by William J. Kornfield
Increasing financial paternalism and the accompanying westernization of the gospel are the two most critical issues facing us in world missions today.
Increasing financial paternalism and the accompanying westernization of the gospel are the two most critical issues facing us in world missions today. We have a choice to make: either push these issues under the rug and hope they will go away by maintaining the status quo, or face them honestly with confession, repentance, and the search for better ways. The cause of our Great Commission demands that we do the latter.
Let’s look at these issues in sequence, and then consider how they are related. First, the issue of financial paternalism. What are the major problems it causes?
Paternalism creates dependency. It denies the wholeness of the individual and ultimately leads to his or her bondage and suppression. There can be no genuine reciprocity between individuals or groups when one of them treats the other like a child.
The late Charles Troutman, who served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA and Australia and the Latin America Mission, called financial paternalism the "worst curse" that we could put upon the national church.1 As a longtime missionary myself, I have seen its debilitating effects upon the churches wherever I have traveled—in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Paternalism opens the door to financial abuses. Church leaders can and do go directly to funding agencies and churches in North America and Europe. Many of them go with pure motives; many have made and are making outstanding contributions to the cause of Christ. But not all of them. Some of them use Western funds for their own ends, or to intimidate the mission to give more.
Such manipulation is counterproductive and causes distrust, tending to divide the church from the mission. Very often, recipients provide little accountability for their use of the funds, either to the local church body or to the Western funding organizations.
Financial paternalism separates the people who get the money from those who do not. When church leaders receive such increased income, which often is several times greater than their peers’, jealousy and strife often ensue. It leads to the professionalization of the clergy. This, in turn, produces a false dichotomy between the laity and the clergy. Such outside financial assistance enables the clergy to live a notch above the people in their congregations. Like some of their counterparts in the West, these church leaders have built their own kingdoms apart from the church’s interests and without the knowledge and support of the Western agencies.
We must confront the long-range effects of supporting Christians overseas on a regular basis, especially pastors and evangelists. Among the Quechua Indian believers in the Andes mountain area of Latin America, indiscriminate outside financial support is an ever increasing problem. Previously, the Quechuas were self-supporting and self-propagating, but now — because of financial paternalism of some agencies and individuals — they are divided. A number of Quechua churches, now supported by foreign funds, no longer have the same vision to reach the lost as they once did when they were self-supporting.
Another problem with our Western financial paternalism is that it implies that the church cannot grow, or in some cases even exist, in its own native soil apart from Western money. To disprove this, all we need do is look at the phenomenal growth of the New Testament church of the first century and the outstanding growth in our own century in both Ethiopia and in China, where the churches were completely cut off from outside funds. When will we realize that more Western money will only stagnate the growth of the church around the world?
On every continent we can find outstanding examples of self-supporting churches and national missionary bodies. In Nigeria the Evangelical Churches of West Africa, which has more than a million baptized believers, sponsors its own mission agency with nearly 800 Nigerian missionaries. There are other examples as well, such as some of the Presbyterian missions inKorea. One local Korean church with 700 members sent seven couples with full support to Japan and the Philippines. When their missionaries lack support, pastors themselves refuse or postpone their own salaries until the support is made up. Christians will fast, using the money saved to meet their financial commitment to their missionaries.2
Because financial paternalism produces unhealthy dependency, it implies that the Holy Spirit is incapable of developing and sustaining the church in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For example, there is a seminary in Africa where all the students receive full scholarships from North American donors. In return, they must write prayer letters to these "anonymous" donors. But the students never receive prayer requests from the donors. So they ask, "Are Africans the only ones who need prayer? Don’t our donors ever need prayer?" This lack of spiritual reciprocity, accentuated by financial paternalism, probably makes these African students feel inferior to their Western benefactors.
Financial paternalism also stifles local initiative, usually in direct proportion to the length of time such assistance has been given. It is no accident that Haiti and Bolivia, for example, which have received generous foreign aid, are still today poor countries. Paternalism may explain why the majority of community development projects fail, once the development agency has left. The project belongs to the foreigner, or the outsider, not to the local people or the community. Financial paternalism also explains why some churches deteriorate, once the missionary goes home on furlough. When the missionary leaves, so does the money.
