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.

Getting the Balance

I am proud to belong to an organisation that believes in and practices holistic mission. We translate the Scriptures, working to proclaim the message of the Gospel to the most marginalised people on the planet and we work to provide those people literacy and basic education, the necessary precursors for economic and social development.

Of course, holding these two strands together isn’t always easy. Despite Jesus’ example of meeting both physical and spiritual needs, the Church seems to swing from one to the other. When we first joined Wycliffe, many people were suspicious of getting involved in social action; it was seen as watering down the Gospel and ignoring peoples’ eternal needs. Literacy work was fine if it was tied to reading the Scriptures, but you should take it too far. There was a fear of ‘the social Gospel’, whatever that is.

However, over the last few years, things seem to have shifted through 180 degrees. In a recent article, Carl Beech of CVM expressed this very clearly:

It may just be the people or organisations that I ‘follow’, but as I look through my Twitter feed I notice that the vast majority of comments are on issues such as justice, food banks, trafficking, gender issues, politics etc.
All of this is of course very good indeed. Before you get grumpy with me, yes I do think that Christians should be engaged with the world, and yes I do think we should be leading the charge in many of these areas. It’s fantastic that Christian leaders (mostly, if not exclusively women, in fact) comment on the papers on BBC News and Sky TV. It’s great that the Evangelical Alliance has staff who are engaged with parliament and it’s fantastic there are big ministries engaged with family life, politics, trafficking and poverty.

There is however a noticeable and surprising absence in all the comment. The stories of radical transformation through the proclamation of the gospel. Sure, there are some, but in no way to the same frequency as the other stuff. I’ve started to wonder why this is.

After all, any speed-read through the gospels and you soon notice that most of the content is about finding and saving the lost. Yeah ok, it’s old-school terminology, but that’s what Jesus calls people who don’t know him, so thats good enough for me. So I ask the question: “If the majority of the content of the gospels is about salvation, why isn’t that reflected in our activity and comment?”

Have we lost confidence in the fact that the simple proclamation of the gospel has the power to radically transform lives? I don’t think it’s a lack of confidence in the gospel that is at the heart of the problem. The problem is that we have drowned out the message of the cross through lots of activity that was inspired by the cross in the first place.

In a nutshell – have we stopped actually telling people about Jesus?

Also, have we stopped believing that the radical transformation of society and the end of injustice will come through people meeting Jesus Christ? (Emphasis mine.)

I believe that Carl has hit an important nail right on the head here; though I would possibly be stronger in my criticism. It is absolutely right and proper that Christians do work to relieve poverty and injustice, but hungry people need Jesus, too, not just food. I fear we may have forgotten this.

From BandAid to RadiAid

Forgive me for posting one more video in this series, but this excellent TED talk gives the background to the RadiAid and Let’s Save Africa videos that I have mentioned recently.

If the video isn’t showing, you can view it directly here.

The principle of looking at the similarities between peoples rather than concentrating on the differences is one that I highlighted in an article I wrote years ago called the St Mary Mead Model of Intercultural Adaption; you can find it on our articles page.

Books I’ve Read: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit

I’ve spent a good deal of my life around the fringes of the relief and aid ‘industries’ and I continue to be fascinated with the way in which development organisations go about their business. Many of the issues they deal with such as sustainability, dependency and donor expectations are ones that I come across in Bible translation and language development work.

For most people, the complications or aid work (or mission work) are rather tedious. They don’t want to ask difficult questions they just want to give some money and change a life. They don’t want to have to wrestle with complex concepts or to be challenged about whether their money is being used wisely. There are plenty of good books on the subject as well as a plethora of good aid blogs, but the average punter can’t be bothered with them. This is where Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit comes in. It isn’t a theory book; it’s a story. Set in Ethiopia it revolves around the lives of group of aid workers working among refugees.

As a story, it works. It’s a pleasing read. Pretty early on, I thought I had the main points of the story sussed out, but I was wrong – which kept me turning the pages to find out what would happen. However, this is a book which can be read on more than one level. It’s an entertaining novel; but it also explores some of the more complex and difficult areas of relief and development work.

It raises delicate issues; from the chaos that an aid worker’s nomadic life brings to personal relationships, through West Wing level politicking as different agencies compete to run their programmes,  to the pressures placed on the field by home offices demanding some high profile stories to tell. It doesn’t always make comfortable reading. At times the narrative gets a little preachy as the author struggles to make a point, but generally, it does a good job of teaching complex issues by the simple expedient of telling a story.

Not only that, but the narrative has a definite ring of truth about it. Indeed, some of the issues it raises ring uncomfortably true in the Christian mission world too.

Who should read this book? I would say that anyone who has a leading role in an organisation which sends funds overseas for any sort of relief or development work should read it. For some, it won’t say anything new, but for others it might open their eyes to issues they have been ignoring for a while. I would also recommend it to anyone who takes a keen passing interest in development issues; for example those who run Tear Fund stalls in churches would benefit from it – though they may be a little shocked!

In the interests of transparency, I should say that I received a free pdf of the book in return for writing this review. However, this has not influenced the content of the review: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit is an excellent book and deserves a wide readership.

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?).

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!

Onesimus Cheats and Then Puts the Boot In

I find it increasingly difficult to come up with anything new to write on this blog and I’m often tempted to recycle a post from the past. Sometimes, I write something that seems new and fresh, only to find that I had posted something almost exactly the same in 2006. Anyway, Onesimus (who was my blogger of the year in 2010) has recently started a new blog and on it, he has reposted something from a few years back. That’s cheating!

However, I’m prepared to forgive him, because this recycled post is very, very thought provoking, especially for those of us who work in Western mission agencies. The post is a strong critique of much missionary practice and it doesn’t make very comfortable reading. The temptation might be simply to ignore criticism of this type, but when someone of the author’s background and experience writes on this subject, we do well to read what he says.

Bill (Onesimus’ real name) makes three key points, which I will highlight here. In later posts, I’d like to look in more detail at what he says:

First, our continuing presence as mission organizations actively facilitates a church-killing dependence among the Christians we are supposedly trying to help.

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…

Thirdly, it is long past time for local Christians to take responsibility for their own churches and training and programs.

From these three points, he builds to a devastating conclusion:

 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.

I would encourage anyone with an interest in the missionary world to read Bill’s whole post. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but I find much of it resonates with my own experience. Even where I don’t agree, the issues he raises are important.

As I said, I hope to come back to look at this in more detail in later posts.