RowTogi 07-05-036

To Give or Not To Give?

Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, & Redefining Sustainability



John Rowell

Authentic, 2006, 262 pp., ISBN 1-932805-86-4


John Rowell switched from accounting to become a church planting pastor in 1984.  His church in Atlanta began ministry in Bosnia during the war.  The story of their involvement is told in his earlier book, Magnify Your Vision for the Small Church.  John then founded a mission organization, Ministry Resource Network, to continue and expand the Bosnia ministry.  This book reflects his personal perspective and is based on his doctoral research at Gordon Conwell Seminary.


[A major issue in Western missions today is how to maximize the use of western funds, how to do ministry that is sustainable by nationals and avoids unhealthy dependency upon westerners.  Too often in the past, an infusion of Western money has produced facilities, equipment, projects, buildings, and salaries that were doomed to fail once the Western funds were discontinued.  Popular thinking today is that such financial support is misguided and that ministries should only be supported that can relatively quickly become self-funded and self-sustained.  John Rowell challenges this conventional thinking by saying that we should work in much closer partnership with the poor and provide much more in the way of funding.  His perspective is worth considering.  DLM]


Many of the spiritually unreached areas of the world are exceedingly poor.  Further, many of the most effective evangelists, church planters, and Christian leaders are extremely poor.  The Bible is full of warnings to the rich and exhortations to give generously to the poor.  By contrast contemporary Western missiology has developed a fascination with avoiding potential dependency by withholding finances that could be constructively used to help our poorer brothers and sisters expand the Kingdom.  The book argues that Western Christians are guilty of hoarding their enormous wealth whereas a fresh outpouring of generosity is highly biblical, eminently logical, extraordinarily profitable, and worthy of the risk.


"One of the most fundamental questions for Christians in the materially affluent West is how they use their wealth in order to advance God's redemptive work in our world of spiritual lostness and physical poverty." (Dr. Peter Kuzmic in the International Foreword)


"Few Western missionaries engaged in taking the gospel to unreached peoples can easily escape the discomfort of managing immensely disparate wealth while living and working among the world's most desperately poor." (1)


The World Bank reports that 1.2 billion of the world's poorest people try to survive on just one dollar a day!" (3)


"To refuse to share our resources with overseas brethren because there have been abuses is like saying we should outlaw marriage because some husbands beat their wives." (5, quoting Chuck Bennett)


It is not enough to send missionaries to unreached peoples.  We must send transformation development professionals, those who advance the Kingdom holistically. (9)


Jesus taught that we should give with no expectation of return.  Similarly gifts should be offered with no expectation that the recipient is obligated to the donor. (22, 23)


Escobar recommends a cooperative model where rich churches add their resources to churches in poor nations in order to reach a third area. (23)


Rowell blames current interpretation of three-self paradigm of missions for the idea that paying clergy salaries from abroad is counterproductive to the indigenous church.  When this paradigm was formulated, paying clergy salaries was connected with expatriate control.  Henry Venn's chief concern was to end missionary dominance.  It wasn't related to potential dependence.  Under his leadership foreign money still flowed into the National Church Fund, but it was administer by indigenous leaders.  The mission society still provided grants that were gradually withdrawn over time.  Rowell maintains that the original concern over domination has been transferred to concern about dependence. (28-35)  "My concern is that today we often misapply the self-supporting principle Venn introduced into mission theory in a way that makes funding global ministry harder than it needs to be." (36)


"If we are accurate in observing that the first-century Jerusalem church received support from faraway congregations as an expression of solidarity among Christian worldwide, why must we conclude that manifestation of the same spirit of mutuality today is somehow harmful?" (39)


"I very strongly suspect that the three 'selfs' are really projections of our American value systems into the idealization of the church, that they are in their very nature Western concepts based upon Western ideas of individualism and power." (39-40, quoting William Smalley)


"The self-supporting aspect of the guideline, in particular, is played out in a manner that makes withholding much-needed support a principled expression of genuine concern that is somehow supposed to be interpreted as a demonstration of our caring for others." (40)


A syllogism from Jonathan Bonk (Missions and Money, p. 86)

·      The West is rich.

·      The church in the West is rich.

·      Missionaries sent by the Western Church are rich.

·      Most of the peoples to whom Western missionaries are sent by their churches are poor.

·      What the Bible says about the rich and the poor has a direct bearing on the Western church generally and on Western missionaries in particular.  (42)


Chapter three is an exposition of the scriptural admonitions regarding, wealth, poverty, and generosity.  It also includes a line of biblical reasoning to support being generous in mission practice.  (43 ff.)


