This is an article from the January-February 2000 issue: Short-Term Missions

What Triggers the Move Toward Self-Reliance?

What Triggers the Move Toward Self-Reliance?

For some time I have been concentrating on issues of dependency and the move toward self-reliance among mission-established churches. An intriguing issue which has surfaced in this process is the question of what triggers the move toward self-reliance. While there is much more to be learned about the dynamics involved, one thing has become clear: the event which triggers the change is different--sometimes very different--in different places. From what we have learned so far, the following are a few examples of the dynamics involved in the move toward self-reliance.

Direct Revelation from the Lord

First, for some, there is a direct revelation from the Lord. I know of five South African church leaders who have testified to some special revelation--sometimes supernatural--in getting the message that their funding should be found locally and not overseas. One church leader in South Africa had an ambitious goal of raising 100 million South African rand for a ministry that God laid on his heart. While on a visit to England he met business people whom he thought would help him to achieve the goal; but the Lord spoke to him saying, "All the funding you need is with business people in your community in South Africa." Another South African leader visited North America and decided that he would seek to raise the funds he needed from nonwhite churches in the USA. However, every time he visited a congregation, the Lord told him, "Don't ask these people for any money. Instead, bless this congregation by putting something into their collection." He said he found himself putting in twenty dollars here and fifty dollars there from his own funds. He obeyed the Lord and eventually returned to South Africa to look for the funds he needed among his own people. He testified that God honored his obedience, and the resources needed to buy a large building were raised at home.1

Divine Intervention in Human Events

A second way that self-reliance is precipitated is through Divine intervention as outside funds and personnel are removed (sometimes against the wishes of those involved). This happened in Ethiopia in 1938 when, at the time of the Italian invasion, expatriate missionaries were forced out of the country for a period of five years. They left behind about a hundred believers. Upon their return they found that the one hundred had grown to ten thousand. A similar thing happened in China when, in the middle of the 20th century, missionaries were forced to leave. Fifty years later it is now estimated that the one million believers have become more than fifty million. Similar stories could be told of Mozambique where part of the church began to thrive when outsiders on whom it had become dependent were removed through no choice of their own.

Sound Missiological Teaching

Third, the church learns to stand on its own two feet through the sound teaching of those who sow the Gospel seed. This happened in Irian Jaya among the Dani people where missionaries consciously and conscientiously applied sound indigenous principles when the church was started. So positive was the result that the Dani people began sending out their own missionaries at their own expense within a decade of hearing the Gospel. This inspiring story can be found in Torches of Joy written by John Dekker. Sadly, one reason so many churches become dependent is that missionaries often know little or nothing about the indigenous principle or how to promote it.

In another situation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) American missionaries started a church. On the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the church in PNG sent air tickets to the USA inviting the missionaries to attend the celebration. Obviously there was sound teaching when the church was started.

Sound Ecclesiastical Teaching

Fourth, churches can become self-supporting through sound teaching and practices promoted by committed, astute local church leaders. In Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa there are many examples of church leaders who decided it was time to change the system by which their church functioned. Led by the Holy Spirit and sometimes exercising sheer determination, they led their people through a process of change. Many times the process included finding local resources to replace the foreign funding on which they had come to depend.2

Unilateral Initiative by Outsiders

A fifth way, and one that has sometimes not had good success, is a unilateral plan initiated by missionaries or other outsiders who helped create the problem of dependency in the first place. In a few cases it has worked, but it has often been less than satisfactory. In this scenario outsiders became aware of the dependency which developed and then introduced something like a ten-year plan to reduce outside subsidy. The reason this often failed is that the shift took place in the minds of the outsiders but not necessarily among the local leaders and their members. In other words, true "psychological ownership" did not transfer. On the positive side, there have been situations in which local people set aside such a ten-year plan after only a few years because psychological ownership had already transferred. In at least two cases, local leaders took full financial responsibility after only three years and effectively scuttled the rest of the plan.

