The issue of direct overseas funding for indigenous church planters and associated workers (health and literacy workers etc.) can create strong differences of opinion, even among church planters who would agree on most other aspects of church planting.
I have a number of very dear friends holding different views on the issue and yet each of them has seen God work wonderfully through their church planting endeavors. Some have voiced opposition to the concept of any outside financial support for local church planters whilst others have readily embraced it and actively facilitated it.
Of those who are not in favor, some cite purity of motive of those who serve the Lord without any direct financial assistance, as evidence of the kind of commitment that will make good church planters and great models for young believers from the newly planted church.
Many of these workers not receiving financial support do, however, receive assistance in some form from the church that enables them to continue in ministry. This assistance might include the maintaining of their homes and gardens while they are away, going with them to help them establish housing in the area or building a structure for the people to meet in, looking after the church planter’s children who are in school while they are away or going to visit them taking a good supply of food for them. These are excellent ways of sustaining church planters, practically demonstrating the love and care of the church planter’s sending church. Certainly money alone is not always the answer and, in some cases, it can actually create more problems than it solves.
On the other side, there are those who actively encourage and recruit supporters in the West to take on the financial support of full-time indigenous workers who are actively involved in the planting of new churches. They say “if we expats have no problem receiving financial support from overseas, why should we discourage the workers we send out from also receiving it?”
Many godly expat church planters have sought to raise support for the workers sent out from the church/churches they have planted in an attempt to better facilitate and accelerate the spread of the gospel into yet unreached areas. They have also facilitated the raising of funds to assist some of the local youth to receive formal education and training as schoolteachers, health workers, etc., in order for them to bring those skills back to their home area. It can also include the subsidizing of Bibles and other printed materials necessary for the growth of the church.
Both sides present some very good reasons for what they are doing and why. It is essential that as church planters we are coming up with solutions that take into account the context of the indigenous work and workers. Concerns for the health and growth of the church and safeguards to minimize potential pitfalls also need to be addressed. Let’s first, however, consider the spiritual side of meeting practical needs.
Principles of Giving
Any successful church plant should progressively build into new believers a heart to give, even if it is out of their poverty in which case it may not be monetary. Well-funded expat church planters sometimes neglect the need to teach on giving, especially when the church is planted among those who live in relative poverty. Aware that they and their overseas supporters have the financial capacity to easily fund the church’s outreach, they then question how they could possibly expect those who have so little, to even contribute, let alone completely fund their outreach themselves. But this attitude neglects an important principle of Scripture: giving.
In a sermon centered around the topic of giving, Ray Galea, Senior Pastor of MBM in Sydney says the following about the Macedonian Church. Ray sights this church as a great example of a poor church giving out of their poverty. He then goes on to list ten things Paul says about these generous Christians (2 Corinthians 8:2-5).
• They gave in the midst of a very severe trial
• They gave out of their extreme poverty
• They gave with overflowing joy
• They gave a lot—it welled up in rich generosity
• They gave as much as they were able
• They gave even beyond their ability
• They gave willingly—entirely on their own
• They begged to give
• They saw it as a privilege to share in this service to the Lord’s people
• They exceeded the apostle’s expectations
From such extreme poverty and suffering came unexpected and radical generosity with unbelievable joy. This example demonstrates that it is not beyond even the poorest of churches to be giving, whatever form that giving may take. At the same time, we mustn’t fail to recognise how God can greatly use the incredibly powerful testimony of church planters who despite their poverty, faithfully serve Him joyously and effectively.
The goal of seeing the newly planted church grow in faith and in their ability to financially meet their own needs is an important biblical principle that must be taught to the church, regardless of how prosperous or poverty-stricken they are. Somehow, God uses giving to build our faith and to put our priorities in order. He shows us His ability to supply our needs when they occur, building greater trust in Him.
I am reminded of a church planter’s testimony. He worked in a country where it was highly illegal to coerce or in any way be seen to be providing any material incentive for anyone to become a Christian.
On one occasion, he was visited by a new believer who came and shared a situation that had left him desperately in need of financial assistance. The church planter apologized but told him how giving any gift of money could easily be seen as an enticement to change religion and, if discovered, would compromise his ability to remain in the country. The man asking for help understood his predicament and reluctantly accepted his inability to help. He then explained how far he had walked in order to come and see him and could he possibly at least give him the bus fare home. However, the church planter explained how he couldn’t even do that without it being interpreted as breaking the law.
So they prayed together, committing the need to God and off this new believer went on his very long walk home. Upon arrival, he was met with the news that a relative had come into some money and wanted to share it with the extended family. His financial need was met and his faith that God could provide for him in times of need was greatly strengthened.
