Toward a Financially Responsible Indigenous Church
A government engineer came into an Indian village and began to explain the details of a community rabbit project which would increase meat protein in the villagers' diet. A large brick building would house well-bred rabbits, which would be cooperatively cared for by villagers. When the town leaders asked who would pay for all this, the engineer announced that the government would cover all of the costs. Soon the government had built a building and brought rabbits to put the project into operation.
In less than three months the villagers had eaten all of the breeder rabbits and had begun to use the bricks from the rabbit house for their individual purposes. When I asked the town leaders what had happened, their simple answer was that they had never really wanted the project. "Then why did you lead the engineer to believe that you would like a rabbit project?" I asked. The answer was simply, "The government wanted to do it, and they paid for everything, so we had nothing to lose."
This incident took place a few years ago in the Zinacanteco Indian village where we were living. It is a clear reminder of the fact that when people invest nothing in a project, they feel no responsibility toward it. It is also a reminder that the way money is used must be based on well-thought-out principles. We seem to have no trouble recognizing the government's fatal mistake in the above example, yet when it comes to our use of money in mission we often fail to recognize similar flaws.
In order to discuss mission and money, I must first pose a basic assumption that the purpose of Christian mission is to give birth to a church of Jesus Christ in a particular place and then to aid it to grow into a mature church which will give birth to other churches. If that is, in fact, an acceptable assumption, then we must follow with some working principles which apply to the use of money in relation to the national church.
1. The Financial Responsibility for the Ongoing Work of the Indigenous Church should belong, from the Beginning, to the Indigenous Church itself.
Let's start from the beginning. A missionary goes to an unreached tribe, and in a few years the Lord calls forth a group of believers. These believers become a small group which we call a congregation. Up to this point the finances have been pretty simple; the missionary took care of himself and his program with foreign funds.
Now the congregation sees the need for a few tape recorders to use for evangelism; they need a building in which to worship and money for a needy family. As the number of congregations multiplies, the number of needs grows. Soon they need to pay a pastor. It is often at one of these points that the missionary jumps in and makes the fatal mistake that was made by the government engineer. The missionary often uses foreign money, either without any consideration of good principles or by bypassing the principles, because he has decided that the indigenous church is "not ready to take the responsibilities itself."
It is my contention that preparing the indigenous church for its financial responsibility is a process that must be started from the time there is even one small group of believers. Only giving people responsibility prepares them for handling that responsibility. A child will learn to walk faster by practice and tumbles than by sitting around and watching how well we can walk.
My experience in the Zinacanteco tribe has confirmed for me the fact that although new believers are "babes in Christ," they are usually well versed in the use of money in their economic system. The idea that we have to wait until the indigenous church is ready to take the financial responsibility is often nothing more than judging their culture's way of handling money inferior to ours. Because we have given birth to this church, we want to make sure that it gets the best financial setup possible. We want "our baby" to be perfect. To insure its financial strength, we assume the responsibility, at least at the start. If our goal is to help the indigenous church grow into a mature and responsible church, then the financial responsibilities Must be culturally and actually its own from the very beginning.
This does not mean that the parent never helps the growing child; it simply means that all help (especially in the financial realm) is based on clear principles that keep the growth and maturity of the child in mind. As the young church continues to grow, it will also have growing needs and larger financial projects which extend beyond what might be termed the ongoing work of the church. Where I have been working, the Zinacantecos soon joined with other congregations and groups of Christians to form a Tzotzil church. In a short time, they realized the need to build a Tzotzil Bible institute for leadership training. It would be necessary to provide sleeping quarters for more than 60 people, a kitchen-dining area, and a large meeting room — obviously an expensive venture. At this point, the missionary must be well aware of another important working principle:
2. A Mission should never use Foreign Money to Finance or Support any Project that can be Financed and Supported by the Indigenous Church.
This principle naturally follows out of principle 1, but I believe that it has to be stated separately. We tend to get "cloudy vision" when it comes to helping the indigenous church with large projects that involve a lot of money: It is at this point that we missionaries often get caught in the "tourist syndrome," which simply says, "These poor people have so little and we in the U.S. have so much." We then proceed to bring the goodies down from the North so they can advance more rapidly. What we actually do is make Christianity and the indigenous church dependent on a North American economy. Foreign subsidies mean foreign dependence, and I think that it is naive to think that indigenous churches can regularly receive the former without the latter.
