By Dave English
Missions continues to be handicapped by Western paternalism. But can a Biblical lay missions strategy (tentmaking) can provide the key to overcoming it?
People in the West tend to see themselves as superior in technology and civilization. After all, do not our wealth and lifestyle prove it? The West is developed; other nations are developing. And in the past, most of these nations were colonies of the West. We Americans especially think that we have the answers or can find them. Because we have answers and money, we tend to set direction for the churches we establish. We dare not turn over the reins of the local church until the leaders mature. Thus we treat them as immature. Predictably we tend to setup Western methods, Western churches, Western programs, etc., and then must provide Western money to run them. And we must keep supplying money to prevent them from dying. As a result, the church is too often stuck in dependency, deprived of responsibility and initiative, denied genuine partnership with us, robbed of dignity, and seriously weakened.
Thankfully, the introduction of cross-cultural training has greatly reduced this problem in missions. In fact, many mission agencies have moved a long way from old patterns of paternalism and are quickly including national believers as co-workers on the field. Nevertheless, too many agencies still practice old patterns, and progressive agencies have become mired in more subtle forms of paternalism.
One of the big roots of the problem is Western funding of national workers. Even when nationals are co-workers or members of their own indigenous agencies, but are funded from the West, dependency seems inescapable. Western funds bring about the creation of mission structures that the national church would not have created and cannot sustain without that funding. Simply being a long-term Christian who introduces the gospel can lead to paternalism. But the enormous economic disparity between the West and other nations just aggravates the problem further. Even with the best of intentions, the elephant almost always crushes the mouse with which it dances.
One of the exciting new realities of world evangelization is the growing number of vibrant and increasingly mature non-Western missionaries. Receiving nations are becoming sending nations! As a result, some mission leaders go to the other extreme. Full-page ads in Christian magazines suggest that the West quit sending missionaries and instead send money to fund national workers because they can do a better job for much less money.
This is such a critical issue. I want to divert briefly to bring some balance. It is true that national workers are as gifted by the Spirit as Westerners, can often work for much less money, more easily relate to and identify with the people, more readily learn related languages and cultures, escape the stigma of colonialism or Americanism, more naturally avoid certain cultural violations, and more easily gain access to other nations. But these advantages are not universal. Cost can rise dramatically if these workers go to another nation, ethnic hostility can torpedo evangelism just 50 miles away, and Nigerians would lose any linguistic-cultural advantage if they went to Japan. Furthermore, Westerners can often create greater impact by upsetting people’s expectations with their love, Christ-likeness, and servanthood.
Despite the claim of a ubiquitous full-page ad that “6000 mission boards” in “mission field” countries now have “300,000 missionaries” who “have already targeted every unreached people group on earth,” the reality is that at least one fourth of the world has never heard Jesus’ name and another fourth has no idea who he is. Hundreds of people groups are still unreached, and in addition, many large nations are mostly unevangelized even though they have missionaries. Japan’s 125 million are less that one percent Evangelical. India with a billion has 500,000 towns with no resident witness. Indigenous workers cannot reach these peoples because they don’t have any indigenous workers yet. For these peoples to be reached, someone has to come from outside, from another culture!
Through Christ certainly calls the Western church to give more money to missions, he also calls us to give our lives as well. Sending money without giving ourselves and sending workers is deadly for any church. Early this century, Temple Gairdner, missionary to Muslims, warned that money encourages “missions by proxy.” “You pay someone else to go evangelize and produce churches which then also pay others to do it . . . Pay is proxy and the whole conception of the church is based upon pay.” (The Case for the Voluntary Clergy,” p. 210) Missions strategist Roland Allen argued that “What was a spiritual operation is now largely a financial one” and “Non-Christians are repulsed by the degree to which the work of the church depends on money.” (Ibid, p. 58, 105f.) He demonstrated how money was already damaging missions at the beginning of the century, but the amount then was minuscule compared to today! Because the West can so easily send so much money compared to Third World churches, it automatically tends to create dependency.