"I am promoting maximum investment, for the sake of the kingdom, in a manner that will not create unhealthy dependency." (48)


God encourages Christians to give liberally (2 Cor. 9:8-11).  "Those concerned about dependency embrace this notion in principle willingly enough, but I believe their arguments discourage giving liberally in practice." (52)


"Does it not make sense that a model of generosity based on obedience to biblical truths will teach a better stewardship lesson to new believers than a miserly message of frugality based on presumably legitimate missiological principles?" (53-4)


"Among God's people, genuine caring is expressed by generous sharing." (59)  "We can't teach new converts in unreached cultures to accept the concept of generous giving if we essentially model selfish living…." (66)


"I believe it is time for churches in the West to stop worrying about dependency among indigenous believers and to start thinking about complacency among ourselves as affluent believers." (66)  "I would rather show nationals that we care by fighting bankruptcy in their lives through investing resources in those we know we can trust rather than fighting dependency by refusing to share from our considerable surplus." (67)


Biblical principles informing Christian stewardship may look considerably different when interpreted by the poor. (72)  Uniquely Western views may not prevail long term. (73) 


Rowell suggests that American apathy towards giving to the world's poor is largely shaped by our resistance to a dysfunctional welfare system in the U.S. that rewards the responsible and the irresponsible without discrimination.  In this system is unblessed to give and to receive. (99)


"I think it is time we Westerners determined that we must pay together, pray together, and stay in the fray together with our brothers and sisters coming to Christ in unreached cultures." (110)  "We are acting as 'warfare allies,' not 'welfare agents.'" (111)


The U.S. helped its allies with all the resources it could muster to help win World War II.  It was our part of the greater effort.  This was not considered charity or benevolence.  Neither was it a system of debits and credits, but a mutual war supply.  Rowell argues that world missions should be funded on a similar basis.  (p. 111 ff.)


"Every effort should be made by believers allied in spiritual warfare to see that kingdom forces on every front are equipped to fight, that they are sustained in battle, and that they are supported as completely as possible."  (116)


The Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe following World War II offers a model for Western generosity in funding world missions.  After the War, the U.S. committed enormous amounts of funds to help responsible and willing countries.  This plan sought a cure rather than a palliative.  It promised to help any government willing to assist in the task of recovery.  It refused to help countries that sought to perpetuate human misery or block the recovery of other countries.  And it invited the European nations to draft their own economic recovery program.  The U.S. agreed to assist in developing and supporting the program "so far as it may be practical for us to do so."   The Plan offered several parameters to help define the scope of wise giving and avoid indiscriminate giving to irresponsible nations.  (pp. 141 ff.)


Examples from the ministry in Bosnia: 

1.  Begin with a joint agreement on a common goal: advancing the Kingdom worldwide.

2.  The commitment eventually moves the two partners beyond Bosnia to a new context.

3.  Paternalism has no place.   

4.  We are committed to extravagant generosity on behalf of all parties.  Money is not the primary measure of worth.

5.  The most contextually relevant parties take the lead.

6.  All churches are accountable.  Indigenous does not equal independence.

7.  Initiative fore developing new workings, new projects, and new facilities originates with national leaders.

8.  Western investments will be approved only after careful evaluation of the national church's capacity to maintain, manage, and operate the ministries created.

9.  Biblical stewardship and financial management are taught to all members associated with national churches.  (156-162)


Speaking of the small church that started the Bosnia work, "I believe our capacity to give has been increased because we keep seeking ways to be more generous." (164)


Rowell provides principles to maximize Western investment while promoting sustainability and minimizing dependency concerns.  Here are some.

·      "Mission ministry is the primary responsibility of the local church and only secondarily the purview of professionals serving in mission agencies." (173) "Until churches accept the primary responsibility for world mission and the corollary duty of mobilizing a maximum supply of human and financial resources for that purpose, global evangelism will remain a secondary priority…." (174) 

·      Look for new doors that have been sovereignly opened for new ministry efforts, "providential provocation."  "Too many churches aim nowhere and end up doing nothing exceptional in global outreach.  Others…aim everywhere and consequently do little of substance anywhere." (175)

·      Mobilize sufficient resources to effect a cure rather than merely trifle with symptoms.

·      Sometimes the risk of "prophetic investment" may be irrational, but not necessarily irresponsible or unfruitful.

·      Go for the marathon, not a sprint.  Commit to being present and personally connected.  Develop a covental relationship as opposed to a commercial or contractual one. 

·      Promote nationals.  Allow indigenous leaders to lead.  Defer rather than dominate.

·      All parties cooperate in joint outreach efforts with resolve for each to maximize their contributions to the common objective.


"The world's problem of extreme poverty will not be solved without an exponential expansion of generosity." (214)


Three guiding lights for Giving:

·      Simplify your life versus the Western "passionate pursuit of consumption."

·      Be ready to share.  "God's gifts aim at making us into generous givers, not just fortunate receivers." (110, quoting Miroslav Volf) "Part of growing up is learning the art of giving." (221)

·      Focus on desired nonfiscal outputs.  Do not make sustainability mean only that projects must become locally supported.  Look at it more like medical missions, where the non-financial results make the ongoing outside investment worthwhile.   Take a faith approach more than a fiscal approach. 


"I believe that insisting on biblical support for the proper use of money in mission will force us to change our direction dramatically."  (233)  "If we err in the matter of our giving, we should choose to err on the side of generosity."  (241) 



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