North Americans have wealth to share with the developing world, but in many respects, we have become increasingly reluctant to share it. One reason is our fear of creating unhealthy dependency in those who receive support from the West. John Rowell challenges this fear as he helps us think about the current Christian Vision Project question: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? Rowell is president of Ministry Resource Network, a church-based missions organization with long-term staff in both Bosnia, Croatia, and Siberia. He is also a church planter and pastor with 30 years of experience, and author of To Give or Not to Give: Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability (2007). Rowell serves on the staff of the Atlanta Vineyard.

Few principles have been as central to the modern missions movement as the "three-self paradigm." This seminal framework was popularized in the 19th century by three notable leaders: Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, and John Nevius. It proposes that truly indigenous churches should be self-governing, self-propagating and self-supporting. For 200 years the three-self ideal has been nearly axiomatic. Modern missiologists have placed particular emphasis on the last point, interpreting it to emphasize financial independence and developing a whole stream of thought trumpeting "the dangers of dependency." These missiologists want to prevent the unhealthy dynamics they presume are unavoidable when outside funds are introduced into any newly developing indigenous movement.

Dr. Joseph D'souza, associate international director for Operation Mobilization, calls this line of reasoning the "dependency school" of thought. As an indigenous Indian leader, he believes this argument is pejorative toward non-Westerners and unnecessarily limits global giving. Dependency school rationales have been most shaped in recent times by Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Missions, by the director of World Mission Associates, Glenn Schwartz, and by David Garrison of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, among others.

The fundamental presumption of the dependency school is that the global cause of Christ would be better off if indigenous ministries stood on their own, with whatever resources may be available to them in their local communities. They encourage indigenous leaders to develop a healthy resistance to receiving outside resources, and they urge Westerners to develop a healthy reticence about offering aid. Garrison goes so far as to say that offering outside funds can be compared to giving indigenous brethren "the Devil's candy"—an act more likely to kill than to assist church-planting movements in poor countries. The message of dependency school proponents is interpreted by many as a general call "not to give"—the simplest way to avoid the presumed dangers of dependency.

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Some even worry about the impact on a central discipleship issue for Christians in the West: As committed stewards of considerable wealth, how can we practice charitable giving without creating dependency? Choosing not to give is too easy an answer to this question. In a world where 3 billion people survive on less than $2 a day and nearly that many are still unreached, we simply cannot ignore the Bible's call for generous giving.

Dread Cancer of Dependency

Ralph Winter is perhaps the most prominent mission leader to speak for the dependency school. In a recent issue of the U.S. Center for World Mission's Mission Frontiers magazine, he wrote with alarm of "the dread cancer of 'dependency,'" saying that the danger of many mission projects is that they require ongoing "infusions of subsidy … from abroad." Winter has consistently upheld the position that self-reliance and not outside support is the answer to global poverty.

Advocates of the dependency school also argue that well-intentioned Western charity "destroys the dignity" of those who receive foreign assistance. Glenn Schwartz borrows that theme for the title of his recently released book, When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement. He shares Winter's concern about the dangers of dependency and concludes that Western financial aid can generally be delivered only as a handout. Because he believes handouts destroy the self-worth of those on the receiving end of the philanthropic equation, Schwartz anticipates that outside support will serve only to handicap indigenous ministries. He therefore condemns foreign funding as a negative influence—even calling it a poison that pollutes the lives of the global poor.

This is not Paul's perspective, however. As the apostle writes in 2 Corinthians 9:8-14, charitable giving is not an insidious danger but an important kingdom dynamic. Those who receive material help will not only have their physical needs met, they will be grateful and rejoice over God's grace. They will praise the Lord. They will pray for the donors who helped them. They will feel more connected with the body of Christ because of the relief they have experienced through the generosity of their spiritual brothers and sisters.

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Paul offers Christians an amazing promise: "You will be made rich in every way so you may be generous on every occasion." This verse applies to rich and poor believers alike, and we must assume that shared wealth is one way God intends to prosper poorer brethren so that they too may practice generosity. As Jesus himself put it, having freely received, all disciples are expected to freely give. This passage reflects an expectation that the ongoing ministry of giving and receiving is part of God's plan for his church in all ages, all cultures, and all economic levels of society.

Given this scriptural perspective, we should not easily accept any appeal urging us to limit our giving. Is it not imaginable that we have learned enough from centuries of missions experience to find creative ways to promote biblical generosity without producing foreign dependency? In my view, dependency concerns have driven the church to spend too much time and energy explaining why we should give less when we ought to have been exploring how we could give more.

Odd Double Standard

Even the most vocal proponents of dependency school thinking ultimately prove more open to giving than their constant warnings would lead us to expect. Schwartz admits openly in his book that, "The world is a needy place. There are people whose families have been living on the edge—some in a survival mode—for generations. Jesus commands us to help and as Christians we must do what we can." I wholeheartedly agree, and that is exactly what I am encouraging!

But Garrison and Schwartz end up supporting an odd double standard as they identify a few legitimate alternatives where they concede Western wealth can be shared freely. Both authors encourage us to give to fellow Westerners who serve as missionaries, but not to the national workers laboring beside them. Western preachers can be paid to serve among unreached peoples, but indigenous evangelists cannot, at least not from Western funds. We can give resources to aid victims of disasters, but not to feed hungry children for whom poverty is a routine reality. Such distinctions made in the name of avoiding dependency seem a bit arbitrary to me, drawing too fine a line in defining appropriate expressions of Western generosity.

