Is It Hypocrisy to Ask Locals to Be Self-Supporting?

“How can I not give a support salary to a local believing leader when I myself am funded by support?”

This is not an uncommon struggle for missionaries who are trying to plant self-supporting churches in foreign contexts. If it’s OK for me to be living on support from Western churches, well then why not this local evangelist? It’s easy to see why this question rests heavy on the minds of missionaries, awash as they usually are in requests for financial help from locals.

And yet dependency upon Western dollars is a major problem, undercutting the emergence of healthy churches in many places overseas and stunting local believers in their growth. Time and again, well-meaning teams, organizations, and visitors will generously give out cash, vehicles, and salaries to locals who are indeed in financial need. Soon this becomes the expectation. In my Central Asian context there has never been a self-supporting local church. The precedent set by Christian organizations here is that local believers should usually be hired, salaried, and otherwise financially supported. Because of this, local aspiring church leaders hunt on social media and in our region for foreign patrons who will bankroll them so that they can finally serve Jesus as they feel they deserve to. Locals hosting a house church demand that the church pay their monthly rent. Other believers balk at the idea of doing discipleship without financial remuneration. After all, a worker is worthy of his wages. Sadly, entitlement is not too strong a word to use for the money culture that exists here among the small community of local believers.

The saddest part of it all is that local believers don’t learn how to give sacrificially. Dependent as they are on Western dollars, they often give a tiny symbolic amount to their local gathering – a massive contrast to their generosity toward their kin and close friends. The culture of giving among local believers is woefully underdeveloped. So it becomes a reinforcing cycle. Locals don’t give because the Western dollars are expected to flow liberally. The Western dollars flow because the locals don’t give, meaning their leaders can’t provide for their families. Locals therefore stay spiritual children in this regard, not growing up into the mature blessings that come from giving sacrificially (2 Cor 9).

My approach among my local friends is to simply ask their community to do what ours back in the West (and in Melanesia) has done. Work hard. Give generously to the church. Support your pastors. Serve the poor. Then give even more to send out your own evangelists and church planters. This is what has happened among healthy church networks all over the world. We are not asking our local friends to go through any kind of a different process. “Your people should do what my people have done.” It’s that simple. The shortcuts are treacherous. I live on support, yes, and I am therefore a preview of what your church will also be able to do if you embrace the New Testament vision of work and giving to the glory of God. You will send supported missionaries to other places who will also there raise up self-funded churches.

It is not hypocrisy for me to live on support and to ask my local friends to have locally-supported leaders. I am for them. I am for their spiritual maturity. I long for the day when local funds raised by local churches will send locals as cross-cultural missionaries to other people groups. This can happen. But it won’t happen if they remain dependent on Western dollars, stunted spiritually by the lack of this spiritual discipline of giving – and in greater danger of the ever-encroaching love of money. A worker is worthy of his wages (1 Tim 6:18). But let’s make sure we notice the context of that verse. The previous sentences are speaking of elders who lead well (v. 17). These are men who are tested, who are not new converts, who were free from the love of money before they became elders (1st Tim 3, Titus 1). These are men who have a track record of faithful leadership. Years of faithfulness have been invested without pay into the local church. By all means, let’s salary these kinds of brothers so they can be more free to devote themselves to the word and to prayer! But let that salary be locally-raised, or, part of high-accountability decreasing support plan where foreign support gets lower as local support ramps up – not unlike what we do for most North American church plants.

I’m not saying that there’s never an appropriate time for foreign dollars to fund local leaders overseas. But in many contexts it has caused absolute carnage among the churches. Foreign dollars are certainly among our top three church-killers locally. We need to grapple with this. Foreign financial support, if attempted, must be done very carefully and wisely, always with an explicit vision toward self-supporting local churches. There are usually better ways to invest Western money, such as helping local leaders get the training needed to start a business or get hired. Teach a man to fish, as the saying goes. Or, like Paul, teach a man to make tents.

I will have another chance to sit down with some local brothers this next week. They have asked to meet me and I’ve learned that they have a reputation for being salary-seekers. Money will likely come up. I hope to humbly invite them to follow me as I follow Christ. I’ve walked a good, hard, slow path toward now being fully supported to do gospel work. My path involved years of faithful volunteering, demonstrating to myself and to the church that I would do the work of evangelism, discipleship, and service no matter what, support or no support. “Will you also follow this good path that many others have walked before us? Will your people do as my people have done?” It may be harder, but in the end it is indeed a sweeter road – and safer too.

Photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash

How to Boast in Our Humiliation

It is not uncommon for Western missionaries to be considered wealthy by the locals where they serve. This is certainly true in tribal contexts. Even in developing regions like Central Asia, Westerners are assumed to be fabulously wealthy. Many locals where we serve own decent homes and buy nice cars. They probably have more cash (or gold) reserves than we do. Central Asians and Middle Easterners value bling and have an uncanny ability to amass concrete wealth even in the midst of ongoing political crises.

And yet we are wealthier than they are in many ways. We are wealthy in our overall finances, compared to many. While we may not have much cash on hand, we have a steady income, generous health insurance, savings, and a retirement plan. We have access to lots of easy credit on reasonable terms. We have powerful credit cards that reward us with free rewards just for using them because we have been deemed a “safe risk” by our credit rating.

