Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughts on Supporting Indigenous Evangelists


(We can increase both efforts. Tenfold!)

“Should we support Western missionaries or, instead, support only native evangelists?”

This query has been posed to me at least three dozen times this year alone. After wincing and wondering whether I should gently remind the enquirer that, “We don’t call them natives anymore – they are indigenous evangelists” I then usually rehash some of the very thoughts that I have now put into writing below.

The vital role of indigenous partners:
Involvement with indigenous believers is essential –if there are any. If an unreached people group has any believers at all, even a handful, Western mission efforts should seek not to bypass these local believers but should do all in their power to include, equip and advance the ministries of these local Christians.

Here is a little secret: missionaries are often painfully unproductive. Western missionaries, especially those pioneering new efforts among the least-reached, often struggle for years trying to light that first spark of the Gospel into a new cross-cultural context. And those first tendrils of new flame in a dark region are hard to start. But once the flame of the Gospel flickers alive among an unreached people group, it is usually not the foreign missionary that continues the spread of this fire. It is, instead, some of those first indigenous converts who then spread the Gospel like wildfire. The missionary is often the spark. Local indigenous workers are often the gasoline by which the fire quickly spreads.

Western missionaries get much of the credit for overseas missions successes. Keep in mind, however, that missions history books and biographies are largely written by Westerners. The Western missionary often gets the credit for not only his own works and successes, but also the successes of everyone tied to his efforts. His name is easier to pronounce after all, and focusing on one person to whom Western readers are personally invested in is easier then learning the names of dozens of local workers. Churches back home in America may be intrigued by the roles that “the natives” play in the work, but many largely see their own Western missionary only in the command role, and all efforts and new initiatives are assumed to spring (even after a local church has been established and local leadership raised up) from his sole leadership alone. All new converts, whether those arising from his own labors or those new converts added to the church through the efforts of other indigenous workers all get added to the missionary’s own tally.

Speaking as a missionary working with indigenous evangelists, I know that their successes often get counted as our successes. This is fine in one sense because we are all batting for the same team, after all. The inverse, however, is often forgotten, that our successes, too, are successes which belong to the whole indigenous contingent with which we co-labor – our successes are theirs, too.

Again, the role of the Western missionary who is engaged in pioneering work among a frontier group consists often in struggling to light that initial flame of the Gospel and gaining that initial breakthrough. Then, once the wall is breached and the initial flame is lit, our job is then to feed the growing flame as national workers go out and spread the fire. As this occurs, we often move from roles of direct evangelism to roles of leadership development and coaching/training of key persons possessing an evangelistic/teaching gift who can then continue the spread of the Gospel far and wide. We feed this growing Gospel flame by equipping nationals with teaching, but also by equipping evangelists with materials as needed, including the means (even monetary) for new outreaches, to do the work which the Lord has called them to do. Involvement with indigenous believers is of utmost importance, and as we bless them, they can then bless others with the Gospel. Therefore, supporting indigenous evangelists and indigenous movements toward Christ is of vital importance to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Advantages of supporting indigenous workers:
There are many reasons why we should seek to support our Christian brothers and sister engaged in Gospel work overseas:
• First, we should support their work because they are Christian brothers. And, seeing the Global Church as One Body, if we are willing to support white-skinned Western missionaries with monetary funding, why would we not also desire to gift our overseas brothers and sisters in Christ in the same manner?

