The Cross and Mission Financing

At one level, the question of financing world mission seems dead simple. People in the rich world give money and those in the developing world benefit from it. No problem.

If only it were that simple.

I’ve dipped into this question numerous times over the years, but I recently had an epiphany that helped me rethink some of the issues. Firstly, what are some of the issues that make this question so thorny?

  • The first problem is that a continual drip-feed of finance from the rich world can breed an unhealthy dependency, by discouraging local generosity and initiative.
  • It can make the recipients feel as if they have nothing to contribute to the work they are doing.
  • The other side of the coin is that it can develop an unhealthy sense of power among the donors. It is depressing to see how many Christian fund raising videos and such highlight the way in which Westerners have changed the destiny of a village or people group through their gifts.
  • When funds come from outside, they are often used to meet the goals of the donors and agencies, which may or may not line up with the goals of the local community.

I could go on. In an unequal world, problems like these are part and parcel of the world of mission and development; we all struggle with them. That being said, this doesn’t obviate the Christian responsibility of rich people to be generous to those who are not so well off.

The only way to work through these issues is through open and honest dialogue. However, my experience has been that these dialogues are often pragmatic – what should we do. Recently, I found myself wondering whether we shouldn’t take a step back and begin our dialogue at the Cross; where he who was ‘rich beyond all splendour, all for loves sake, became poor’. Would reflection on the cross and the call for all of us to lay down our lives change the way we reflect on these questions?

I’d love to see it happen.

Community Rather than Clichés

One of the best blogs on the block at the moment is Djibouti Jones: life at the crossroads of faith and culture by Rachel Pieh Jones. Don’t take my word for it; head over there and sign up the her updates.

In her latest post, Rachel talks about how she has helped Amina; a young woman living in extreme poverty in Djibouti. This could easily be a stereotypical ‘benevolent expat helps poor African’ story: but it isn’t.

This was a relationship that has been built over trial and time and investment. There was language comprehension, we were communicating. There was history. I was able to enter into the situation and respond to it and interact. I was not overwhelmed or surprised by the poverty, which was extreme, or the circumstances. I was pleased to see where Amina keeps her running shoes.

I didn’t think the kids were cute, with big eyes, orange hair from malnourishment, and flies on their faces. I thought they were Amina’s brothers and it was nice to meet them. I didn’t think her father was a poor suffering old man, I wondered when he would be able to get medicine for his aching hip.

Rachel’s point is that she was able to help this family in an appropriate (and surprising) way because she had entered into their lives; learned their language and started to see the world from their perspective.

… And that got me thinking about short-term mission trips. The aim of short-term mission is to help people; but by their very nature they don’t make space for serious language and culture learning. This means that the sort of culturally appropriate and sustainable approach to helping people that Djibouti Jones talks about is more or less impossible with short term mission. It is possible to mitigate against some of the worst effects of the ‘white-saviour‘ complex, but they can’t be prevented altogether.

I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater; there is a place for short-term mission. However, I would like to suggest that as an absolute minimum, everyone engaging in a short term trip should learn something about the place they are going. It should be compulsory to:

  • Read a book on the history of the country or region you are visiting.
  • Read at least one book by an author from the country – this could be history, fiction, politics or anything else. But an attempt must be made to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

After all:

“If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex

Paradigms and Pounds

A few days ago, I wrote a piece which suggested some of the elements which need to be taken into account in developing a new paradigm for Western involvement in mission – but I didn’t mention money. However, it is often suggested that the way to renew mission work is to stop sending missionaries and to send money instead. The new paradigm in mission is to support local/national/native (missionaries rather than send Westerners).

This is a huge question and I’m not going to draw any satisfactory conclusions in a short blog post, but here are a few fairly random thoughts.

  • Rich Christians should be generous with their money. End of story – there is no need for debate on this.
  • However, while generosity is right, it can have a negative impact by creating dependencies, lack of local accountability and such like. These issues have to be carefully balanced and managed and donors need to understand the them. Vinoth Ramachandra recently wrote an excellent post exploring some of these questions.
  • The regulations on transfer of charitable funds from the West to other countries may involve the imposition of fairly stringent conditions on the partners in the developing world which are not always helpful.
  • The case for supporting national workers as opposed to Westerners has sometimes been overstated. Mark Pickett has written an excellent review (part 1, part 2) of one influential book which throws the baby out with the bath water.
  • It is NOT a new paradigm! Whether the West is sending money or people, we still have the West as the one providing the resources and the rest of the world receiving. The seat of power and influence has not moved, the only thing that hs changed is the way in which the power and influence are expressed. A new paradigm of mission needs to see a rebalancing of the relationship between the West and the rest. We need to learn to receive as well as to give and to value contributions beyond the financial ones.

