Working Towards an Indigenous Church (4): A Self-supporting Church

Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: October 1, 2008, p. 16.

Money and missions is like mixing water and oil; they just don't seem to work together. More problems arise from this need than from any other. Notice, I said "need" because that is what it is. You cannot do mission work without money, and the need to spend money in the mission field is only too obvious. God made man dependent upon the earth for his daily bread. All through history the tension between those who have and those who have not has caused strife among the people and wars among the nations. It has affected the church as well. The solution is not to avoid money; it is to learn how to spend it wisely and in obedience to the King of the church.

The best way for the sending church to avoid mistakes in the use of its money is to keep in view its calling to establish, in the foreign country, an indigenous church. When we lose sight of this we commit the gravest of errors, and when we keep this in focus, we at least have a blueprint for wisdom that comes to us from the Word of God.

In this article, which touches so briefly on these points, we mention two common errors that have been committed by the church in the past in her use of money in foreign missions.

First, the sending church built a "compound" within which she provided a rather comfortable lifestyle for her missionaries, the walls of which separated the mission enterprise from the local people. Granted that in the early stages of mission work such an arrangement may be necessary, e.g., for safety, for the physical health of the western missionaries who are trying to survive in this foreign land, and such like; nevertheless the goal must be that this arrangement be temporary and that as quickly as possible the walls must come down. The problem in the past was (and still is) that it became a permanent arrangement. And that caused big problems. The mission enterprise soon exploded into such an elaborate project that the local people were never able to run it properly; it was way beyond their financial means. Within the compound a church was built, a hospital followed, schools were added, and all these activities cost a lot of money. This causes barriers. The local mentality says that behind those walls is a western mission work, it is foreign, it is not our work. Jealousy ensues; the work is controlled by the people who have money, the foreigners. In some cases it became so bad that the sending church threatened the mission church to conform to their way or money would be withdrawn. Money becomes an abuse of power.

Second, the distribution of money among the local people was done improperly. This happened in two ways. The missionary and perhaps his co-workers held the pocketbook. He decided who would receive help and who would not. In the name of Christian benevolence, money was distributed. This causes problems because the missionary is the least qualified to determine fit objects of mercy (he doesn't know the local standards and can easily be deceived). As soon as a foreign source begins to distribute money, the perception of the local poor is to run after available money. This has produced "rice-bowl Christians" and jealousy among those who take an interest in the gospel.

In addition to errors in spending money for the poor, the temptation was always present to pay local men to function as pastors and local missionaries within the foreign culture. Every missionary learns quickly that if indigenous mission work will be done, the need for local officebearers is top priority. The temptation is to train capable and spiritually-alert local men and put them in positions of leadership and pay them a salary. This seems so logical and necessary that it is very easy for a missionary and sending church to be blind to its consequences. This elevates such a man among his own people, who tend to view him as benefiting from the presence of foreigners. Jealousy follows because he has a better life than they do, even if every effort is put forth to keep it simple. History has also shown that such activity makes them lazy in their work. Less comes from them when they have guaranteed income. Obviously, not everyone who receives such help is corrupted, but the dangers lurk. Other considerations must come forth.

How does keeping an indigenous church in view help avoid these mistakes in the use of money in the missionary work of the church? Perhaps we should address this question a bit differently. What direction do we receive from the Bible and the missionary work of the early church that may assist us in this area of the great work of missions? In the interest of brevity, we run the risk of being simplistic, but let's focus on a few principles.

First, those who bring the gospel must also live off the gospel. This must be explained in this way: a preacher who is called by God and commissioned in His church to bring the Word of God to the people who hear it and grow by it must also receive financial income from those who benefit from his presence. This is evident from the instruction Jesus gave to His disciples in
Matthew 10:6ff. when He sent them out two by two. They were to take no extra clothing, no money, no food, but expect to receive their needs from the people who would benefit from their ministry. If the disciples did this, and if the locals rejected them, they were to depart and go elsewhere.

It might seem as if Paul practiced otherwise, since he refused money from the people to whom he ministered the word. But we must remember that his circumstances were different, in that in the culture of his day, itinerant teachers and philosophers traveled about benefiting financially from the people, and they had a bad reputation. Paul did not want to be identified with such men, so he refused money from the churches. Instead he worked as a tent-maker to supply his own financial needs. Even then, he insisted that he was properly entitled to their financial support; in fact it was their duty to
provide it. Paul quotes the words of Jesus in I Corinthians 9:14, "Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." In his moving words to the elders of Ephesus upon his departure for Jerusalem and an uncertain future, he said,

I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know that these hands have ministered unto my necessities and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so laboring, ye ought to support the weak, to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive

Acts 20:33-35.

From this instruction, we draw conclusions that pertain both to the missionary and to local pastors.

We err if we conclude from the above that a missionary must depend on the locals to support him and that he must live on the level of locals. Even pioneering missionaries like Adonirum Judson in Burma, William Carey in India, and David Livingstone in Africa put forth great effort to live on the level of the locals, but received some financial assistance from the sending organizations. The missionary lives of the gospel from the sending church; that is the nature of missions. Even then he must exercise great wisdom on what level he lives when he ministers among them. Great offense arises when the missionary family exports to the foreign land all the conveniences they are accustomed to have in America.

The sacrifice required of today's missionaries is not on the level of the pioneers, although sacrifice is necessary for the missionary to live simply among the people. Accepting such a call requires of the missionary and his family much self-denial. On the other hand, they should not be expected to live like the locals. When that was tried in the past, it had very limited success. The locals do not expect a missionary to live as they do. Missionaries are always viewed as "foreign." They are given much leeway to adjust to their new lifestyle. Consulting other missionaries working in the country and learning from their experience is good. Eventually goodwill can be built up among the converts, and discussing with them the "felt needs" of the missionaries can lead to understanding.

