In an article titled "Stop Sending Money!" in the March 1, 1999, issue of Christianity Today, Robertson McQuilkin presented the problems that often follow when pastors and churches in poorer countries are financially supported by foreign organizations. He noted that jealousies arise, divisions occur, workers become materialistic, recipients are ungrateful, and church members tend to be irresponsible. His solution was simple: send no money.
Most mission specialists, myself included, agree that churches, by their very nature, should be self-supporting. Many would also agree in principle that the most effective indigenous missions organizations are those independent of foreign control and not affiliated with foreign denominations or mission organizations. But that is where the agreement seems to end.
Instead of helping these independent and indigenous mission organizations carry out their God-given ministries, many evangelical mission leaders in America have disparaged or discredited them. Like McQuilkin, they are especially adamant about not sending financial support of any kind to them.
The reasoning is simple—but perhaps too simple. In my experience at the head of an organization that sends missions money abroad I have found that providing financial support to indigenous ministries is effective if a clear distinction is made between directly supporting individual workers, on the one hand, and, on the other, supporting such workers indirectly through indigenous mission boards that give oversight to the handling of funds.
In the New Testament, we see evidence of funds being distributed in various circumstances. In the Jerusalem church, for example, the entire congregation pooled its resources to provide for the whole church, including the more than 3,000 who were visiting pilgrims. A year later, after the pilgrims had left and a famine hit Judea, the believers in Antioch sent relief, some of which most certainly was used for the support of the apostles (Acts 11:29). Still later, when believers in Jerusalem were devastated by persecution, Paul instructed the churches of Macedonia and Achaia to collect funds for their fellow believers. The other mention of finances concerned offerings that were sent to Paul for his personal support as well as for those on his team.
Whatever direct examples we may have or not have of the New Testament church helping others with financial gifts, the fact is that the huge fundraising operations of present-day mission organizations have no biblical precedent. So decisions regarding such finances need to be made on the basis of wisdom and common sense rather than divine revelation.
As a result, I believe that a blanket rule against sending money to foreign ministries is untenable—and even self-serving—for two reasons. First, historically and currently, many U.S. mission boards have themselves collected funds outside our borders. Hudson Taylor started the China Inland Mission in England but soon received support from the Continent. His 1888 U.S. trip, with backing from D. L. Moody, produced $500,000 for CIM work and workers (about $10 million in today's dollars). The Scandinavian Alliance Mission began by raising support around the Baltic Sea, but found green pastures in America also. Its mission headquarters were eventually moved to Wheaton, Illinois, and the name changed to TEAM. More currently, World Vision raises millions of dollars in other countries.
In effect, the current reigning missions orthodoxy says that it is fine for European and American missions to raise funds internationally, but if Indian or African missions do so, they are in danger of dependency.
A second reality check is that in anti-Christian countries there are no such things as self-supporting Scripture-translation ministries, radio broadcasts, free medical clinics, literature-distribution services, Bible schools, Christian orphanages, evangelistic teams, or even mission boards. These parachurch ministries need support beyond what local churches (which are often small and oppressed) can provide. A lack of outside support would greatly reduce the scope of these ministries.
I once heard Bakht Singh, a mission worker in India, say: "There is no distinction between Indian money and foreign money. Church offerings are given as unto the Lord, so they should be used as needed for his entire body. We are on our knees daily praying that God will supply our needs, and he does. Support comes from Bombay, from Madras, Delhi, Singapore, Sydney, London, Toronto, and Chicago, but it's all from the Lord." The "needs" he spoke of included supporting almost 1,000 missionaries, an extensive literature minis try, a headquarters complex in Hyderabad where 100 trainees received food, housing, and daily instruction, and annual "holy convocations" attended by up to 25,000 delegates. Should his ministry have been limited to receiving support from inside India? The answer on our part must be a wise-as-serpents no. We should share our resources with fellow believers in India and other poorer countries because of our oneness in Christ as well as our unity in the church's missionary mandate.
So why have traditional mission agencies been reluctant, if not opposed, to using their billion-dollar donor base and fundraising capabilities to support native missionaries who serve with indigenous missions? Part of the reason, I fear, is that mission executives are preoccupied with extending their own operations into foreign countries, not unlike the brand-extension strategies of a Ford or Coke or Nike.
The experience of P. N. Kurien of the All India Prayer Fellowship (AIPF) in Delhi is a clear example. While AIPF was struggling to find support for 246 pioneer missionaries and 40 students plus faculty in their Bible school, a prominent U.S. mission leader visited them. "Why don't you be come our Baptist work in India?" he asked. "We could give you everything you need." Kurien knew that it would hurt their testimony if the mission was identified with a foreign organization, so he declined the offer, explaining that it would be better for them to go hungry than to compromise their image in such a way before the local people.