Also, pragmatically, there are a variety of reasons as well
• Indigenous workers do not need furloughs back to the States.
• They won’t puke when the locals give them salt fish, snails, grub worms or dog to eat.
• Indigenous workers won’t distract their listeners with inappropriate postures and social blunders like using the “impolite hand” to eat, calling the “village head” the “village coconut” or showing the soles of one’s feet as one sits and eats with locals.
• Locals usually don’t talk with distracting and funny dialects.
• Indigenous workers may be better able of actually “plant” a local church rather than “transplant” a Western church onto foreign soil. A church must not be seen as a foreign import, and Christianity must spread as a native plant growing on native soil; not as a North American pine wilting in the tropics. Though the Gospel condemns aspects of every culture that it encounters, there are also points of contact and open windows of understanding by which local believers can work from the known to the unknown in order to facilitate communication and receptivity and use bridges of understanding when teaching the Gospel, rather than beating one’s head against closed doors due to a lack of properly contextualizing the unchanging Word of God into variable human cultures.
• Local and personal ownership of the Gospel is vital. A people must own God as their own God and know that God is not merely the God of the ___(fill in the nationality or ethnic group). One need not become a Westerner in order to become a Christian, and indigenous evangelists can best model this truth. They are living proof.
• With the rise of radical Islam and the closing of many countries, indigenous evangelists may be the only possible missions strategy in many areas. Also, in countries with past histories of colonialism and racism, locals may associate the Christian faith with the sins of those who have come from “Christian lands.” In these contexts, indigenous evangelists may meet with much more success to their message due to the greater openness of the people to the indigenous messengers.
Some pitfalls of supporting indigenous evangelists
Supporting indigenous efforts in the wrong way can actually hinder the spread of the Gospel in the following ways:
• By making local evangelists trust us, instead of the Lord, as the source and fuel for their efforts.
• Poor indigenous churches may neglect to support their own pastors if they are supported fully by “rich” foreigners. We may impede the instilling of sound principles of stewardship and sacrificial giving.
• We may unduly encourage a sense of pity for poor Christians, who must also learn to give sacrificially. Paul, speaking to the Corinthians, described them giving generously even out of their “extreme poverty” –so let’s not feel sorry for Third World Churches nor encourage their own sense of self-pity or retard their growth in grace by saying, “We’ll handle this issue of tithing for you since you contribute so little anyway and it really just isn’t worth your effort.”.

Also, let us in the West increase in generosity ourselves, remembering the example of the early church, who distributed to all who were in need and even sold properties for the sake of the Gospel rather than merely giving a leftover portion of what they could “afford” to “sacrifice” without curtailing their affluent lifestyles. People, give up your TIVO and HDTV and adopt two new missionaries to support this year! If you prize sacrifice in your missionaries and admire the sacrifice of Third World Christians, then seek to sacrifice in your own daily lives as well.

• Jealousy often arises between indigenous co-workers when the “Have-Nots” who have no source of outside funding work beside the “Haves” who are supported totally by American churches.
• Paid workers often stop doing the voluntary work which they once did for free (why do it, if there’s no money in it?). We may encourage a mercenary spirit.
• Many Western Christians have never truly learned to “freely give.” Many desire to control nationals by the purse-strings. Many falsely use the term “accountability” to dictate specific local strategies and specific local priorities, rather than merely insuring the general trustworthy use of funds. Some American churches will see nothing at all amiss in preaching against hirelings in one breath and then demanding obedience from indigenous evangelists in very specific local decision-making processes, something better left to the people knowing the cultural milieu of ministry on-site.

Churches may even seek to dominate the Western missionaries that they support by instilling very specific restrictions upon the usage of their funds. Note the subtle difference between the statement, “I will give you this, if you do this…” and the healthier response of, “I hear that you would like to do this in your ministry, here are the means to make that a possibility.” The latter is a stance of support and trust in the supported missionary. The former response is a means of using others to implement your own agendas rather than supporting the missionary’s own locally-informed vision. Giving as a means to control strategy specifics which should be field-determined is not generosity but is using church money as “bait” in order to lure poor evangelists and Western missionaries into spiritual servitude. If you trust someone enough to support them, then you should invest that person with the freedom to make semi-autonomous field-based decision based on the situation on the ground.

I have, thankfully, only ever had one church try to dictate field specifics to me, basing their right to do so on their financial gifts to me. Missions, however, cannot be governed from 1,000 miles away, and 100 bucks per month doesn’t give you the right to “strongly suggest - based on our support of you” that I should implement this or that very specific teaching. This one solitary occurrence still sticks in my craw. I can only imagine how indigenous evangelists are made to feel through repeated and regular incidents such as this.

