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2010.

Ripley, Amanda. “From Riches to Rags.” Time, December 26, 2005–January 2, 2006, 72-88.

Rowell, John. To Give or Not To Give? Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability. Tyrone, GA: Authentic, 2006.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Saint, Steve. The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely. Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2001.

Sine, Tom. Mustard Seed versus McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.

Yohannan, K. P. The Coming Revolution in World Missions. Altamonte Springs, FL: Creation House, 1986.

1 High imperialism refers to the period when European powers set up formal control of many parts of Africa and Asia.

2 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Missions, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 86.

3 This is the title of a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1899 to urge the United States to colonize the Philippines.

4 Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 135.

5 Ibid., 221.

6 Ibid., 219.

7 J. Waskom Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India (New York: Abingdon Press, 1933), 219.

8 Ibid., 221.

9 Ibid., 314.

10 Ibid., 330.

11 Ibid., 337.

12 Ibid., 352.

13 J. P. Masih, “‘People Movement’ Problems,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1986): 300-1.

14 Tom Sine, Mustard Seed versus McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).

15 Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin, 2005), 43.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 29.

18 Ibid., 358.

19 Sine, 20.

20 Andy Crouch, “Powering Down: Interview by Andy Crouch,” Christianity Today, September 2007, 42.

21 Amanda Ripley, “From Riches to Rags,” Time, 26 December 2005-2 January 2006, 77.

22 Sachs, 280.

23 John Rowell, To Give or Not To Give? Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability (Tyrone, GA: Authentic, 2006), 142.

24 Ibid., 252.

25 Ibid., 23.

26 K. P. Yohannan, The Coming Revolution in World Missions (Altamonte Springs, FL: Creation House, 1986), 134.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 193.

29 Paul R. Gupta and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision: Training Leaders for a Church-Planting Movement (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2006), 198.

30 Ibid., 199.

31 Ibid., 182.

32 Ibid., 214.

33 Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 472.

34 Newbigin, 31.

35 Newbigin, 93.

36 Steve Saint, The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2001).

37 Ibid., 50.

38 William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 4.

39 Ibid., 6.

40 Richard K. MacMaster with Donald R. Jacobs, A Gentle Wind of God: The Influence of the East African Revival (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006), 257.

41 Robert Reese, Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2010): 54-6, 63.

42 MacMaster with Jacobs, 258.

43 Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 145-146.

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