We are wealthy in our ability to travel on our blue passport (well, before the pandemic anyway). Our organization flies us out of our host country once or twice a year for meetings or trainings, providing us the opportunity to affordably attach a few days or a week of vacation to these trips. We tend to pay for these times of rest by using our credit card points and some leftover cash.

We are wealthy in our education. Whether we were home-schooled or went to a public or private school, the quality of our K-12 education outpaces anything available to our Central Asian friends. Our bachelors and masters degrees from accredited American universities are powerful for acquiring credibility and employment. We have the ability to find and win scholarships if we desire to get more education. Some universities will give amazing discounts to our children because they are MKs.

We are wealthy in our connections. Even though we come from a society based more on merit than relationships, we know so many people who can point us toward the information we need to advance in a given area. We know how to network globally and how to leverage the internet and the English language to get the knowledge we need. Even in the West, who you know still matters for giving your resume that extra shine if competing with others with similar qualifications.

We are wealthy in our Christian heritage. We have been raised to know so much about the Bible and about Church history. We have countless resources for studying the Bible and history in our language and within reach (often for free) on our smart devices.

If we compare ourselves to other Westerners, we feel we are normal and perhaps less wealthy than most. But when we compare ourselves to our Central Asian friends and the majority world population, we see that we are actually in the category of the rich.

This means that James 1:9-11 is speaking to us when it addresses the rich.

[9] Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, [10] and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. [11] For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (ESV)

Clearly, the rich are called to boast in their humiliation. So how should we missionaries do this? What does this mean?

It’s not uncommon for local believers to bring up our wealth (real or imagined) eventually. It might be when we’re speaking about enduring persecution and they say that it’s different for us because we have a blue passport and can leave anytime. Or it might be when we are we speaking of putting the kingdom of God ahead of politics and they say that it’s different for us because we actually have a nation-state for our people. We speak about being willing to risk our lives for Jesus and the pushback we receive is that if anything happens our Western families will be provided for by our sending churches, but theirs will be alone and abandoned in a hostile environment.

Sooner or later the differences in our wealth that we have been trying to play down will enter into our conversation with local believers. They see us as rich and see themselves as poor. They are, to some extent, ashamed of their lowly position. Perhaps also envious of ours. And the enemy wants to use these differences to sow division between us and our local friends.

The answer is not usually to erase all distinctions of wealth between us. There is much wisdom in living a simpler lifestyle that does not cause a hindrance to local believers. We Westerners give up our comforts too slowly. But I cannot undo my education, nor should I throw away my life insurance nor my knowledge of the Bible. The kind of wealth that God has given us must be tested by 1st Corinthians 13 – can it be leveraged for the sake of love? If the answer is yes, then we do more for the kingdom by leveraging these things for others than by discarding them. And if we discard, we must also ensure that it is done for the sake of love – not for pride or for mere appearances.

Here is where James 1 can be so helpful to us. We don’t have to pretend that the difference in wealth is not there. We don’t have to awkwardly change the topic when it comes up. Instead, we have the opportunity to turn worldly thinking on its head and to glory in the effects of the gospel. There is a particular way in which the poor in the world’s eyes are supposed to boast in the gospel. And there is a particular boast also for those whom the world calls rich.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, [10] and the rich in his humiliation

The good news of Jesus Christ exalts those called poor by this world. It takes the poor and it makes them sons and daughters of king, the heirs of all creation, citizens of heaven, the recipients of infinite wisdom, the possessors of eternal glory and honor – those who sit on the throne of Christ himself. They may be despised in this world, but now in Jesus their true spiritual identity is one of honor and spiritual riches – Even if their position in this world doesn’t change.

The gospel also brings down the rich. Those honored and praised by the world are reminded that they are just as worthy of hell as everyone else, that they mere slaves of Christ, that they will fade and die like all others. No amount of wealth or power will be able undo the great leveling of sin and death. They are saved by becoming spiritual beggars, just like everyone else. God shows no partiality.

Someone could push back and say that everything in both paragraphs above is true of all believers, whether they are rich or poor. And that would be correct. And yet isn’t it interesting that James commands a specifically different focus for the poor and the wealthy? Yes, I am a spiritual beggar and a spiritual billionaire at the same time. And yet because I am rich in this world, James would have me focus on how the gospel brings me down, how it humiliates me – especially if I am in fellowship with those who are poor in this life.

This is practical! Instead of trying to ignore our difference in wealth, I can now turn my conversation with local believers to this truth. Yes, I am a US citizen, but in Jesus I have become a spiritual pilgrim and wanderer, counting as loss the worldly honor I get from being born in the land of the so-called superpower. Yes, my friend is a member of a persecuted ethnic minority, enduring the shame of having no homeland. But in Jesus he is given a passport even better than the strongest in this world. God has given him a better and an enduring homeland, and proclaimed him fit to judge angels.

God does not see me as more honorable than my local believing friend, even if his culture wants to place me above him as his patron. God sees us, yes, as equals in Christ, but as both unique recipients of the great reversal – he has been brought up, and I have been brought down.

We need to learn how to boast and glory in this. I believe that when we and our local friends truly believe these things in our hearts we will have dealt a deadly blow against sinful comparison, partiality, and shame. And in this world of screaming inequalities, we will be in the place to powerfully share the gospel.

Photo by Lee yan on Unsplash