There is no easy solution to this issue (though plenty of people claim to offer just that). The Wycliffe Global Alliance, a grouping of mission agencies, churches and denominations drawn from all continents apart from Antarctica is working on this issue; it’s going to be interesting to see where things fall out in the Bible translation world.

Issues in Mission: Elements of A New Paradigm

We need to completely rethink our approach to mission and to supporting mission work from the UK. Tinkering at the edges and solving problems are no longer enough.

I wrote these words a few days ago in a blog post which suggested that we need a completely new paradigm or set of wineskins for overseas’ mission today. In this post, I’d like to suggest three elements for this new paradigm.

We Need Structural Change: this is probably the easiest one to describe, but perhaps the hardest one to do. Surveys show that the number of Christians in the UK is falling; conversely the number of mission agencies is increasing. This isn’t sustainable and at some point in the future we are going to see a lot of agencies closing down in a very short time. Assuming that most of these agencies are doing something useful, this would be a huge shame. The only alternative is to manage the drop in numbers by looking to merge and combine mission ministries before it is too late. This means that agency boards and management have to look beyond the narrow interests of their own organisations and to focus on the long term survival of the work they are involved in. My experience shows that this is far harder to do in practice than you might imagine.

We Need Relationship Changes: Western churches and Christians have been accustomed to believe that they are the centre of the Church; the ones who call the shots in leadership and mission; this recent post highlights this. The comparative rates of growth of the Church in the West and in the Global South give the lie to this assumption. Those of us who are Westerners need to get used to the idea that we have a huge amount to learn from the church in the wider world. This means that mission agencies need to give serious attention to blessing the Church in the traditional sending countries through the things that God is doing in the erstwhile mission fields.

On the other side of the coin, we need to realise that the West still has something to contribute. Many writers from the Global South and many missionaries who have compared the growth of the Church worldwide with their home situations have written off the contribution of the Western church. They see it as needy and moribund, with little to offer. This is as much of a mistake as seeing the West as the Centre of things: in truth the body of Christ worldwide is interdependent and needs to learn how to function in this way.

Mission agencies have a huge amount to contribute in helping to develop this interdependency. However, agencies often have a vested interest in promoting the old paradigm where Westerners are sent out in large numbers to the wider world. This was highlighted in the original post which prompted me to write this series of articles.

The mission agency is struggling in its home office to fund the operation, and its leaders are glad to get new recruits who will have to pay 13% operational funds.  There may be other benefits to the agency or its key members as new recruits contribute some of their support to the overall work of the mission.  The mission agency needs to keep accepting missionaries to fund its operations and replace missionaries who have left the mission.

We Need To Learn to Think Theologically: mission agencies are great absorbers of management and leadership literature. Effectiveness, impact and speed are terms that crop up all over missionary literature. However, effectiveness and impact are often achieved at the cost of relationships, service and sacrifice. The Biblical model of taking up our cross and following Christ is less attractive than changing the world. We need a radical refocus of planning and consultation processes to be more theologically thought through and focussed. Some might call this missiology, but I have become rather allergic to the term.

There is a lot more could be said, but this will do for a start.

Asking the Hard Questions

I believe that it is without question that rich people have an obligation to share what they have with those who are not as well off as them. The haves should be generous towards the have-nots. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals.

However…

This doesn’t mean that all forms of generosity are wise, helpful or appropriate.

“Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. So runs a popular traditional adage about economic development.

But poor fishing communities don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They may have much to teach us about more sustainable fishing practices. We are not the ones denuding their lakes and oceans, or polluting them with our refuse. And what if they are unable to fish, not because they lack the skills, but because the fishing rights to their rivers and lakes have been sold by their governments to foreign corporations and governments as a way of servicing the nation’s external debt?

This quote comes from a very thoughtful blog post by Vinoth Ramachandra which goes on to question one of the most popular forms of helping the developing world: child sponsorship.

The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs. Whenever I visit friends in the US or Europe I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their fridge doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a non-governmental organization. I am impressed by their concern for children in the Two-Thirds World. (Rarely, however, do I see pictures of impoverished children from their own cities!). At the same time I share my reservations with them and also try to give them a bigger picture of what hinders the development of poor communities.

Whether you agree or disagree with Ramachandra, he is doing us a great service by asking hard questions about the way we go about our ‘generosity’. It isn’t comfortable, but it is vital that we think through issues like this.

