Previous article in this series: March 15, 2013, p. 282.
What is a self-supporting church? How is the goal of having such churches attained? Does this preclude all financial assistance? If not, how can we give money in such a way as to avoid dependence?
Obviously a “self-supporting” church supports itself. The church supports its own ministers and ministerial training. The church supports and does its own benevolence work. The church supports its own building projects and mission work. In a nutshell, a self-supporting church does not depend upon financial support from others.
To accomplish this, we need first of all to teach (and allow) the local churches to support their own ministers and missionaries. This includes the task of training men to serve as ministers or missionaries. This is an important biblical requirement (Deut. 12:19; Matt. 10:7-10; I Tim. 5:17-18). It is also a confessional requirement (Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism).
As we do our mission work, therefore, we must not take over these tasks. Local ministers should not receive regular ministerial support from the mission church. If we provide this, we become guilty of taking away from the local congregation, not only the responsibility, but also the privilege of supporting the ministry of the gospel in its midst. And this amounts to infringing upon the office of believer in the church.
There are also problems that will arise if we take over these tasks. One problem is that of creating jealousy. This can arise between pastors, with all of them expecting the support that one or two may be receiving. Jealousy can also arise among the members of the church, for they too would like to receive a “free” income. Some of them may even be tempted to pursue the ministry simply because it appears to be an easy way to receive money.
Secondly, the local churches must be taught (and permitted) to do their own benevolence work.
Again, this is necessary in recognition of the office of believer in the church, specifically the calling and privilege of the members to “contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 38). It is also necessary in recognition of and respect for the office of Christ as Priest (Deacon) in the church.
We do well to recognize the fact that local deacons are much better equipped to do diaconal work in their churches than missionaries are. They live with the members of their churches every day. They understand the struggles and needs of their members, and are not only able to make better judgments concerning the genuineness of the needs, but also better able to apply the Word of God to their poor. It is wise and proper to let them do this work.
This does not preclude giving assistance to these local diaconates. This is something that is done between our own congregations, with diaconates who have a balance in their benevolence funds assisting other diaconates whose funds are low. The same can also be done, if necessary, in our mission work.
One instance in which this can occur is in a time of calamity. That was the case in the early New Testament church, with the churches taking collections for the saints in Jerusalem who were struggling on account of the famine (Acts 11:27-30). The same can (and does) happen today. Sometimes local benevolence funds are unable to cover the needs that arise because of typhoons, floods, earthquakes, etc. Assistance is then needed from others.
However, what needs to be remembered and practiced at such times (perhaps especially because of how the media portrays [exaggerates] the devastation that has been caused) is that our giving must be strictly according to need. And regardless of the occasion, the approach must always be that the local church is left to be self-supporting in its benevolence work.
Thirdly, the local churches should be taught (and allowed) to support their own causes.
The members must not be deprived of the responsibility nor denied the privilege of contributing to their own work and projects. We ought not step in and take over the various causes of God’s kingdom within the congregations, such as regular running costs, building projects, evangelism expenses, mission work, etc. If we do, we will not only destroy their sense of ownership, but also likely create a situation where we have financed buildings or projects that are beyond their means, and also beyond their ability to maintain.
The following quote gives us an indication of what must be kept in mind as we seek to establish self-supporting churches:
. . . people are more likely to have a sense of enthusiasm for and ownership of a project if they have been full participants in it from the very beginning. When the project is ‘theirs,’ they are more likely to sacrifice to make it work well and to sustain it over the long haul.1
Again, this does not preclude all financial giving from the churches who are doing the mission work. But our goal is to avoid creating dependency. To accomplish this, when help is needed we ought to provide it by means of one-time gifts, and not regular monthly contributions. And such gifts should simply be for the purpose of subsidizing expenses, and not in order to pay the full amount of a given project or cause. That is, give a portion of the cost—do not give it all.
Regarding this, Rev. Joel Hogan makes the following observation.
Dependency occurs when too many outside resources are used too soon and are significantly greater than the local resources. Schwartz uses a simple formula to relate how unhealthy dependency begins to occur. Imagine that there is a box, which represents a ministry. . . . Now imagine that the box is supported by two legs, which are the resources it takes to make the ministry happen. One leg represents local resources, and the other represents outside resources. Schwartz contends that if the leg of local resources supporting the box is not at least 51%, unhealthy dependency will result. The issue is ownership. Not just legal ownership or administrative ownership, but psychological and emotional ownership. This happens when the local people believe that the ministry is theirs and that it can only fail if they fail. They welcome outside support, but are not overwhelmingly dependent on it. If outside resources stop, the ministry can and will continue.2
In their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert also make some significant observations.
It is crucial that such outside resources do not undermine the willingness or the ability of the poor individual or community to be stewards of their own gifts and resources. When considering bringing in outside resources, we must always ask two questions: (1) Is it too much? (2) Is it too early? It would be far better to let a non-emergency need go unmet than to meet that need with outside resources and cripple local initiative in the process. . . . One of the most difficult dynamics in all of this is that even the belief that outside resources may soon be forthcoming can mask people’s true motivations for their behaviors.3
Corbett and Fikkert also give this worthwhile advice.
Only bring in outside resources when local resources are insufficient to solve pressing needs. Be careful about bringing in resources that are too much or too early. Do this in a manner that does not undermine local capacity or initiative.4
[Only] respond when needs of the affected population are unmet by local people or organizations (or family members) due to their inability or unwillingness to help.5
The above authors point out that one of the problems with dependency is that it blinds the people of God to their God-given resources, and encourages them to seek outside resources before they have utilized what God has already given them. We need therefore to encourage God’s people to make a thoughtful and serious assessment of their own resources. It is good for them to focus, not on what they do not have, but on what they do have, not on what God has given others, but on what God has given them. Then they can take the next step, and consider how best to use these things for God’s glory and the extension of His kingdom.
Finally, we need to be aware of the danger of paternalism. A failure to work toward self-sufficient churches is that dependency usually results in paternalism. That is, it fosters the thinking in the minds of the churches established through our mission work that they are inferior, not equal, that they are lowly daughters, not sisters. This can do damage, therefore, to the character of a future sister-church relationship. This significant concern ought to encourage us to do all we can to avoid creating dependency.
In conclusion, we do well to keep in mind what proper mission work is. Mission work is not that of raising the economic level of those who are poorer than we. Proper mission work is to preach the gospel in faithfulness to the great commission of Christ.
As we strive to be faithful in this, may God be pleased to bless our wise use of money and earthly resources so that instead of being a hindrance to the spread of the gospel, these serve well the preaching of the Word and the gathering in of the elect in Christ.
1 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), Kindle Edition, Loc. 2245/4541.
2 Joel Hogan, “Unhealthy Dependency vs. Sustainability.” Hogan makes reference here to Glenn Schwartz, the author of When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2007).
3 Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, Loc. 1993/4541.
4 Ibid, Loc. 2007/4541.
5 Ibid, Loc. 2035/4541.