The American Dollar Support System

Charles Cook

In the four decades since World War II the churches of Christ in America have sent missionaries to every continent on the globe and congregations have been established in every country except for about twenty-five. The challenge has been put before the brotherhood to target these remaining countries for evangelism and church planting, and judging from our record, missionaries will be sent to them soon. Wherever we have attempted to establish indigenous works, and that has always been our stated goal, we have had to deal with the question of putting national church leaders and preachers on the American dollar support system. The question has been: "Who Pays?" From the beginning this issue has been debated among us. Some spotted this as potentially damaging to our efforts to follow the New Testament pattern for church planting, and it smacks of trouble to anyone with common sense. However, others saw it as a tailor-made answer to the problem of starting churches where the standard of living was extremely low and prospects for newly established local churches supporting their own gospel workers was apparently nil. The thinking was: "Why not put needed national leaders on temporary support by American churches and when the foreign churches are numerically strong they can support their own local personnel." Further, it was reasoned that American brethren are generous and want to be involved in not only sending missionaries but in doing anything they can to further the cause of Christ. Hence, for the majority of our missionaries it was a foregone conclusion, the American brotherhood will be approached for carrying the burden of supporting foreign nationals needed to lead the new congregations in foreign lands. Perfect! Or, was it? As far as I am concerned the verdict is in and the whole thing has been one tremendous mistake. To put nationals on a U.S. monetary support system, no matter the motive, no matter how temporary the arrangement, was a mistake of monumental proportions!

Though some used the opportunity for personal glory, I believe most of our missionaries had good hearts and were primarily interested in promoting methods that would best facilitate the spreading of the gospel into all the world. They never intended to create the monstrous, self- destructive system that has evolved, they only intended to do the right thing, and often did so at great personal expense. The decision to shore up our works with the aid of American funds was a pragmatic move, it was simply based on what does and does not work. The Westernization or Americanization of the gospel and the imposing of American funds to guarantee our success should never have happened. We were trying to "force the kingdom," but the gospel is designed to spread naturally throughout a country and will acclimate to any economy. We ignored the true indigenous method. We were arrogant and wanted to be in control of our works instead of trusting God and letting the gospel run its own course.

This methodology was uniformly adopted by almost all our missionary forces sent out after WWII. Wherever we went we created an atmosphere of dependency upon the U.S. dollar, including Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America. In my opinion this has hindered the natural progress of the gospel instead of helping it. Without realizing it we imposed our culture, methods and traditions upon our converts, and then we put up the money to insure our control over them. We have in practically everyone of our foreign missionary works encouraged dependency on the foreign missionary and his foreign money. The results have been:

  1. Weak, national "welfare type" churches who depend on U.S. churches for funding and U.S. missionaries for decisions.
  2. A forsaking of the indigenous principle.
  3. No personal responsibility for their own local evangelism.
  4. No local leadership for foreign churches.

There is a ray of hope because many of us are beginning to realize the importance of peoples' need for being responsible for their own local works and programs. New local churches simply must be allowed to take responsibility for local evangelism. They must from the start begin developing and training future leaders. They must feel that the success or failure of their congregation has greatly to do with their own faith in God and that He is depending on them. They must understand that the Cause of Christ does not need American monetary aid in order to succeed. Every local church must become indigenous in its own setting without any kind of control from without!

I would point to Paul's methodology as collaboration of what is being maintained in this article. He entered a city or region and stayed but a short time. He established local works in every place. He developed leadership as soon as possible (i.e., Acts 14:21-23). There is no indication in Scripture that he funded or controlled the administrative processes of the churches he started. However, there is indication that they funded him and provided his necessities from time to time (i.e., Phil. 4:14-20). When missionaries today establish works and make them dependent on American funds they violate the very principles and patterns clearly seen in the New Testament for doing successful church planting. Paul saw to it that newly formed congregations were granted the privilege of independence. He gave them the respect that goes with supporting one's own work. Outside financing robs people of the incentive to give of their lives and resources in support of their own local ministries. When we do for others what they need to be doing for themselves we only make them weaker in faith, not stronger.

In fact, in our modern missionary endeavors we have been doing for our converts what they well may never be able to do for big salaries and build big buildings. A church does not have to have a building, it does not have to have a paid preacher. Who taught them otherwise? These are Western concepts which are not necessarily biblical. Ideally, those of us who do missionary work in foreign places should be giving our new converts a model they can imitate, not one they may never be able to match. People need a vision of what they can be and where they can go. In too many cases we have given them our own vision, one they themselves can never duplicate. Every church must set its own goals....goals that are attainable. The American level of support is a model that national churches cannot and perhaps never will reproduce.

