Using Money in Missions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Gailyn Van Rheenen
Jim and Julie were excited. They had just returned from a mission campaign in a new field where many were coming to Christ. During the campaign, Jim and Julie became convicted that God desired for them to commit their lives to missions and serve him on this particular mission field. Their local church was enthralled. Jim and Julie would be their missionaries! They would help the church by preparing for campaigns, following up after the campaigners returned home and working with national Christian leaders.

Jim and Julie's congregation had already begun to support three national Christian leaders to serve the church. One of these ministers had been a radio preacher for some years and considered himself the natural leader of the two local churches in the country. They also supported the preaching minister of the larger church in the country. Concluding that the best way to establish churches throughout the city was to train preachers, Jim and Julie's church had also built a small preacher training school and hired the first teacher.

Soon after arriving on the mission field, Jim and Julie became disillusioned. While still experiencing the stress of learning language and culture, they were forced to also deal with financial matters. The supported preachers were constantly asking for advances because of emergencies and comparing their salaries to those of pastors from other religious groups. Because they were from the sending culture, Jim and Julie were seen to have authority over both the exchange of finances and the amount of salaries. They soon realized that much of their time would be spent dealing with financial matters.

Vocational Christian leaders within the two churches were also disillusioned. Some felt that those hired were not the most qualified to lead the church. Many Christians desired to know how much these preachers were making. They appeared to live on a higher economic level than their friends and neighbors. Most significantly, local Christians felt that foreign Christians were making church decisions for them.

This scenario represents a common occurrence on the mission field and shows the need for missionaries, agency leaders and church leaders (both local and foreign) to reevaluate their perceptions and practices concerning money and missions. This article suggests four alternatives for the use of money and missions.

Jim and Julie and the local Christians where they served were examples of the personal support model. In this model foreign churches and individual Christians, and even mission agencies, send money directly to national preachers and evangelists without collaboration and oversight by mature church leaders on the field. Outsiders make decisions without a mature body of believers or agency providing on-the-field planning and accountability. Frequently this direct support begins when rich foreigners hold a campaign in a mission context and then begin supporting the preaching minister of the local church who has hosted them.

The abuses that result from the use of this model arise because supporters are unable to clearly discern the church situation from afar and across cultural barriers. Seldom are foreign Christian leaders able to perceive the motives of those whom they support. Those supported may be articulate and communicative, especially when visitors are present, but not minister out of a deep conviction or God's call. They rather minister because the job provides an income that they would otherwise not have. For example, the executive director of a major Pentecostal group in Uganda said, "I would jump to another religious group if they paid me more. Currently I am not making enough to live on the level I desire. Many of the pastors under me feel the same" (Van Rheenen, 1976). Many supported leaders, however, are guided by good motives but even they tend to cater to the theologies and methodologies of those who support them.

Dependency frequently becomes so great that local leaders believe that they cannot initiate other churches without rich benefactors providing the funds. Jealousies between those who do and do not receive support erode Christian community. Many church leaders go through intense faith dilemmas when their support is terminated and frequently jump to another religious group or entirely lose their faith. Thus Bishop Zablon Nthamburi of the Methodist Church of Kenya says, "The African Church will not grow into maturity if it continues to be fed by Western partners. It will ever remain an infant who has not learned to walk on his or her own feet" (McQuilkin 1999, 58).

Paradoxically, this model is typically used to support pastoral rather than apostolic ministries. In other words, money from rich nations is employed in the support of local preaching ministers rather than to support evangelists or "missionaries" initiating new churches. These churches, however, should all be self-supporting! In rural areas of the world, where the cultural organization is informal and there is more time for ministry, vibrant churches should have numbers of vocational ministers and pastors serving the flock. In urban contexts, where there is a cash economy, growing churches should support their own preaching ministers and pastors.

The personal support model is easy for the local churches and Christians in rich lands to implement because they have only to write a check, and if they desire, periodically visit the national Christians that they support. When they visit, supporters tend to get a glamorized picture of the work with little understanding of what is actually occurring.

The personal support model thus tends to hinder rather than empower missions. Supporters and local church leaders should seek to transition from this model to the partnership model (described below) in order to put accountability and decision-making into the hands of reputable Christians in the areas where the national evangelists live.

The indigenous model contrasts sharply with the personal support model. In this model, missionaries seek to initiate churches that are self-supporting from their inception. For example, an American, European or Korean church or agency supports their missionaries to plant new churches, nurture young Christians in these churches to grow to maturity, equip national leaders supported by their own people and resources, and then pass the baton of leadership to these developing Christian leaders.

