Help that Hurts
We are in an era of increased involvement in international missions. Partnerships and volunteer projects continue to multiply, and that is good. It is our desire to mobilize the resources and potential of churches, associations, state conventions and every Baptist entity to reach a lost world for Jesus Christ.
However, Americans often are unprepared for the poverty and economic disparity they find overseas. It is commendable that many respond with a compassionate desire to help out of the abundance of their Western affluence. But many are blind to the dangers of a valid spiritual ministry degenerating into material assistance, and how creating dependency can be detrimental to the health and growth of a church.
We are firmly committed to indigenous methods in our work of evangelism and church planting overseas. This means that mission efforts must produce churches that can exist, grow and multiply within their own culture and economy without any dependence on foreign resources. Over many years of missionary work around the world, missionaries have recognized it is a mistake to try to accelerate growth by an infusion of financial aid to build churches and support pastors. The result is usually a welfare mentality. Well intended financial assistance too often creates dependence and handicaps the initiative and faith essential for spontaneous growth.
One thing inevitably occurs when Americans subsidize the work of churches and pastors on the mission field: Potential growth is stalled because of a mind-set that it can't be done unless an overseas benefactor provides the funds. The congregation loses a sense of ownership and therefore ceases to be responsible since others provide for the financial needs of the pastor or the church.
Jealousy often develops among the pastors and churches who don't receive assistance toward those who develop a pipeline of support from the U.S. through their contacts with volunteers and others.
Cooperation between churches diminishes since they no longer need to work together in mutual support, encouragement and interdependency. In the long-term, support breeds resentment, especially if the support is not sustained indefinitely, because it creates a patronizing dependency. The donor is under the illusion of assisting the church just until it can grow to self-support, but that seldom happens. People are deprived of growing in faith, learning to depend on God and discovering that He is sufficient for all their needs.
Subsidy propagates a Western model of a church that sees a building and a paid pastor as essential rather than encouraging a reproducible biblical model of the church as gathered believers responsible to and for their own leadership and facilities. The work of the missionary is undercut in his effort to minister in a spiritual partnership since he is seen as uncaring in not providing the same material and financial aid.
Explosive growth in China, a 50 percent annual church growth rate in Malawi, 73 churches established in Cambodia in the last four years, and similar advances around the world would never have occurred if a pattern of subsidy and dependence had been created. Unfortunately, well-intentioned help on many fields has handicapped long-term potential growth.
I firmly believe that Dr. Rankin was right on target with what he wrote here. Others, such as Steve Saint and Glenn Schwartz (just to name a few) have also written, chronicling the dangers of subsidizing national workers. In the meantime, people like K. P. Yohannon and groups like Partners International (just to name a few) have pointed out how missions dollars can go a lot further when used to support national workers. I personally believe there is a lot of truth to both sides of this question.
There is a distinct difference between supporting local "ministry" overseas (pastors’ salaries, church buildings, etc.), and supporting "missions" (church planting, training, etc.). Also, there are ways to get beyond the problems caused by individual workers being directly supported by Western money. The problem is that most churches in the West do not have enough missionary experience and expertise to be able to sort out these subtleties on the mission field by themselves. In order to do so with any modicum of accuracy, it is necessary to have people "on the ground" in the respective countries of missions efforts, who are able to get to know the various churches, organizations, and individuals involved.
At times, all this can get a bit messy. It is likely that we will make mistakes. I believe, for this reason, a lot of American churches steer clear of this altogether. They prefer to keep things simple, and avoid "getting in over their head." This, I believe, is a good reason for working through organizations like the International Mission Board. The leaders at the IMB usually have a lot better criteria for assessing and understanding situations in many parts of the world than individual churches in the States.
At the same time, however, the IMB is merely the sending branch of the collective efforts of the churches in the SBC, and is subject, by way of the Board of Trustees, to the preferences of the churches. If the churches themselves do not show much of an interest in this type of thing, it is difficult to expect the IMB to make great strides in investigating and implementing new strategies in relation to all of this. A big key, in my opinion, is for the churches in the States to become more interested in how we can be the best stewards possible, using whatever means necessary, to see that the Great Commission is fulfilled, more than merely how many missionaries and volunteer teams we can send out, and how many "professions of faith" we can record.