Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions

by Robert Reese

William Carey Library, 1605 East Elizabeth Street, Pasadena, CA 91104, 226 pages, 2010, $24.99.

Reviewed by Marcus W. Dean, associate professor and chair, Intercultural Studies department, Houghton College, Houghton, New York; former missionary in Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Roots and Remedies provides students and new missionaries a good introduction to the dependency problem in world missions. Robert Reese accurately presents the problem as bigger than money and as having deep historical roots.

The cultural forces that drove colonialism also set the stage for dependency in the mission movement from the 1800s onward. Reese writes that “nationalism, postmillennialism, Social Darwinism, and Anglo-Saxon imperialism” (p. 18) were part of missionary attitudes that led to colonial missions being as much about civilization as evangelism. The result was a foreign church that could not exist without outside assistance.

Reese presents the ideas and movements that have addressed dependency, beginning with early mission leaders from Henry Venn to Roland Allen and the development of the Three-Self formula. He then explores the call for a moratorium on missions that coincided with the rise of nationalism in Africa, which he sees as marking the end of the Christendom era (described as 300 A.D. to 1950). He proposes that this shift did not lead to meaningful change in dependency because as mainline denominations ceased mission work, it was picked up by new evangelical missionaries who dealt with the poverty they encountered by using money intensive models.

Through the use of three case studies, Reese shows that dependency is not an easy problem to avoid. He holds that most efforts in the postcolonial era (1950 to the present) have continued to build dependency due to the use of money and its associated power. This is compounded by current U.S. cultural attitudes in mission programs that seek to take over and want to see results immediately.

After describing the extent of the problem, Reese sets out to offer solutions. He first holds to the Three-Self concept as modified by Paul Hiebert, who added Self-Theologizing—even though it does not incorporate local culture into the church. Second,

Reese calls for leaving behind human ingenuity and looking to spiritual renewal. Third, he states that “Christian mission needs to emphasize local resources and solutions for local Christian issues” (p.173-174). Reese ends the book with ten practices for today that he believes will overcome dependency.  

Based on the Three-Self formula, Reese strongly emphasizes that the church must become independent before it can be interdependent. However, I believe that the biblical model of the Church as a body enables churches started by missionaries to move from dependency to beneficial interdependency without having to pass through an isolating independence. Further, for those wanting a more theoretical framework for guiding missions, I would suggest studying the thoughts of others on transformational development.

Overall, Reese has given us a useful book for the discussion and exploration of overcoming dependency. His emphasis on spiritual renewal and cultural understanding of the host culture and the missionaries’ culture are essential for dealing with dependency.

Check these titles:
Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. 2009. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself. Chicago, Ill.: Moody Publishers.

Schwartz, Glenn J. 2007. When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement. Bloomington, Ind.: Author House.


EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 502-503. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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