by Dwight Kopp
The old man’s desk was covered in papers. His hair was peppered with white and his eyes were yellowed and tired. He gestured at the piles of paper with a look of frustration and disdain.
The old man’s desk was covered in papers. His hair was peppered with white and his eyes were yellowed and tired. He gestured at the piles of paper with a look of frustration and disdain. He pulled off his glasses and sighed. As the bishop of a large evangelical church in Zambia, he wished he could spend more time dealing with spiritual matters and less time managing the institutions his church had inherited from his mission organization.
We talked for some time about the deep spiritual needs within his denomination. In a time when the crisis of HIV/AIDS has dramatically increased local needs, the bishop believes it is unconscionable for the national church not to tithe.
“There are nights,” the Bishop confided, “when I lay awake and am on my knees weeping…Praying that God would bring this church to repentance.”
The Old Testament shows us that a lack of generosity is always an indication of a deeper spiritual problem. Because of Western funding in Africa, many local congregations appear spiritually healthy, when they in fact are not. Instead of leading the way to spiritual health, the generosity of the West has often obscured the need for African tithing.
“We Zambians were more generous before Christianity came,” the bishop said. “When I was a boy, I traveled with a friend. We walked for many days. As evening came, we could stop at any village, and they would feed us and give us a place to sleep. What has happened?”
The current state of affairs in Africa has given rise to six common myths that persuade many African Christians not to tithe.
MYTH 1: Developing churches are too poor to reach their communities.
What is poverty? Certainly, in some cases, there are those who are without food, clothing and shelter (James 2:15). But one Zambian told me, “Zambia’s church has all the resources she needs to do what God has called her to do.” Does God ever call a church to action and then withhold from her the resources that will enable her to walk obediently? Indeed, would God ever create a people who are so impoverished that they are unable to minister to their own community?
Any organization seeking to work cross-culturally must have a good understanding of that culture’s definition of poverty. Without this, foreign paradigms will be imported. One respected Zambian church leader noted, “The missionaries told us we were poor, and we believed them.” Poverty is often a perspective, a state of mind. As a result, Western generosity has damaged positive nationalism and promoted a welfare economy. Instead of continuing in Africa’s heritage of generosity, Western money has allowed them to be lulled into the sleep of apathy.
What has allowed for the development of large African denominations that feel little or no personal responsibility for the needs of their communities?
It appears that over the past one hundred years of the gospel’s advance in Zambia, the large influx of Western assistance has served to devalue Zambian churches’ own resources. However, in God’s eyes, Zambia’s resources surrendered to his service, are more than adequate. Furthermore, the influx of Western culture has brought with it the presuppositions of Western ideology. This has served to supplant the need for Zambians to seek their own creative solutions.
MYTH 2: The African church has the people. The West has the resources. Together they make powerful partners in combating the scourge of HIV/AIDS.
This myth of partnership suggests that churches in developing nations must maintain partnerships with wealthier Western churches in order to fulfill their calling in the community. This has led many Western organizations to create partnerships with national churches, which is seen as an acceptable function of the global church.
However, there are many problems with this arrangement. The disproportionate amount of money available from outside the country devalues the resources available locally. It can give a local congregation the impression there is no need for them to give sacrificially. Yet sacrificial generosity is a mark of a believer and a sign to the world of a changed life. The testimony of Zaccheaus and the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet are radiant examples of this principle.
In the face of a plague, even King David was aware that a sacrifice which cost him nothing would not honor God. “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24).
The incredible wealth of the West has often undermined the vitality of the national church. In one town in Zambia, a pastor makes so much money moonlighting with his foreign-funded orphan project that he is neglecting his church. Small wonder the national church feels it can’t measure up to the generosity of the West and has no sense of ownership.
This problem is highlighted by a story from Western Province, Zambia. Six Bible students from a remote college and their two national professors sat in a circle. The visiting teacher opened his Bible to read from James. “The religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
“Who does God hold responsible for the care of Zambia’s orphans?” the teacher asked.
“He holds us responsible” they said.
“So, should you ask another nation to give you money so you can take care of Zambia’s orphans?” he asked.
“No,” they replied.
Here are people of faith. If God is calling the Zambian church to take care of her orphans, then God will also provide the resources needed to make this a reality. God is calling people of faith to stand and believe that he can do what he says.
Together the students sat and calculated out an estimate of what their particular church members could tithe in a given year. They included expected yield from their maize, cassava or peanut fields. Once this was translated into a cash-equivalent the number was multiplied by the number of members and written on the blackboard. The resulting amount was a staggering twenty to thirty times greater than the denomination’s minimum projected requirement, which currently goes unmet. For a time, they sat in silence. Then there was a quiet, righteous anger.
