Previous article in this series: May 1, 2012, p. 356.
Money plays a significant role in missions. In fact, we could not do mission work without it. We need money in order to investigate fields. We need money to prepare men to be missionaries, and to support those men and their families as they do the work on our behalf. We need money for mission field expenses, such as travel, literature, conferences, ministerial training, etc. Few would disagree that the work of preaching the gospel in all the world with a view to establishing Reformed congregations cannot be accomplished without money.
This raises vital questions regarding the wise use of that money on the mission field. And these questions are especially significant when we are doing mission work in countries where a significant economic disparity exists between us and those among whom we labor. While we have an abundance, at times those who are the objects of our mission work have nothing extra, and even struggle at times to find their daily food. While we are able to give generously to the churches, for them it can be difficult to provide for the causes of Christ’s kingdom.
As we do our work in such circumstances, we face many questions with regard to the use of money. How much money should we provide for those among whom we labor? Is it proper to use our wealth to help cover the regular expenses of the local churches? Is it wise to provide support for local pastors? Should we purchase, or at least subsidize the cost of, church land and church buildings?
It all comes down to this question: How ought we to use our money such that we do not jeopardize the work of establishing self-supporting churches?
In previous articles we considered how we are to establish indigenous churches that are self-governing and self-propagating. Now we face what is perhaps the most difficult matter, that of churches being self-supporting.
How is a self-supporting church established?
Perhaps a good way to answer this question is by means of a few anecdotes that indicate what not to do in order to achieve this goal. These are true stories. They come from an article entitled “Unhealthy Dependency vs. Sustainability,” written by Rev. Joel L. Hogan.1
Concerning work in Liberia, in West Africa, Rev. Hogan writes:
A group of visitors went to Africa. They wanted to help poor people, so they visited a village and met with the leaders and others who lived there. The group asked about what their needs were. Other visitors had come to the village before, so the villagers were used to these kinds of questions. They told the visitors that they needed jobs, money, food, better homes and clean water. The visitors got together and decided that they could get the money together to put in a well for the people of the village. They told the people of the village that they would be back to put in a well, and everyone was happy. The visitors went home and told stories about how people were getting sick because of unclean water and soon collected enough money to pay for the well and for their return trip to Liberia. The villagers in Liberia waited for the visitors to return to dig a well for them. Finally, the well was dug, the pump installed, and everyone celebrated when the water came out of the spout. However, what the visitors didn’t know was that wells need regular maintenance. Rubber gaskets wear out, parts break, and it costs money to repair the well. After a few months, the pump broke and it no longer pumped water. The villagers, who had no money and were used to getting along without a well, just decided that they could not afford to fix it. The well sat unused for several months, until one night someone stole the entire pump. Now there is only a small hole in the cement where the pump once was. No one in the village ever heard from the visitors again and once again there is no clean water.
Rev. Hogan provides another account that demonstrates the same problems. This story comes from mission work in the Dominican Republic.
Work teams from USA and Canada frequently come to the DR [Dominican Republic] to build churches and other buildings. One such group came and built a church in a rural area. The resources used to build the church were overwhelmingly outside resources. The work team came with almost all the money for building supplies and with a work team and western equipment to get the building up in record time. The work team went home happy and the local group was happy with a church building. However, about 5 years later, they called a missionary and said, “Could you send those people back here. The church needs painting.” In their minds, they didn’t own the building. In their minds, they were recipients and depended on outside resources even to paint their church building.
I trust we would all agree that digging wells and putting up buildings is not true mission work. But the point made in these accounts is clear—funneling money and resources into a mission field does not produce self-supporting churches. Instead, it produces churches that are dependent. It produces churches that are unable to do anything (or have been led to think they either cannot or should not do anything) apart from those who gave them what they have.
Two other authors make a similar observation when they write:
The sad truth is that…all around the world one can find donated equipment that is rusting away, latrines that have never been used, community associations that have disbanded, and projects that disintegrated soon after the nonprofit organization left town.2
On account of our wealth, it is difficult for us not to fall into the above mentioned practices in our mission work. The following factors might tempt us to do so.
First of all, as wealthy westerners we are well able to hand out money toward the needs of those among whom we are working in poorer countries. In comparison to what our own churches and members have, the amount that is needed for food and clothing, or even for land and buildings, is minimal. We can give large sums of money without having to make personal financial sacrifices.
Secondly, we are tempted to allow the distribution of money to be an activity that soothes our consciences with regard to the calling and obligation to do mission work. It makes us ‘feel good’ to give generously to others. It perhaps soothes our consciences, too, of the sense of guilt we might have for being as wealthy and prosperous as we are. And so we give, and convince ourselves that we have fulfilled our obligation to be actively involved in the spread of the gospel throughout the world.
Thirdly, we are tempted to distribute money because it is an easy way (or so it seems) to do mission work. Not much sacrifice is needed. We can remain in the comforts of our affluent lifestyle. We do not have to vex our souls over the difficult questions of how much money to distribute, to whom to give it, how often to give it, etc. All we need to do is to share our wealth with those who are poor. Mission work is easy—just send money to the mission field for the people to use as they see fit.
Fourthly, we are tempted to hand out money because doing so can appear to be a very effective way of doing mission work. It produces results. Hundreds (or thousands) come to hear the Word. Churches grow numerically, and do so in leaps and bounds. And even if some may initially come for the wrong reason (financial gain), the fact is they still come. Surely that gives us the opportunity to teach them the truth.
Finally, we are tempted to be liberal with our money in light of the injunction of Scripture to show love in concrete ways to brothers and sisters who are in need. “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (). We say to ourselves, “Doesn’t this mean that we ought to be generous with our money and resources to anyone who is at a lower economic level than we are?”
Aside from the fact that some of these motives do not constitute proper Christian giving, it is also true that it is not always proper or wise to distribute money in this way. This is not the way to do mission work. Nor is it effective. It is not the method that avoids dependency and encourages and guides churches to become self-supporting.
So, what is the proper way in which to distribute and utilize money in missions? How can we effectively establish self-supporting congregations? We will consider these matters in our next article, the Lord willing.
1 Rev. Joel Hogan is director of the Christian Reformed World Missions of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
2 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. 2200/4541.