We seem to be able to see the principle in the case of our children. To lavish gifts on them expecting little or nothing on their part simply gives us irresponsible young adults. However, we fail to apply that principle to the growing indigenous church and its people. When we hear that the indigenous church is contemplating some program, and the question of finances is raised, the missionary jumps in with, "Oh, we can probably find brethren in the U.S. who would like to help with that." In this way we subtly imply that the indigenous church could never do it — even that God could not do it through them. Our real faith and trust, when it comes to money, is in some western economic system. History has shown that we do not develop a mature and financially responsible indigenous church when its work is based on foreign funds.
This can be illustrated by again referring to the Tzotzil church's need of a building for their leadership training institutes. When the Tzotzil church leaders met to discuss the plan for their much-needed new Bible institute, their concept of what they should build was much different than mine. Considering their own resources, they didn't plan a western-styled dormitory but envisioned a crude, three-tiered bunk arrangement which could be built by native carpenters.
As they considered the cost of the construction, their discussion focused on how to stimulate support for this project in the many Tzotzil congregations. Instead of all eyes going to the missionary for outside funds, all heads were bowed in prayer to God for his working in the hearts of the Tzotzil Christians in supplying this need. The Lord will do it, and the Tzotzil church will gain a new trust in God and a valid sense of pride in planning and completing a truly indigenous project. Finally, the Tzotzil Christians will not have to present Christianity as a foreign commodity.
3. When Outside Help is needed, it should only come After a Program or Project is Initiated with Indigenous Church Money and Planning.
Some might criticize principles 1 and 2 as a selfish policy of mission that would simply turn its back on needs around the world. Some are going to say that if we do not finance many of the larger programs, then they simply cannot be carried out, and world mission will be greatly hindered. I'm not convinced of that. It may be that many of our programs will not be carried out in our way within our time schedule. However, from my experience, if the indigenous church comes up with a vision, a program, and is convinced (without the foreign financial push) that it is something that must be done, it will usually sell that dream to its own people and raise much of the money itself. We must give it a chance. We must give the indigenous church the opportunity to test how important a dream is by investing its own money and effort into it. If we fail to let it struggle to raise the money and plan the project, if we push it ahead with our financial subsidy, we rob the indigenous church of that opportunity. There will, at times, be projects that need financial help from foreign sources, but I believe these should be secondary resources which assist the indigenous church when its own primary resources fall short. The indigenous church must be given a chance to exercise its own financial responsibility and to develop its own sense of stewardship before foreign funds smother the fire.
Some missionaries defend foreign financing with the contention that they are involved in a "seed program." I am not convinced that this is a valid way to work with the indigenous church. However, if a missionary believes that he has a high-priority program that must be instituted even though the indigenous church does not see its importance, he at least must ask the question: Is it so important that we ignore our basic working principles to do it? If the answer is yes, then we must expect that this program may always be just a missionary project for which the indigenous church will not feel any responsibility. Further, we may be saddling the church with something it never even wanted. The missionary does have the responsibility of raising the awareness of the indigenous brethren in material, social, and spiritual realms. The indigenous church, however, must be free to initiate its programs without unfair outside money pressures.
The principles set forth in this article are by no means final. They are observations that I have made in working with the Tzotzil church in Chiapas, Mexico, and they will need continual revision as I learn from my indigenous brethren. However, I do believe that as the Reformed Church in America looks forward to an exciting future in world mission, it is extremely important that we do some clear thinking about our use of money. Knowing that our resources are not unlimited and realizing that some of our past and present financial approaches in mission are outmoded, the RCA and its missionaries could gain much from a rethinking of this issue. I am also convinced that the RCA members who are giving their dollars to make our mission program possible would appreciate knowing that their money is being used according to well-thought-out principles.
For me, the above principles are essential in helping the indigenous church grow to financial responsibility — especially since missionaries are guests with a temporary and diminishing role, while the indigenous church is the landlord with a permanent and increasing role. Missionaries of the RCA have a responsibility not only to warn our indigenous brethren of the dangers of reversing these roles, but also to allow them the pride and fulfillment which will be theirs when they find that, with God's help, they can handle many financial responsibilities themselves.
A mission program based on sound financial principles would not only promote a more responsible and mature indigenous church, but would also allow more of our financial resources to be used to reach out to unreached areas of our world. It is my dream that the RCA become a leader in developing new strategies in this important area of mission.