A Sri Lankan leader gives challenges and cautions to North American givers.
A conversation with Ajith Fernando.
A s a prominent evangelical leader from Sri Lanka, Ajith Fernando has something to say about Western patterns of giving. He has served as the National Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka since 1976. His most recent book is Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths (Discovery House 2001). He is also featured in the July 2001 edition of Evangelical Missions Quarterly on partnership. He was gracious to answer a few questions on strategic giving for Mission Frontiers via e-mail.
MF: What would be some key elements that you would include in a criteria for strategic giving?
Fernando: Let me first say that I am a little cautious about this word “strategic.” Indeed, we must think strategically. For example, if a field suddenly opens to the Gospel for a brief window of time, then we must concentrate our energies on this field. In this sense, strategy is important and should be considered when we make decisions about giving.
The way we normally use the word “strategic” may imply a desire for quick results. If that were always the case, some of the most significant work that is happening in the Kingdom would be eliminated. Christians should be ministering in the places of greatest need. But, often, that work is not very attractive, and the results may take a long time to come. Some Christians might feel that, given the lack of visible fruit, such ministries are not worth investing in financially. Some of the great heroes of the Church today would not be very attractive to many North Americans, as their work does not excite “strategically”-oriented people. And some of these heroes I am talking about are American missionaries!
Therefore, more stress should be placed on call than on the strategic nature of the giving. We must always ask, “What work is God calling us to be involved in?” To discover this, we must become informed about what the needs are around the world. We cannot meet all the needs we encounter, so we must prayerfully seek God’s direction and come to the sense that “this is where God wants us to be involved.” This is how the Antioch church sent out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2-3), and this is what lies behind Paul’s launch into Europe through the Macedonian call (Acts 16:6-10).
Of course there are times when an emergency situation needs an emergency response. This happened with the Antioch church when Agabus prophesied that there was going to be a famine, and Judea would be in need (Acts 11: 28-30). Christians have a good record of being among the first to come with assistance in disaster situations.
Another important criterion is that of relationship. Most Third World cultures are relational in orientation, and relationships take time to cultivate. Many Western mission groups are signing partnership contracts with Third World groups. Perhaps this is a positive step to help avoid the abuse of missionary gifts, but contracts should never be a substitute for the hard work of building relationships. Giving is just one aspect of a spiritual tie between Christians. That tie involves many things such as sharing heart concerns, praying for one another and, of course, reporting on the work and the use of donations.
MF: What particular challenge would you give to a North American?
Fernando: The age-old challenge of the glaring disparity in resources between North America and the rest of the world is still relevant and vitally important to stress. Paul said that one reason for giving is to achieve equality (2 Cor. 8:13-14). That is one of the most troubling statements in the Bible for me! It should make anyone who lives in relative affluence extremely uneasy. That unease is bearable if we have the more basic joy of the Lord as our strength. We should allow our hearts to be broken by the spiritual and physical needs of people. It will encourage us to be sober-minded and make missionary involvement a vital, primary aspect of our lifestyle.
I realize that the North Americans are motivating a lot of people today by challenging them to experience the thrill of a mission trip. These trips have influenced people to rethink their priorities and become lifelong “World Christians.” This is great.
An even more important way to motivate people to be involved is to expose them to the stark reality of the difference Christ makes in the lives of people. Without Christ people are eternally lost, and with Him they have eternal salvation. The Great Commission deals with such an absolutely urgent issue that we should be willing to die for it! Giving is just a small part of that dying!
In this post-modern world experiential motivation to mission might be more appealing than theological motivation, but we need a strong foundation to endure the suffering that will surely come to us if we do something significant for God. Christians need to learn to stick to their commitments when the going gets tough. That is how we will bring the message of salvation to a world that is hostile to the Gospel. The theological fact of the eternal lostness of people without Christ is one such foundation that will give us the perseverance that our commitment to the call requires.
MF: What particular caution would you give to a North American?
