Two books I recently read and which I discussed shortly some time ago, Glenn Schwarz’s When Charity destroys Dignity and John Rowell’s To Give or not to Give? both refer to the importance of not helping an individual financially but rather helping the church as employer. I share that feeling, (although I think that there may be exceptions to this rule – to which I will come back later).
There are a number of reasons why I think that one should help a church rather than an individual. Helping an individual can so easily lead to jealousy amongst the church workers. If one is singled out (perhaps because of a more charismatic personality) and receives extra money while the others suffer, then the Holy Spirit will have to work overtime to prevent tension from coming between the workers.
A second reason is that the initiative is taken away from the church if a person is singled out to receive extra money. Those on the outside perceive a certain person to be the best worker and on those grounds decide that they are going to help this individual. Those on the inside may have better knowledge or other information about the worker and they may feel that the money should rather have been spent in another way. But because the initiative had been taken away from them, they have no further say in the matter. Even if that worker should come under church discipline, the help will still be continued from outside which makes it very difficult for the church to give advice to this person.
A third reason is that the greatest need may not be there where money is being asked for. Schwarz gives the example of a certain individual in southern Africa who requested help from him after three years of drought and then floods demolished everything within a certain community. Schwarz prayed about the matter and eventually gave money to the community instead of to the individual who had asked the money. In this way the help could be distributed fairly. I think that was a wise decision.
Although I consider this as a good rule-of-thumb, there may be times when exceptions can be made. We as family, together with a number of our friends are involved with a certain individual in Russia who runs the children’s ministry in Samara. Except for praying and showing interest in her ministry, we also pay her salary. How do we do this so that there will no tension between the workers in Samara and that the initiative remains in the hands of her church? First of all we have a personal relationship with this person. Many of us have met her in the past and she was also part of the team who visited us this past weekend. We know her and we know what work she is doing.
Secondly we went to the directors of the Bible school which normally pays her salary and asked them how we could contribute to her salary without running the risks mentioned above. After finding out how much she receives every month, we agreed to pay this exact amount into the account of the Bible school and they would then pay her salary as normal. She is therefore not getting a higher salary than her colleagues. In this way there can be no possibility of any jealousy or a feeling from the directors that something is happening behind their backs. But the advantage is that those who are giving the money have personal contact with the person receiving it, get feedback from her about her work and also have a personal interest in the children’s ministry in Samara.
Obviously, if she should leave the service of the Bible school in the future, then the help would have to be reconsidered (and in fact every year we sit down and discuss whether we should continue this assistance for another year, thus allowing for changes in the system), but for the moment this seems to work for us. But I would only advise giving help to an individual rather than the church or organisation employing that person if the long route of discussing potential problems with the employing body had been followed. Otherwise the best way remains to help the body, rather than just one individual.
I would like to hear how you feel about this.
On two occasions now I’ve written specifically about the influence of TV-Evangelists on the church in Africa. Following a remark made by Cgross on my post about the Three-Selves, I thought that I had to say something more about this, specifically within the context of greater independence and the Three-Selves formula.
Schwarz, in his When Charity destroys Dignity makes a remark about church buildings. His opinion is that church buildings should be built of the same material of which the houses in the surrounding areas are built of. In principle I have to agree with him. In fact, we have applied that principle in a number of places, at one stage even building a church made of stick and mud which lasted us for quite a number of years before, as in the story of the three little pigs, our church was blown over 😉
With greater exposure to TV and especially Christian channels which broadcast to Africa, the situation is changing rapidly. People see these lavish church buildings on TV and associate it with a successful ministry. Successful ministry (as depicted on TV) = money. And increasingly people tend to feel reluctant to attend church services in church buildings which are not quite up to standard or even attending church in classrooms, because that obviously is NOT a successful ministry. The idea that people will be willing to attend church under a tree is totally outdated. We were forced to do this for a while at one particular place after the floods – which ravaged Swaziland and Mocambique in 2000 – also totally demolished one of our church buildings. But after a few weeks the people said that they would rather attend church with another denomination until a new church building had been built. After a new building was erected, all the members returned. The point I’m trying to make is that it would be a good idea to have much more humble church buildings, but unfortunately the exposure on TV to mega-churches in overseas countries are not making it easy to convince the local people that they should be satisfied with a more cost-effective building.
Three years ago, on my way back from Russia where I had been teaching at a Bible Institute in Samara, I spent a few days in Kiev in the Ukraine with some Christians. This was a remarkable experience. But what I noticed was that money was being pumped into some churches from overseas countries ad nauseum. As I listened to a pastor explaining how they were intending to use literally millions of US dollars on obtaining a new church centre, I just kept asking myself over and over again what I would have been able to do with 10% or even 1% of that money in Swaziland. What if that money could have been spent, not on lavish church buildings and other so-called necessities, but rather on the people and ministries involved with people who need it the most. What if 1% of that money could have been given to a girl I met in Kiev who has one of the most amazing children’s ministries running that I have ever seen but who has to suffer every month just to pay the rent for her humble apartment. But unfortunately, in Kiev, as in Africa, the impression is being created that a successful ministry = money and if you are a Christian leader and you intend to attract members, your church building as well as everything inside had better broadcast the same message.