A BETTER WAY
Is there not a better way? I believe there is. The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in Latin America provides a good model of interdependence. In order not to be dependent on foreign aid, in Latin America the IFES works on the principle of funds being raised in each country where it has Latin American staff workers. One part of the staff worker’s support comes from the students; another part comes from Christians; the final part comes from local churches. IFES now has fully supported workers in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Argentina.
Sometimes in starting a new work, IFES subsidizes the entire salary of the Latin American staff worker during his or her first year. But every movement knows that the ministry must be supported as soon as possible from within the country itself, if it is to be a truly viable, self-sustaining ministry. IFES teaches biblical stewardship so that the students, local Christians, and churches get behind the financial needs of the IFES workers.
In one Latin American seminary, where financial paternalism was endemic, the students paid no tuition, received their textbooks at half price, paid nothing for their room, and 50 percent for their board. This situation was so denigrating, that the students, most of whom came from the poorer classes, went on strike. With the backing of the local church board, the seminary closed for a year. It opened with a new structure that was not paternalistic, and there were only eight students—all of them of a higher caliber academically, spiritually, and socially than the previous students. They paid moderate prices for their tuition and room and were given free access to the kitchen and dining room, although they paid for their own food. Most of them worked in the afternoons to pay their seminary fees.
As these students began to show their spiritual gifts, the churches began to support them. At the end of that year, for the first time six churches were supporting seminary students and the seminary was able to open its own bank account. After three years, nine part-time teachers were completely supported by the tuition of the growing student body. Student morale was high and the teachers gave it their best shot. A number of these graduates are now full-time pastors. Unless local churches support their own theological institutions,such institutions will always be seen as foreign, with little impact on the local society.
WESTERNIZATION OF THE GOSPEL
The second critical issue facing us in world missions is how deeply and tragically we have Westernized the gospel. Westernizing the gospel is a surreptitious process growing out of financial paternalism and it begins with the feeling that "Western is better." It is magnified when church leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America are trained in the United States or Europe.
They think they don’t need courses in cross-cultural communications and, under the pressure of finishing as quickly as possible, take all the theology courses they can. Unknowingly, they are mesmerized by Western methodologies and educational approaches. Some of them return home less prepared to communicate effectively than when they left their home lands.
I can think of many examples, but here’s a typical one from a Latin American theology professor:
Of the five years of theological education that I had, not even one of my professors taught me in a Latin context. All was imported from Canada or USA. The teaching was great, but was not relevant to the needs of the people. The traditionalist seminary training that we have all over Latin America is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the development of a fruitful ministry in our Latin culture. Most of my Bible school training was done in Belize, Central America, by some of the best professors in the United States. I was very proud of my education, but now I realize that it won’t work among my own people, unless I contextualize it to their felt needs. One of my professors used to say, "You are getting the same thing that I had in America; the only difference is that I have translated it into Spanish."
This evangelical Latin American professor decided to do something about it. He told me, "Today as I was teaching my students at the seminary, I told them that from this day on, my teaching methodology will be different. I will teach you in such a way that your theology will not only be theory, but in context, and through praxis."3
Our failure to address properly cross-cultural contextualization is one reason why the syncretistic, independent African churches are growing so rapidly today, numbering more than 81,000 and growing at the rate of 850,000 new members each year, according to David Barrett’s report in 1986. These people have reacted to the Westernization of the gospel and returned to their traditional roots. The North American and European packaging of the gospel has made it difficult for them, and for many others in other parts of the world, to internalize biblical truth.
For example, in planting churches in Africa, some missionaries have presented a group of believers with a carbon copy of the mission’s doctrinal statement, but without believers having yet internalized these biblical truths.4 While the new believers may give lip service to such doctrinal statements in times of crisis, often they revert to their traditional belief systems, thus demonstrating a syncretistic version of Christianity.
