by Glenn J. Schwartz
Believers in Central and East Africa have to make the Christian movement their own.
Some time ago I learned about a missionary to Africa who gave more than 20 years of his life primarily to create and manage church-run businesses to generate income to support the church. Following his retirement he returned to the field to visit church leaders and other friends. To his dismay he discovered that his greatest contribution as a missionary- a church-run business-is now the church’s biggest problem. That’s not my conclusion. It is what he was told.
In another case, a senior African leader of a rapidly growing denomination lamented to me recently that he has no time to disciple new believers or train the pastors who lead the churches. He rises daily to a long list of activities that have little or nothing to do with the growth of the church, adding that every major program was running an overdraft at the bank: medical work, theological training, literature ministry, and the farms left to the church from the colonial period. In exasperation he asked what he should do.
These two examples illustrate a problem that has hindered the church in Central and East Africa from joining the expanding non-Western missionary movement. Non-Western churches in places such as Indonesia have started cross-cultural agencies and training programs and sent out missionaries, while there are few, if any, from countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, and parts of Kenya and Zaire. Many churches in Central and East Africa are far from the joy of supporting themselves financially and reaching out in cross-cultural evangelism.
Why does the church in some areas joyfully send out missionaries after only a decade or two while in other places it is difficult or impossible after a century or more? Is it because Africans are economically poor and lack the resources? Hardly. God has blessed the churches with many resources, including money, and highly qualified and gifted leaders. Some of their members own farms in rural areas, houses in urban areas, and motor vehicles. Yet these same people, while their churches struggle with a bank overdraft, only drop a few coins in the collection plate- while at the same time laying out lots of money for gifts at wedding receptions.
In a word, I believe the issue centers around dependence on foreign funding and, sometimes, decision-making. In some cases the church receives a form of Christianity that can be reproduced, while in others it does not. Wealth and poverty seem to have very little to do with breaking dependency, experiencing self-reliance, and creating an indigenous missionary movement.
Some will say that there have been many individuals who were sincerely dedicated to the Lord and who witnessed to their faith wherever they went. That is true many times over, and for every one of them we genuinely praise the Lord. Building a successful missionary program, however, does not rest on individuals alone. Like evangelism, it is most effective when it flows from the energized church as a whole. If the larger church is less than enthusiastic or living under the cloud of financial dependency, for example, one can hardly expect it to overflow with missionary enthusiasm.
Speak to an overburdened church leader about the need to reach out in dynamic cross-cultural evangelism and he’ll show you a long list of reasons why the missionary movement, as he knows it, cannot be reproduced. Indeed, he is a long way from participating joyfully in such a movement. If he were to launch a cross-cultural missionary program in his church, the first phase would probably be characterized by foreign subsidy, and phase two could need a bank overdraft to keep it going.
In both Malawi and Tanzania the poorest synods joyously support their own programs and pastors. They may be peasant farmers who give their offerings in the form of cattle, bags of maize, or other produce. At the same time, the wealthier synods of the same churches remain dependent. That’s why I conclude that financial independence has less to do with wealth and poverty than with a mentality of dependence that came along with the gospel.
The kind of message and the nature of the accompanying structures have made it difficult for many in Central and East Africa to pass the message on, particularly in cross-cultural evangelism. But where the imported Christianity can be reproduced, successful cross-cultural evangelism has been carried on beyond ethnic borders. (Of course, some churches have done well in evangelizing their own people but have been less successful in cross-cultural evangelism.)
However, the complex, foreign structure of the Christian movement introduced into many parts of Central and East Africa, created and built over many years with millions of dollars, pounds, and deutschmarks, has been hardly reproducible. The legendary "two shillings and six pence" required of believers in some areas bore no resemblance to the size and cost of the programs in their midst.
If the expatriate personnel during the colonial period ran the programs largely with a foreign subsidy, how could they expect local believers to do it without the subsidy? Today in Central and East Africa, because of the weight of structures inherited from the past, church after church cannot even think of cross-cultural evangelism. Instead, church leaders are preoccupied with maintenance, indeed survival, rather than dynamic missionary outreach. They have little energy left to make cross-cultural outreach a reality, let alone a spiritually rewarding adventure. In the end, local leaders look like poor managers, even failures, for not keeping elaborate programs going.