I’m all for humble church buildings. In fact, I’m all for NO church buildings, rather meeting in school halls or classrooms. But this will only work if churches in the West apply the same principle. While Christian TV programs continue broadcasting the opposite message, our pleas to local believers to be satisfied with smaller or even no church buildings will seem to them as ways in which we want to withhold them from God’s wealth.
I was in a meeting on Tuesday where it was once again said (I’ve heard it many times before) that the future of missions to a large extent will be initiated through Africa and Asia. The Western church, which was responsible for bringing the gospel to large parts of Africa and Asia, are no longer and will no longer be the main role-players in the act of reaching the unreached.
If the West is unable to impact the world effectively and, due to various circumstances, Africa and Asia are presently better equipped to do this work, then the question may be asked whether the Western churches still have any role to play. Are they going to disappear from the scene in order for the churches in Africa and Asia to fulfill God’s vision of the gospel being proclaimed up to the ends of the earth? Chris Marantika, a theologian from Indonesia, does not think so. He sees the world as God’s playground in which He wants to have total control. Marantika then proposes an alternative to the Three-Selves paradigm in which he invites churches from all over the world to take hands and to play together, pray together and pay together in order to proclaim God’s salvation through Christ in all places. In that way, according to Marantika, all churches can still be part of the work that needs to be done. The Western churches will obviously not be the ones dictating how the work should be done, but they will still be part of the solution.
Personally I do have some reservations about Marantika’s viewpoint, as it could so easily lead to a situation which is experienced by many missionaries today that all obligations are fulfilled once people have prayed and sent a cheque to have the work done. I don’t think that Marantika has this in mind, but knowing people, it could very easily lead to such an undesirable situation. But I mention this as one of a few alternatives to the Three-Selves formula which seem to have become outdated or at least misinterpreted in our times.
Rowell also proposes an alternative – not a threefold formula, but one principle which he believes may be crucial in future mission projects, and this is sustainability. Quoting John 15:16 where Jesus commands us to bear fruit that will last, he says the question should not be whether we invest in missions but rather where and how we invest to generate lasting results, even after the missionary had left.
And this, I think, may be one of the greatest challenges which Western churches will be facing in missions. This calls for much greater involvement on a personal level, where churches prayerfully seek God’s will, not whether they should be involved, but where and how they could become involved in order to help in a sustainable way. And if this should start to happen, then I foresee that Marantika’s vision of churches worldwide taking hands to play together, pray together and pay together within God’s world, may not be farfetched.
In a comment on yesterday’s post, Maya asked why the three-selves is an issue? I think it is an issue, because for many people this formula is almost as indisputable as the gospel. Obviously, if they are correct in believing that the three-selves formula summarises everything we need to know about indigenous churches, then I’m happy with the situation. But what if they are wrong? How could this influence people’s involvement in missions?
Rowell discusses the background of this paradigm as formulated by Henry Venn in detail. I’ll try to summarise in a few sentences what he writes in an entire chapter: For more than 30 years, Venn was the director of the Anglican Church Mission Society. He had three primary goals which he wanted to achieve:
- to end the African slave trade
- to assert the basic rights of indigenous peoples living under British rule in the various British colonies
- to reform the British missionary practice of insisting on foreign control of national congregations
If Rowell is correct (and I believe he is, as this history is well documented in his book) then it seems as if the three-selves were formulated, not primarily to convince the mission churches to become more indigenous, but rather to force the missionaries and the home church in England to allow the mission churches to become more indigenous. Mainly Venn was concerned that the local people should govern their own church instead of having people from outside deciding how things should be done.
Another interesting fact which he mentions is that Venn, when implementing the self-supporting part of the formula in practice in his own ministry, had little concern that financial assistance was given from outside. What he was more concerned about was that there should be one fund only into which all money is paid and that the local church leaders then take responsibility on how to distribute the money.
My personal concern (Maya – the reason why I consider this to be an important issue) is that many Christians may be using a misinterpreted understanding of Venn and Anderson’s Three-Selves formula to free themselves of Godly obligations towards Christians who are truly in dire need. Should we understand the background of this formula more correctly, it may mean that we could become involved with churches who are not financially as strong as we are, without jeopardising their wish to be truly indigenous. But we’re not through with the topic yet, because I also realise that its not a matter of either this viewpoint or that viewpoint.
A last remark for today: I’ve had quite a lot of thoughtful responses on this topic. I really appreciate you spending your valuable time reading my posts and then spending even more time in leaving your thoughts. Please keep on reading and responding.