Fernando: I think North Americans are among the most generous people in the world. As a student in the United States, I experienced the full measure of this generosity. But I also think that North Americans have a difficult time thinking cross-culturally. Despite all the talk about cross-cultural relationships today, they process information they receive from other cultures through their own cultural grid and end up making some very wrong judgments.
Perhaps this is because Americans have not been forced to face up to revolt from colonies like the Europeans had to. They are such a huge economic bloc that they haven’t needed to adjust much to the rest of the world, though the rest of the world has had to adjust to them in order to survive!
Perhaps another cause is the efficiency orientation of the West. Westerners often take words at face value, come to conclusions and get down to action rapidly without going through the process of relationship building. The result is that they often end up supporting people who are not very honest. Given the widespread lack of integrity in the world today, you find many such people in the church too! I am amazed sometimes how Westerners can be so impressed by people about whom many Third World Christians have so many questions!
Let me suggest some ways to overcome this cultural blind spot. First, Westerners should be aware that they have this problem and therefore be suspicious about their initial conclusions about people and projects. Then they can ask trustworthy people from within the culture for help. Of course, our people are very reluctant to be critical about a fellow countryman and may just give a small hint about their reservations. The Westerners, who are already enthusiastic about this person, often do not catch the hint. They latch on to the positive things that were said (usually out of cultural politeness). They go ahead and back the person and often end up being taken for a ride.
Therefore, it is vital to take time to cultivate deep friendship and spiritual accountability with individuals you desire to help. One of the keys to overcoming the lack of integrity in our cultures is Christian community that truly practices spiritual accountability. I have seen dishonest people change in these environments. Those who do not want to change usually leave because they find the demand for openness too difficult to handle.
Let me give just one more caution. In our cultures, it is very difficult to say “No” to a donor’s request. If a donor says that he or she is coming to visit the receiver, the receiver would usually immediately write back saying, “Come,” even though such a visit would be extremely inconvenient. This has become a serious problem in recent times. We have a shortage of leaders in our part of the world, and the few leaders we do have are unable to do the work they need to because they are so busy hosting foreigners. Friends have shared with me their great frustration over this, but they would never mention it to a visiting donor. To tell a guest such a thing is quite unacceptable for our way of hospitality. Westerners need to be conscious of this and be on the lookout for any hint that it would be unwise to visit at a given time.
MF: How would you challenge a Sri Lankan (or someone from another developing country) differently than you would a North American?
Fernando: We have to convince Sri Lankan Christians that they do have something to contribute to missions. Our problems may seem to be so great that it is hard to communicate this. So many of our leaders have gone to the West that many of our people feel we have given the West enough “foreign aid” by giving away our greatest treasures—our key leaders. The reasoning is that since so many of our people are using their brilliance to enrich these already rich cultures, we must use all of our remaining resources to look after ourselves.
But all Christians, wherever they live, must be missionary-minded. Henry Martyn said, “The spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions; and the nearer we get to him, the more intensely missionary we must be become.” This attitude is something we must inculcate in all Christians whether they are from economically rich or poor backgrounds. All Christians are rich, and have something to offer to the world, even though they may be economically extremely poor. Our challenge is to convince our people of this!
MF: Do you see a pattern in America of believers being willing to give of their resources but less willing to give of themselves?
Fernando: This is a pattern we see everywhere, and it cannot be helped sometimes. Given the great needs in the world, we cannot get personally involved in every project we give to, or we would burn out very soon! But we must get involved personally when it comes to our primary missionary concerns. Our ministry has benefited from the giving of some North Americans who are doing this, and they have been a great blessing to me personally.
I think that the best way to get personally involved is to pray. What a wonderfully exciting privilege prayer is! We can affect the course of history thousands of miles away from home by praying for missions right where we are. I think prayer is more powerful than money. Therefore, we must make motivation to missionary praying a higher priority than it currently is.
Of course, when you pray with your spiritual ears open, God starts prompting you about other ways to get involved in missions. Prayer is dangerous business! But I would much rather choose the dangerous excitement of being open to God’s wonderful surprises over the deadening boredom of living for self!