Two years ago, in a post called Is Aid Defensible?, I wrote:

However, there are huge questions about the value of government aid and even such sacred cows as fairtrade goods and celebrity campaignsare not without their problems.

That earlier post linked to a number of good articles and books if you want to explore this issue further.

Books I have Read: We Are Not the Hero

A few evenings ago, we had dinner with a friend who has been involved with a developing mission movement in one corner of the world. Over many years, our friend and her colleagues have been patiently building relationships with local church leaders and supporting them as they get involved in reaching outside of their church boundaries. Our friend feels that they are at a point where things are about to really take off.

At the same time, she fears for the future of the work they are doing. A large, US based agency is looking to come into the country and ostensibly support this new mission movement. However, this support comes with strings. In particular, this agency wants to get things done quickly and years of patient building relationship building are being sidelined in the hurry to get things done. Younger, tech-savvy guys are given preference to older, wiser and more respected local leaders – something which just isn’t done in that culture. And so it goes on.

The leaders of this large agency would do well to read We Are Not the Hero by Jean Johnson. Subtitled A missionary’s guide for sharing Christ, not a culture of dependency, this hard hitting book takes a good look at some of the mistakes commonly made by Western missionaries working in the minority world. However, this is not a “let’s beat up the missionaries” sort of book. For the most part it is full of excellent advice and suggestions as to a more positive way forward. Many of the books I mention here are of a reflective or theoretical nature. We Are Not the Hero has a good theoretical underpinning, but is extremely practical in nature.

One might have thought that things had moved on and that we don’t need books like this anymore – sadly, this is not the case.I’m not sure that I’d want to make it compulsory for all Western missionaries to read this – but they’d better have a really good excuse if they don’t!

Thanks to Nora for drawing my attention to this book (when are you going to start blogging again?).

First World Problems

This short video (just over two minutes) has a very powerful message…

but…

I have to admit that I’m rather uneasy with the way this important message is got across.

Firstly, I don’t like the terms first world and third world; I know that they are easily understood, but they seem to imply a value judgement that I don’t like.  Perhaps I’m just being picky.

More importantly, the video gives a somewhat distorted picture of life in Africa. Surprisingly enough, there are many people in rural Africa who have mobile phones and who share all of the same frustrations about network coverage and keeping the phone charged that we do in the West.

However, the key thing is that this video presents the relationship between the ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds as being one dimensional. We don’t have real problems, they do. I’m not implying for one moment that there is no terrible grinding poverty in Africa – there is. But, if I can permit myself a generalisation, most Africans live lives which are richer in human relationships and connectedness than most Westerners. The loneliness, isolation and depression that are endemic in European cities – especially for the elderly – are relatively unknown in Africa.

Yes, we can help provide water (try sponsoring me in the London Marathon), but we also have a lot to learn from the developing world. The world is more complex than a short video can express.

 

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

At the moment, the BBC is showing the remarkable David Attenborough series “Africa”; all beautiful scenes and amazing animals. However, as is often the case, the Africa of the nature documentary seems more or less devoid of people.

If you would like to know more about the human side of the continent, you could do far worse than start with Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden.

Africa is huge and incredibly diverse and no book (even one of 550 pages) can hope to cover every aspect of African life. However, over 18 chapters, most of which are inspired by events in a particular country, this book gives a pretty good introduction to the current situation across sub-Saharan Africa.

Though it doesn’t shy away from war, corruption and poverty, this is predominantly optimistic book. It points to beacons of hope and development which are rarely mentioned in the west because they don’t fit the agenda of the media and aid agencies). For that reason alone, I’d love to see more people reading this book.

The book is told through a mixture of the author’s own traveller’s tales and reflections on national and international politics. Individual stories and global geopolitics are interspersed seamlessly to give a fascinating picture, which is never dull to read.

It would be easy to complain about things which are not in the book (there is not enough about Côte d’Ivoire and Mali for my liking), but this is unfair. The book never claims to be comprehensive.

Sections on the growth of the African middle classes and the use of technology (especially the mobile phone) and the growth of Chinese influence across the continent seem to indicate that Africa will be a very different place through the 21st century than it was in the 20th. Though the fact that the American response to Chinese commercial activity in the area has been to put a regional military force in place is rather worrying.

Africa is far bigger and more diverse than Europe, with a fascinating and complex history. If your idea of Africa is limited to elephants, giraffes and grass huts, you should probably read buy Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles!

Wrestling With Onesimus 6: Conclusion

I’ve spent a while looking at Onesimus excellent post entitled:  When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don’t Need Us Anymore and now it is time to look at the conclusion.

