Open Letter to Robertson McQuilkin

Chuck Bennett
The following two letters are important additions to the discussion of the last year concerning the use of foreign funds to support indigenous mission work. EMQ had several items on this subject in its April, 1999, issue, and there have been several letters to the editor concerning the subject since. Since then Robertson McQuilkin, former president of Columbia International University, wrote a piece in Christianity Today that was published under the title “Stop Sending Money!” This was subsequently published in an expanded form in the August, 1999, issue of Mission Frontiers, which is the most complete statement of Dr. McQuilkin’s position. (This can also be found at www.missionfrontiers.org).

In the meantime Chuck Bennett, the president of Partners International (arguably the best known and most widely respected of the agencies focused on the support of indigenous ministries), wrote an open letter to Dr. McQuilkin taking issue with his article in CT. We are publishing that here, along with a gracious acknowledgment of his letter from Dr. McQuilkin, in the hope that this may foster continued dialogue and greater understanding on this vital subject, as well as providing models of Christian grace in debate.—The Editor.

Dear Robertson,
We have met on a few occasions, so I am sorry that you didn’t take the time to check with me while writing your March 1, 1999, Christianity Today article entitled “Stop Sending Money!” If you had, you would have learned that you have stereotyped us incorrectly and, in fact, that we fulfill your four biblically based principles concerning giving and receiving very well indeed.

By using the headline from a Christian Aid Mission ad as a hook for your article and then mentioning only the name of Partners International and no other organization by name, you implied that the ad was ours and that we promote support of indigenous ministries because they are cheaper. I’m sure that was not your intent, but you have created questions and confusion in the minds of some of our supporting partners and churches that will do us undoubted harm.

Of course there are problems when a Western agency “hires” locals to carry out its own (Western) vision. Of course there are problems when a paternalistic mission society finally hands over leadership to locals but wants to stay involved and hold veto power. Of course there are problems when well-intentioned Christians in the West meet a non-Western Christian of charismatic personality and support him financially without first checking out his reputation in his own country. Of course there are problems when we bring people—except for very mature leaders—to the West for theological training and pick up their full tab.

However, we don’t follow any of those practices, and we almost never have the kinds of problems you cite in your article the problems my good friend Glenn Schwartz has made his mission to warn people against.

Our instinctive human reaction whenever we discover a problem is to want to make a rule against it so it won’t happen again. But that’s just a cop-out. As I have told Glenn Schwartz, it’s like outlawing marriage because we discover some husbands abuse their wives. The problem is real, but the proposed solution misses the point.

Here at Partners International we don’t see ourselves as a “money-gathering agency,” nor are we peddling cut-rate “nationals” as missionaries. We assist worthy, highly effective indigenous ministries with our friendship, prayer support, financial help, and sometimes with advice and counsel, but only when they want it. We do this not because they are cheaper, but because they are generally much more effective than all but the exceptional Western missionary.

Neither I nor Partners International is opposed to Western missionaries. I have been one. Allow me to give you some personal credentials. I served as a field missionary in Latin America for 13 years and as a mission executive and eventually CEO for another 17 years. You mentioned the American missionary in Calcutta who lives on $50 per month. I personally lived for six years in Tabasco, Mexico, on $100 per month, the same salary as local pastors.

Over the past 43 years I have visited and observed the work of about as many Western missions in as many different countries as anyone alive. I have served on the board of the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies and am a member of the EFMA board again. I personally initiated the consultations that have evolved into COSIM—the Coalition On Support of Indigenous Ministries—which has recently become a new division of the EFMA. Why would COSIM join up with EFMA if we were antimissionary? Partners International also belongs to the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association and the World Evangelical Fellowship.

I later served five years as chief operating officer of a well-known Christian relief and development organization. (I mention this only because you say support from the West is appropriate for such agencies.) Back in 1972, I was also the founding director of an agency that still actively promotes more mission involvement within Presbyterian churches in the U.S.A. So I am neither antimissionary nor—I believe—naive about the pitfalls of unwise support of Christians in less affluent societies. Neither are my highly experienced co-workers. We think we know how to distinguish between unhealthy dependency and the healthy interdependency that we believe to be clearly biblical.

Here at Partners International we don’t support local pastors in the non-Western world. We do support “missionaries” who are carrying the gospel to the unchurched among their own people and, more often, to other ethnic groups both near and far. We support a total of 3,830 of them, but the support goes to their agencies, not directly to each worker. They are not our employees. They are our partners.

We don’t support lone rangers. We do form partnerships with entire ministries, which must have their own accountability structure and a good local reputation. Our written partnership agreements are with their boards, not with their individual leaders.

We don’t set their agenda. They own their visions and we assist them, at their invitation. We neither control these ministries nor their individual workers.

We don’t give money indiscriminately. We do require financial reports, plus internal and external audits. We expect a majority of their income to come from within their own country, and we watch the ratios of local to foreign support to be sure the percentage of local support is growing.

Although we employ written agreements, financial reports, and audits, the real glue that holds our partnerships together is mutual trust. Trust cannot be purchased nor demanded. It can only be earned over time, through personal relationships that demonstrate we truly believe they are at least as intelligent as we, at least as spiritual as we, and at least as dedicated to ministry as we.

Most of our partnerships, most of the time, are truly a delight. Not perfect, of course, but we have amazingly few problems and misunderstandings of the kind you and Glenn warn against. I believe most such problems arise when the Western partner sends a signal—however subtle—of mistrust or condescension. Or where the Western partner tries to control or manipulate. Wouldn’t you and I react against being treated that way, too?

