What Hath Our Western Money and Our Western Gospel Wrought?
Increasing financial paternalism and accompanying Westernization of the gospel are the two most critical issues facing us in world missions today. We have a choice to make: either push these issues under the rug and hope they will go away by maintaining the status quo, or face them honestly with confession, repentance, and the search for better ways. The cause of our Great Commission demands that we do the latter.
Paternalism creates dependency. It denies the wholeness of the individual and ultimately leads to his or her bondage and suppression. There can be no genuine reciprocity between individuals or groups when one of them treats the other like a child.
The late Charles Troutman, who served with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship USA and Australia and the Latin American Mission called financial paternalism the "worst curse" that we could put on the national church. As a longtime missionary myself, I have seen its debilitating effects upon the churches wherever I have traveled in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Financial paternalism separates the people who get the money from those who do not. When church leaders receive such increased income, which often is several times greater than their peers' jealousy and strife often ensue. It leads to the professionalization of the clergy. This in turn produces a false dichotomy between the laity and the clergy.
We must confront the long-range effects of supporting Christians overseas on a regular basis, especially pastors and evangelists, Among the Quechua Indian believers in the Andes mountain area of Latin America, indiscriminate outside financial support is an ever increasing problem. Previously the Quechuas were self-supporting and self-propagating, but now--because of financial paternalism of some agencies and individuals--they are divided. A number of Quechua churches, now supported by foreign funds no longer have the same vision to reach the lost as they once did when they were self- supporting.
Another problem with our Western financial paternalism is that it implies that the church cannot grow, or in some cases even exist, in its own native soil apart from Western money. To disprove this, all we need to do is look at the phenomenal growth of the New Testament church of the first century and the outstanding growth in our own century in both Ethiopia and China, when the churches were completely cut off from outside funds. When will we realize that more Western money will only stagnate the growth of the church around the world?
On every continent we can find outstanding examples of self- supporting churches and national missionary bodies. In Nigeria the Evangelical Churches of West Africa, which has more than a million baptized believers, sponsors its own mission agency with nearly 800 Nigerian missionaries. There are other examples as well, such as some of the Presbyterian missions in Korea. One local Korean church with 700 members sent seven couples with full support to Japan and the Philippines. When their missionaries lack support, pastors themselves refuse or postpone their own salaries until the support is made up. Christians will fast using the money to meet their financial commitment to their missionaries.
Financial paternalism also stifles local initiative, usually in direct proportion to the length of time such assistance has been given. It is no accident the Haiti and Bolivia, for example, which have received generous foreign aid, are still today poor countries. Paternalism may explain why the majority of community projects fail,once the development agency is left. The project belongs to the foreigner or the outsider, not to the local people or the community.
A better way
Is there a better way? I believe there is. The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) of Latin America provides a good model of interdependence. In order not to be dependent on foreign aid, in Latin America the IFES works on the principle of funds being raised in each country where it has Latin American Staff workers.
In one Latin American seminary, where financial paternalism was endemic, the students paid no tuition, received textbooks at half price,paid nothing for their room and 50 percent for their board. The situation was so denigrating, that the students, most of whom came from the poorer classes, went on strike. With the backing of the local church board, the seminary closed for one year. It opened with a new structure, that was not paternalistic, and there were only eight students--all of them of a higher caliber academically, spiritually, and socially than the pervious students. They paid moderate prices for their tuition and room and were given free access to the kitchen and dining room, although they paid for their own food. Most of them worked in the afternoon to pay their seminary fees.
As these students began to show their spiritual gifts, the churches began to support them. At the end of that year, for the first time six churches were supporting seminary students and the seminary was able to open its own bank account. After three years, nine part-time teachers were completely supported by the tuition of the growing student body. Student morale was high and the teachers gave it their best shot. A number of these graduates are now full-time pastors. Unless Local churches support their own theological institutions, such institutions will always be seen as foreign, with little impact on the local society.
Westernization of the Gospel
The second critical issue facing us in world missions is how deeply and tragically we have Westernized the gospel. Westernizing the gospel is a surreptitious process growing out of financial paternalism and it begins with the feeling that "Western is better." It is magnified when church leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America are trained in the United States or Europe.
Our failure to address properly cross-cultural contextualization is one reason why the sycretistic, independent African churches are growing so rapidly today, numbering more than 81,000and growing at a rate of 850,000 members per year, according to David Barrett's report in 1986. These people have reacted to the Westernization of the gospel and returned to their traditional roots. The North American and European packaging of the gospel has made it difficult for them, and for many others in other parts of the world, to internalize biblical truth.
Our Western cultural forms are also highly visible in many of our mass evangelistic efforts. At times the only change is the translation from English into another language. For example,in Latin America we have a culture of courtesy which implies doing what a person of higher status indicates. Our North American evangelists usually belong to the upper middle class. Therefore the masses of people will almost always respond to there invitation to accept Christ. However, in most instances the number of genuine conversions has been minimal. I was the chairman of the follow-up committee for two major evangelistic campaigns in Bolivia. I found that after the campaigns the number of people in an evangelical church, or identifying themselves as born again Christians one year later was as little as one percent of the total number of professions. Alfredo Smith, a leading Latin American pastor, has come up with the same statistic.
Over the past 25 years, in spite of our missionary rhetoric to the contrary, there has been little cultural adaptation in the continuing use of North American evangelistic methods, techniques, and forms in non-Western cultures. Unless our missiologists, missionaries, and home churches are willing to grapple with these issues and pay the price of change, the Westernization of the gospel--which is simply paternalism in another guise--will invariably increase.
There is a strong connection between our financial paternalism and our Westernization of the gospel. The greater the funding from Western agencies and individuals, the greater the danger of our spreading "another gospel" --i.e., a Western gospel--whose form is often irrelevant and out of the context of the people in Africa, Asia,, and Latin America. Cultural strings are often attached to our money, because "he who pays the piper names the tune." One missionary colleague recently confirmed what I have seen in so many parts of the world: "National leader have so absorbed the Western cultural transplant that they will defend to the death the imported ways of doing things."
Thus a foreign, Western model--rather than a truly biblical, indigenous one--continues to be perpetuated in much of the world.
No simple answers
Financial paternalism and the Westernization of the gospel are complex issues with no simple answers.
The leaders of our Western agencies must make some major shifts. Changes of attitude, thinking, and methods will not take place unless people at the highest levels of our missions organizations, denominations, and churches decide to do so.
We also need to dialogue with our Christian brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, and Latin America who continue to receive so much funding from the West. More people need to write about financial paternalism and the Westernization of the gospel. We need practical advice to get out of the mess we are in, without at the same time neglecting our responsibility to give and minister cross-culturally. One thing seems certain: We cannot continue to do "business as usual." Ignoring financial paternalism and the implications of a "Western gospel" will only stagnate the growth of the church and hinder the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
This article was excerpted from "What hath our Western money and our Western gospel wrought?" Reprinted by permission from the July 1991 issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Box 794, Wheaton, Ill. 60189.)