When God provides local men to serve as leaders of the indigenous church, the training of these men is crucial. Our point here is not how to train them, but the use of money in doing this. Two problems arise if we train them outside the country in a foreign school. It will expose them to wealth and to a lifestyle that can harm them. They learn to like this way of living while away at school and they see how the people live in wealth and later struggle with dissatisfaction with the level of provision they receive in the mission church setting.

Keeping them home for teaching has many advantages, but this too can be spoiled if we begin to provide a higher way of life for them because they are students. The missionary training center can be elaborate, can provide a wonderful study environment, can give good meals to the students, can provide all expenses, including transportation, books, and even computers. Already a wrong message is sent to the future pastors and evangelists. If they do church work, it will advance them financially. This problem is perpetuated when they finish school and take up work and are paid by the mission outreach to do that work. A wedge is driven between this man and his church, a financial wedge that the local church probably will never be able to remove.

These issues are not always present. God raises up godly men who are not affected by this. They are special gifts from God. There are others, however, who are affected. Human nature is the same all over the world. Our old flesh loves money, and only the grace of God can help us to overcome this temptation.

Alternatively, it is far better to teach the future leader in his own setting. Remember, the goal is an indigenous church, to keep the man as closely connected to his own church as possible. By teaching third-world pastors in their own country and in the context of their own church life and on the level of financial living that they are accustomed to, the money barrier is not created. The best way to preserve this in the villages is to insist that when God raises up a man for training, he continue to do his daily work. Alongside his own occupation, he can study and prepare for church leadership. He can continue to earn his own wages while he engages in outreach ministry. The difficulty with this proposal is that in many countries poverty is so great that there is no gainful employment available. The temptation, then, is to set up a pay schedule for these laborers in God's church and meet their daily needs from the sending church. A better alternative is not to pay wages in this manner, but to have them continue to search for work, just as all the members of the congregation are expected to do.

The congregation must follow the biblical direction to pay their pastor what they can. Then, after all is said and done, a system of diaconal help is put into place. The office of deacon as well as elder is recognized and men are trained to take the "widow's mite" from among the people and share this with the poor among them. This includes the pastor if they are not able to meet his needs. Then, if help is needed from an outside source, the deacons work with the mission sending-church as to how some benevolent money can be provided, and that in turn is distributed among the people, including the pastor if he has needs. In this way there is no discrimination. The authorities, such as Nevius, do allow for key men in cities who take on special positions of leadership to become paid workers (see p. 91, Planting and Development of Missionary Churches).

I might add here that emphasis upon the deacons' office is critical towards financial independence in an indigenous church. As a proper emphasis on the ruling elder is critical to self-government, and the same emphasis upon the teaching elder or pastor is critical towards self-propagation, so the deacons office is towards self-supporting. This is a sadly neglected office in mission outreach, as it is sadly neglected in the Christian churches as a whole. This requires that training of men to serve as deacons be done just as well as the training of elders and pastors. The local men who serve as deacons are best qualified to know what poverty is, who needs help, and what resources are available to assist. They can determine who needs help with food, who needs clot
hing, who needs medical attention, how doctor and hospital bills should be paid, and what are legitimate needs.

It is true that in the New Testament missionary practices of Paul, he did not involve himself in financial matters of the local churches. He did not give them money or receive from them money. He did receive gifts from individuals within the churches, e.g., Philippi, for himself and also for the poor that were in Jerusalem. Concerning these poor, Paul visited the mission churches and not only requested their support, but expected it, and if they lacked or held back, he admonished them to be more generous. This would indicate that the general financial circumstances of the Roman world allowed men to be gainfully employed. Third-world nations for a long time have had very little opportunity to grow financially, mostly due to bad government. This has affected the opportunity of the citizens to work and to earn money for their daily bread. This seems to be changing. Global economy forces governments to advance their own financial potential, and this affords opportunity for more of the locals to work. This does not relate to all of them, but it is changing, and within almost all the countries that have governments that care, there are opportunities for Christians to be gainfully employed. We recognize that being a Christian is still a big hardship for many seeking work within such countries. Only God knows how this will affect the Christians within the countries of the world in the next decade. Jesus assures us that the poor will always be with us.

One final point ought to be made. What about "seed money" for individual self-help projects?

There is much discussion and also difference of viewpoint on this aspect of financial assistance. Care has to be exercised that the sending church not become distracted with business enterprises. The church has the calling to advance the gospel through establishing indigenous churches that practice self-government, self-propagation, and self-support. It fits the spirit of helping the mission church to be self-supporting when individual Christians within the local mission who may not be able to find work are encouraged to run their own small business to earn their daily bread. This can be handled by the deacons of the sending church or individuals under their supervision. Wisdom is required, but it has been done successfully The scope can be anything from helping an individual operate a sewing machine to make clothing for a larger local company for export, to assisting individuals to set up a manufacturing or farming business that can employ others. The old adage rings true, "You can continue to give fish to a family every day (benevolence) or you can help them by buying some fishing gear so they can catch their own fish."

Due to space constraint, we did not quote from the three sources indicated in other articles. For reference you can find helpful instruction in John Nevius' Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, pages 21-26, and 89; J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, pages 96-100, 208-217; and Roland Allen's Missionary Methods: St. Paul's Or Ours?, pages 49-61.

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