I admit that dependency is a real possibility in any relationship of unequal wealth and power. Historically, one root of unhealthy dependency has grown from the Western presumption that because we are often more wealthy, we are somehow more worthy to hold positions of authority over national leaders. This presumed connection between giving and governing is a uniquely Western contribution to the degrading dynamics of dependency. To end these dynamics, we must stop expecting undeserved deference from national leaders. More importantly, we must learn greater respect for the considerable leadership capabilities of believers in the majority world.

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At the same time, we must unlearn the notion that offering outside help always creates dangers for indigenous ministries—dangers we can use as an excuse for not giving. If we do not change our thinking on these points, we will likely continue relying on misapplied missiological principles to justify Western greed. Accepting the dependency school perspective without challenge, we may also go on denying our duty to share.

A Better Model

More interdependent approaches to shared ministry hold better hope for the advance of world missions and for the end of poverty. Mission leader Samuel Escobar believes a cooperative model of mission activity has already emerged as a key to the future of global outreach. In this model, "churches from rich nations add their material resources to the spiritual resources of the churches in poor nations in order to reach out to a third area." Youth with a Mission, Operation Mobilization, and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students are examples of ministries expanding rapidly by combining missions partners of disparate means. While other nations are increasingly providing more people, why shouldn't the West continue supplying more of the money required? In effect, all partners would then be maximizing their possible contributions to the global cause of Christ while holding nothing back. That is what people living in covenant always seek to do.

This kind of mutuality has proven effective in our mission practices with partners in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Through nearly 18 years of involvement there, we have provided humanitarian aid, subsidies for contextual theological training, financial support for national pastors, funding for a Bible school, and capital investments to acquire facilities for several churches and a drug rehabilitation ministry. Most of these gifts violate the dependency school's boundaries for the legitimate use of foreign funds. But they have not undermined the freedom of Bosnian leaders to manage and multiply their own church-planting movement. Instead, our funding helped inspire generosity among our national co-workers.

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Early in this decade, our ministry raised $240,000 to secure a church building for an evangelical congregation in Sarajevo. We provided the funds, releasing the Sarajevo church leaders to use the money as they saw fit. We demanded no part in selecting the property, in negotiating the purchase price, or in holding title to the facility once the property had been secured.

The search for an affordable building took a long time. During the period of waiting, the leaders of a daughter church in the nearby town of Breza found an ideal building for their ministry at an extraordinarily favorable price. Because this newly planted church had no funds for the purchase, the parent congregation in Sarajevo decided to commit a portion of the money we had raised for their building to acquire the facility. They asked for our blessing on this decision as a courtesy, not as a matter of control. With our enthusiastic support of their charitable intentions, they gave nearly a third of their available resources to bless their daughter church with a building before they had secured one for themselves.

That act of generosity was sure to make the Sarajevo church's subsequent search for property far more difficult. But the Sarajevo leaders still put the interests of the national church-planting movement ahead of their own. Within a short period, by God's grace, the Sarajevo church leaders discovered a newly listed property perfect for their needs. They were able to negotiate a purchase price within the limits of the funds that remained. In the end, both churches were blessed with new facilities in the communities they serve.

Brothers and sisters committed to walking in covenant with each other are expected to look beyond their own needs to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). They steward material resources sacrificially. They don't buy and keep as a way of life; they give as often as they can and as much as they can. The grace of giving has thus been designed by God to multiply his blessing, and such was the case in this instance.

As we consider the needs of the world's poor and the funding of global evangelism, we must be unflinching in our assessment of Western responsibility in light of our enormous store of resources. We must also be fairer in our willingness to acknowledge the reliability of indigenous leaders and their desire to help themselves. They are, after all, not a band of beggars, but a band of brothers. They are not seeking alms; they are seeking arms with which to fight the good fight of faith. They are not looking for us to be their welfare agents but their warfare allies.

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In the tension between encouraging generosity and discouraging dependency, we find one of the most crucial places for us to discern what we must learn and unlearn to be effective agents of God's mission in the world. In the final analysis, we ought not to be confused about where God stands on the matter. His position is made too clear in Scripture. God so loved the world that he gave—and so must we.

Related Elsewhere:

World compared several theories, including Rowell's, about charitable giving.

Rowell's book, To Give or Not to Give: Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability, is available from and other retailers.

Earlier Christian Vision Project articles on mission include:

Powering Down | World Vision India head Jayakumar Christian on how the poor become movers and shakers, and movers and shakers become poor. (August 31, 2007)
Liberate My People | Theologian and educator Ruth Padilla DeBorst says true Christian mission addresses issues of power and poverty. (August 8, 2007)
From Tower-Dwellers to Travelers | Ugandan-born theologian Emmanuel Katongole offers a new paradigm for missions. (July 3, 2007)
The Mission of the Trinity | Singaporean theologian Simon Chan says 'missional theology' has not gone far enough. (June 4, 2007)
Christ, My Bodhisattva | Multinational businessman and politician Ram Gidoomal talks about 'translating' the gospel in today's world. (April 27, 2007)
Living with Islamists | A year in Pakistan gave me a glimpse of what Christian witness might look like today. (March 30, 2007)
On a Justice Mission | Thanks to William Wilberforce, we already know the key to defeating slavery. By Gary Haugen (Feb. 22, 2007)
A Community of the Broken | A young organization models what it might mean to be the church in a suffering world. By Christopher L. Heuertz (Feb. 9, 2007)
An Upside-Down World | Distinguishing between home and mission field no longer makes sense. By Christopher J. H. Wright (Jan. 28, 2007)

Christian Vision Project articles on culture are available on the Christian Vision Project website.

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