Today over 100 U.S. agencies specialize in raising money for foreign national workers. In too many cases this is formalizing the paternalism/dependency pattern. Because lack of accountability allowed horrendous abuse and fraud in some cases, most agencies require some accountability. But accountability always brings some control. And even when that control is minimal, outside funding produces dependency by creating programs that the national church could never initiate and cannot maintain without those funds. The potential for substantial outside funding short-circuits the local church from creatively and determinedly developing a strategy that they can carry out on their own with their own limited resources.
The essence of paternalism is providing outside direction and resources by some “mature” party to someone considered “immature” and not yet capable to carry full leadership responsibility. Though it is much more that providing money, money is a tremendous force for paternalism. What are the problems and symptoms of paternalism which make it so harmful?
1. Paternalism denies the potential and capability of the local Christians. It is common to think it takes years before local Christians are can lead the church on their own. By implication, they don’t have the same mental ability, creativity, leadership ability, and spiritual power that we do in the West. This denies that they are made in the image of God just as we are.
2. Paternalism denies the power of the Holy Spirit to motivate and empower indigenous Christians to carry responsibility, solve problems, be creative, and multiply the church. When we expect little, give little responsibility, and take forever to develop leaders, we prove ourselves to be agnostic about the Spirit’s power. In reality the Spirit energizes new believers supernaturally to hunger for God’s Word, to love telling about Jesus, and to respond to God’s truth.
3. Paternalism creates spiritual anemia. It deprives the people of full responsibility for and ownership of God’s work since it does not ultimately depend on them. Often the national church is not expected to reach their own people much less other peoples, to design their own strategy, to develop their own programs, to disciple people, and to figure out how to field their own workers. Thus paternalism removes the growth-producing burden of responsibility and the need to depend on God. Instead, the church depends on the Western missionary for direction and funding. Without the pressure to wrestle with issues, search Scripture for answers, come up with its own answers and funding, and even handle failure, the church has no impetus to grow. Muscle can’t grow without use. No wonder we find national churches crippled by lack of vision and power, Biblical ignorance, in-fighting among leaders, cultic influence, etc.
4. Financial paternalism damages young Christians and creates tension between those who get the money (often several times what their peers make) and those who don’t. In Argentina, a well-meaning American started paying a young leader in campus ministry. Not long after, the leader absconded with the money, plus money he made by selling his church’s piano. At first he rationalized the money as loans, but became so hopelessly indebted that he fled. Young leaders cannot handle the temptation of such money. In another case, an agency came in and lured away campus staff affiliated with another campus ministry by offering them a salary and training in the U.S. Those who stayed with the original ministry struggled with a far lower income and less grandiose program. The new U.S. agency ran a big campaign which was neither Biblical, nor culturally sensitive. The result was many decisions, but few disciples. Within a short time, the campus ministry was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Sadly this is not unique.
5. Paternalism stifles local initiative, problem-solving and creativity. Whenever significant, ongoing direction and funding come from the West, they prevent national churches from wrestling with how to fulfil Christ’s mandate with their own resources. They can never develop a missions strategy (and often, not even a local strategy) which is their own creation and which they can carry out, sustain, and reproduce on their own. This is especially problematic in many Third World cultures with a strong authority pattern in which people tend to follow unreflectively. It is deadly when Western leaders assume the leadership role from the outset. Western funding further undermines local ownership and giving. This has been a plague in Africa and parts of Asia. Why fund your own programs, when someone will come through if you wait long enough. Some African Christians own farms, cars, even TVs and VCRs, and give expensive wedding gifts. Yet many only drop a few coins in the offering while the church struggles with being overdrawn. (“It’s Time to Get Serious . . .” Mission Frontiers Bulletin, Jan-Feb ’97)
6. Paternalism prevents the contextualization of the gospel and instead, westernizes it. This creates barriers for non-believers and slows the spread of the gospel. Money simply reinforces this! Inevitably, Western money gets weighted with Western expectations even if subtle–numbers, crusades, decisions, buildings, prepackaged programs, and formulas. As a result, the church fails to make the gospel indigenous to its culture.