• Many indigenous believers, even those (and perhaps especially those) receiving our funding may actually come to resent our money and resent us for the feelings of inferiority and subservience arising from our relationship. If our relationship departs from a partnership relationship, or even a patron-client relationship and, instead, becomes an employer-employee arrangement, resentment is a certainty.
• Many indigenous evangelists feel pressed into implementing imported Western programs that they know will not work, but they do not want to protest too loudly lest they disappoint donors. Instead of being able to critique and objectively discuss strategies of evangelization, indigenous paid evangelists become the implementers of the decisions made by ill-informed Westerners. Or they feel forced into situations that they know are not ideal, but they “go with the flow” in order to humor their Western counter-parts. One Indonesian evangelist that I know admitted to laboring for 2-3 years on a Western-led evangelistic program that he knew would not be effective. He was not given a voice nor was he asked about how he thought his own kinsmen would receive the teachings, he was just paid to carry out the program. He justified the situation by saying, “Oh well, I do my own evangelism at night and on weekends and I treat this other effort as merely a job, even though I don’t use its methods in my own witnessing. Hey, I need to feed my children and pay their school bills.”
• Local converts, paid by Western churches, are often seen by local communities as paid agents of Western powers and this breeds distrust. These local converts can be seen as “sell-outs” and some are even asked, “How much did they pay you to convert?”
• Paid workers sometimes become puffed up and arrogant.
• Others, seeing locals being paid for church service, often begin to join themselves to the church for false motives (“rice Christians”).
• Paid local indigenous workers often do not feel free to personally develop their own theology. As the Gospel penetrates every new culture, there are major issues of self-theologizing that indigenous workers must settle. Non-Western theologians are needed in order to settle vital issues of how the Gospel intersects with their own local cultural practices. A local evangelist may desire to try to better fit God’s unchanging universal Word into his own particular human culture, but expectations or pressures from Western donors (many of whom mix their own cultural trappings with the Gospel and read the Bible through very Western lenses) may discourage this process. Instead, many local believers, getting no encouragement from Western donors who are not present locally and who are ignorant of the local culture, feel stymied in their attempts to answer the longing in their hearts for a locally-relevant theology and these locals then fall prey to the errors of syncretism and liberation theology, which allow greater freedom of local expression.
• Many missiologists assert that everything that Western missionaries teach and model for new believers overseas should be replicable on a local level. The model of supporting indigenous evangelists very rarely can be. Locals, seeing us model this system might think, “Well, we cannot really do evangelism because we cannot do it like the Westerners.”
• Without eyes on the ground and people to see the indigenous work that is being supported and to interact with some degree of cultural knowledge with the indigenous evangelists being supported, there is much potential for abuse. Abuse does take place. I have heard and read accounts of larger churches branching into two smaller groups because two small groups (i.e., two churches) got paid twice instead of once. I have heard of Indian evangelists gathering relatives and buying a banner for a photo opportunity in order to "plant” a new church and receive Western funds.

Also, local evangelists are, indeed, spreading a message, but what message? Without boots on the ground in the form of culturally-informed Western missionaries, how do we check to see if their message is actually the Gospel or a counterfeit? I have met Third World evangelists whom themselves did not know the Gospel and who, as far as I could tell, were not saved. Yet, these unsaved evangelists were travelling far and wide and making “converts.” In fact, the largest evangelistic successes I have had so far in my own mission work have been among the already churched!

What about indigeneity?

Missionaries want to plant indigenous churches. Usually the marks of an indigenous church are listed according to the formula of John L. Nevius, great missiologist of the past (1829-1893), using the moniker, “The Three-Self Paradigm.” Indigenous churches are to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. When these marks are reached (and the possible addition of a 4th “self” – “self-theologizing” that is currently receiving a lot of emphasis) then a planted church has truly reached the praiseworthy status of being indigenous.

Some assert, therefore, that all aid to indigenous evangelists and indigenous evangelism efforts stymy indigeneity and always breeds dependency. As shocking as it sounds, some missionaries – on principle – oppose all aid to foreign churches.

And certainly dependency can and does occur. Abuses are a real possibility whenever any charity is given (remember: this applies even to western missionaries, not just our Third World brothers). Western churches have, indeed, been guilty of building structures dependent on continual western aid and have used these structures to control foreign churches, the locals never being able to rise to full partnership with their Western church “bosses,” who control all aspects of funding and decision-making.