In 1977 Alwyn Shorter wrote:
During the past hundred years African Traditional Religion has been visibly sinking beneath the surface of modern social life in Africa, but what remains above the surface, is, in fact, the tip of an iceberg. At baptism, the African Christian repudiates remarkably little of his former non-Christian outlook. He may be obliged to turn his back upon certain traditional practices which the Church, rightly or wrongly, has condemned in his area, but he is not asked to recant a religious philosophy. The church, in any case, takes no cognizance of this philosophy. Consequently, he returns to the forbidden practices as occasion arises with remarkable ease. Conversion to Christianity is for him sheer gain, an ‘extra’ for which he has opted. It is an overlay on his original religious culture. Apart from the superficial condemnations, Christianity has really had little to say about African Traditional Religion in the wayof serious judgements of value. Consequently, the African Christian operates with two thought-systems at once, and both of them are closed to each other.5
Our Western cultural forms are also highly visible in many of our mass evangelistic efforts. At times the only change is the translation from English into another language. For example, in Latin America we have a culture of courtesy which implies doing what a person of higher status indicates. Our North American evangelists usually belong to the upper middle class. Therefore, the masses of people will almost always respond to their invitations to make decisions for Christ. However, in most instances, the number of genuine conversions has been minimal. I was the chairman of the follow-up committee for two major evangelistic campaigns in Bolivia. I found that after the campaigns the number of people in an evangelical church, or identifying themselves as born again Christians one year later, was as little as one percent of the total number of professions. Alfredo Smith, a leading Latin American pastor, has come up with the same statistic.
While I find no fault with the principles, content, and objectives of the "Four Spiritual Laws" booklet, the form in which "the laws" are given is often detrimental to a clear understanding of the gospel to people of another culture. For example, if you ask an Aymara Indian from Bolivia whether he would prefer the diagram of ordered dots over the diagram of dots in disarray, he will inevitably choose the latter, because they are "like the stars which God made," while the ordered dots are "man made."
Over the past 25 years, in spite of our missionary rhetoric to the contrary, there has been little cultural adaptation in the continuing use of North American evangelistic methods, techniques, and forms in non-Western cultures. Unless our missiologists, missionaries, and home churches are willing to grapple with these issues and pay the price of change, the Westernization of the gospel—which is simply paternalism in another guise—will invariably increase. Those who promote "Western theology is better" (i.e., biblical theology wrapped in Western thought forms and garb) must be challenged to change their thinking.
There is a strong connection between our financial paternalism and our Westernization of the gospel. The greater the funding from Western agencies and individuals, the greater the danger of our spreading "another gospel"—i.e., a Western gospel—whose form is often irrelevant and out of the context of the people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Cultural strings are often attached to our money, because "he who pays the piper calls the tune." One missionary colleague recently confirmed what I have seen in many parts of the world: "National leaders have so absorbed the Western cultural transplant that they will defend to the death the imported ways of doing things."6
The consequence of our paternalism lies in the very real possibility that our mission – established churches have modeled their forms and ways of doing things on the only model they saw—the Western missionary. Thus a foreign, Western model — rather than a truly biblical, indigenous one—continues to be perpetuated in much of the world.
NO SIMPLE ANSWERS
Financial paternalism and the Westernization of the gospel are complex issues, with no simple answers. I have highlighted some of the major problems; now, let’s look at some of the hard questions. For example, how can Western Christians give out of their abundance and yet not be paternalistic and still be assured of accountability? How can we have our accountability for our funds without our controlling their use? When we reject paternalism, what do we offer in its place? Is abdication, the extreme opposite to genuine reciprocity, the proper stance?
Some of these issues were discussed in some of the workshops at the International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne II, 1989, Manila), but much more needs to be done. The leaders of our Western agencies must make some majorshifts. Changes of attitude, thinking, and methods will not take place unless people at the highest levels of our missions organizations, denominations, and churches decide to do so.
We also need to dialogue with our Christian brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, and Latin America who continue to receive so much funding from the West. More people need to write about financial paternalism and the Westernization of the gospel. We need practical advice to get out of the mess we are in, without at the same time neglecting our responsibility to give and minister cross-culturally. One thing seems certain: We cannot continue to do "business as usual." Ignoring financial paternalism and the implications of a "Western gospel" will only stagnate the growth of the church and hinder the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
1. Charles Troutman, "Paternalism," in Everything You Want to Know About the Mission Field But Are Afraid You Won’t Learn Until You Get There (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, 1976.)
2. S. Kang, unpublished manuscript from Nigeria, 1983.
3. Cross-cultural communication paper, 1989.
4. Personal interview with David Shank, Cote D’Ivoire, July 18, 1988.
5. Alwyn Shorter, African Christian Theology: Adaptation or Incarnation, (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1977), p. 10.
6. Personal letter from Latin America, March 30, 1990.Reprints of this article are available. See page 279.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 230-237. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.