by Robert Reese
The common assumption that churches in developing countries will
continue to need outside help must increasingly be challenged.
Since 2000, the nation of Zimbabwe in southern Africa has been falling into economic depression. Following the rejection by voters of a proposed new constitution that year, the government reacted by permitting its supporters to invade white-owned farms. Such actions had repercussions that continue to reverberate throughout the small country. The agricultural sector, which was the backbone of the economy, collapsed, causing widespread hunger. The economy moved rapidly toward hyperinflation and shortages of basic commodities, including fuel. Additionally, unemployment and poverty escalated dramatically. In such a time of economic ruin, what are the chances of churches becoming self-supporting?
The surprising answer is that some have discovered the joy of tithing during this time of hardship. How did this happen? In 2005, I visited a local church in Zimbabwe and interviewed an elder in this church who is also president of his local association of churches. He had a remarkable story of a personal awakening to the need for greater self-reliance (and God-reliance) on the part of Zimbabwean churches in light of the Great Commission. I will refer to this man as Moyo, although that is not his real name.
Moyo began our conversation by telling me the origin of his fellowship of churches. Missionaries from a developed nation arrived in Zimbabwe over one hundred years ago and planted the first church of their fellowship where he is now an elder. He is a product of their mission endeavors, having been trained in their schools and churches.
The ties to the missionaries’ home country remain strong today. Moyo became a key fundraiser on behalf of the Zimbabwean churches, frequently traveling overseas in order to raise funds. He was trying to help his association of churches overcome a period of stagnation by promoting organized evangelism. His association had targeted an area for intensive church planting that is situated between two groups of existing congregations. Moyo initially asked his overseas brothers and sisters in Christ for three motorcycles to be used by local evangelists. When the response to his messages was so positive that he easily reached his goal of three vehicles, he decided to go for nine!
During one month of fundraising in the missionaries’ home country, Moyo visited a small church. Noting that this congregation had only thirty members, he asked a former missionary—his host at this church—how they could afford to support two pastors with so few members. The prompt reply was that all the members tithed. This led to further discussion. The missionary wanted to know about the situation at Moyo’s home church. Moyo confessed that, despite having a congregation of 280 people, his local church only partially supported one pastor, with a missionary supplying half his salary. The former missionary asked many questions over the next few days about the type of jobs and salaries that members had and the weekly offerings. Moyo answered that there were teachers, headmasters, nurses, business managers and even a magistrate in the church, but the offerings were small. This was the trend throughout the fellowship of churches in Zimbabwe where three hundred congregations supported only nine full-time pastors.
CONFRONTING THE ISSUE OF TITHING
The former missionary was trying to decide how Moyo would respond to what he had to say, praying that he would receive it well. Finally, the missionary revealed his heart to Moyo. He began by saying that members of the body of Christ should be able to challenge and educate one another. He saw Moyo as a motivator who could influence the Zimbabwean churches to change the way they operated. Then he prayed that God would anoint the Zimbabwean leader to carry an important message to his people. After that promising start, he surprised Moyo by saying, “You have been stealing from God!” He had seen by his calculations based on Moyo’s answers that neither Moyo nor the Zimbabwean Christians were tithing, and he stressed that the command to tithe had never been removed, since Christians are told to give as they have been prospered. He urged Moyo to convince his people to begin tithing and to support missions, as they had been recipients of mission efforts for over one hundred years.
Moyo had never heard the matter of tithing put quite like this, so he resolved to tithe himself. Furthermore, he preached on tithing at his home church upon his return to Zimbabwe. He presented the message that the missionary had pressed on his heart to the board of elders, and all the leaders agreed to start tithing as an example for the rest of the congregation. He then began to spread the message to other churches. The results amazed him and the other elders. His home church asked the missionary to stop his contributions to their pastor, as they were prepared to carry his full salary. Today they support two full-time pastors. They also support evangelism in their target area where they have planted ten new churches, sending two evangelists to each new church once every two weeks. They plan for one of their pastors to spend several days a week training new preachers and leaders at the new churches. They are praying that the example of increased giving that they have set will catch on with other congregations in their association.
On the day I attended Moyo’s home church, I witnessed them receiving a tithe equivalent to about US$200, but it was not yet the end of the month. Church leaders assured me they should receive four times that much the following Sunday, as their average monthly tithe had reached US$1,000. This amazing transition from a posture of feeling they could do little on their own to generating funds they can use for church planting has left the church with a new sense of purpose—at a time when the country of Zimbabwe is facing near total economic collapse.
A NEW PARADIGM: THE SELF-SUPPORTING CHURCH
What is the moral of this story? Moyo admitted that his own assumptions about what Zimbabwean Christians could do were mistaken. Furthermore, the realization that he and others could tithe even in harsh economic conditions came as a spiritual awakening. This awakening has spread to his church and beyond. His church is now experiencing the joy of giving to promote the gospel in their own region, with their own evangelists. The fact that they no longer need to ask outsiders to fund their work gives them a new sense of purpose, which in turn makes them better evangelists in a situation where few have hope. The church has become a beacon of light in dark times, as faith has produced fruit in giving and outreach.
The common assumption that churches in developing countries must continue to receive outside help must increasingly be challenged. That approach ends up being destructive even though, to some, it sounds both logical and compassionate. Nobody would have thought that Zimbabwean churches could become self-supporting now, but it is happening simply because a former missionary had the courage to question assumptions based on dependency being the normal state of affairs. If Zimbabwean Christians can support their own pastors and evangelists, expanding their outreach during a severe economic crisis, then God gets the glory and the truth of God’s word is revealed afresh: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Robert Reese was a missionary in Zimbabwe for over twenty years. He is now a consultant with World Mission Associates in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
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