This is one proverb I am thrilled to have found. For years we have had to defend our slow pace of church-planting, money usage, and leadership development to locals. I even came to start referring to our church as those desiring to be faithful turtles.
Money is the fuel for most governmental, private, and religious organizations here in our corner of Central Asia. Small salaries are expected for participation and loyalty to a group, and many Christian organizations have played right into this. If you hear of exciting results from our area, ask how money is involved. Sadly, many new believers (and some unbelievers) are being paid to share the gospel, lead bible studies, and form groups. And with these small salaries, things develop quickly. But as soon as the money dries up, things fall apart just as quickly.
In reality, money has been used to substitute for godly character. Yet without godly character, those being paid can’t handle the temptations that come from being paid to do the work of ministry. Our approach has been to do the slow work of character formation and to let the multiplication of disciples, groups, and churches be governed by that same slow speed. Money is used sparingly, and only after someone has demonstrated freedom from the love of it.
How can we justify this slow work in an area that is 99.9% lost? Because it is the only work that will last. To plant churches that last – and not merely multiply and die – is our goal. That goal keeps us slower than most, but so be it. By the grace of God, the disciples we make will persevere, the leaders will last, the churches will live beyond a few years. I believe that, given enough time, a small network of churches planted in this fashion will overtake the alleged movements that some have claimed here. 18,000 churches planted is what one man claimed – the problem is, no one who actually lives here has ever seen even one of them!
This local proverb speaks to the surprisingly effective results of slow and steady work. One doesn’t usually catch a rabbit with a wheelbarrow. But with great focus, planning, and perseverance, someone wise with a wheelbarrow just might catch one, when all others have failed. It’s the same principle behind the classic tortoise and hare fable – slow and steady wins the race.
“Your pastors aren’t paid by the government?!” Our friend’s language teacher was in shock. He had never heard anything like this. “So how do they make a living?”
“By the faithful giving of the church members,” said our friend. More astonishment followed.
The longer we live in Central Asia, the more we realize that we are living in a different financial universe when it comes to money and religious institutions.
The local religious leaders are salaried by the government, as long as they are part of one of the officially approved religions. This means a somewhat secure income – but also government control.
Local religious institutions themselves are also given a monthly stipend from the government, even those institutions which would otherwise have died long ago – such as a Sufi-dervish branch I visited this past week. The Sufis (Islamic mystics) were the most powerful group here for about 1,000 years. But sometime in the past century their power collapsed. My local friends say it’s because so much of their teaching and practice was based on tradition and personality, as opposed to the more text-based Sunni Islam exported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the early 20th century. But it’s that monthly government stipend that keeps them holding on. The few members of their branches get a cut of that stipend, and so they keep coming back, chanting, and talking about the glory days. The government for their part gets a friendlier group than the more militancy-prone Salafis, who are growing exponentially here based on a strong mix of ideology and funding.
As long as there were melons, the relatives were score. But now the melons have run out, the relatives are no more. So goes a local proverb that seeks to explain how many locals’ loyalty is dependent on a basic monthly payout.
This type of top-down money scheme is carried into the church when locals come to faith. Many are offended to not be given monthly cash for simply being faithful attendees. And watch out if you hire an unbeliever for that development job instead of a local believer – that is viewed as akin to betrayal.
As far as sacrificial giving that could fund a local pastor – that’s going to take some time to be understood and actually put into practice. In fact, we have never had a financially independent local church in the three decades that missions has been taking place here. The patron-client worldview means local believers give their time and loyalty to a certain missionary, group, or church, and then often expect to receive cash and favors of influence in return. For many locals this is self-evident, just the way the world runs.
There are also wild stories believed among the locals about the missionaries’ financial situation. $25,000 payout per baptism is one of the more extreme ones that I’ve personally been accused of. Even this past week a dear brother was shocked to learn that healthy organizations don’t tie higher or lower salaries to results.
“You mean to tell me that if a foreigner’s church plant falls apart, he’ll still get the same salary?” he asked, incredulous. I just shook my head and attempted to carefully explain that a fair income for a sent-out one should be tied to faithfulness, not to ministry results. It was the first time he had ever considered this.
The widespread assumption here is that numbers, events, and baptisms equal top-down, outside money. Some of this is the fault of this cultural context, as I’ve been describing here. But some of it is also the fault of evangelical organizations that have come in and splashed money around carelessly, not realizing the harmful precedents they are setting. While many locals fall into these issues simply for lack of discipleship, others have also learned to play the game. Western pastors who visit our region are a favorite target. In a one-week trip, the visitors are dazzled – and financial commitments follow. The long-term missionaries who try to follow up on these “high-impact” groups often find they have already been shattered by conflicts over money – leaving believers embittered and unwilling to gather with others.
These problems are deep-rooted, and won’t go away overnight. But there is a quiet transformative power that comes from biblical, congregational churches – where members learn to work hard and give generously, to decide together, even to discipline together. This bottom-up participatory Christianity has overcome honor-shame patron-client cultures before, such as that of ancient Rome and that of the American South (See the writings of David A. Desilva and Gregory Wills, respectively). If this kind of faith truly takes root here, we can expect similar reform to eventually take place.