The bottom line is that, if we Westerners don’t get out of the way, the churches of Africa and Asia and Latin America will remain the spiritual infants and self-absorbed teenagers that many of them really are.  I was a teenager once, and I remember seething with resentment when a parent forced me away from entertaining myself with TV and music and from stuffing my face with all manner of junk food and made me work as a responsible family member.  With all our faults, we in the West have been instrumental in relaunching Christianity as a global religion.  But our current posture is no longer healthy.  That movement now needs desperately to stand on its own two feet and be made to use limbs and muscles that have been coddled so long that they seem to have atrophied.  We’ve been addicted to each other for way too long.  And as long as we are around, we (the West and its ‘resources’) will be your (non-Western Christians’) preferred drug of choice, rather than learning what every other legitimate disciple and church of our Lord has had to learn, that his call means that each one of us pick up our cross and follow him to our deaths.  Our imported business models of ministry success have persuaded too many non-Western Christians that the cross can finally be avoided and that victory is ours for the grasping.  But this sort of hyper-over-realized eschatology is little more than the ‘American Dream’ writ large, which actually is one of the devil’s more effective delusions.

There are three basic reasons why I believe that Onesimus’ call on a moratorium of Western missions to Africa (and perhaps more broadly) is mistaken. The first is pragmatic and the second two are theological.

I am not convinced that the African (or Southern church, generally) is in such a parlous state as Onesimus seems to imply. He makes some valid criticisms, but I know from my own experience that this is not the full story. There are real strengths and real dynamism in the African Church. Equally, the Western church is not as strong as we might like to think it is. As Onesimus points out, we have bought into the American dream or into a materialist mindset more generally.

The thing is, that the Church in Africa and the Church in the West both have their strengths and weaknesses. Onesimus says, ” We’ve been addicted to each other for way too long”. But I think he has missed the central issue. The church in the West and the church in Africa need each other. We should be interdependent; we can help each other.

The second reason I disagree with Onesimus is that Scripture makes it clear that rich Christians have an obligation to help those who are living in poverty. There is a responsibility placed upon those of us in the rich world to support those who are materially less well off. I recognise all of the issues of dependency and these have to be faced up to, but this does not take away our responsibility towards our brothers and sisters.

Finally, I believe that Onesimus has fundamentally misunderstood the nature and motivation for mission. Simon captured this well in a comment on an earlier post in this series.

The issue of dependency and the calls for moratorium come up periodically in missionary thought. But if you work with the assumption that mission is something that we do because it is a reflection of God’s own character, then moratorium does not make any sense. God works in covenantal partnership. That’s his character. As I wrote elsewhere, “we cannot imagine a world in which God leaves humanity to grow up and sort things out on its own for a while. Paternalism in mission is unacceptable, but equally we must lay to rest the idea that maturity means independence. Growing must be done together, however cumbersome and awkward this may seen, for it is only together that partners in mission can `decisively impinge upon and affect’ one another in a spirit of inter-dependence.”

When Onesimus argues that we should stop missionary activity because of the impact it is having, he is dangerously close to falling into the modernist, managerial models of missiology that he he is actually criticising. Our mission is a participation in the life and mission of the Triune God.

None of this is to disagree with Onesimus’ contention that the relationship between the Western and African churches has been unhealthy. However, the answer to an unhealthy relationship is not to break the relationship off, but to address the underlying issues.

  • We need to address our theology of mission. As long as we present mission as an activity which we perform in order to make a difference to the rest of the world, then issues of paternalism and dependency will continue. We need to realise that mission is God’s work and that we are called to participate in it. This sort of thinking (which I’ve outlined in Kouya.net many times – try this one for starters) needs to infuse the life of mission agencies from recruitment and fund-raising through to our teaching and life on the field. When we say to people that they are able to change the future for people on the other side of the globe, we’ve already lost the plot. Only God can do this – though he may graciously use our money or time in achieving his purposes.
  • We need to develop true mutually beneficial partnerships.(Or as Simon says, we need to be inter-dependant.)  All too often, missionaries and agencies use the term partnership in a one dimensional sense. “We are partnering with a Church in Africa to give them X”. The problem with this sort of thing is that it perpetuates the myth that only the African church is in need of receiving. Were the church in the West prepared to listen; it could learn a huge amount about the place of suffering, the reality of faith, effective evangelism and much more, from brothers and sisters in the South. If we could learn to create truly mutually beneficial partnerships rather than (to put it crudely) one side giving and the other side receiving, we would be able to avoid many of the dangers that Onesimus has rightly highlighted.