If the resources are available, why then, is the Zambian church generally so negligent in attending to the needs within her sphere of influence?
MYTH 3: The problems of the national church all stem from a lack of understanding. The solution is more education and training.
The Western church must be extremely careful not to fall into a kind of economic prejudice that assumes affluence as a sign of wisdom. One of the ways this is perhaps most evidenced is in the West’s idolatry of education.
This bias has led many to believe the cause of a national church’s lack of generosity is merely a lack of understanding. It is assumed, for example, that a good sermon series on stewardship will solve the apparent lack of tithing.
Along the Zambezi River there is a place where the old men still remember hearing stories of David Livingstone’s first visits. Here a group of national church leaders and missionaries gathered to discuss the problem of tithing. In the past the founding mission was expected to maintain the ministries of the national church it helped to establish. The mission has developed strategies and manuals on giving. But these leaders agreed the root problem wasn’t poverty or ignorance, but apathy. One of the men who had spent his life serving the church was asked, “If the root problem is spiritual, what needs to be done about it?”
He paused and answered, “We just need to fast and pray.”
MYTH 4: Weak national churches need more missionaries and more money.
One may argue that the West cannot just sit back on her money and leave the rest of the world to themselves. Does not the Bible teach that those who possess a real faith will not turn away people without clothes or daily food (James 2:15-17)? But the gospels very clearly show that Jesus was more interested in the spiritual growth of his people than merely feeding them. After he fed the five thousand, they continued to follow him, looking for food. Jesus knew the people wanted to make him king in order to satisfy their physical needs. But he told them, “You are looking for me…because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:26-27).
They replied, “Sir, from now on give us this bread” (John 6:34). Even though they were needy, Jesus did not give them what they wanted. Instead of food, Jesus offered them himself. Many began to grumble against Jesus. They said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) In essence, they said, what good is it if we don’t get any kind of physical bread? Jesus responded, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John 6:63). Because of Jesus words many of his disciples “turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
The kingdom of God has always advanced first in the hearts of people. God’s kingdom becomes evident as these people begin to exercise godly dominion over their domain. A church needs to grow at the pace at which the Spirit of God is moving in that particular body. Building a church does not just mean building its edifice, as much as that often makes donors feel like something is really happening. A church should not be placed in a position of needing to catch up to its structure.
When Paul took the gospel to another people, he stayed only a very short time and shared in a limited area. When he left, it was with confidence that the gospel of Christ would reach far beyond the areas he had traveled. He knew that Christ was a living, breathing force against which the gates of hell would not prevail.
Paul was firm in his understanding that Christ was the one who would build his Church. The growth of the church was not dependent on the clever strategies of missiologists and development agencies. Paul did not see it as his responsibility to figure out how to reach or care for everyone. He knew a church full of the power of the Holy Spirit would set their world on fire.
In many cases mission agencies start outreach projects within a particular community in partnership with a local church. Their projects give the impression that a local church body is walking in the fullness of life. Instead, the impression of spirituality is purchased with imported money or people. In Lusaka there is a project for street children. Some kids had been begging and others were involved in prostitution. The project is funded almost entirely from outside money and those in that particular church have no part in it. The comparative extravagance of outside giving has shamed them into inaction.
A mission’s financial help is not inherently bad. But missions do not have the final answer. God alone is the source of revitalization for the national churches of Africa. And until the Bride in Africa comes to life, HIV/AIDS will be on the advance. Caring for orphans will not stop HIV/AIDS, but a revival may lead to active obedience.
When one studies a map on the demographics of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, it is staggering to find that most of the countries with the highest prevalence rates are those that have received a sustained Christian witness for the last century. Sadly, the prevalence rates within the community of believers is remarkably similar to those not of the faith.
MYTH 5: The West is responsible for the needy all over the world.
Advances in technology and transportation have not changed God’s redemptive strategy. His plan for the redemption of the world is the local church. This ministry is not given to the United Nations, the World Health Organization or to faith-based missions. God intends the national church to be the primary redemptive organization within its own community and nation. What’s more, God has ordained that it will bear the responsibility for failures to respond in faith to the opportunities God presents.
Some propose that Western affluence is an indication that the West is responsible for the world’s hunger and HIV/AIDS pandemics. We are indeed part of a universal body of believers. Yet God has given to each local church body the primary responsibility for its own community and holds them accountable. If this were not so, Jesus would not have written seven separate letters to the churches in Revelation. Instead one letter could have been sufficient—blaming them all for the sin in the church of Sardis!
