To Give or Not To Give? Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity & Redefining Sustainability

by John Rowell

Dependency and sustainability are the new buzzwords. The order of the day is, “Support indigenous ministry, but be very careful how you give.” John Rowell challenges this conventional thinking.

Authentic, 1820 Jet Stream Drive, Colorado Springs, CO 80921, 2007, 262 pages, $16.99.

—Reviewed by David Mays, director of learning initiatives and church relations, The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA), Atlanta, Georgia.

Last week a missionary described to me how a church denomination in the Majority World fell into power grabbing, litigation and stagnation after US missionaries pulled out, leaving the church property behind. It seems we continually hear stories of how an infusion of Western money has produced facilities, equipment, projects, buildings and salaries that were doomed to fail once the Western funds were discontinued. Popular thinking today is that such financial support is misguided and that ministries should only be supported that can quickly become self-funded and self-sustained.

Dependency and sustainability are the new buzzwords. The order of the day is, “Support indigenous ministry, but be very careful how you give.”

John Rowell challenges this conventional thinking by saying we should work in much closer partnership with those in poverty and provide much more in the way of funding. Many of the spiritually unreached areas of the world are exceedingly poor. Further, many of the most effective evangelists, church planters and Christian leaders are extremely poor. Rowell says Western missions are over-responding to the dependency caution.

He seems to have scripture on his side. The Bible is full of warnings to the rich and exhortations to give liberally to the poor. Those concerned about dependency embrace this notion in principle willingly enough; however, Rowell says their arguments discourage giving liberally in practice.

Rowell blames the current interpretation of the three-self paradigm of missions for the idea that paying clergy salaries from abroad is counterproductive to the indigenous Church. Henry Venn’s chief concern was to end missionary dominance. Rowell maintains that the original concern over domination has been transferred to concern about dependence. He explains that we are not engaged in global welfare but in global warfare. Help that the US gave to its allies in World War II was not considered charity or benevolence, but a mutual war supply. He argues that world missions should be funded on a similar basis. Rowell reverses the order of the day: “Yes, be careful how you give, but give!” He says, “I am promoting maximum investment, for the sake of the kingdom, in a manner that will not create unhealthy dependency” (p. 48). He offers three guiding lights for giving:

• Simplify your life instead of continuing the passionate pursuit of consumption.

• Be ready to share. God’s blessings should make us generous givers.

• Focus on desired non-fiscal outputs. Do not interpret sustainability to only mean that projects must become locally supported. Look at it more like medical missions, where the non-financial results make the ongoing outside investment worthwhile. Take a faith approach more than a fiscal approach.

When I look at both sides, it seems the two points of view are not so very far apart, except in their emphasis. I guess, like Billy Martin, I feel very strongly both ways!

Check these titles:
Bonk, Jonathan. 2007. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited. rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

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


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