Why don’t believers in Central and East Africa pitch in and give offerings commensurate with the needs of their programs? One can hardly blame them. In the first place, they did not create the enormous and expensive programs they inherited. Further, is it reasonable that they should put their tithes and offerings into treasuries used to fund failing church businesses? Sometimes these businesses compete with individual church members who, as business people, are simply trying to make a living from the same kind of business. That is still a common problem in many parts of East, Central, and Southern Africa.
Now that many Westerners have left, the church and mission landscape of Central and East Africa is replete with abandoned projects into which millions of dollars or pounds have been poured and wasted. Concrete auto servicing pits between huge, welded-iron doors stick out like sore thumbs in places where there are no vehicles to be serviced. In others, dams that never irrigated any fields or improved food production are filling with silt. Another example is well-built cattle grids with no fence on either side, standing as quiet memorials to a past age.
Some churches in the region have been left with tens of thousands of acres of land without even a vehicle to drive from one end to the other. One such church has an overdraft of more than a million units of local currency. Is it any wonder that this church has not joyously begun a cross-cultural missionary training and outreach program?
Ironically, some businesses designed to produce income for the church are themselves now in need of subsidy. Sometimes they are kept going simply because they have been around a long time and no one has the courage or know-how to shut them down. Some continue under the fallacy that they could succeed with just a little more effort and foreign funding. But even if that were true, local believers would still not feel obligated to support the church with their tithes and offerings.
HIGH COST OF SUBSIDY
Perhaps one of the most lamentable . aspects of irreproducible church and mission structures is that the enormous flow of outside funding is what actually helps to keep many churches "poor." Through the years believers often found that it was not necessary to put paper money into the church offering plate. They knew that if they sat back and waited long enough, funds would eventually come from an unseen source. Sooner or later, the church and its program would be rescued. Indeed, those who created the programs could not afford to let them fail. People of "compassion" would somehow find the money and close the gap, if for no other reason than to save the reputations of those who had started the programs in the first place.
Unfortunately, contrary to the belief some Westerners hold that such days have passed, this rather bleak picture of some churches is real. In spite of all this, however, there are encouraging signs for church leaders in Central, East, and Southern Africa. Not all of the churches are dependent. The Presbyterian Church in East Africa, the Lutheran Church in Tanzania, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Zambia have discovered that dependence on foreign funding can be overcome. Some have not only begun to support their own programs (some completely), but they have learned the joy of sharing spiritually and materially with those beyond their borders.
MOVE FROM DEPENDENCE
How do churches move from dependence on foreign funding to self-reliance? While recognizing that these problems did not appear overnight and neither will their solutions, the first and sometimes most painful step for church leaders may be to say "No thank you" to the foreign funding that keeps them dependent. (This is especially difficult if foreign money has been paying their salaries.) The prospect of passing through lean months, even years, is not heartwarming for those used to a more comfortable lifestyle than they might otherwise have enjoyed. However, many of those who were never dependent on foreign funding are in fact better off than if their churches had been subsidized.
The testimony of church leaders who have made a successful transition may be the most encouraging source of hope. For many of these leaders, the newly discovered rewards of owning and operating their churches is worth the pain it takes to get there. However, there is also a fair number of defensive Westerners to whom one cannot look for encouragement. They fear that the work into which they have poured their lives will be destroyed.
During the time of the Reformation, Roman Christianity could not be reproduced in Northern Europe. It did not offer a satisfying religious experience, nor were its structures compatible with the areas into which the Christian movement would expand. The movement badly needed to be restructured and made indigenous. The Reformation was that indigenization.
Aren’t many churches in Central and East Africa still awaiting their own reformation and indigenization? When believers in this part of Africa make the Christian movement their own, they will more effectively join other non-Western churches in cross-cultural evangelism. May that day happen before the two forces representing a major challenge to Christians in Central and East Africa-Islam and Western materialism-overtake a dependent, paralyzed Christian movement.
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