by Steve Parlato
I was leading a meeting of local national church leaders from various ethnic groups. I asked, “What’s the biggest struggle you’re facing?” One leader said their biggest problem was that salaries had been cut and the ministry of the church was suffering. He explained that the national denomination office had been sending a subsidy each month (from foreign sources) for his local church leaders.
“Thank you, teacher,” I replied. “Allow me to ask questions to understand how the ministry is suffering. I know you train small group leaders. With the subsidies, how many did you train each year?”
He said, “Two or three new leaders.”
I continued, “In the year without the subsidy, how many leaders have you trained?”
“We have trained two or three leaders.”
“So, you have trained the same number, with or without subsidy.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
My second question, “In the typical week with subsidies, how much was the weekly church offering?”
He answered an amount. Then I asked, “Since the subsidy was cut, what has been the typical offering?” He said it had more than doubled!
“How can that be?”
“It’s obvious: everyone realized the church depended on local members to make it work.”
“Teacher, please allow one final question. How many people did you baptize each year while receiving subsidies?”
“Typically one new baptism.”
“How many baptisms a year, without the subsidy?” He explained that about 10 people were baptized that year. “Wonderful! What accounts for this increase?”
“Before, the denomination specified in which villages we were to do outreach and then only in our area. Without the salaries, we could go wherever the Spirit led us. We visited relatives and friends in other districts, and they were much more open to us and the message of Christ.”
“So, since the salary was cut, you have trained the same number of small group leaders, doubled the offerings and you are 10 times more effective in evangelism. Can you explain how church ministry has suffered by not receiving salaries?”
This interaction illustrates some ways outside funding can undermine kingdom growth and hinder multiplication. It profoundly impacted those present.
Outside funding of the normal operations of a local church undermined the connection between the members and their leadership. It reduced local giving as people did not see the need to give. Local ownership of ministry life was reduced by the presence of outside donors.
No one pretends money has no role in ministry and the launching of churches. However, the source of money and the way it is used will have a profound impact. Introducing outside funding to carry out basic church functions will nearly always undermine movement.
Others have reached similar conclusions. David Hunt, based on his research and connection to African movements, points out that if the church receives support, then the model of church carries a foreign element. Foreign funding of church buildings has meant the community received something they could not produce themselves. For the next generation of church to replicate, it usually will wait for support from outside.
Wayne Allen’s research in Indonesia concluded that “the growth of the national church plateaued or halted when the mission began to subsidize national church workers.”
Some uses of outside funds have nearly always undermined the potential for a movement. These should be avoided:
Salaries or subsidies for pastors or leaders to carry out basic church functions including, but not limited to evangelism, discipleship and regular worship services.
- Funding local church buildings, including extensions to homes to increase the meeting room size.
- Renting facilities for churches to meet.
- Sending church leaders for multiple years of school/seminary in another region/country. Most get trained into another paradigm of ministry and out of their usefulness for basic multiplication work. Further, many never return to their unreached areas.
- Activities which a local church has already funded themselves, but a donor wants done more quickly or widely. It is healthier to allow ministries to grow at a rate that local leaders can handle.
These activities have at times given a short-term boost, but in every case we know of, they also set down unreproducible patterns, undermined local church ownership and responsibility, and created unsustainable patterns in the multiplication of disciples and churches.
Some uses of outside funds which have consistently helped movements start or expand.
Based on interviews with movement leaders and personal experience, here are some uses of outside funding that have helped catalyze movements:
- Training in core paradigms and practices of multiplication. When funding training, always require a local contribution (i.e. housing or food). Training should be local and on the job. Short term extension learning which keeps practitioners in their context and active in ministry has also proven helpful.
- Travel money and some incidentals to help regional practitioners meet regularly for training, problem solving and encouragement. This cross pollination and sharpening consistently boosts seeing movements launch and expand.
- Low-cost equipment such as small speakers used with SD cards, audio Bibles, and printed Scripture.
- Simple, reproducible entry strategies to establish relationships in areas without prior connection may require some funding. Care is still needed to keep strategies inexpensive and reproducible for local believers.
- Disaster relief funds for specified activities and for a limited time. After a disaster, many needs and opportunities arise for finding Persons of Peace and establishing new groups and churches.
- Pioneer settings may present the need to place workers to catalyze movement. One-time funding to send mature movement leaders and their families to establish business start-ups has been fruitful. These start-ups have generated profits which established other pioneer start-ups.
- Projects that support catalyzing movement, but lie beyond the skill level and/or finances of a local church or church network (i.e. Bible translation or online media). Effort is still needed to foster initiative and ownership among local churches.
- Financial subsidy and travel money for proven church multipliers, multiplication trainers and regional catalysts. While helpful at these three levels, funding at the local level has been consistently detrimental.
Movements thrive when local disciples, empowered by the Spirit, spontaneously take the gospel to family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. In order for the kingdom to expand, an outside catalyst needs to allow local insiders to pursue God’s mission. Spontaneous multiplication happens best through the abilities and financial resources of the local church and believers. For that reason, we must avoid the uses of outside funding which undermine movement potential and limit it to uses which have shown potential to help a movement start or expand.
This article was first published in Mission Frontiers, it was edited with permissions.