In the meantime we’re going to have to get really explicit when it comes to how the local church should handle money. When living in different financial universes, assumptions are highly combustible. Somehow in security-sensitive contexts like ours, we’re going to have to find ways to say, “No pastor or missionary should ever get money for a baptism – ever! If they do, they are dangerous and a wicked example.”
Work hard. Give generously. Support your own pastor. Serve the poor. Fund your own cross-cultural workers. These are our dreams for the local churches here. There are no short-cuts to these outcomes. Outside money will always be quicker and easier. But it will keep the churches here from reaching adulthood. Bottom-up congregational giving, on the other hand, will lead to a beautiful maturity.
If the cow were still giving yogurt-water, she would still be with the owner.
Local Oral Tradition
“What’s your reason for selling?” This Central Asian proverb encourages buyers to be shrewd, knowing that sometimes the proverbial cow is for sale because she’s stopped producing the very thing you need her for. If it sounds too good of a deal to be true, it is.
As the classic Beatles song goes, “‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, for money can’t buy me … [honor].” Wealthy local leaders ignore this proverb regularly, using their money to purchase loyalty in hopes that the community will overlook their corruption, theft, and promiscuity. But it doesn’t work. The bazaar always finds out which men are living respectably and which ones are pretending mammon to be a substitute for honor.
My painter friend has provided valuable insight a couple of times now into how local culture thinks about money. A year and a half ago he was my point-man for the different renovations we needed to do once we had finally located a house to rent (a process that involved somewhere around fifty realtors!). It was an interesting working experience, and in the hottest part of the summer. My focus was on fixing things thoroughly so that this house could provide several years of stability for my family, while my painter friend was always pushing back and telling me not to spend so much money. I didn’t quite know what to do with the fact that my contractor kept trying to discourage me from employing him and his contacts on further projects!
One day I asked him about whether we should put iron bars on our ground floor front windows. Our house is essentially a cement row home, with a front that faces the street and sides and a back that connect to other houses’ walls. Envision the narrow Philadelphia row homes from the film Rocky, turn them into cement/plaster/tile structures, and you’ll be getting close. We have a skinny house front facing the street, a small tile courtyard with a gate, and we have a back roof that we can walk out onto. The door to the roof and the window have metal bars on them. But unlike some of our neighbors, we don’t have bars on our ground floor door and windows. The painter’s response was interesting.
“Nah, you don’t need ’em.”
“Why do say that?” I asked.
“Listen, if anyone’s gonna rob a house, he’s gonna do it through the roof, where the nosy neighbors can’t see it happen. Neighbors are always watching who comes and goes through the front of the house.”
Well, that’s a bit unnerving, I thought to myself. Better take note of that for future Bible studies.
“Nah,” he continued, “You’ve got bars on your roof window, so you’re fine. Besides, everyone knows that your a Westerner and Westerners are different with their money.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“Westerners keep their money in banks! Everyone knows that. I bet the cash you have in your wallet right now is the only cash you have around this whole house, right?”
“See? Nothing to worry about. No one will bother to rob Westerners because you’re not stuffing tens of thousands of dollars into a mattress or hole in the wall like we locals do. All your money is in a bank. It’s not worth it.”
What an interesting and unexpected perspective, I thought to myself. Growing up in Melanesia, crime and robbery were a big problem. Westerners had to be extra careful. Here, being a Westerner might mean I’m less likely to be robbed!
Fast forward a year and a half to last night, and we were having dinner with my painter friend and his wife. Once again, I found him to be an unexpected source of insight into theft and money. He began laughing and telling us about some foreigners he saw in the money exchange bazaar taking pictures of the tables piled high with stacks of cash.
“That’s a strange thing for all of us foreigners in the beginning,” I said, “Those tables are just sitting there with thousands of dollars on them, yet no one tries to steal anything! Your culture has an amazingly low rate of theft. It’s really unique. What’s going on there?” I asked him. “Even nearby surrounding cultures aren’t like that.”
“Well,” my painter friend said, “If anyone tries to steal anything, the police and the secret police will be after him right away. He doesn’t stand a chance. Sometimes you don’t even need the police! The crowd will take care of him. Stealing is such a shameful thing.”
(I remember experiencing a similar thing in Melanesia. A man had robbed one of my classmates. We were able to yell and holler and send a crowd chasing him down. The police saw him rounding a corner, pursued by an angry mob, and they decided to arrest him and rescue him from the wrath of the mob. Might have saved his life.)
My friend continued to elaborate, “For us, it’s a matter of honor and reputation. To be known as a thief is one of the worst reputations you can have. You’ll never get rid of it. You’ll never be able to marry a local girl. Their families won’t let them marry a thief.”
“Really?” we responded.
“Even his father will be marked forever. People on the street will say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief!’ And his son will never be able to marry. Oh yes, they will all say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief.’ Indeed, his honor will have departed.”
