Are Native Missions Trustworthy With The Money We Send Overseas?
Christian Aid has been supporting indigenous evangelistic missions for 58 years. We have said that it makes much more sense than perpetuating the costly practice of sending out American missionaries, especially those who compete with our fellow believers who are already there.
While response has been generally favorable, some traditionalists have raised objections. A few have been severely critical, and have tried to persuade our churches not to support indigenous missions.
Here are three stereotypes often raised by those who oppose supporting the work of independent indigenous missions:
1. You can't trust the "nationals" with handling money.
This generalization is a carry-over from colonial days of the 19th century. About 40 years ago the head of a traditional mission said to me, “After 100 years of working in Africa, we still have no African we can trust with handling money.” I told him that the same would be true if they worked there another hundred years.
Foreign missionaries appeared to be fabulously rich to poor Africans, and their presence caused covetousness among the Africans. They hired many of the locals to be their servants, often paying them no more than ten cents a day plus food. So, as might be expected, these pitifully poor but highly intelligent employees were continually seeking some way by which they could trick the rich foreigners and tap into their fabulous wealth.
Indigenous mission leaders are just the opposite. They live on the same level as those within their mission. All are equally poor. They are accountable to one another. If any one tried to take too much for himself, the others would put him out. In general, we have found the leaders of indigenous ministries to be every bit as trustworthy, and often more so, as the heads of missionary organizations based in industrialized countries.
For example: I visited a mission based in Nigeria which has about 500 missionaries. Every month the 24 Presbyters of that mission meet for a day of prayer. They review an accounting of all funds received from all sources that month, and then pray for God’s guidance as to how all should be distributed, based on the needs of every missionary. I don’t know of any U.S. mission that has a more honest and godly way of handling the funds that have been entrusted to them.
2. Foreign support causes dependency.
Here again is an erroneous conclusion based on colonial tradition. Missionaries went out and set up affiliated churches in poorer countries, usually patterned after those at home: large buildings with brick walls, tile or metal roofs, wood or concrete floors, chairs or benches, glass windows, piano or organ, paid clergy – things they took for granted. Impoverished people could not possibly pay for or maintain such institutions. So they had to be subsidized by the missionaries. Result: dependency.
This process has been like taking a palm tree from Puerto Rico and transplanting it in Pennsylvania. Survival is possible only in a greenhouse. Truly indigenous churches are completely different. They have no paid clergy and usually meet sitting on the floor of simple sheds with thatch roofs.
Sometimes when pastors and churches in poorer countries are supported directly by foreign organizations, jealousies arise, divisions occur, workers become materialistic, and church members tend to be irresponsible. Christian Aid avoids creating dependency by never sending funds directly to individuals. All are sent to responsible native mission boards, and they distribute the support to each missionary.
But those native missions are not wholly dependent on support from Christian Aid. They were on the job before Christian Aid began helping them, and would continue their work if our support were all cut off. Our help greatly multiplies their effectiveness and spurs rapid growth. But none are totally dependent upon that support in order to carry on among their own people.
That’s why it is so important to make a distinction between local churches and mission boards. Churches are self-sustaining, but parachurch mission boards and other ministries must seek support wherever they can find it among God’s people, whether at home or abroad.
3. If we send money to "nationals," they will be corrupted.
This objection is a half-truth. I have known American missionaries who were good at raising money and worked independently. That is, their finances were not under the strict supervision of a mission board. All the funds they raised went into their personal bank and brokerage accounts. "Trips to the field" were really just vacation jaunts during which they stayed with their families in expensive hotels. But to imply that all American missionaries are like that would not be true.
Most are conscientious in handling funds. Likewise, there may be an occasional individual in a poor country who learns how to raise money abroad and uses it for personal advantage. But such are rare exceptions. Probably 99% of the leaders of indigenous missions handle funds in a responsible manner, and are just as accountable as are the heads of mission boards in the USA.
Here again it is imperative that we emphasize the importance of never sending support directly to individual workers in poorer countries. Christian Aid sends support only to well established mission groups that keep careful financial records and are fully accountable for all funds received.
Any work that was formerly done by U.S. missions in foreign countries can be done just as well or better by native missionary ministries, at a fraction of the cost incurred by colonial missions.