When local churches do not respond with their own resources to what God has called them to do, they are walking in sin. If a capable church in Zambia, for example, fails to reach out to the destitute in its area, God will not blame a church in the West. Where a national church lacks generosity, the answer is not to subsidize their apathy. If any church knowingly persists in the sin of withholding, God will call that local church to account.
Those outside of the country interested in helping must serve by encouraging the local churches to walk in obedience, not by doing for them what they are called to do themselves. Certainly, local churches have the best understanding of local problems and ways to mobilize local resources to find solutions.
Unfortunately, the influx of outside assistance may also communicate to a national Christians that they are incapable, incompetent or too desperate to meet needs apart from outside help. It is probably true that we in the West give because we believe the Zambian church cannot do it without us. This has fostered an unhealthy reliance on Western intervention, as opposed to a healthy dependence on God. As a result, some local believers have stopped giving, or tithe only token amounts.
Until Zambia’s church takes her place in the drama, the chaos will continue, despite all the attempts of outsiders to intervene. God does not need the affluence of the West to do what he has planned for Africa. For God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20-21).
MYTH 6: If a mission leaves, the church will fail.
Any father who has taught his child how to ride a bike knows that failure is part of the process. It is indeed a momentous occasion when a child gets a bicycle and pedals happily around in circles rocking from side to side on the training wheels. But the real graduation comes the day daddy removes the training wheels and his child sets off for the softest spot in the yard. For a while the child relies totally on the father to stay upright. Eventually, the child begins to feel the sensation of balance.
The time comes when the father abandons his child to success. He lets go, knowing full well there will be a fall. He isn’t being cruel. It is part of love. Falling is inevitable. It is part of growth and independence. Allowing room to fall is a way of honoring potential. The reward of seeing his child pedal a few meters alone and unaided is lovely. Seeing the child’s delight in his or her own progress is even greater. It may be some time until they are able to keep up with daddy on a bicycle, but until a child is free to fail, he or she will never advance from dream to reality.
The same is true in church-mission relationships. Many, if not most, missions have the stated goal of establishing an independent national church. How is it that they stay on fifty or even a hundred years beyond the formative stage? For many, this is borne out of the fear that the local church will fail. Failure is better understood as part of the process. The freedom to fail is absolutely necessary for responsibility and success. Are foreign organizations still holding onto the “bicycle” of Africa’s churches?
Allowing a developing church to fail is not abandoning them. On the contrary, it is a way of honoring them. To remain can dishonor. Perpetual involvement breeds resentment and frustration. International best-selling author M. M. Kaye made the observation “People everywhere preferred to make their own mistakes, and resented strangers (even efficient and well-meaning ones) interfering with their affairs.” There comes a time when missionaries and agencies have to entrust “their” projects, programs and institutions to the care of the national church.
The fear that a national church (and its associated projects) will fail is normal. One only needs to look at Turkey to know the churches Paul planted there have not lasted. Though Paul continued to encourage them with letters, there came a specific time when he left them under the leadership of the Spirit.
Jesus left his disciples long before they appeared to be ready. They didn’t have the indwelling of Holy Spirit. They didn’t even have a written copy of the New Testament in their own language. Peter had recently denied ever knowing Christ. Some were uneducated.
Missionaries and mission organizations can best help the national church by removing the stumbling blocks to full maturity. Perhaps the next great missions movement in Sub-Saharan Africa will be the exodus of foreign missionaries.
The West is called to something higher than the mere application of a financial salve. God needs those who will lead spiritually. A spiritual problem requires a spiritual response.
While HIV/AIDS is perhaps the greatest crisis many national churches will ever face, it is also the greatest opportunity to show the unparalleled generosity of those who belong to Christ.
The West must carefully guard against the temptation to step in and “hurry up” the response to physical needs. A ministry of compassion must run secondary to the apostolic function of equipping and empowering the Bride of Christ. We must cling to the conviction that the local church is God’s primary conduit for blessing the local community. If a community is to be radically changed and impacted for eternity, this blessing will be felt through the instrument of the local church. Then she will be able to stand unashamedly before the Father.
The scourge of HIV/AIDS is a chance for Africans to see and know that God does not need Western money to advance his kingdom in Africa. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18).
In an effort to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS, Western mission agencies and organizations must develop a clear strategy that reflects these truths.
Dwight Kopp was born and raised overseas, the third generation of a family serving in Zambia. He is married, has four children and lives in Pennsylvania.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 218-225.Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.