Paternalism makes the national church “foreign” and suspect–Who is running things, providing the funds, and what is their (sinister) agenda? Non-believers see the message, program, music, buildings, etc. as foreign. Latin American priests often tell the people that mission-paid workers are hired by Wall Street or the CIA as foreign agents to achieve political domination. In some countries the Christians’ foreign paychecks have been used as evidence to put them in prison. Vietnamese Christians who could not leave their country suffered terribly at the hands of the communists for their foreign connections.
7. Paternalism creates non-sustainable, non-reproducible programs that local Christians cannot duplicate. Mission strategies that depend on Western funds could never be conceived unless there were potential for outside funding. Further, they cannot be sustained without it. Thus such models are non-reproducible locally and always reach a ceiling that prevents further expansion because Western funding is not unlimited.
8. Financial paternalism can undermine community in the church. A church in South Asia received Western funds to construct a church building. This undermined people’s motivation to give and their sense of ownership. Once it was built, the church became an institution and lost its sense of community. (“Proceed with Caution:” Mission Frontiers Bulletin, Jan-Feb ’97)
9. Financial paternalism shrivels the workforce by creating a professional clergy and marginalizing lay people. R. Allen tells of an Ugandan clergyman who was pastoring 200 churches! Another was pastoring 185! Why were local lay people not pastoring them? Because they had not been formally trained and ordained. When “full-time” workers are the important players, regular Christians don’t need to worry about ministry and are relegated to second class.
When select students in Latin American began to receive support for campus ministry, other students quit witnessing. They said, “Let them do it. They have more time and they get paid to do it.” No wonder we produce entertainment church services for spectator congregations. The result? The Christian workforce is reduced to fraction of its potential and that fraction gets absorbed in just keeping a weak underemployed congregation satisfied.
Foreign funding has a related side effect: it makes the national pastor more independent of and less accountable to the local church since his support comes from outside. In addition, the local church is de-motivated to support him.
10. Financial paternalism can destroy relationships between missionaries and national leaders. “Practically all of the difficulties that have arisen on our field between missionaries and native workers can be traced back to money.” (M. Hodges in The Indigenous Church, p. 76) Often the national who is at first glad to receive a modest salary wants the same pay and perks as the missionary, because he does the same work. Along the same line, foreign money can attract the wrong people to the ministry for the wrong motives. It looks like good pay for little work. Nationals often refer to missionaries as lazy, even though this is unfair to most.
Is there a better way?
Paternalism creates a serious drag on the growth of the gospel. The underlying problem is over dependence upon formal religious workers which causes over dependence on money. This has become the dominant model today. In this model the important players are “full-time” donor-supported workers with a “special call.” Since regular Christians have not received this call and are only part-time, they cannot be expected to do that much. Instead they are relegated to second string status where many simply cheer and warm the bench.
Verbally we affirm the priesthood of all believers, and some Christians are striking exceptions. But that is precisely the problem–committed, fruitful lay people are exceptions. We have developed an ideology which marginalizes the vast majority of our workforce. Remarkably, the apostle Paul worked out a powerful alternative to this almost 2000 years ago. He created a pattern of 1) lay ministry, 2) immediate indigenization, and 3) immediate partnering.
1) Lay ministry. Witness, discipling, and leadership by regular, everyday (lay) Christians was central to Paul’s strategy. This is why he worked for a living–so he could incarnate the gospel in people’s everyday world. He “became all things to all men, that (he) might by all means save some.” (I Cor. 9:22) Since most people work, Paul worked like them and modeled everyday discipleship.
Incarnation works in two directions. Paul entered people’s world to bridge the gospel to them, and he lived out everyday Christian discipleship in their world for them to imitate. (I Cor. 4:16) No one could say, “Paul, you preach and make converts because you get paid to.” Nor could people say, “Paul, you don’t understand the pressures, mistreatment, exhaustion, drudgery, ingratitude, and ridicule we face.” Paul lived in their world. And he set a pattern of godly living and witness by ordinary, everyday Christians. He made it normative for every Christian to evangelize and disciple.