Where then is the balance between the affluent Western church generously sharing and providing for needs and yet at the same time, not denying the indigenous church the ability to see God amazingly provide in totally unexpected ways? Isn’t the answer found in Spirit-led giving that asks God when, where and how to be generous givers? Shouldn’t we be praying about the amount or even if finances really are what’s needed?
We Westerners can be prone to think that money solves most problems whereas in some cases, it can be the very source of the problem. Likewise, we would hope that those on the receiving end would be before Him with their every need, trusting that He will somehow provide and in the most appropriate way. They can then be filled with praise and thanksgiving when He does.
Having considered the spiritual dimensions of this multi-faceted situation, we can tackle some important questions. The purpose of this article is not to answer each question definitively, but to point out what needs to be thought through when considering supporting local workers. Glenn J Schwartz in his article “Avoiding or Overcoming Dependency in Cross-Cultural Church Planting” raises some good questions. I have adapted some of them for this article. These questions fall under the broad categories of context, accountability and the growth of the local church.
• When church planting workers are supported directly from overseas, who determines who gets the support and what amount that support will be? Are names of indigenous workers simply given to overseas supporting churches and donors? Is it then completely up to the overseas church or donor to decide the level of support they will receive, regardless of the actual financial needs of the particular person and ministry?
• Could financial support from overseas shift the authority from the local church and its leadership to their overseas sponsors?
• Is there a system of accountability so that if a person ceases to be involved in ministry or falls into sin, the donors are alerted and the funding ceases?
• In cases where the overseas supported indigenous workers do receive very generous levels of support, does this enable them to be far better off financially than any others in their sending church? Could this then make them reluctant to want to phase out the foreign donor and see their church take over that supporting role, realizing that the church could never support them anywhere near that same level of support?
• Would the person receiving support feel guilty about recruiting other believers to become their co-workers in full-time ministry if they had little or no support, while he/she is receiving generous income from overseas for doing the same work?
• Could overseas support of individual workers be preventing the relatively newly planted church from working towards taking on financial responsibility for the different outreach ministries of the church?
Are there answers to the above questions that will address those concerns and allow overseas donors to financially assist poor churches in their outreach efforts, but in a manner that doesn’t impede the growth of the sending church? Let’s dig into how these questions might be addressed.
The Place of the Church and its Elders
If a church, in its early days of development, is financially incapable of fully funding its outreach, then maybe there should be openness to outside financial assistance should the outreach involve significant cost. We were involved in a work where one of the new church plants could only be reached by boat. This involved getting a boat, costly outboard motors, and fuel to run those motors not to mention their maintenance.
I suggest that the handling of those funds should go through the church elders. They can then make the decisions regarding their distribution rather than the funds being given directly to the local indigenous workers. This brings the local church leadership back into their rightful leadership role over any church outreach and also addresses the issue of on the spot accountability. Overseas financial support would not then exclude the authority and involvement of the local church leadership.
Church planters would need to have open and honest discussions with the local church and their leadership about what they would consider are the pitfalls and challenges that could come with outside funding. They will know the answers to that better than us. One task of the cross-cultural church planter is to assist the church and especially its leaders understand the scriptural principles around this topic and then allow them to interpret the application of those principles within their own cultural context.
The early church in the book of Acts acted in plurality and community. In Acts 15:22-35 we read “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church….” All of us well know the power of money to corrupt and so the church will need to be aware of that potential. Sadly, church history confirms that concern and plurality in leadership function can help provide a safe guard.
Church leaders must be men who can say “no” to the use of church funds when requests come from relatives. In some cultures, relatives can call upon those who have access to money to come up with funds when a family financial crisis arises. Unless the leaders corporately believe that the particular personal need is the right and appropriate use of church resources, then they must guard the funds entrusted to them. They must also be able to say “no” to strong individuals within the eldership when money is requested for purposes other than that to which it has been designated by the donors or as budgeted by the church leaders. This is not to say that funds can’t be reallocated but that decision needs to be made by the collective leadership of the church and if possible, with the donor’s approval and understanding of the reason for the change.
History again shows us that when one man is placed in a position of power and control of a church, all kinds of corruption can easily occur. It is imperative that during the process of developing leaders, the church planter emphasizes the plurality of the eldership and the responsibility of each elder to strongly challenge any potential misuse of funds, even when it involves challenging a fellow elder who may be better educated, gifted and highly regarded by the congregation.A definite sign that a church is in trouble is when no one is prepared to say “no” to a strong leader when the situation demands it.
If the eldership (plural) of the church is involved in the process of allocating the amount of funds and to whom they are given, then the process becomes a lot less subjective and the level of accountability improves. As mentioned above, the person/people doing the initial church plant would need to give some teaching on the biblical principles around money and then, together with the church elders, determine what guidelines they will establish. Once in place, it then needs to be left to the church elders to distribute the funds in accordance with genuine ministry and outreach needs as they see them.