A number of principles guide the self-support orientation of the indigenous model. When missionaries, churches and agencies with great wealth begin supporting local preachers living in less-wealthy areas of the world, dependency occurs which ultimately hinders the growth and maturity of the new Christian movement. The support and governance of the mission agencies and sending churches become like scaffolding in the construction of a new building. In some cases, however, the scaffolding cannot be removed because, paradoxically, it has become the structure holding the fragile building together. Likewise, many anemic mission works are unable to stand without the support of foreign scaffolding (Henry Venn in Beyerhaus, 1979, 16-17).

Local churches and Christian institutions should generally reflect the economy of their areas. If churches in poor countries are built on the basis of wealthy economies, they will never be able to stand on their own. Frequently institutions-schools, hospitals, and agricultural ministries-are created by use of outside finances. These institutions, created in a poor country by using finances from rich countries, seldom become locally supported and supervised. Instead of decreasing, the amount of support (and resulting control) tends to increase over the years, resulting in more dependence by nationals and more control by foreign churches and agencies.

Once a preacher or church leader is supported by outside Christians or an agency, it becomes exceptionally difficult to transition to local support. The expectation is, "Once supported by outsiders, always supported by outsiders."

This is particularly true of rural areas of the world, where many of the people live partially on a subsistence level. In other words, while they do not have much cash, they do have produce from their farms, which forms the foundation of their economy. These rural churches are generally like a family, informally and interpersonally organized. In such contexts it is advisable to develop churches with a multiplicity of lay leaders but with no full-time preacher. The introduction of a full-time minister, where few have specialized jobs, often creates jealously and dissension.

Should Jim and Julie and local church leaders suggest that supporters adopt an indigenous approach? Would supported church leaders now feel rejected and betrayed? Such a model typically works well only if the first churches are founded upon indigenous principles.

The partnership model is significantly different from both the personal support and indigenous models. The partnership perspective recognizes that there are certain contexts in this internationalizing world where foreign money, if appropriately used, can empower missions without creating dependency. This money, however, rather than going directly to the recipient, should go through a local accountability structure of mature Christian leaders.

Effective partnerships require churches, agencies or consortiums of national leaders who have the maturity to oversee the developing work. The leaders within the partnership mutually decide the duration of the partnership, accountability for use of money, and methodologies for their specific mission tasks. Without such dialogue or "mutual complementation" partnership eventually breaks down because trust erodes and interest wanes.

In an effective partnership most decisions are made by the leaders closest to the field but with full consultation and dialogue with outside supporters. These partnerships should be of limited duration and focused on specific goals. For example, a church will work with a group of leaders to plant an urban church, which will then use their local finances to establish other churches. It must be recognized that all international urban contexts function in cash economies, and growing urban churches should all be able to support their own preaching minister, A presupposition of this article is that local churches, soon after inception, should be able to be self-supporting whatever model they employ. Partners should cease supporting stagnant, non-growing works that through the guise of partnership have really become dependent upon outside support for the needs of the local church.

This partnership perspective is based on a number of practical realities. As the world internationalizes, old dichotomies between missionary-sending and missionary-receiving countries are breaking down. For instance, Christians of different nationalities marry and become missionaries. Would families of mixed nationalities with one marriage partner being of the sending nation and the other of the recipient nation be considered foreign missionaries or local evangelists? In this context is one partner a missionary and the other a national church leader? In addition, areas which, until recently, were mission fields (for example, Korea and Brazil), are today sending out their own missionaries so that there are currently as many church-planting missionaries from the Southern as from the Northern Hemisphere.

An example of this internationalization can be seen in the business world. Companies first begin internationalizing by exporting products to consuming countries without industrial infrastructures and allowing local marketers to sell their products in their country or economic sphere. Soon, however, these companies set up their own marketing infrastructure to maximize profits. A new phase of internationalization occurs when the companies research the market to determine the needs of their audiences within this sector of the world. Based upon this research, the companies develop manufacturing within the once-recipient country in order to meet the expectations of local consumers. Soon die companies invite their best executives to join them in international decision-making and planning at their company headquarters. The companies have thus moved through progressive stages to become internationalized simply by expanding their markets.

Mission agencies and urban churches have likewise become increasingly international. Some mission agencies, like Operation Mobilization and Youth with A Mission, have gone through a similar process of internationalizing. The reality is that old models of missionary finance do not neatly fit into globalizing world contexts.

At least two pragmatic factors contributed to the need for international partnership. First, it is difficult for church movements to begin from scratch in highly specialized, time-limited, money-driven urban cultures without initial financial help. Urban churches that are planted based upon the self-support principle seldom survive because they do not have the resources to impact a multi-cultural urban culture. Those established upon the basis of a purely indigenous approach generally become isolated congregations on the periphery of the city.

