This is an article from the September-December 1998 issue: New Horizons in Mission

Self-Reliance or Interdependence

A Point-Counterpoint Discussion with Gary Parker of Mustard Seed and Glenn Schwartz of World Mission Associates

Self-Reliance or Interdependence

Gary Parker, Mustard Seed Interdependency: Another Way

How does a mission agency avoid the dangers of dependency described by Steve Saint and commented on by Glenn Schwartz in the May-June 1998 issue of Mission Frontiers? Mr. Saint has offered us a thoughtful, field-based experience from which he draws his conclusion that outside agencies do not understand local situations and can often act unilaterally and with arrogance. He describes a worst case scenario which produced his painful reassessment of dependency problems. In his parallel article, Glenn Schwartz identifies dependency as avoidable or unavoidable and divides the latter into either self-induced or induced by "spoiling." His argument is that missionary activity has created institutions which destroy local culture and that missionaries need to learn to be catalysts rather than innovators.

The lessons learned by both Mr. Saint and Mr. Schwartz are urgently important and ought to be thoughtfully considered by all of us. However, I believe there is a third way between dependency and independence. It is the way of interdependency.

It seems to me to be misstating the problem to talk in terms of dependency and independence. The Biblical model of interdependency is one which deserves our consideration. From the time of the New Testament, there has been a portion of the missionary task which devoted itself to diaconal ministry. While this servant ministry (admirably demonstrated in the life of Steve Saint) is a two-edged sword, it may be used as much for the good as for the bad. This kind of help is not merely "civilizing" but is at the heart of demonstrating what it means to be Christian. Mr. Saint's own ministry clearly illustrates how this works. One comes to live and work in a culture to learn as well as to teach. Wisdom is needed to discern how these tasks are best carried out, but it does not necessarily follow that "outside" agencies are incapable of learning these lessons. In fact if these specialized agencies are to be effective, they must learn the same lessons that Mr. Saint has been learning.

It is clear to me that were there not support people helping Mr. Saint provide equipment and training, the Huaorani could not be developing as they are. The problem is not, "helping people with skills, education, equipment, etc.," but rather how that help is applied. It is my experience that most specialized agencies are aware of these problems and seek to address them.

My own ministry, The Mustard Seed, has been addressing these issues for fifty years. Our experience suggests that sponsorship programs are a very responsible way to provide assistance to people in other cultures. We thankfully point to pastors, teachers, doctors, craftspeople, women able to help support their families, and healthy children as evidence of the effectiveness of sponsorship programs. We testify to laypeople able to support their churches and pastors able to deal with problems of modernity as examples of how sponsorship can strengthen people.

I have identified four ways sponsorship programs are effective. First, sponsorship programs provide a means of focusing prayer concern on both the ministry and the people being served. It seems to me that this is as important as the money itself. Second, we believe everyone in a given institution must be provided the same level of service. One cannot have some children receiving lavish support and some receiving none. Third, support ought to be directed at preparing the sponsored person for self support wherever possible. Vocational training is an integral part of our methodology. Fourth, all sponsorship programs ought to be carried out in partnership and close consultation with indigenous partners.

The problem Mr. Saint describes is not a "sponsorship" problem but rather one of bad implementation and poor methodology. His own methodology illustrates a good application of the same concept of people from one culture helping another. The dangers of dependency Mr. Schwartz identifies are not cured by independence, but by interdependency. The solution is to learn how to do development "Christ's way," not to abandon it. Our need is not to refuse to share, but to regard others in other cultures as better than ourselves and to honor them in Christ. We who are in Christ must learn to regard wealth not as privilege but as responsibility.

A Response to Gary Parker of Mustard Seed by Glenn Schwartz of World Mission Associates

I write in response to the letter to the editor written by Gary Parker of Mustard Seed. Gary was responding to the articles by Steve Saint on the Huoarani and mine entitled "How Missionary Attitudes can Create Dependency" (May/June 1998). I will not comment on the Huoarani as that is the privilege of Steve Saint.

The four principles which Gary mentions are admirable. Like Mustard Seed, there are many in cross-cultural ministry today who are applying the kind of servant attitude to which Gary refers. World Mission Associates has a colleague in Nairobi practicing those same principles helping local leaders to create Bible concordances in African languages.

Terms like "interdependence" and "partnership" are popular in mission circles these days. But I learned a long time ago that not all who use these terms have in mind the healthy definition to which some of us are deeply committed. Sometimes these terms are applied to situations where the only thing that flows between the partners is money, and that flow is often in only one direction. Some time ago the director of a funding agency with an office in East Africa was asked what the role of the receiving partners was in their partnership. His response was, "We give the money, and they write the reports." Unfortunately that is too often the case in so-called partnerships.

It is equally difficult for me to see how the term interdependence can be applied to situations where the flow of resources is in only one direction. I heard a story recently about a congregation in a large cathedral in the south of England. They heard about the problems of the church in a troubled country in North Africa where there has been persecution--even martyrdom. At the same time, many new congregations have been started recently in that country because of the way God's Spirit has been at work. The people in England wanted to help those in Africa, so they asked them, "What can we do to help you?" Those in Africa responded by saying, "First, tell us what can we do to help you?" And the people in England said, "We don't have any needs with which you can help." So the people in Africa said, "If we can't help you, then you can't help us."

The test of terms like interdependence and partnership is to ask in how many directions resources flow. It is also important to ask about the nature of the resources. There are partnerships in church/mission relations today in which everybody brings something meaningful to the table. The best ones are not the ones in which money is the primary focus.

Until partnerships reflect the gifts and abilities of all partners, they will continue to demean those who get more than they give. Without doubt, there is a Biblical mandate to help those who are in need. But to do so in a way which robs them of their dignity does not promote the Biblical concept of justice from which we all deserve to benefit.

My encouragement to Gary Parker and his colleagues is to keep on helping those who are in need. However, in the process, make sure not to do for others what they are capable of doing for themselves, because that is clearly when the seeds of the dependency syndrome are sown.


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