Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dependence and Missions... A Good Thing?

If you are involved with short-term missions, one of the issues you will deal with is dependance.

American short-term participants worry that we may be creating a system when we serve “over there” whereby the national, or other church, will come to depend on us.

For some reason we are troubled by that. Frankly, I’ve always thought that was the way it should be. The church over there should depend on us, because that church is part of the body of Christ to which we all belong. Sounds like straight Pauline teaching to me.

I have been reading "Experiences in Theology, Ways and Forms of Christian Theology" by Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann is one of the great theologians of the 20th Century and worked alongside Hans Küng, also of Germany for many years.

In his chapter on Latin American Liberation Theology, he talks a little economics. He states that “the theory of economic dependance says that between equally strong economic entities, independencies [independence] develop[s], but between entities of unequal strength, dependencies will develop."

Let’s think about that.

What he is saying is that when there is not equality economically, dependence will be the natural result.

But what about in a ministry context? Can we apply the same principle to ministry, and relationships? Maybe we can.

Let me explain, and as I do, know that I will be using my broad brush.

Typically, when US churches go to other countries to serve, someone in the group gets an invitation to preach in the host church. One of the reasons for this is a heartfelt need to be good hosts to those who have travelled many miles to serve.

But it can also be more than that. There is a genuine belief that it is good for God’s people to hear other voices from the pulpit, so getting a chance to learn how someone else comes to a text can be a real blessing. Or it just may be that the local pastor wants a break from preaching.

Whatever the reason, the sight of Americans preaching in foreign lands is a frequent sight.

This reality was brought home to me recently in a conversation I had with Paul Borthwick, noted short-term missiologist. He said that in his travels, he too has seen this many times. Paul however, went one step further. He asked why, when people from the churches “over there” visit our churches, they are not accorded the same honor.

What a great question for us to consider.

I asked a mission pastor at a large Atlanta church if a pastor from one of their partner churches was to visit his church, would he be offered the opportunity to preach. Looking shocked, he said of course not, his pastor was famous and was not going to be opening up his pulpit to just anyone!

This leads to another issue raised by a pastor with whom I work in Mexico. He wanted to know why when an American church invites people from a Mexican church to visit, it is expected that the Senior Pastor will come for that visit. Yet it is very unlikely that the American Senior Pastor will be visiting the mission sites where his church regularly serves.

These examples bring me back to Moltmann’s economic point, which I will now try to relate to ministry.

Do we perceive, when we go to other countries, that those typically small churches are just as valuable to the Kingdom as ours? Do our words and deeds in our dealings with those churches give witness to a belief that their church is on equal footing with ours?

If not, could it be that there is within the relationship a belief, however subtle, that the American church, her pastors, her methods, her theology, and even her money, are just a little better?

If so, then using Moltmann’s point, perhaps the reason we see dependance in short-term mission has less to do with them, and more to do with us. If we see the relationship as unequal, and behave in a way that perpetuates that inequality, even unknowingly, can there be any result other than dependence?

I stated that I want the church “over there” to depend on us. I also want us to depend on them, in a symbiotic interdependent relationship where each of our churches tries to live out Paul’s teachings in Corinthians 12 together, as the body of Christ. One hundred percent dependent on the other.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

This is great. Dependency from an economic standpoint is one thing, but dependency on a spiritual level is something far different.


Unknown said...

There you go...get me to thinking...again! Seriously, you make some great points. Respect has to go both ways, otherwise its subservience.

Thanks for sharing,

James' Muse said...

I think a lot of it comes down to superiority/inferiority. As much as we hate to admit it, American churches have a bit of a superiority complex. We think that because our country is superior economically, our faith and theology is also superior to those in less developed nations.

Oftentimes, it is precisely the opposite.

That is why we expect that, because we are giving money to the mexican church, the least they can do is send their senior pastor. But we won't let him preach on sunday. And we won't go visit him.

But all too often, we are way off. We may have given monetarily, but often, in my experience, it is the supported church that actually uses that money to physically minister to their communities. A church in mexico almost always does much more TRUE ministry than a church in the US. Most mexican churches actually help their neighbors with bills, visit them when they are sick, try to get kids off the street, etc. Most American churches just minister to their members and do outreaches to get more members...in short, American churches seem to run their churches like businesses, and Mexican churches tend to run their churches like churches-on faith and works alone, letting God provide.

In the economy of heaven, the mexican church is far superior to the one in america who sends them money.

Again, this is all in my experience, and not all churches are like that. My home church frequently lets other pastors preach. A few weeks ago, we had a pastor from Rawanda, whose church we support, come preach. It was amazing.