The eldership must develop a level of discernment in appointing workers who will receive financial support. It is imperative that the local leadership only send people who have proven over time that they were faithful servants of the church when there was no money involved. Only those with a servant’s heart and who consistently display humble, godly character should be selected to go. Hopefully this will address the problem of people only serving in order to receive monetary support. It seems to me that if any outside support was to come through the local church leadership, then many potential problems could be minimized.
Differing church planting situations may require far more monetary assistance than others where the workers’ needs are far more modest and can be more easily met. Some local workers receiving support do so at such a low level that it would be ludicrous to imagine that they are able to live much beyond a subsistence level. By the time they feed, clothe and take care of themselves and their families, along with any costs that may be involved in the ministry, there is seldom anything left. For many, anything remaining is quickly given away to meet other, very obvious needs.
However, there are also those who would, through the generous support of overseas donors, receive many times the average local income. This additional finance then opens up opportunities for them that others living in their home area may never have access to. Can this then make the ministry of church planting look fairly attractive for the wrong reason?
On the other hand, the Apostle Paul in his church planting ministry did experience times of great need but he also experienced times of abundance. Therefore, let’s be careful not to think that local indigenous workers should never get to experience times of abundance just because life in the area they came from normally involves lots of hardship.
There should always be a place for outside financial assistance for special projects that are beyond the ability of poorer churches to completely fund themselves. This may include things such as the printing of Bibles, boats and outboard motors, or motorbikes although these practical needs should be identified by them rather than us. Such assistance brings up the issue of “feelings of ownership”—does the item belong to the person who uses it most, or does it belong to no one, leading to neglect and misuse.
Maybe one way of addressing this potentially problematic area would be to ensure that any large gifts from foreign donors or items purchased for outreach purposes, be given to and remain the property of the church rather than becoming the property of individual ministry workers. This hopefully reduces the potential for jealousy to occur when one donor sends funds to their local worker to purchase a brand new motor bike and another worker only receives enough to buy an old second-hand push bike.
Growth in Independence
In very poor areas void of a decent cash crop or other means of providing an adequate monetary income, the church planter may be able to assist the local community implement Socio Economic Development projects funded by overseas churches that could rectify that situation and provide a source of income to the church and its people.
If there is already a church existing at the time the SED project is being implemented, teaching on giving needs to happen concurrently. In the Scriptures, blessing is always to be passed on. When God provides a means of income, part of that income needs to go back into His work.
Successful SED projects will help lift people out of poverty, impress Governments who may be scrutinizing the church planter’s activities, but most importantly, enable the church to eventually be in a position to fund its own needs and outreach. With the availability of extra money comes the possibility that gullible Christians will be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people, resulting in the believers either becoming debt-laden or unwisely trading away their land and gardens, the very thing that can provide a living for their families and resources for the church.
How sad it would be to see the people’s standard of living improved and the church able to better stand on its own feet, only to have opportunistic crooks swindle all the gains that the SED project has delivered for the people and their church. Therefore, the discipleship of believers should include instruction on how to be good stewards of God’s blessings including wise management of their money and possessions.
The last thing we want is to create a problem for the church of long-term dependency on foreign donor money. Over time, in cases where overseas funding is provided to fund the church’s outreach, an ever increasing percentage of the contribution should be progressively shifted from overseas reliance to local sacrificial giving from the sending church. The local church then benefits spiritually as they trust God to supply their needs. They can then reach the point where it is their outreach, done by their people with their funding and support, a great model for the future churches they plant to also follow.
The generous, sacrificial giving of God’s people is used by God to assist the spread and work of the Church around the world and further build our trust in God as we see Him faithfully provide.
Newly planted churches need to be taught to give and that sacrificial giving can come in many forms, not just monetary giving.
For those in the West, taking a role in establishing and then empowering new church plants to become financially independent and sustainable, is a very caring and worthwhile investment of our resources.
Wisdom is needed to discern if, when, where and how we give to needs, beyond our giving to our own local church.
When we do give, giving through the local church to support workers involved in outreach doesn’t then sideline the authority of the local church leadership who can then distribute funds according to actual needs, of which they will have a far better understanding.
Western church planters need to be aware that we can easily look at this area of financial support through a Western lens believing that money is a big part of the answer to the challenges faced by church planters. The truth is that it can also be highly problematic if mishandled.
God is honored and glorified when His Church consistently and sacrificially give with cheerful hearts and then those responsible for the use of those resources use them in a God-honoring manner consistent with the principles laid out in Scripture. These principles and their local application should be passed on to the entire church so that we all become faithful stewards of God’s possessions that He has entrusted to each one of us.