A teammate leaned over to me to emphasize this final phrase, “Did you catch that?” he said, “His honor will have departed.” I nodded. Now there’s a phrase to memorize for those seeking to communicate the fallenness of humanity. All of us have sinned, and all of our honor has departed.
“So that’s why thieving and robbery are so rare?” we asked.
“But what about government corruption?”
“Ha!” My friend responded, “Yes, we have a lot of that. The normal people don’t steal, but the political class? They’re sneaky. They steal billions in deceptive ways. Such is our situation.”
And such is the surprising nature of theft and money in our corner of Central Asia. In general, you don’t have to worry about pick-pockets, people breaking into your car, or kids stealing from shops in the bazaar. But you have a project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Watch out. At that point the thieves will come calling.
Last week a local believer surprised us, asking to spend a couple nights with us as he waited for his university dorm to open. We were heading into a needed slower weekend after a very busy week. So we had to take a minute to wrestle with whether our family could absorb the good cost of overnight hosting in the local fashion – where chai and conversation often last until well after midnight. In the end, my wife and I decided it would be the right kind of sacrificial call to make. We’ve learned the importance of making these kinds of calls together, even though it’s a little weird in local culture for me to tell a friend I’ll call him back rather than just immediately extending gushing invitations of welcome. But ministry can be quite costly to family, and unity between spouses is essential for navigating when and how to absorb those costs.
This particular young man has been a fun example of providence for me. Years ago I met him in a bookshop in our previous city. He shared with me that he and some of his high school buddies ran a philosophy discussion group in their very conservative Islamic city. I had felt keenly that this was the kind of group I should try to visit, but I had never followed up on the opportunity. Nevertheless, his number remained in my phone and his unique name in my mind. A few years later we had returned from six months in the US and had moved to a different city. At our first visit to the international church here, who should walk up to me at the end of the service? This very same young man – now a professing follower of Jesus. I don’t know how, but I knew I would run into you again, I thought to myself.
During my friend’s stay with us we talked a lot about his work with local radio stations – including our only local Christian radio station. He shared with me how our newly completed audio bible in the local language was recorded at their studio. This project is worthy of celebration since so many of the women in our adopted country are illiterate and much of the general population is only functionally literate – meaning they will never read a book for fun or personal interest. Having the whole Bible now freely available via radio or a free smartphone app means access to the word of God just increased exponentially.
“You know what really surprised me?” my friend said to me. “The project was funded by churches in Africa. How can that be?”
I was thrilled to learn about this aspect of the project. How amazing that African churches have just funded an audio bible for my Central Asian Muslim people group! I’ve never heard about this direction of partnership for the work here before, but it seems like an exciting preview of things to come. I proceeded to explain to my friend about the massive Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa and how I have heard it is set to become a major force and sending base for global missions. This was brand new information for my friend and he leaned in as I explained how the Church in the global south is in many ways the future center of global Christianity. The Church in the West may be declining or plateauing, but God is raising up churches all around the world to fill the gap.
In our previous city we partnered closely with a Mexican family. Their unique strengths were key to our fledgling church plant getting up and off the ground. We were able to lean on them for the areas of working in the local culture where we as Westerners were weaker – and vice versa. When that term came to an end I took a couple seminary classes while in the US. In both of my classes was a student from the very same country in Melanesia where I had grown up. Turns out he had been discipled by a pastor my own dad had discipled before he passed away. Now this man had been sent to get further seminary-level training. His dream is to return and start the first seminary in the country in order to train future pastors and missionaries. I watch with gratitude on social media as Melanesian guys I played volleyball with at Easter Camp are already going out and planting churches locally and even ministering in neighboring nations. Back here in our Central Asian context, it’s not uncommon to hear of cross-cultural workers from Asia and Latin America who have come to also see the Church take root here.
What an exciting time to be a part of global missions. Many countries and people groups that used to receive missionary church planters and Bible translators are now organizing to themselves send workers to the unreached people groups of the world. It’s often messy. We learned some hard lessons about how difficult it can be to have to contextualize to two foreign cultures at once, trying to keep in mind both local Central Asian and partner Hispanic culture. I can only imagine the epic culture clash if someday my Melanesian friends come as workers to Central Asia. “My grandpa was a cannibal” meets “My grandpa was a terrorist.” Sparks will certainly fly at times. And yet the advantages far outweigh the costs. The picture alone which is painted for our local friends is spiritually powerful. I relished every opportunity I had to point to our former partners’ ethnicity and our ethnicity and the locals’ ethnicities, holding up the supra-cultural power of the gospel for every people group of the world. “They’re Mexican, we’re American, you’re Central Asian. Look at the power of Jesus to save us and make us into a new people!”
I don’t know yet which churches from which African country funded our local audio Bible. But I praise God for them. Only the proud feel threatened when new regions of the world get involved in the missionary task. Many of us simply rejoice. Blessed reinforcements with unique strengths and needed experience! The promises of God are coming true. If all the unreached people groups of the world are to be saturated with healthy churches, it will have to be through a combined effort of the global church sending workers to the areas of greatest need. No longer mainly the West to the rest. Instead, all nations to all nations.
“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.