For example, there are a number of Brazilian missionaries from charismatic heritages effectively planting churches in Argentina and Uruguay. They come with enough money from Brazilian churches to rent facilities, conduct crusades, print weekly newspapers and begin a TV ministry. While highly financed in the initial stages, these movements soon become financially self-sufficient. A purely indigenous approach in a city the size of Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Montevideo, Uruguay, would sound naive and shortsighted to these very effective urban evangelists.

A second pragmatic reason for partnership is the need to help mature movements within poorer areas of the world to develop the structures of continuity to nurture all the local churches within their fellowship and to become missions-sending movements. For example, every field researcher can recount numerous stories of church planting movements which have disintegrated because foreign missionaries left without collaborating with local leaders to develop what Monte Cox calls "structures of governance, expansion, finance and theological education" (1999, 217).

These structures should be organized on both congregational and associational levels. On the congregational level the community of faith, guided by the Word of God, must determine how local churches are organized and how these local congregations relate to one another. On the associational level mature church leaders and missionaries collaborate in developing teaching, equipping and encouraging structures above the level of the local church. Local churches should bond together, as did the early churches in Jerusalem, so they help each other. Vocational and full-time national evangelists must also form teams to complete the evangelization of their area and spread the Gospel into adjoining and distant areas. Training schools on the association level almost always provide forums for creative reflection and equipping of leaders and youth for local churches (Van Rheenen, 2000, 43).

Partnership, like the indigenous model, has many pitfalls. For example, partnership could become another name for paternalism if outsiders control decisions and set agendas. Under the guise of partnership a subsidy system is introduced which, in reality, is no more than the personal support model. Another limitation of partnership involves the difficulty of communicating across cultures to make authentic decisions and the fact that decisions are made differently in various cultures. The tendency today is to idealize partnerships without considering some of these very significant problems (For further discussion of "Problems with Partnership" refer to Van Rheenen 1996, 198-202).

Finally, there should sometimes be a mix between the last two models-the indigenous and the partnership approaches-forming the indigenous/partnership model. During the movement's first generation, missionaries work to establish initial beachheads of Christianity by planting the first churches, nurturing new Christians to maturity and training national leaders. Because the work is self-supporting during these formative years, early Christians come to Christ, not because of financial inducements but because of faith commitments. In the second generation, when the movement has grown to maturity, churches and agencies that have supported missionaries work directly with or through the missionaries to partner with national leaders. In their partnership they seek to develop structures of continuity to nurture existing fellowships and train evangelists to enable this to become a missions-sending movement. In other words, national and missionary leaders collaborate with sending churches and agencies to develop these structures of continuity that will enable the national church to not only stand on its own but cause the movement to expand.

The last three models (indigenous, partnership and indigenous/ partnership) can each be effectively employed in various world contexts. Generally, Indigenous and indigenous/partnership perspectives appropriately apply to rural, face-to-face cultures, which do not have a high degree of specialization and do not relate extensively to the international arena. Urban situations are frequently quite international, and models of partnership are more likely to empower the church rather than to create dependency and control from the outside.

Too many mission-sending churches and agencies, however, operate with no model for the use of money in missions. Their decisions about money and missions are, therefore, likely to be inconsistent, haphazard, and paternalistic.

The new churches described at the beginning of this article are in a paradoxical situation. Benefactors with good intentions have superimposed a personal support model over the local church without their request. Should support be withdrawn from them in order to lay an indigenous foundation to the work? Is this church now mature enough to transition to a partnership model? What should local Christians and the benefactors now do? How would those supported feel if they now lost their support? What discussions should take place among supporters, local Christians and the supported preachers?

Naive use of finances during the churches' initial stages has created dilemmas that historically have resulted in church splits, jealousies and trauma. Maintaining the status quo relegates the movement to dependence. Church leaders must prayerfully deal with the problem and transition to either the indigenous or partnership models.

Beyerhaus, Peter. 1979. "The Three Selves Formula: Is it Built on Biblical Foundations?" In Readings in Dynamic Indigeneity. Ed. Charles Kraft, 15-30. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Cox, Monte. 1999. "Euthenasia of Mission" or "Partnership?" And Evaluative Study of the Disengagement Policies of Church of Christ Missionaries in Rural Kenya, Ph.D. dissertation. Deerfield, Ill.: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

McQuilkin, Robertson. 1999. "Stop Sending Money! Breaking the Cycle of Missions Dependency." Christianity Today (March 1): 57-59.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1976. Church Planting in Uganda: A Comparative Approach. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

____. 2000. "Money and Missions." Available:

____. 2000. "Learning....Growing....Collaborating...Phasing Out." EMQ 36:1 (January) 3647.

____. 1996. Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.


Gailyn Van Rheenan is professor of missions at Abilene (Tex.) Christian University and author of the 1991 book Communicating Christ in Animistic contexts (William Carey Library), among other works. He was a church planter among the Kipsigis of Kenya.

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