Here is our criticism put succinctly: Most of the foreign works established by American missionaries in recent years have never matured to the point of having their own leadership, supporting their own evangelists, or building their own worship facilities. And, the idea that they might take on the responsibility for sending out missionaries to other regions of their own country has not ever been discussed with them. If an ax must fall upon the root of this problem it must be placed at the feet of American missionaries. We are primarily the ones who caused this syndrome of unhealthy dependence on foreign funding and, too often, foreign decision-making. And, of course, when we took our "plea for temporary support of foreign nationals" to American churches they bought in hook, line and sinker.

In addition to robbing our newly established churches of incentive and dignity and giving them a model of Christianity they could never reproduce, we paid their preachers far more than their local economy called for, we made them "little lords" over their own people. So, even if it was temporary it could never be matched by them. And how could a foreign local church discipline a preacher being supported by an outside source? He ruled the roost. He called the shots. He ran the show. In all of our Indian congregations where the local preacher is supported by an American missionary via an American church, he is the "pastor" and makes all decisions. That is, he does so in the absence of the American missionary. When the missionary is on the field he is in charge. It is an evil little system eating the very heart out of what otherwise could be a fairly stable brotherhood. And how often, to the delight of the missionary's ego, did they tell him they would never be able to teach like him or know the Bible the way he does. It's all so self-defeating! We have shot ourselves in the foot by creating works that can only operate in our absence through the control of an American supported pastor or works that quickly died after we returned home because an American supported pastor was not left in place. It was a sad day for the church when we abandoned the indigenous principle.

However, many are still content to justify themselves by arguing that because Asians, Africans, South Americans and other Third World Nations were economically poor and lacked resources, America had to step in and supply needed funds. In India it was easy to put forth this argument because the Indian people were seemingly poor and in obvious need of our financial assistance. It was all so logical, in the way Socialism is perceived to be logical, in the way welfare assistance seems to answer social problems. Our missionaries thought this was the way to go!

In the case of India, and several other Asian nations, they were ruled by the British for a couple of centuries. During this Colonial Era Indians and other Asians were conditioned to receive handouts from the expatriates running their countries. This is how the "stipend mentality" developed in Asia. Much of this type of thinking has held over into modern Asia (especially India) and there are many prepared to "do whatever is necessary" to please the foreigner and get the reward. Many of the mass baptisms reported in American brotherhood papers over the years were motivated in just this way. The Americans wanted Indians to cooperate and be baptized (Hindus go for a daily washing anyhow) and Indians wanted American prosperity. Hence, they reasoned "if we accommodate we will be rewarded." The village leader might reason: "Perhaps they will dig us a new village well. Perhaps they will supply rice or give rupees....let us do whatever is needed to get the results." You read the reports in Christian Chronicle and World Radio News: "1,647 BAPTISMS, 54 DENOMINATIONAL PREACHERS CONVERTED, 105 NEW CONGREGATIONS STARTED IN INDIA DURING RECENT CAMPAIGN SEASON." This is the kind of success everyone wants to be a part of, invite that missionary to our congregation for a presentation, give him whatever he needs to do more of this kind of mission work....this is great!

When I first arrived in India twenty years ago I was overwhelmed with what I perceived to be rampant poverty. In recent years I have discovered that what at first looked like poverty was simply something else, it was the way the culture in India operates. They were poor, but most of them were poor only by my standard. Indians have money and they know how to get things done. God has given many of them abundant resources, including money, talents and other gifts. Indians own businesses and farms and houses. Many have transportation vehicles and TVs, VCRs and satellite dishes. What we failed to do was to teach them what the Bible says about stewardship and responsible Christian service. We taught first principles and footed the bill, that was our M.O. Indian brethren who owned businesses and held good paying jobs were having all their financial obligations to the church paid for them, so on Sunday we were content when they dropped in a few coins. I always wondered how they could come up with a lakh of rupees (presently $3,800 U.S.) for a wedding but were too poor to give for supporting the gospel. To many Asian Christians were taught "token giving." On Sunday they drop in a few coins....because it was all being paid for by the American brethren.

I know there are many who will become very defensive as they read this, they will want to point out that there have been many sincere and dedicated converts who were not contaminated by our support practices. That is true many times over and for every one of them we genuinely praise the Lord. Building a successful missionary program, however, does not rest on individuals alone. Like evangelism, it is most effective when it flows from the energized church as a whole. If the larger church is less than enthusiastic or living under the cloud of financial dependence, it will hardly develop its own leaders, send out its own evangelists or overflow with missionary enthusiasm. Mention these things to the average foreign congregation and they will instantly supply you with a listing of reasons why their local responsibilities cannot be met. It will all boil down to them not having the resources or abilities. That translates: "We are just a poor Indian church, what can we do?" They will insist that foreign aid is needed.

