Much has been written in the past few years on the negative effect of North American funding of overseas Christian endeavors. I personally observed the slow unraveling of a Papua New Guinea (PNG) national training program due to North American monies channeling into the hands of PNG missionary trainees. When it became known that North Americans were funding the trainees, local giving diminished, eventually causing the local PNG sending churches to request the training facility be shut down.
It truly is difficult for financially secure North Americans to think soberly when seeing “poverty-stricken” local workers doing their best with limited means. A very understandable response is, “Surely some financial help will only enhance the efforts of these wonderful local teachers and allow them to put more time into the teaching of God’s Word.”
On a micro level in our own village, when the Iteri church met for corporate worship and someone stood up to share God’s Word, everyone would notice his belly. If it was noticed that he had eaten more food than he admitted to (secret eating is offensive and the offender’s stomach would directly reveal that), his credibility went out the door. Credibility is everything—to the pastor standing in your pulpit on Sunday, to the Iteri standing and speaking to the church, and to the Indian pastor who has now been elevated to a higher status by someone buying him a bicycle so he can travel to more villages. On the surface, paying him a salary so he doesn’t need to toil in his garden makes sense. But when his hands no longer have the callouses that he previously had, his credibility is impacted. I could go on in the ways that North American funds have backfired in overseas contexts.
So what is the North American church to do to make use of the resources available to her? It’s a fair question. First off, we must identify the basic commands of Scripture and the need to get the gospel message to the ends of the earth. It takes patience and a long-term strategic mindset. We start by doing our homework. While it’s much easier to write a check and no doubt meet some pressing needs, those in a position to truly enhance Great Commission work can find themselves lured by the promise of immediate benefits—benefits that may impede long-term goals.
Drawing from his own gut-wrenching observations and research in Africa, author Glenn W. Schwartz wrote “the book” on dependency issues [‘When Charity Destroys Dignity’ Glenn W. Schwartz, 2007. Pgs. 45-57.] He devotes an entire chapter to “What Should Wealthy Churches (Individuals too) do with their Money?” The author’s first three suggestions are:
• Preach the gospel where it has not been preached.
• Consider providing full support for a missionary family.
• Invest in cross-cultural training for missionaries.
He also expresses some cautions about sending funds overseas:
• Don’t send money to individual church leaders.
• Be careful of providing scholarships for people to be trained outside of their cultural context.
• Avoid building church buildings for people who can build them for themselves.
• Be careful about food-aid projects which may have the potential to negatively affect local prices.
The impact on local farmers, truckers, store owners, builders, and yes…even local churches, oftentimes goes unnoticed by generous donors. The direct recipients will always show genuine gratitude, but they have little to gain by pointing out the unintended consequences.
Giving with a “Great Commission Focus” is difficult to do well, especially with the ability to quickly affect a situation physically, even if only for the short term. In 2001, only 1% of Christian monies earmarked for “missions” went to reach the unreached, 99% going to areas that already had access to the gospel or to fund projects in those areas. Giving strategically can be challenging and does take work, but for those who do their research much good can come from their investments.
(Buser, “Money and Missions,” The Radius Report, 8/16/19).