Monday, July 17, 2006

Help that Hurts

In September 1997, Dr. Jerry Rankin published the following article in The Commission magazine…

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.


OKpreacher said...


Another great article.


GuyMuse said...

David, I don't want to put you on the spot, but would be personally interested in any follow-up comments on what you mean when you say, I personally believe there is a lot of truth to both sides of this question... It is the other side (the K.P.Y. side) that is most controversial, yet must be looked at if we are serious about finishing the task. I agree, there are two sides to this question.

mr. t said...

We are struggling with this right now. We are channeling supplemental support for first generation church planters (not pastors or local elders) so that they can leave their homes to advance the gospel where there is no Christian presence. We did not see any other way to enter areas where there are zero churches (of any denomination). We are simultaneously encouraging the tent-maker model, but the success rate with micro-businesses, etc. is very low. So, this is sticky! We don't want to go too far to create unhealthy dependency, but at the same time, don't want to neglect the harvest.

What to do? I used to be in the camp of never using outside resources for indigenous worker support, or for any on-going project (we just used one-time limited help). Now I am camped on the other side and wondering how this is going to affect the work in the long run.

Kevin Bussey said...

Interesting. I never thought about the jealousy and the dependence on subsidies. Thanks for the article.

Ken Sorrell said...


I agree that we must investigate new models of support for cross-cultural church planters and missionaries. Our fear of dependency debilitating models makes it difficult for most to move into a quantum thinking process in order to seek new solutions to our 21st century world.

However, we are now reaping the impact of what amounts to an entire generation of SBCers who are missions illiterate or are caught in a missions time warp where they are still thinking of missions as was practiced 25 to 50 years ago. Now, the primary missions education classroom is the "mission trip", which, as we all know too well makes it difficult to be challenge people's thinking and be strategic at the same time.

Until we can find an effective way to communicate and educate SBC churches as to the new best practices and new challenges on the mission field, "help that hurts" will remain the default strategy.

Great post! Keeping blowing this trumpet. Maybe soon, some will begin to listen.

Doug said...

Excellent!! My wife and I were ISCers beginning in Sept 1997. One of our greatest benefits was meeting a national home missionary (who I'll call Jerry) who had a vision for reaching out to his neighboring tribes who are some of the most hard hearted people toward the gospel. Our team of 6 (all ISCers) were FORTUNATE to see one young lady become a believer in that 2 year assignment. Jerry was our on site supervisor (yes, a non IMB supervisor for 3 ISC couples). Aunt Lottie decided to buy Jerry a house store about the same time we got to the field. While we saw 1 convert, Jerry and his team of national missionaries saw the formation of a home church. They had other strategies that we could not have accomplished. I believe God led me to this area for the main purpose of working with Jerry. Often I felt the Lord leading me to give my tithes and offering for Jerry to use. He never took the money to support himself, but specific projects for the kingdom. As you read this, lift up the church there. I have heard that the home church was recently discovered. Their leader (not Jerry) lost his life running from the police. The church is scattered. May the blood of the martyrs be the seed of the church.

Alan Cross said...

Great thoughts, David. You talk about the role of local churches in the U.S. in speaking into the IMB's decision making process, but I see no invitation to take part in that from the IMB. We get mixed signals. Send teams. Don't send teams. Short termers are needed. Leave it to the professionals. The only constant theme I hear is "send your money and leave it to us to handle it." That creates a passivity on our part and in time causes us to be selfish and spend more money on our own buildings than we do on reaching the nations. We have to be involved in significant ways. If global missions has become so specialized that there is no hands on role for the local church, then something is wrong.

At the same time, I totally get your point about indigenous leaders. I'm of the Roland Allen school on that one. So, I think I come down on the side of having career Western missionaries serve are facilitators and enablers of indigenous Kingdom work with clusters of partnerships with stateside churches. That way, the U.S. churches could be directly involved, but they would be directed by a missionary on the field who knew how to best use them and who knew how to facilitate indigenous Kingdom growth.

I probably just restated what you said in your post, but I wanted to highlight the U.S. church perspective a bit.

David Rogers said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments from a pastor's point of view.

I believe the leadership at the IMB is quite sensitive to what the people in the churches are thinking, and is becoming more and more so. They are already making significant strides forward in the way the IMB and individual missionaries relate to local SBC churches. Major change takes time, though. The whole volunteer team idea, for example, was frowned upon about 20 years ago.

In any case, your "clusters of partnerships" idea is right on, in my opinion. I've got an upcoming post in my mind called "Strategic Alliances" in which I'd like to develop that idea a little further.