By working towards sustainability in local ministries and shrinking their presence amongst reached people groups, Western missions organizations are in a position to direct their efforts more strategically. Christian communities marked by holistic self-determination – this is what institutional sustainability looks like.
Encouraging news about institutional sustainability is coming from the majority world. That is to say, Christian organizations that have been financially dependent upon Western institutions in the past are now raising their own funds in their own ways. The results are already manifest: healthy autonomy from Western missions, and more robust possibilities for the Great Commission overall.
Why this move toward financial sustainability, and why now? In many cases, it is not being done on purpose. Governments in countries like India and Vietnam are passing laws to limit certain kinds of aid from foreign Christian ministries. This is especially true for programs that are perceived to encourage conversion to Christianity. In India, more specifically, foreign aid for underprivileged children has been severely curtailed. In the past, foreign aid had been appropriated through local churches, which identified needy children and distributed resources accordingly. Such programs have suffered or died as a result of government policy, but several churches have led renewed efforts to raise funds through special offerings from their own congregations, as well as people outside the church.
A truly global movement
Still, in many cases, Christian organizations in the majority world are raising their own funds by their own design, irrespective of government policies. Under the direction of Peteris Sprogis, Bishop of the Latvian Baptist Union, the Baltic Pastoral Institute in Latvia has raised more than 50 percent of their expenses locally over the course of the last 10 years. The Institute’s robust traditional pastoral training now includes instruction in biblical fundraising as an integral part of students’ three years of non-formal education.
Another good example of the growing effort towards sustainability in Christian institutions is Trans World Radio (TWR), a ministry whose mission is to provide access to mass media to majority world nations for the sake of the Gospel. Under the direction of Barbara Schantz, TWR’s Global Fund Development Strategist, many of TWR’s non-Western offices have become self-sustaining through local fundraising. Schantz is also co-catalyst of Ministry Fundraising Network, one of 35 issue networks of the Lausanne Movement, perhaps the largest and most dynamic evangelical missions organization in the world. The fundraising network exists to provide fundraising motivation, strategies, best practices and national accreditation councils for financial accountability.
Asian Access, an evangelical leadership development organization operating in 12 countries, is moving toward indigenous sustainability. The goal is to transition from a model of total dependency on Western resources to a model of “interdependence.” Some majority world countries are already fully independent from Western funds. Others will take many years to complete the shift.
Another interesting case is Wycliffe Bible Translators’ affiliate ministries in Latin America. As they begin to wrap up their final translations, these institutions have faced the very real likelihood of losing their experienced linguists on the continent. In response, these ministries have trained many to raise their support locally to redeploy their translation missionaries to regions where the need for Bible translation is still great, such as Africa and India.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what God is doing to move majority world ministries toward sustainability. How is this happening?
Quality biblical fundraising training is certainly a key. But training alone will not result in desired levels of sustainability. In most cases, instruction has also been provided in how to be a steward of resources already received. The most effective programs provide steward training for those already receiving fundraising training, and for Christian communities in general. This is case in Latvia, where generosity has become a part of the culture among evangelicals.
This movement toward local sustainability has resulted in positive changes in key aspects of missions. By raising money locally, local leaders have developed a strong, holistic sense of ownership of their ministries. Leaders tend to be more careful with expenses. They speak with greater conviction into the direction, values and strategies of the mission. Most importantly, the organization begins to look more like the Christian culture that hosts it. This is a good thing, since the best people to reach a culture for Christ are the people of that culture. When Western missionaries pull out for political or safety reasons, ministries often maintain or even gain momentum under local leadership.
The Biblical case for sustainability
There are two major obstacles to majority world ministry sustainability. One is the cancerous and well-known phenomenon of “prosperity gospel” teaching. Another lesser-known obstacle is the unfortunate popular teaching that fundraising is not biblical. These ideas have been around for at least 150 years, but nothing could be further from the truth! There are at least 15 examples of fundraising in Scripture. None are condemned by God, and some even result from God’s own direction.
God’s explicitly instructs Moses to take up an offering for the materials needed to build the tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-9). When we realize that the literal meaning of the word “consecrate” is “to fill the hand,” we can see that David makes a very clear ask to the leaders of Israel to give for the building of the temple (1 Chr. 29:5). Nehemiah also asks for more than a few items (Neh. 2:4-9).
Yet perhaps the best example of fundraising in the Bible is Paul’s request of the Corinthian church to take up an offering for the relief of Christians suffering in Jerusalem (1 Chr. 16:1-3; 2 Chr. 8-9). Most of the New Testament doctrine of “grace giving” comes from these two passages. Some acknowledge that passage as an example of fundraising, but indicate that Paul never asks for money for himself. However, in Romans 15:20-24, Paul reveals his plan to the church and Rome. He indicates that he wants them to “help him on his way” to Spain. This is a clear request for material help.
As many scriptural passages indicate, to practice fundraising is to be in the company of figures such as Moses, David, Elijah, Nehemiah, Paul and John.
It may take many years or even an entire generation to fully correct the unbiblical teaching in many areas of the world. This must happen before sustainability is possible. Fortunately, the number of biblical fundraising experts is increasing – both Westerners with cross-cultural experience and indigenous leaders.
With over 3,000 “unengaged” people groups in the world, there is still a place for traditional Western missions. In fact, the move toward sustainability in non-Western ministries could be an important catalyst for fulfilling the Great Commission as it is traditionally conceived. By working towards sustainability in local ministries and shrinking their presence amongst reached people groups, Western missions organizations are in a position to direct their efforts more strategically. Christian communities marked by holistic self-determination – this is what institutional sustainability looks like.