It might surprise us to discover just how little available resources have to do with creating self-sufficient, self-governing and self-propagating churches. Funding and budgets are not even alluded to in the book of Acts, the early Christians simply did it. In the New Testament wealth and poverty seem to have nothing to do with creating an indigenous work. But with modern missions they seem to be paramount. The problem has been our poor methods, we have taught dependency upon the American dollar. We have talked money more than gospel. We have created a mentality of dependence in our converts and all because we were afraid to let them grow, we wanted to control the growth and guarantee success. We should have planted, watered and left. We dug in, invested and controlled. For these reasons I conclude that financial independence has less to do with wealth and poverty than with a mentality of dependence that accompanied our mission efforts.

In India in particular, but in other places too, our missionaries baptized people by the thousands and left them without any follow-up teaching or organizational structuring. As we say, they dip'em and drop'em. When new converts are made there must instantaneously begin the process of forming them into functional congregations with regular meeting habits, and there must instantaneously begin the process of developing leadership within the new work. In too many instances none of these follow-up procedures were administered. Some thought this matter would automatically take care of itself, that these new Christians would just naturally form into congregations. Others evidently gave it no thought whatsoever. But missionaries who plant works must pass on vision and responsibility to the people they are working with. We must give our new converts a chance to make it. What some have done regarding this business of baptizing masses and leaving them is tantamount to taking a new born baby on the night of its birth out of its nursery and laying it beside a busy highway hoping for its survival. How in the world did these "dip'em and drop'em missionaries" expect these thousands of newly baptized Christians to make it without further instruction and organization....without further teaching in the Word? When Jesus commissioned us to make disciples and baptize those who believe, he further instructed us to continue to teach them to maturity (Matt. 28:18-20).

In those mission fields of the world where churches have been planted and reached a good level of maturity (and there are some such areas, we have not intended to sow despair and suggest that mission works everywhere have failed) we now have viable leaders overseeing self-sufficient bodies of believers who themselves are sending out missionaries to unevangelized regions. This is the indigenization process at work.

On the other hand, this DEPENDENCY SYNDROME is what we have more often produced and it carries over generation after generation. We are now into our third generation of Christians in India and hope we are seeing the problem being resolved. The first and even the second generation never felt confident enough to become decision makers and leaders. They fostered that old "stipend mentality" and worked every angle to get American support. Many of our works quickly died with the departure of the missionaries. And where American funds were withdrawn there was a sudden and sure death of the work.

Asians in general (India included) are becoming more affluent, but seemingly remaining on American support still carries a high priority. I talked with many well-to-do Brethren in Asia who speak candidly about going to America to raise work funds for their churches. Many of them have no intention of becoming self-reliant, and creating an indigenous Local Church.

Even with the recent slump in the Asian economies, one visiting Asia would have to be blind not to see the tremendous economic progress made over the past ten years. However, I know of several affluent congregations in Asia that remain dependent on overseas funding. This situation is a carry-over of the old mentality of dependence that has characterized our Mission Works in Asia from as far back as the 1960s. And, let us not kid ourselves, European, African and South American churches are still calling on the American Church to foot the bill.

What if all support from America was suddenly cut-off? What would happen? (This could happen if there were to be an economic collapse in Western societies.) The first reaction would be that a sudden withholding of funds would be neither Christian nor productive, that it would in fact be cruel. I am not certain....not certain that it would be unchristian nor non-productive. To say the least, it would be interesting. This would tell us what our works are made of....straw or gold. It just might be the right prescription.

Perhaps the most pitiful aspects of these American funded foreign churches is that it is the outside funding that is actually keeping them from growing spiritually and maturing in the Lord. Foreign nationals quickly caught on that there was no need for them to put real money, paper money, into the church offering plate. They knew that if they dropped in a few token coins and sat back and waited long enough, funds would eventually come from an American source. No one matures while letting others pay their way and carry all their burdens! No one matures while learning the selfishness of a welfare mentality - never to know the joys of giving is a sad thing!

Perhaps the answer to these problems created by poor mission methods lies with the foreign churches themselves. Perhaps the most effective solutions would be for nationals to declare that they don't want or need any more outside funding. This has happened in a few places. This approach is much preferred to the American supporting church arbitrarily cutting off the funds. Unfortunately, in both cases there is potential for hurt feelings, particularly in the latter. It is also good to remember that while either decision may cause hurt, to allow the problem to go unresolved may be even more harmful in the long run. Remember that a sudden or drastic transition is not the only option. It likely would be more feasible to take a generation and educate ourselves to a more sensible methodology and allow these problems to go away. The sooner we stop perpetuating dependency on American funds, the better. May God give us all the opportunity and courage to do what is right.

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Last updated on January 28, 2013
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