by Kent Good
Buying church buildings, paying pastors, and providing material encouragements to move people to attend services do not make a church. Without sacrificial body life (which takes time to develop), a building (no matter how beautiful) will not be a church. Without proven character (which takes a lot of time to develop), a person (no matter what title he or she receives) will never be a biblical pastor/shepherd. Without faith in God (which takes a lifetime to develop), people who attend weekly preaching services will never develop into mature disciples of the Lord Jesus.
Photos by Audrey Jose
An indigenous church-planting strategy might be qualified as one in which the church planter determines to not do for new converts what they are commanded to do for themselves. If churches are to one day become self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting, the church planter will do well to involve the believers in decision-making, evangelism, and sacrificial giving from the outset.
For the first twenty-five years of our missionary career in France, my wife and I served mostly among middle-class urban professionals and university students. We grew in understanding the wisdom of the approach outlined above mostly as we bore the consequences of doing too much ourselves and not depending enough on God’s Holy Spirit. Then, when we finally began to feel as though we knew the ropes in Europe, our mission agency asked us to move to Southeast Asia.
Today, we continue testing strategies hammered out in earlier years, but in a cultural and economic climate radically different from that of Western Europe. For the past ten years we have been serving primarily among rural migrant rice-farming families in Northwest Cambodia. As you can imagine, the desire to see indigenous churches planted has raised a whole new set of questions concerning indigenous church-planting methodology, particularly relating to the use of money in ways that don’t create dependency.
In what ways can and should we intervene financially? Is avoiding any contribution that encourages dependency a biblical norm or a Western social value? Should James 2:15-17 and 1 John 3:17 compel us to help national believers in times of medical and other emergencies? Should Western mission agencies ever support national evangelists/church planters financially?
As I think of the books and articles I’ve read concerning indigenous church planting, it seems that while methods differ, the goals are pretty much the same: (1) encouraging new believers to depend on God rather than on people and (2) empowering people to do what they can do themselves (albeit poorly) as quickly as possible.
I would contend, however, that much of the philosophy of indigenous church planting is more pragmatic than biblical. In its purest forms, strategies qualified as “indigenous” seek to place the hard decisions at the front end rather than the back end of a church-planting endeavor. Rather than having to withdraw resources and support as part of an exit strategy, they choose to withhold them from the beginning. Either approach presents serious challenges.
Now before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion (after all, even questioning indigenous church-planting methodology is anathema in some camps), let me say that I am definitely not a proponent of methodology which encourages missionaries or agencies to buy church buildings, pay pastors, or give people rice to get them to attend meetings. But neither do I cling tenaciously to indigenous church-planting methods which rigorously avoid investing money in national programs and support structures.
Weaknesses Inherent in “Jump Start” Church-planting Methodology
As stated above, buying church buildings, paying pastors, and providing material encouragements to move people to attend services do not make a church. Without sacrificial body life (which takes time to develop), a building (no matter how beautiful) will not be a church.
Without proven character (which takes a lot of time to develop), a person (no matter what title he or she receives) will never be a biblical pastor/shepherd. Without faith in God (which takes a lifetime to develop), people who attend weekly preaching services will never develop into mature disciples of the Lord Jesus.
Unfortunately, the buy-a-building-pay-a-pastor methodology is still far too prevalent in the Majority World. To use a truly Cambodian word picture, planting a church according to this approach is like sowing seed in a field without taking time to remove the landmines. The field may look good from the road, but people working in that field are going to get blown up. Eventually, the whole field will have to be dug up and de-mined.
Weaknesses Inherent in Indigenous Church-planting Methodology
On the other side of the spectrum are those who have determined to avoid any dependency on Western support. When I came to Cambodia, I was graciously instructed by a godly brother serving with another organization that there are two groups serving in Cambodia: those who pay national workers and those who don’t. The mission with which I had come to serve had employed national church planters long before I arrived and was clearly on the other side of the issue than he was.
As we talked and he explained his mission’s philosophy, it became clear that purely indigenous church planting (with no compromises) would likely work in a new cultural setting where all of the missionaries and mission agencies in a given area agreed to abide by the same rules (not paying workers, not stealing believers or workers from other missions, etc.). Unfortunately, as in marketing, it only takes one vendor who lowers his or her price to destroy the equilibrium.
All but the most loyal clients will be drawn to the more attractive offer until those still holding the line either demonstrate the superior quality of their product or lower their price in line with the competition. In missions, a purely indigenous approach to starting new churches would likely work as long as all of the agencies in a given locality or country respected each other and didn’t try to jump start their churches with believers or leaders already discipled by another denomination.
However, even in such an ideal setting of respectful missionaries and agencies, more radically indigenous approaches to church planting (which stringently avoid creating any dependency) chime a dissonant note when compared to clear proclamations of the New Testament respecting the poor. First John 3:17-18 reads, If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
James 2:15-17 says,
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
The Need for Certain Equality
Are these injunctions only intended for insiders of the host culture, or is there an application to (and an example to be set by) the missionary?