However, we should be reminded that independency is not our ultimate goal. No Christian, and no church, is ultimately independent within the Body of Christ. We are instead knit together, every part being inter-dependent and needing every other part.

We are also reminded that the Jerusalem church in the New Testament was an indigenous church and yet was pleased to receive the generous gift from the Gentile churches brought by the hand of Paul. It is possible for a church or an evangelistic team to receive outside aid and still be indigenous and God-honoring.

Also, Nevius and his philosophical successor Henry Venn, both champions of the 3-Self Formula, both advocated indigenous aid and relief, and Venn was involved in generous national church funding under the Native Church Fund of the Church Mission Society. Generous funding and relief was advocated even by the strongest champions of the 3-Self Formula, though care was taken so that Western missionaries did not control all minor aspects of this distribution but, instead, local foreign churches were able to control funding and strategic decisions once a basic level of accountability was established.

Finally, it should be remembered that, for the most part, the Western missionaries who are sounding the one-sided trumpet call against indigenous support in the name of discouraging dependency are themselves usually funded by Western donors. Apparently, the double-standard is okay, Westerners are responsible enough to withstand the dangers of dependency but poor, brown overseas brothers need our protection against the dangers that our generosity brings.

Other thoughts:

“Should we support Western missionaries or, instead, support only native evangelists?”

When Western churches take an Either/Or approach and support indigenous evangelists INSTEAD of sending out Western missionaries we may call this “partnering” with indigenous believers –but it is not. When U.S. phone companies do not want to spend the money necessary to hire Americans for their customer service and they, instead use customer service personnel from Bombay or Calcutta this is called “out-sourcing.” If we take an Either-Or approach rather than a Both/And approach and fail to send out our own missionaries, instead employing cheaper labor to do our job for us, we are not “Partnering with Nationals” at all. Instead, we are guilty of “Outsourcing” our Great Commission responsibilities for the sake of cost and personal sacrifice.

The West needs Western missionaries to go and suffer to keep us in the game. Throwing money at a problem without personal cost or commitment is the American way in so many other areas, but it cannot be so with the Gospel. We need people willing to go and suffer personally, and bear personal witness to the cost of the Great Commission.

The Great Commission tells us to GO.

In the Civil War there were those that paid others, substitute soldiers, to take their place in the firing line. For a fee, the rich could hire someone to enlist on their behalf, and thus avoid personal sacrifice and danger themselves. This practice, however, is inexcusable for those who have been called to pick up the Cross and follow Jesus.

A better way

Instead of the Either/Or approach which pits sending Western missionaries against supporting indigenous evangelists, I would propose that we increase our efforts by ten-fold on both fronts.

Many give only their leftovers to missions. What if the Church were to give its first-fruits to missions? What if we nurtured and cultivated our young people to actually go? What if we strove to give a portion of people as well as money to our Great Cause?

What if this following ethos pervaded our churches: If you can actually go, do not be content merely to support; and if you can support, do not be content merely to pray; if you can pray, do not be content merely to watch. Be as involved as you can be!

I advocate that we strive to send out 10 times our present number of missionaries to the field. Then, once on the field, they will cultivate a healthy respect for indigenous brothers in Christ and partner in their efforts as well, avoiding dependency, yet remembering that all members of the Body of Christ are mutually inter-dependent, one on another, and that we all must contribute as much as we are able. Thus, we would not be choosing between the support of either indigenous evangelists or Western missionaries, but we would be sending out frontline troops to partner with and aid indigenous efforts, teaming up with indigenous partners for the multiplication of the work of the Great Commission – the whole church sending the whole Gospel to the whole world.

Some sound principles to use when funding indigenous efforts:

When supporting indigenous efforts, what are some governing principles to use?

Seek to work where God is already at work:

If an indigenous Christian is not evangelistic, he might appear to increase in productivity in exchange for a little bit of pay, but this is poor fuel for long-term evangelistic fire.

In several regions of southern P___ , the missionaries paid the evangelists from the very beginning. When the missionaries left, their pay left too, and a large number of their evangelists stopped evangelizing. The main motivation of these indigenous evangelists soon became clear.