Another example: When Prem Pradhan had started the first churches in Nepal in the 1950s, he faced crushing financial burdens. Many new believers were put out of their villages and dispossessed of their property. After some adults were imprisoned, their abandoned children faced starvation. Some meeting places constructed by new believers were burned by Hindus. During those difficult days, Prem was approached by a procession of missionary tourists who offered financial help if the Nepalese churches would affiliate with their respective denominations. Prem turned them all down, and it saved his life. When he was arrested for preaching Christ, the first question asked was, "Where are your headquarters?" Had he named a foreign country, he likely would have been executed. Instead, he received a six-year sentence.
Giving Acts a second look
This desire for brand extension has another ugly side to it. Christians in Two-Thirds World countries today speak of "neo-colonialism" as they witness U.S. organizations hire workers away from their indigenous ministries. Some of these missions have been devastated by the practice. They have also seen U.S. mission groups set up competing Bible schools and take away students and teachers from their schools. They are learning that those who say, "We use nationals," sometimes mean they extend their organizations into other countries by weakening local ministries. My observation has been that the nationals they employ gain financially but lose their effectiveness spiritually.
Ironically, the independence movements that spread through Asia and Africa after World War II signified an end to the colonial era. But it was the Communists, rather than Christians, who seized the opportunity. Christians did not follow the missionary model of the Book of Acts.
There is no record in Acts of a missionary being sent where he would be looked upon as an alien or did not know the language. While there are traditions to the contrary, nothing is said in the New Testament of the original 11 disciples going to work in distant countries. Instead, they won 3,000 foreign visitors in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and presumably on similar feast days thereafter. God sent those pilgrims home as missionaries to their own people. To plant his witness in Greece, our Lord chose Saul of Tarsus, whose mother tongue was Greek. He sent Barnabas back to his native Cyprus, and Andronicus and Junius back to Rome.
When I arrived in China as one of 6,000 foreign missionaries there in 1948, I found that our presence was an embarrassment to Chinese believers because people said we had been sent by the CIA. Communists were everywhere, busily winning converts to their atheistic religion; their missionaries were all Chinese—no Russians, Americans, or Europeans. But they had financial backing from fellow Communists all over the world. Nine out of ten of their top leaders had studied in Europe or America, a parallel to the Pentecost converts who returned to various nations of the Ro man Empire.
Asian and African missionaries are not inferior to Americans in the sight of God. In the context of their own culture, they are actually superior. Then why should we expect our Lord to send Americans as his ambassadors to peoples whose languages we cannot speak, while hundreds of less costly native missionaries are available who speak those languages fluently?
When communism collapsed in the USSR, thousands of zealous Christians emerged from the shadows and began to spread the gospel from Uzbekistan to Ukraine to Vladivostok. They desperately needed finances for Bible schools, transportation, literature, and missionary support. But what American mission would help them? Instead, we saw the spectacle of would-be missionaries soliciting our churches for $60,000 annual support each so they could "rush to Russia" where they didn't know the language. If there were no Soviet missionaries, it would be a different matter. But hundreds were available, willing to live on two dollars a day. Is one American who can't speak Russian more valuable in the service of Christ than 50 Ukrainians who do? Why can't we see things from God's perspective?
The point is that whatever we do in foreign countries should strengthen the indigenous works that are already there, not compete with them. We should help indigenous ministries in poorer countries without colonizing them.
Having said these things, I must also sound a note of caution. We all know of cases where church funds have been misused. It happens in America; it can happen anywhere. Wisdom and experience suggests the following guidelines for helping God's servants in poorer countries:
- Never support individual missionaries directly. Choose only those who work under the oversight and discipline of well-established native mission boards or evangelistic teams. Send all support to the parent mission.
- Hold the mission board accountable. Funds should not be controlled solely by one person. Make sure that both the leader of the group and also a treasurer or other unrelated party knows of funds being sent so that nothing is hidden.
- Require audited financial statements from each mission showing all funds received from all sources, foreign and domestic, and an itemized report of all disbursements.
- Obtain reports from trustworthy Christians who have visited the ministry and can vouch for its integrity and effectiveness. The word of the leader should be verified by added witnesses.
- On the other hand, don't necessarily be deterred by negative criticism. Every good work will be condemned by someone who is envious or jealous. Evaluations must be impartial and without prejudice.
- Don't send too much too soon. Very few works can handle a sudden influx of cash.
And one last note: Think twice before sending support for distribution through a U.S. mission that maintains a branch operation in the same locality as the indigenous mission. U.S. missionaries may be tempted to use the funds to exercise control or even divide the indigenous work.
Bob Finley is chairman of Christian Aid Mission in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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