When westerners come as missionaries to many Majority World countries, they leave home as people of comparatively few means and arrive in their host cultures as very wealthy foreigners. Nothing has changed other than the perception of the people around them. While they don’t consider themselves to be rich, most missionaries naturally seek to ensure the proper education of their children, the cleanliness of their homes and food, the availability of good medical care, and reliable means of transportation.
These “basics” intended to ensure their longevity as missionaries are, however, luxuries (often unaffordable) for the families living around them. The missionaries, like it or not, are “rich.” And if they can provide these luxuries for themselves and their families, then their national counterparts will hope that they will help the national believers as well.
The relationship dynamic with nationals would perhaps be much different if Western missionaries chose to enter their new host country as true equals. However, this would require making sacrifices in the area of health and many comforts considered basic necessities for both oneself and one’s family. In that light, the Apostle Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians of the relative advantages of singleness is quite understandable: without responsibilities to a wife or family, a single missionary can more easily sacrifice personal physical comfort in order to more closely identify with the people he or she is seeking to reach.
In truth, many missionary families I know make numerous sacrifices to try to relate to their new host culture while maintaining a minimum level of cleanliness and comfort to keep their family healthy and happy. Nonetheless, they still appear rich. Their ability to eat what and when they want, to care for their medical needs in the big city rather than in local clinics, and to travel (on furlough) to see family members distance them from the people they’ve come to reach and bolster the feeling (shared by both themselves and their neighbors) that they could and probably should help the people around them materially.
And, of course, they’re right, especially if their neighbors are believers. We can note that while the needs of less fortunate believers receive special mention in the New Testament (Gal. 6:10; 1 John 3:17), providing for those poorer than oneself is viewed as giving back to God (Prov. 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; 22:2, 9; Matt. 25:40).
The responsibility and privilege of stewardship is never relegated to those who have more than others. One is never off the hook of Christian fiscal responsibility simply by defining oneself as “poor.” “Poor” always means “poorer than someone else.” Both designations (“poor” and “rich”) are comparisons to those who have more or less than oneself. The principle is clearly taught in scripture. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality. (2 Cor. 8:13-14)
While I don’t believe that the New Testament teaches communism (equal distribution of wealth), it does teach equality of responsibility to meet legitimate needs (e.g., Acts 4:34-35) within the Body of Christ—those living with a surplus (at any given time) have the responsibility to help those in desperate need.
But here’s where the rub comes and often compels missionaries to withdraw into seemingly heartless trenches of indigenous financial strategy: “If I help, then those receiving assistance will depend on outside help and not learn to trust in God.” Remember the sign “Don’t feed the ducks.” Why? Because when humans feed the ducks, they learn to depend on the humans and cease looking for food for themselves. When the humans stop feeding them, they die.
So it often goes with Western support. When westerners (missionaries, short-term visitors, charitable NGO personnel) or those with Western backing (United Nations-associated organizations) see the needs and the comparative ease with which they can meet them, they simply “pick up the tab.”
When this happens once, it is hoped and even expected that it will happen again. Before long, ill-conceived benevolence teaches the debilitating non-biblical lesson that people who consider themselves “poor” can relinquish responsibility to care for the needs of others (in some cases even their own needs) and simply rely on those who are wealthier than they are.
The truth is that every believer living with a surplus (small or large) has the same responsibility. The “rich” Western missionary and the “poor” village believer (living in a thatched hut but owning a cow, some fruit trees, and a vegetable garden) both have a surplus and share the same responsibility.
So, let me reiterate, while I am not persuaded that the buy-a-church-building-pay-a-pastor approach to missions has any support in the New Testament, neither do I feel totally comfortable with more radical indigenous methodologies. Instead, I believe the early Church struck a balance between limiting dependency and demonstrating compassion. See the pullout below for four personal choices as my attempt to strike that same balance.
Church planting is hard enough as it is without adding self-imposed standards which (although having an appearance of wisdom) are more pragmatic than biblical. Planting churches, preparing leadership, and withdrawing in a timely fashion are challenging to say the least. In the meantime, the missionary or missionary team will do well to maintain the equilibrium of methodology which fosters dependency on God while also modeling the love of Christ in tangible ways. In so doing, the church planted may learn to be both self-supporting and compassionate.
Four Choices: Applying New Testament Principles
to Mission Fiscal Strategy in the Majority World
#1—I choose to teach the principles of stewardship to “poor” believers and refuse to simply “pay the tab” when needs arise. Any missionary living in the Majority World feels under pressure to meet the material needs of those around him or her. The pressure comes from those begging in town, people attending Bible studies in villages and, yes, even from national ministry associates. The perception of Western missionaries as Material Messiahs is partially due to the economic standing of their sending countries, but perhaps even more so to the behavior of compatriots who enjoy that role, giving indiscriminately with little thought to the implications of their gifts.
