by Tirtha Thapa and Stephen J. Knoble
In recent decades many Western churches have moved from sending their own missionaries into developing nations to supporting indigenous ministries.
In recent decades many Western churches have moved from sending their own missionaries into developing nations to supporting indigenous ministries. Their purpose has been to save money while maximizing their effectiveness. While this strategy has benefits, there are hidden drawbacks that both Westerners and nationals must face if the church is to progress in its task of world evangelism. The Nepali church provides evidence of these hidden dangers.
The Kingdom of Nepal lies nestled in the Himalayan mountain range, sandwiched between its two giant neighbors, India and China. From the late 1700s to the mid-1900s, Nepal was closed to the rest of the world, particularly to the influence of Christianity. In 1950, the king opened the kingdom to outside influences, especially to development in health and education. This move gave Nepali Christians new freedom and allowed foreign mission organizations into the previously forbidden kingdom.
The Beginnings of the National Church
Although Christians were officially prohibited from evangelizing, Nepali Christians and missionaries soon established small fellowships. The early mission organizations wanted to avoid the mistakes that missionaries had made in India. From the beginning these organizations decided not to take leadership in the budding national church. Rather, they allowed the Nepali Christians to take the primary church leadership while they participated as members in the congregations.
The first three decades were slow-going. The early church was persecuted in both legal and social arenas, yet gradually the church grew and matured. The national believers enjoyed unity, and they faced difficulties together. They considered themselves the “Nepali church.”
The roles of the Nepali church and the mission organizations were distinct. While the Nepali church concentrated on evangelism and church planting, the mission organizations focused on social development—partly because they could not otherwise work in the country. This divergence was not a conscious decision, but resulted more from the natural direction their activities took. The mission agencies felt comfortable relegating the job of church growth to the nationals because they felt this would make a stronger and more indigenous church (Rongong 2002, 23).
Nepal’s political situation during this time was repressive, and the masses began yearning for the democracy they saw in other countries. Unrest continued to grow until it erupted in 1990 in a short revolution that brought about a constitutional parliamentary system modeled after the British. With the advent of democracy, the Nepali church was allowed to practice freely and grew exponentially, though the missions were still restricted to development and social pursuits.
A Change in Missiological Emphasis in the West
Traditionally, Western churches participated in missions through their denominational mission agencies or through non-denominational “faith missions.” Churches relied on these agencies to formulate strategies, to support those strategies logistically, and to promote missionary ventures throughout the world. Some of the strategies of these missions were influenced by the historical colonialism of Western European powers. But as both Western civilization and the church rejected colonialism, the traditional mission agencies’ methodologies also came under scrutiny.
Into the 1970s, the church in the developing world became more prominent. Travel was also much faster and cheaper. This allowed Western pastors and lay people to travel throughout the world and to develop personal contacts with national believers. More importantly, national Christians could also visit the West and develop direct relationships with Western churches.
These events helped foster a shift in approach. Western missiologists began to promote supporting the national church as the next logical step to world evangelization. This new strategic direction has played well, especially with large churches in North America. Such churches with many resources and a burden for missions have taken this as an opportunity to become directly involved in missions rather than working through the proxy of a parachurch mission organization.
In the last decade, the idea of the “Non-resident Missionary” (NRM) has become popular. Mission pastors and lay evangelists crisscross the globe linking with national churches to promote evangelism. The Nepali church found itself in this macro-missiological context after the “declaration of democracy” in 1990.
The Nepali Church Meets Freedom and Democracy
Until 1990, the Nepali church was indigenous and somewhat financially autonomous. Historically, missionaries serving with organizations in Nepal had been active members of local churches, but for legal reasons their missions did not partner with the national church in evangelism. Although individuals from the West had always provided financial support, the Nepali church generally operated within its own means. With the advent of democracy, transfering money from abroad became much easier.
After 1990, well-intentioned and enthusiastic NRMs arrived in Nepal, looking to partner with national churches. Many carried with them the financial resources of large churches or denominations. Many also brought their own agendas, and looked for churches that would fulfill those agendas. Soon, educated Nepali Christians who spoke English developed relationships with these Western churches and NRMs. They willingly submitted to their Western contact’s agenda and were able to secure financial commitments for their own congregations or projects.
These partnerships resulted in various trends, not all of them good. A Nepali saying goes, “Everyone who sits under a large tree can enjoy the shade,” meaning that if someone agrees to be under another person of greater power or resources, he or she will also benefit. This concept comes from Hinduism and is called chakari, meaning “to wait upon, serve or appease a god.” The chakari system has been secularized and is deeply imbedded in the Nepali culture (Bista 1991, 89-94). The Nepalese Christians who developed these relationships became the “big trees” within their spheres of influence, and their ministries were enlarged by fellow Nepalese who wanted to benefit from sitting under them.