Arbitrary Cutting Off of Outside Support

A sixth way a transition toward self-reliance may occur happens when outside funding is arbitrarily cut off. Some time ago a government official in the Middle East was reflecting on the amount of foreign aid his country received from the West. His conclusion was this: "I think that our country will not learn to stand on its own two feet until it feels the shock of being deprived." Arbitrarily cutting off the funds seems like a harsh way to deal with the problem of dependency. One way that mission societies can explain their rationale is to tell those in dependent churches that the funds they have been receiving are needed to preach the Gospel where it has not yet been preached, such as the 10/40 Window. After all, some believers have been subsidized for a hundred years or more while others are still waiting to hear the Gospel for the first time. Great care must be taken when arbitrarily cutting off outside funding, however. That very act could well be interpreted as one more act of paternalism. Finding an appropriate way through the process will demand the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Genuine Spiritual Renewal

A seventh way churches become self-reliant is through widespread and genuine spiritual renewal. For many years a church in northeastern Africa was dependent on a mission society overseas. Then within a short period of time something dramatic happened. First came persecution. In the process the church went underground. In the midst of the suffering, the Lord provided valuable lessons of survival. When the period of testing ended, the church emerged with a vigor it had never known before. In the process, church leaders began to testify to what was happening to church finances. The first report was that outside subsidy had dropped from 95 percent of the church's budget to 45 percent. At last count the subsidy was down to 15 percent and still dropping. In this case the church members were taken through a process of refining and discovered that they could joyfully give what was needed to carry out God's work in their communities. The renewal also resulted in a dramatic increase in church membership.

Restructuring What Was Inherited from the Past

Another way a church can promote the move toward self-reliance is through serious restructuring of the institutions inherited from the past. The Presbyterian Church in East Africa took bold steps to restructure how its work was done. The leaders made self-reliance a theme in church business meetings. Even their worship times included a song about how to exercise self-reliance. Their church newspaper is called Jitegemea, the Swahili word for self-reliance. In the restructuring process, businesses of the church were put into the hands of business people, and issues of church administration, growth and evangelism were put into the hands of church men and women. Most importantly, church leaders were aware of the leading of the Holy Spirit as they restructured their church. These changes were carried out in the face of criticism from outsiders who had difficulty appreciating the restructuring being initiated and carried out by local leaders.

A Shift In Attitude by Outsiders

Yet another way that the transfer toward self-reliance is precipitated is through a positive shift in attitude that occurs among missionaries or development workers who know that the time for change has come. In some instances, insightful missionaries have recognized that it was time for change.3 Instinctively, and often with great courage, they have done the right things to help foster change. In one case it was as simple as consciously taking a back seat while local people accepted the privilege of managing their own affairs. In cases such as this, wise and committed outsiders not only anticipate change, but they help to precipitate it by the things they do or, perhaps more importantly, don't do. Missionaries and mission executives have found that they can precipitate change simply by not being present when local decision-making is done. This may seem like a small change to make, but the consequences can be dramatic because it could be what triggers the move toward local psychological ownership. This is quite different from the method described above in which outsiders arbitrarily impose a solution.


Many other factors affect the process leading to self-reliance for mission-established churches: cultural differences, missionary attitudes, church doctrine, economic conditions, and the prevailing political situation, among others. The good news is that the move from dependency toward self-reliance is possible. That has been demonstrated over and over again. It behooves church and mission leaders everywhere to be aware of the dynamics at work in the process and become aligned with what the Holy Spirit is doing in a given situation.

When the period of testing ended, the church emerged with a vigor it had never known before. 

  1. For another illustration see the article "Don't Chase Buffaloes" on the WMA web site at

  2. Details of several of these stories are given in Lesson 2 of the WMA video series on Dependency and Self-Reliance among Mission-Established Churches.

  3. One story about a missionary demonstrating this change in attitude is the testimony of Tim Michell. It is entitled "Western Missionaries in Africa: One Missionary's Encounter with Self-Reliance Thinking," which can be found on the WMA web site at



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