The principle of stewardship is clearly explained in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Paul writes concerning the Macedonian churches that, despite their
“extreme poverty,” they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability (2 Cor. 8:1-5). Notice that Paul did not refuse the gift and suggest that the burden of the impoverished believers in Jerusalem be carried by those who were “better off” then they were. To the contrary, he accepted the gift and taught that giving was their responsibility and privilege as Christians: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”
He reminded them that “he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor. 9:6-10). God’s plan for his children is to teach them to walk by faith, to give despite their “poverty,” and even to go beyond their perceived ability (8:3), thus allowing him to “refill their seed bag” (9:10) with enough to care for their needs and more. Depriving poorer believers of the opportunity to walk by faith is tantamount to keeping them poor by depriving them of the joy of discovering God’s provision.
#2—I choose to give financial help to national brothers and sisters in Christ who are truly in need (1 John 3:17-18; James 2:15-17). This may appear as a no-brainer to those not living under the pressure of being perceived as “rich” missionaries, but believe me, it’s not that simple and necessitates the mediation of trusted nationals (cultural insiders). A great example of this logic is seen in the choice of the Hellenistic deacons in Acts 7. Robertson’s Word Pictures states it this way:
Each one of the seven has a Greek name and was undoubtedly a Hellenist, not an Aramaean Jew. Consummate wisdom is here displayed for the murmuring had come from the Hellenists, seven of whom were chosen to take proper care of the widows of Hellenists.
In the area of helping the poorer folks around me, I have discovered the wisdom of requesting the mediation and participation of trusted nationals:
(1) In order respond to real needs. It is easier for cultural insiders to distinguish between real needs and the desires of poorer individuals requesting outside help (sometimes, so as not to tap into their personal resources).
(2) In order to protect myself from being perceived as the solution to everyone’s problems. In the absence of a state-run social security system or Medicare, the person who chooses to give assistance may find him or herself also becoming the benefactor to friends and relatives of the one receiving help.
(3) In order to send the right message to people both on the giving and receiving end of the assistance. It is important that I never allow my giving of material help to be considered the sole responsibility of the missionary or westerner. The privilege of giving should be shared proportionately by believers both “rich” and “poor” alike. Gifts should remain anonymous and the participation of national believers should be sought so as to communicate the benevolence of the Christian community rather than the wealth of any individual. For example, our U.S./Cambodian team has created a “Compassion Fund.” We pass the box once a month allowing each of our teammates (Cambodians and Americans alike) to participate discretely.
A committee of three of our Cambodian colleagues count the money and make disbursements according to principles they have established to respond to various needs (particularly medicines and minor surgeries).
#3— I choose to support national missionaries as partners in church-planting teams. While the local believers in the early Church were called upon to support those serving among them as pastors and teachers, the burden for supporting missionaries (those sent to other localities, countries, or people groups) wasn’t the sole responsibility of one local church.
In the New Testament, missionaries received their support from a variety of sources, including personal small businesses and gifts from partner churches. In Acts 18:1-5, we learn that Paul supported himself as a tentmaker. But when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia (with support contributions from several churches [see 2 Cor. 11:9; Phil. 4:15]), Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, “testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.”
It stands to reason, therefore, that missionaries (both national and international) should be able to receive their support from whatever sources the Lord raises up without creating unhealthy dependency. While there are other larger issues (proven character, culturally appropriate support levels, clear accountability, and working relationships with other organizations) to take into consideration when supporting national missionaries, I do not believe that indigeneity is at stake in the decision and may even be significantly enhanced.
Supporting national missionaries as partners has both advantages and risks. Strongly on the plus side are open doors into reaching different ethnic groups or people from vastly different socio-economic levels which a foreigner would not be able to effectively penetrate. On the risk side, paying some workers (and not others) will always create unhealthy expectations both in the paid workers themselves and in other believers who envy the raised status of those serving as missionaries. It will require patient mentoring and relational problem solving (much like Jesus’ three-year ministry with his disciples). However, the choice to financially support mature national believers as partner missionaries allows them to give themselves fully or part-time to the ministry rather than only using whatever “free time” (often a non-entity in poorer cultures) is available.
While I see no clear prohibition in New Testament teaching or practice on providing outside support for national evangelists/church planters, I do see the need to exercise caution. National church planters should only be supported by outside sources in the absence of national church support (i.e., in situations where the national church is either incapable of supporting its own workers or unwilling to do so). As soon as possible, however, it is critical to curtail outside support in favor of raising up an army of tent-makers, bi-vocational workers, and those receiving whatever limited support the national church can provide. There is far greater potential for church growth and expansion when the national church doesn’t depend on outside resources.
#4 — I choose to support national development projects that encourage believers to walk by faith. Christians are called to work for a living—to provide for themselves and their families. The best development projects, therefore, are those that empower people to support themselves and give them an opportunity to share their surplus with others in need and support Christian servants. Small business training and loans are Christian responses to poverty alleviation that promote the walk of faith.
Kent Good and his wife, Becky, have served as church planters with Encompass World Partners in France from 1979 to 2003 and in Cambodia from 2004 to 2014. They are currently preparing to work among ethnic minorities in Atlanta, Georgia.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 258-266. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.