Soon pastors were driving vehicles in a country where most couldn’t even afford a bicycle. The previously united national church began fragmenting as churches aligned with the denominations that funded them. Some westerners engaged in “rapid church planting,” offering to take small, independent congregations under their group or denomination’s wing by paying the pastor a salary. Major publications such as Christianity Today then published articles that described such individuals as planting hundreds of churches in a few short years. The statistics cited in the most recent edition of Operation World reflect these inflated numbers (Johnstone and Mandryk 2001, 469-473).
The rapidly growing church considers the job of pastor or evangelist to be the fastest and most honorable way to improve one’s economic situation. Currently there are twenty-nine different “Bible schools” with ten to two hundred students each who have given up a previous profession and are studying to become a pastor or evangelist (Khanal 2003, 35). Undoubtedly, the growing church needs leadership, but does this indicate a moving of the Spirit or an opportunity for economic advancement?
The Western-national church partnerships have mainly consisted of a visit from a Western church team once or twice a year in which the group does a seminar, volunteers in an orphanage, or preaches at a Sunday service. Rarely do any Western churches have someone on the ground working full-time with their national church partners.
Direct partnerships, however, have caused a split between the long-term missionaries and the national church. National church leaders now commonly remark, “The missionaries do not care for the national church anymore.” This comment implies that long-term missionaries have not readily opened their checkbooks to fund the latest project or pastor.
The churches that have the most dynamic communicators and existing Western contacts have kept growing and expanding their programs. Unfortunately, smaller, independent churches, which have not benefited from the West, have remained largely isolated from these bigger churches which primarily look after their own congregations. Church groups continue to fragment as all compete for Western financial resources.
Although we have been critical of the influence of Western money in the national church, we fully support partnering with national churches and organizations. Our group is an indigenous national mission organization that partners with international donor agencies in healthcare, education and human resource development. Financial support from the West is appropriate, but it should be provided in conjunction with a true partnership that has more permanent human resource support.
We cannot blame only one side. The Nepali Christian community is guilty of pulling financial commitments from Western contacts. The West is guilty of pushing the national church to partner with them in their specific interests.
For example, a Western NRM arrives and remarks that his church is interested in doing evangelism in a certain area. The Nepali Christian wisely replies that he has had the same burden and that they should work together. A quick project proposal is presented, the checkbook is opened, and everyone goes away happy. Leaders in national churches are planting churches or working in national development and at the same time are increasing their economic status. The Western church feels good about being on “the front line” of missions and partnering directly with nationals in new ministries. It is easier to get congregations excited about missions when members of a church can get involved directly by meeting and working with national Christians. Both parties clearly benefit and are willing participants in direct church partnerships.
We also do not want to imply that most Nepali churches are obtaining and using financial resources improperly, although there are reported instances of fraud. Generally these funds are being used appropriately, and the church is growing. Our concern is that the majority of churches and national leadership are left out of these direct partner relationships. Just as in the secular world, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.
Although the infusion of funds is clearly showing a short-term profit in certain areas of church establishment, we must also be concerned about the long-term impact that this strategy has on the development of the national church. We raise these questions:
1. How have direct church partnerships impacted the overall health of the national church in the long term?
2. Do NRMs of the Western churches have the cultural insight and discernment to judge the effectiveness and reliability of their national church partner?
3. Has the well-meaning strategy to empower the national church moved the church towards independence? Are indigenous churches being established?
4. Have these direct church partnerships contributed to the Hindu community’s perception that people are converting to Christianity because of financial support?
5. Has outside funding destroyed the national church’s own willingness and ability to give to their congregations and missions?
6. What would it mean for national churches when and if the money stops coming in?
Some churches in the West have rejected the traditional missions approach because of colonialism’s mistakes and because the traditional approach has built dependency among national believers. They have tried to empower the national church themselves. Although well meaning, these churches have succeeded in fracturing the church and making it more dependent and subservient to the West than ever before.
Partnering is important, but it involves commitment on both sides. Western churches need to see beyond their own narrow focus to the overall consequences of their actions. Most of these problems could have been avoided if Western churches and NRMs had taken a little advice from resident missionaries, who understand the cultural ramifications of their decisions. One- or two-week trips are not long enough to gain cultural insight into what is appropriate, but they are more than enough to split a church over promised financial resources. We hope that Western churches and NRMs will re-evaluate how they approach direct church partnerships in the future.
Bista, Dor Bahadur. 1991. Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization. Hyderabad, India: Longman Limited.
Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Publishing.
Khanal, B. P. 2003. Hamro Ashish Patrika 1:2, 35.
Rongong, Rajendra. 2002. Introduction to Missions, Our Time Is Now. Nepal: Mission Commission to Nepal.
Dr. Tirtha Thapa is the executive director of Human Development & Community Services (HDCS), an indigenous Nepali mission working in health care and human resource development since 1991. He is also the secretary of Nepal Christian Society, an umbrella organization made of various Nepali Christian denominations. Stephen J. Knoble has lived with his family in Nepal since 1997 and has primarily been involved in healthcare services and national organizational development. He currently serves as the hospital development advisor to HDCS.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 480-485. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.