Paul refused all outside funds as he extended the gospel into unreached areas in order to gain credibility for himself and the gospel. He was indebted to no foreign organization or wealthy patron or any other donors. He visibly earned his way. Everyone knew he derived no personal gain from his evangelism. Rather, his manual labor and suffering of persecution convinced people his message was true and urgent.
Paul believed in people’s potential and in the Spirit’s power. He knew the Spirit transformed and energized every Christian to make disciples. So he expected them to do so, and they did! This is why Paul’s churches spread the gospel so rapidly in the first century.
2) Immediate indigenization which means immediate leadership by new, local Christians. This practice flows from the previous. Paul expected new Christians to take responsibility immediately and for leaders to surface quickly. He often left churches after only a few months or less and then appointed leaders on the return trip. (Acts 14:21-23) The longest he ever stayed was about 2½ years in Ephesus, which he also used as a base for his team to strengthen the surrounding churches and probably to plant more. Acts shows that Paul never ran a local church, but rather coached them into existence. He played a coaching-mentoring role to birth churches under local leaders. His letters show that while his authority was real, it was not line authority. Paul painfully recognized that it was entirely possible for a church to refuse his direction because they were ultimately in charge. This made their responsibility real and forced them to grow.
Paul’s churches were self-governing, self-funding, largely self-feeding (digging into the Old testament and Jesus’ teaching for themselves), and self-multiplying almost from the beginning. Paul taught, but did not control. He gave minimal structure—probably only baptism, Sunday communion and teaching, and multiple elders. Other development was left to the churches. The churches never had to get rid of a foreign pattern because they never had it. The churches began indigenizing the gospel from the beginning.
Initially, offerings were taken for the needy, not for leaders. (Acts 4:34; 6:1; 20:35; Eph. 4:28) When the churches were young, Paul never encouraged donor support of leaders. Rather, they were lay people, working people. Only later when the churches had become a large network of house churches and leaders were proven, did Paul instruct Timothy that the churches should support elders. (I Tim. 5:17-18) By then, the pattern of every Christian ministry was firmly established. And only some elders (those who “rule well” and “labor in preaching and teaching”) received salaries, and they were lay people up until then. Other elders continued to work and could carry as much authority and initiative as supported ones. What a strategy for rapid church multiplication! There was no need to raise support before starting a new house church. Lay people could do it and they did.
3) Immediate partnering in church planting. Paul began partnering with new local Christians from the beginning. The book of Acts and the greeting sections of the epistles make clear how attached Paul became to indigenous leaders and his genuine partnership with them. Because of the Spirit’s power, he really believed in them, expected them to carry responsibility right away, and collaborated with them as peers. As evidenced by people’s names and scattered statements, ethnicity seemed to make no difference to Paul. When a person came to Christ, they were part of the family, and promising leaders were welcomed invited into Paul’s church-planting team as co-workers.
What takes this to the next level is Paul’s “missionary” team. Over a period of 10-12 years Paul recruited about 24 identifiable people into his church-planting team besides others who are probably never identified in the New Testament. Thus Paul added 2-3 people every year to his team from the local people groups. Only Silas came from Jerusalem. The rest were the “Turks,” “Berbers,” “Kazaks,” and “Spaniards” of his day. Paul built an indigenous, mobile, church-planting team. His churches got involved in missions from the outset.
But how could he add people so fast? Because Paul’s team followed his lead and worked for a living. I Cor. 9 demands this conclusion. Three times Paul says he never made use of his right to support. If his team had taken support while Paul supported himself, it would have negated his claim. Paul confirms this in II Thess. 3:7-10 by using the words “we,” “us,” and “our” eight times to explain that he, Silvanus, and Timothy worked in order to give the Thessalonians an example to imitate. Paul’s “missionary” team was actually a tentmaker team.