Frankly, I have trouble with your statement that the New Testament does not justify the support of other churches. However, I thought your four biblically based principles about giving and receiving were excellent. Here’s how we stack up:

1. Does the giving win the lost?
Over the past couple of years our 72 partner ministries in 50 countries have led an average of one new person to Christ every 10 minutes and started a new church in an unchurched community every 11 hours. Altogether, these partner ministries work in at least 260 different people groups, of which 161 are classified as otherwise “unreached” peoples.

When I visit these ministries I almost always discover that the reality is better than what they had reported to us. For example, in 1998 in Cuba I discovered that our partner ministry not only had the 380 churches we knew about, but another 1,000 house churches of about 50 to 100 members each, which they call “prayer cells” to avoid government closure. It hadn’t occurred to them to tell us about the 1,000 house churches because they don’t call them “churches.”

2. Does the giving encourage true discipleship? In 1998 our partner ministries trained over 30,000 grassroots leaders, one every 16 minutes. Over 18,000 completed nonfor-mal training courses, each roughly equivalent to a year of full-time study in a Bible institute.

At least 50 of our partner ministries—many of them de-facto denominations—are sending workers to evangelize among other ethnic groups, usually within their own countries, but sometimes internationally. As already mentioned, at least 161 are classified as “unreached” peoples.

Our partner ministries do encourage local, sacrificial giving. On the average, we provide only 20 percent of their total income, and rarely over 40 percent except in war and disaster situations. Most or all of the rest comes from local sources. Not only do they give sacrificially to their own workers, last year they assisted over 100,000 local victims of poverty and war. All of this was at their initiative, sometimes with and sometimes without our financial help.

3. Does the giving honor the role of the local church? Wherever possible and appropriate, our partners work through, or are themselves the leaders of, local churches. However not all local pastors or local churches—whether in our own country or overseas—are qualified to handle large amounts of relief and development money, nor do they always know how to function as a cross-cultural sending agency. That’s why task force agencies—mission sodalities—have emerged again and again through the ages.

4. Does the giving nurture generous giving? In all but one or two cases I can say “absolutely.” When we don’t see that happening over a reasonable time, we phase out of that partnership.

So, dear brother, we simply do not fit the stereotype you formed from that sensational ad by one agency. Nor do most of the other member agencies of the COSIM coalition. I arn sure other members of this loose association will be happy to discuss these issues with you and provide further information to reassure you that we are not as naive or simplistic as you seem to think.

You and I are part of the same cause. We have the same passion to carry the Good News to those who have never heard. I know that you did not intend to harm us with your article, but that has happened nonetheless. I only ask that you check with us before writing about us again.

Chuck Bennett, President, Partners International, San Jose, Calif.

REPLY TO CHUCK BENNETT

Dear Chuck,
Just a note to let you know that I received your Open Letter addressed to me. I’m guessing that an “open letter” means you wrote it for your constituency. You have made a good case here for your position which I am sure will accomplish your purposes. If you really want to interact with me personally on the issues involved, I’d be happy to hear from you.

The article in Christianity Today is an excerpt from an article three times that length on the subject of, “Are North American Missionaries Still Needed?” In their original editing they cut that element out almost completely, but, on my protestations, they did reintroduce a bit of that theme. Their interest, of course, is in something that is controversial and what better way than to entitle an article “Stop Sending Money!”

The juxtaposition of the ad with a quote from you (which doesn’t identify the author, in any event) and the placing of those at the head of the article are also the result of editorial reworking.

But you do have it right in addressing me about the theme of the article—it fairly represents my convictions, though the undergirding arguments have been abbreviated. I’m concerned with the money gathering agencies and direct support of “national” ministries for what I have personally experienced and studied somewhat extensively. When I see such widespread, spiritually debilitating effects, especially in Africa and India, I’m concerned. I’m also concerned about the major shift I see taking place in American churches away from sending sons and daughters to sending cash. That’s got to be spiritually damaging. But my chief problem, and the reason I’ve been drawn to study the issue in recent years, is what I call the dark half of the world—those thousands of people groups in which you can’t support nationals because there are none.

Someone has to go in from the outside. So I’m convinced that no congregation anywhere, including American congregations, can stop sending missionaries to those currently out of reach of the gospel until everyone has heard with understanding and a church has been established in every community. These comments, Chuck, do not represent my rationale but just the conclusions.

I’m sure you would counter that you are not opposed to sending North American missionaries. But that is the message you and others are getting across to the churches through the way you promote your vision. I’m really an outsider to the debate and have refrained from entering it until now because I think people should hesitate in criticizing what others are doing until they have a solution to the problem as they see it. But, though advocates on both sides fervently believe otherwise, we haven’t yet solved the problem of using American dollars without spiritual damage. When my study of Scripture led me to believe that there are indeed principles that speak to these issues, I thought to share them with the church. And so the article. I’m sorry it has distressed you, but I hope it will lead to some reflection on the biblical principles that might suggest some modification of the way you do things or the way you promote what you do.

I appreciate your thoughtfulness in addressing me directly, Chuck, and the courtesy of your communication. I’m not surprised—that’s Chuck Bennett—but I’m grateful. We’re indeed united in the life commitment to complete the Great Commission, as you say. Amen and Amen!

Grace and peace, Robertson McQuilkin, Columbia, S.C.

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