No one says this is easy. Onesimus is right to point out that the Western (particularly American) missions movement has a huge momentum and a lot of investment in the current way of doing things. However, If we are to faithfully participate with God in his mission and play our role in the new reality of the global church, we are going to have to do things differently.

Wrestling with Onesimus: Maturity

This is my penulitmate post interacting with When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don’t Need Us Anymore from Onesimus.

Thirdly, it is long past time for local Christians to take responsibility for their own churches and training and programs.  This is happening in some places, like India for example, where for years missionaries were forbidden by the government from operating as ‘missionaries.’  Local Christians were forced to take responsibility for themselves.  And while not perfect, there is a maturity among many Indian Christians that is refreshing.  And if taking responsibility for one’s own Christian life and one’s own local church or ‘ministry’ means some churches and schools and programs fail, then it likely means that they were not viable to begin with, at least on the grandiose scales they were conceived when an open tap of resources from the West was assumed.  And if it means that Christianity evaporates from some areas, then that should tell us that whatever ‘Christian’ things were going on there before were not making real contact with the lives of real people.  There comes a point when local Christians must take responsibility for their own fellowship and mission.  If something cannot happen without Western funding and staffing, then should it be happening at all?

Once again, Onesimus has raised an important point, and once again he has pushed it too far. It is undeniable that ” local Christians to take responsibility for their own churches and training and programs”.  But by implying that this isn’t happening in Africa is simply not true. Yes, more could be done and the pace of change could be quicker. I have the privilege of knowing many African Christians who are leading churches, translation organisations and mission agencies in Africa. There are Western missionaries working for some of these organisations, but their programmes and activities are defined and managed by the African leadership under whom they serve.

Onesimus makes a good and important point; but it isn’t the whole story.

Wrestling With Onesimus 4: Missions

This is the fourth in my series looking at a post from Onesimus:  When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don’t Need Us Anymore. In this one we are looking at the second of his reasons for suggesting that Western missionary work in Africa should draw to a halt.

Secondly, this sort of dynamic works the other way, too.  There are too many Western mission organizations and NGOs who, except for spiritualized lingo, have become little more than giant corporations, with layers of management, following every leadership and management trend, focused on the bottom line and becoming ever more efficient in connecting donors with the product as well as expanding the market for the product (i.e. the field/area in which we missionaries or NGO people can ‘serve’).  We’ve become increasingly a missions and aid industry, with our own versions of success and upward mobility, jetting all over the globe to this and that conference, looking always to expand our ability to raise ever more money to fund our salaries and lifestyles and ‘ministries’.  We’ve made ourselves indispensible by convincing ourselves and our donors (and our clients) that we really are not only necessary, but the best, most efficient, most biblical and most convenient way to get whatever done.  We’ve done a superb job of creating a market for what we have to offer.  Some ‘missions’ in the countries where I have lived have been there for 80, 90, 100 years and more.

Once again, there is a good deal of truth in what Onesimus says here. One of my friends reacted to this on Facebook by writing:

His comments about how mission organisations have become like multinational corporations rang a few bells… especially as I’ve been reading an early Wycliffe book about how the team heading to start work in a country had $90 in the account and said that was sufficient because God would provide what they needed. Oh to return to those faith-filled days.

That sort of idealism is almost impossible in these litigious days. Organisations like Wycliffe have to be able to demonstrate that they are taking appropriate care of their staff and not exposing them to unnecessary risks. When donors give money to support translation projects we have to be able to report back to both the donors and the government and prove that the money is being well spend. In this day and age, there is an amount of bureaucracy and red tape that can’t be avoided.

However, once again, I fear that Onesimus’ reaction is extreme. The answer to bad practice is to do things better (though that can be difficult).  I would suggest that there are a couple of things that need to be looked at:

  1. We need to be prepared to close down programmes or organisations when their purpose is fulfilled. It is far too easy for a Christian organisation to concentrate most of its energy on self-preservation; to lose focus on mission and the call of God. We need to be prepared to call a halt and not to simply carry on doing things because that is what we do.
  2. We need a thorough going theological review of our activities and our fund raising strategies. There is a huge temptation to place human activity at the centre of things, rather than God’s providence. We can fall into statements such as ‘your gift can change the future for people’, or ‘we are making a difference to the Church around the world’. Well it can’t and we aren’t. God may graciously choose to use your gift and he may work through our organisation  but he is the one who makes the difference. I’m not just being picky here. A great deal of modern management and fund-raising technique effectively squeezes God out of the equation. When we do this, our organisations take Centre stage in a way which is not helpful to our work or to the organisations themselves.