When funding indigenous evangelistic efforts, make sure the effort is already moving without you. Make sure that you are, therefore, working where God is already working and not artificially creating activity that appears evangelistic. You are to be a force-multiplier, enhancing already-existing local efforts that are borne out of local initiative, not hiring others to implement your own agenda. If a local evangelist is called of God, he will continue his work with or without you. Therefore seek to support those who are already engaged in their work and who have already had some measure of success before meeting you. Seek to make sure that their motivation comes from God alone and that your money is only fuel to help them do what they are already doing anyway.

We want God-called evangelists, not paid mercenaries!

Many times in missions, it is the Western missionary that picks the local leaders and funds them. Then the Western missionary is shocked at the high rate of moral failure and departures from the work once financial incentives dry up. Western missionaries, therefore, should never pick local leaders, but only recognize those that are already rising to the top due to being picked by God. I think that this is the reason that the Apostle Paul preached at many places and then moved on, only later returning to ordain elders. As the Gospel spread and believers were assembled, there was a need for time to produce and show the young churches who their natural leaders were and allow them to rise to the top for later ordination once their leadership was made clear.
Remember that each part of the Body of Christ must contribute what they can.

Another principle to use when funding local efforts is that local evangelists that are worthy of support are not out to get a free ride, but only desire to supplement their own strenuous efforts. Local evangelists worthy of support are willing to sacrifice and are glad for funds, and these funds do not significantly reduce their own levels of sacrifice, but only provide fuel for new aggressive and expansive efforts.

For example, as I have helped N__ in the region of West J. and have recruited others as well to help N__’s efforts, his normal lifestyle has not dramatically increased, nor has the strenuous pace of his efforts slowed. Aside from finally being able to squirrel away enough personal money for his first family vacation in a decade, N__’s personal manner of living has not changed at all. However, the number of miles on his ministry vehicle continually increases as extra funding allows him to circulate through the villages all the more and to make inroads into several new villages to initiate new efforts. Also, the number of needy Christian children he has sponsored for Christian schools has increased as well and new gifts have been used for new, aggressive efforts to expand the reach of N__’s team for the sake of the Gospel.

The Widow’s mite - proportional giving: I made a recent trip with two leaders from the M___ River region, Yulianus and Martinus. The M___ River churches, however, could not provide the total funding. So, they gave all that they could, totalling about 1/4th of the cost of the plane tickets. Western donors provided the rest. Thus, the M__ River Region provided their widow’s mite, a proportion of the cost based on their ability. They did not receive a free ride, but were also expected to sacrifice as well, in accord with their ability to give.

Remember that each part of the Body of Christ must contribute what they can.

My own example:

I am a Western-sent missionary. The generous support of Western churches supports my family. Because of this generous support I am enabled – as I work locally, to see the daily faithfulness of indigenous workers, and to help support some of these indigenous efforts. At various times, the missionary support channeled through me has enabled the support of nearly two dozen worthy indigenous efforts at once, to include new outreaches, Christian schooling for new believers, scholarships to seminaries, travel costs, medicine and hospital costs for the sick, and basic necessities such as salt and soap for evangelists who work in extreme interior locations and face significant health hazards and hardship.

Some Western churches may consider it a mark of a good missionary to cost very little and subsist on meager support without complaining, but consider this analogy. If frontier missions is likened to frontline wartime service, and missionaries are to possess longevity despite hardship, they will need to be highly trained and highly equipped. Generous funding means more bullets to shoot at the enemy. Also, missionaries, seeing first-hand the local indigenous efforts in a region, are in a prime spot to equip their brothers-in-arms as well with bullets to shoot at the enemy.

Conclusion - War-time allies:

John Rowell, in his thought-provoking book To Give or Not to Give? paints this analogy for us; indigenous support is not global welfare but is, instead “Global Warfare.” He advocates a “Missionary Marshall Plan” and urges us not to see Third World Christians as a “band of beggars seeking alms” but as “a band of brothers seeking arms.” God has given the West a sizeable war chest for the spread of the Gospel and to our brothers-in-arms, the indigenous evangelists, we must show them that they are not alone in the struggle. We must not only be generous as we equip them for Gospel warfare but, we should seek to struggle alongside them at the front.

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