Think of the implications: Paul led a totally mobile, self-funded missions team. They could easily move from one place to another. And they could add promising people to the team immediately without waiting for them to raise support or go to seminary. He trained them in the most effective way–apprenticeship to himself. Because he believed in people regardless of their ethnicity because of the Spirit’s transforming power, and because he used a lay or tentmaking missions strategy, Paul rapidly added people to his team. These he constantly sent off in different directions to strengthen various churches and, I believe, even to plant churches.
The biblical practice of tentmaking as lay missions affirms that lay people can be leaders at the very top levels of the church and the very forefront of church expansion, that today’s clergy/laity distinction is unbiblical and unhealthy, and that “full-time” workers are meant to fill a special role of empowering, equipping, championing, and supporting the primary, non-professional workforce of the church. Such an approach combined with total confidence in the potential of any people group and in the Spirit’s power would lead to immediate indigenization of the church. It would also lead to genuine partnering with local leaders in church-planting, lay teams for rapid church multiplication and evangelistic penetration.
This is exactly what happened with Ruth Siemens in university student work. As the principal of a secular, international school, she worked side-by-side with Brazilians. This made it easier for her to work with Brazilian university students as genuine co-workers. Ruth’s whole strategy of relational, workplace evangelism and leading investigative Bible studies made it easy for students to imitate. Because she trusted the Spirit and saw Brazilians as equally capable as Americans, students began taking leadership almost from the start. The fact that Ruth’s campus time was limited by work prevented students developing dependency on her and forced Ruth to give more responsibility to them. Pretty soon, keen student leaders were making regular visits to other colleges to start new fellowships and to disciple leaders. And all this as unpaid, lay workers! The power of God was at work in them!
Can we solve financial paternalism?
This is a very difficult issue, and I do not claim to have the answers. But let me begin by offering some guidelines for positive giving. Appropriate funding:
1. Cannot be separated from giving ourselves and sending people.
2. Must enable rather than undermine indigenous ministry.
3. Should never bring about the creation of programs which the indigenous church could never design or fund on their own. We should only give to causes which will not suffer if foreign funds are cut off.
4. Should contribute to indigenous multiplication of resources and ministry, thus to spiritual and economic development.
5. Should stimulate local giving and responsibility.
In light of these guidelines, let me offer some proposals for further thought and development.
1. We should not provide ongoing salaries to formal religious workers because this fails several tests above. It undermines local giving and responsibility, weakens local ministry, and creates a situation which the local church could not develop or sustain on its own. Theoretically any group of ten committed Christians could fund one worker appropriately in their culture by giving a tenth of their living to that worker. Even with additional funds for ministry expenses, fifteen or so people could cover one.
2. We can provide start-up capital for ministry initiatives and special projects (possibly even temporary salary) which lead to further multiplication of ministry and resources. Obviously this must be done very cautiously and carefully.
3. We should give only through some agency (foreign or national) which provides accountability, not directly to an individual. And we need to verify that theology, strategy, and financial management are sound, and that funding policies consistently and quickly develop self-sustaining ministry and do not pay ongoing salaries.
4. We can provide funding for development, especially small business development which can lead to multiplication of resources by creating jobs, strengthening the work ethic, providing job training, transferring technology, and increasing productivity. Loans can be very appropriate for small business development.
5. We should always give massive financial help when disaster strikes like flood, war, epidemic, earthquake, drought, etc. This has had a great impact recently in Kosovo and Turkey where the Church has taken the lead in relief and foreign funds and programs have been channeled through it. Of course, we are especially compelled to take care of our suffering brothers and sisters.
However, I believe that lay missions combined with immediate indigenization and partnering provides the best antidote to paternalism because it prevents it from ever occurring. Instead, it calls regular Christians to full involvement, multiplies the workforce, gives full ownership and responsibility to the local church, accelerates church growth, and speeds up spiritual growth and leadership development. Wherever this approach has been even partially utilized, it has had remarkable impact. At the same time, we must share our wealth with needy members of our family in a way that empowers rather than weakens them.
© Dave English, Global Opportunities, first published in GO World, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2000.