The Dread Cancer of Stinginess
North Americans have wealth to share with the developing world, but in many respects, we have become increasingly reluctant to share it. One reason is our fear of creating unhealthy dependency in those who receive support from the West. John Rowell challenges this fear as he helps us think about the current Christian Vision Project question: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? Rowell is president of Ministry Resource Network, a church-based missions organization with long-term staff in both Bosnia, Croatia, and Siberia. He is also a church planter and pastor with 30 years of experience, and author of To Give or Not to Give: Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability (2007). Rowell serves on the staff of the Atlanta Vineyard.
Few principles have been as central to the modern missions movement as the "three-self paradigm." This seminal framework was popularized in the 19th century by three notable leaders: Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, and John Nevius. It proposes that truly indigenous churches should be self-governing, self-propagating and self-supporting. For 200 years the three-self ideal has been nearly axiomatic. Modern missiologists have placed particular emphasis on the last point, interpreting it to emphasize financial independence and developing a whole stream of thought trumpeting "the dangers of dependency." These missiologists want to prevent the unhealthy dynamics they presume are unavoidable when outside funds are introduced into any newly developing indigenous movement.
Dr. Joseph D'souza, associate international director for Operation Mobilization, calls this line of reasoning the "dependency school" of thought. As an indigenous Indian leader, he believes this argument is pejorative toward non-Westerners and unnecessarily limits global giving. Dependency school rationales have been most shaped in recent times by Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Missions, by the director of World Mission Associates, Glenn Schwartz, and by David Garrison of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, among others.
The fundamental presumption of the dependency school is that the global cause of Christ would be better off if indigenous ministries stood on their own, with whatever resources may be available to them in their local communities. They encourage indigenous leaders to develop a healthy resistance to receiving outside resources, and they urge Westerners to develop a healthy reticence about offering aid. Garrison goes so far as to say that offering outside funds can be compared to giving indigenous brethren "the Devil's candy"an act more likely to kill than to assist church-planting movements in poor countries. The message of dependency school proponents is interpreted by many as a general call "not to give"the simplest way to avoid the presumed dangers of dependency.
Some even worry about the impact on a central discipleship issue for Christians in the West: As committed stewards of considerable wealth, how can we practice charitable giving without creating dependency? Choosing not to give is too easy an answer to this question. In a world where 3 billion people survive on less than $2 a day and nearly that many are still unreached, we simply cannot ignore the Bible's call for generous giving.
Dread Cancer of Dependency
Ralph Winter is perhaps the most prominent mission leader to speak for the dependency school. In a recent issue of the U.S. Center for World Mission's Mission Frontiers magazine, he wrote with alarm of "the dread cancer of 'dependency,'" saying that the danger of many mission projects is that they require ongoing "infusions of subsidy from abroad." Winter has consistently upheld the position that self-reliance and not outside support is the answer to global poverty.