One of the blogs I regularly read is http://persecutedchurch.blogspot.com. Some time ago Glenn Penner posed the question: Is the Three-Self Formula Still Relevant? What followed after that was a bit of a heated discussion between him and myself (but to be honest, I wasn’t heated and I do believe he misunderstood me and things were put right afterwards, for which I am very thankful 😉 If you are interested in this topic, you should read what he says and then also read the comments (at present 17 of them). Then you will also better understand why I have been reading the books of Schwarz and Rowell over the past few weeks.
I assume that all students of missiology are familiar with the three-selves formula. But then, I’m not writing here only for missiologists and therefore a very short explanation of the three-selves formula is appropriate. In 1854 and 1856 (specific dates debatable), two missionaries, Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, independently of each other, said that the three signs of an indigenous church are that they should be self-propagating, self-governing and self-supporting. John Nevius, who also lived in the times of Venn and Anderson, further popularised this so-called “three-self” paradigm. Since that time it has almost universally been accepted that these three characteristics should be present before a church can be considered to be indigenous. I was taught these principles at university and have on more than one occasion heard, during mission meetings, how important it is that these principles should be adhered to in the church in Swaziland.
It was only when I started working on my PhD that I found to my surprise that serious missiologists were actually questioning this viewpoint. Somewhere along the line, while busy with me preparatory studies, I had to evaluate this formula critically and then realised that I’m not so sure that I could fully agree with this anymore.
I have many concerns about this issue and will be returning to this topic over the next few days. My main concern is that, of the three points of the formula, only one is really important for people in Western churches. No prize for the correct answer! Western churches don’t want to be in the position any longer where they have to support “mission churches”. Many are looking for ways to get out of their commitments and this seems like an honourable way to take this step. (I may be generalising but I am also speaking from personal experience where a group of churches in South Africa who had been supporting our work in Swaziland for many years have now decided to withdraw and this is one of their – almost Biblical-sounding – arguments used to motivate the decision). If I can withdraw my money while convincing those who had received help that I am in fact doing them a huge favour otherwise they will never become an indigenous church, then it doesn’t sound so bad!
Obviously this is not how Venn and Anderson meant it when they formulated their viewpoint. But with time, this is what it has become (to a very large extent, at least). So my question remains: Is this formula really relevant today? Are there other things we need to look for in an indigenous church? And what about support from churches who have more? Is this right or is this wrong? What about co-dependency?
Please feel free to join me in this discussion. I must be honest and say that I don’t have a final answer. I’m looking for a better answer than the one we have at present. Writing about this is therefore my way of trying to get my thoughts in place. If you have a contribution to make, please do so.
Some time ago I posted my views on Glenn Schwarz’s book: When Charity destroys dignity. You can read my negative remarks here and my positive remarks here. I mentioned then that I ordered two books at the same time with conflicting viewpoints. The second one was this book by John Rowell, To give or not to give?. And after reading it, I can fully understand why Glenn Schwarz writes in his Postscript to the Preface that he does not agree with John Rowell.
OK, once again a few negative remarks before I come to the positive. George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilisation, writes in his recommendation that this book “is not an easy read”. I tend to agree. The author uses excellent language, but on a few occasions I found myself wondering what some of these words really mean. Using slightly simpler words, would have made this book accessible to a much greater group of people. However, it was great to read a book which seems to be well thought-through and is well documented.
The only other negative remark I would make is that some parts of the book put me on a guilt-trip. But then, on the other hand, the sermon on the mount also puts me on a guilt-trip, so perhaps this should not be seen as something negative!
What caught my attention as I read Rowell’s book, especially because I read it directly after Schwarz’s book, was the difference in the premise of the two authors. Schwarz writes from the premise that we do not want to create unhealthy dependency, therefore, when we give, we have to be careful how we give. Rowell writes from the premise that God commands us to give. As we give, we also have to keep in mind that we do not give in such a way as to create unhealthy dependency. And this more or less, for me, sums up the difference between the two books. Schwarz seems to look for ways to get out of giving, for fear of creating dependency. Rowell looks for ways to give more, without necessarily compromising those who receive.
God willing, in the weeks that come, I will be returning to many of the topics covered in both books. These include topics such as giving without any strings attached, tithing, the three selves formula, partnerships (yes, once again!), faith offerings, sustainability and a few more. So, if you are interested in these topics, you know where to find me. But I would also appreciate your comments.
A final remark: If I have to make a choice, it will be fairly easy for me to say that I am more comfortable with Rowell’s book. Personally I am also totally against unhealthy dependency. But I prefer the Biblical starting point that Christians are blessed by God, (also materially), in order to become a blessing to others.
But then again, working amongst people who are mostly living in extreme poverty, I’m biassed!