Supporting Article

Tough Calls

Indigenous Investing

The head of a mission agency once wrote me asserting that Christians outside of China have one and only one role in China missions: giving money to Chinese Christians. I know other missions that are almost as adamant that outsiders should never, ever, give any money to national Christians, because doing so creates dependence, corrupts relationships, and introduces temptation. Money can be a double-edged sword: one side cuts a blessing, the other side a curse! I have seen both in China; in fact, I confess, I have wielded it both ways myself.

Positive Experience

One Chinese friend, a house church leader with broad experience, is in touch with many ministry opportunities where some money would certainly help. He works a lot in poor minority areas. He also knows quite a few foreigners, most of whom could help significantly with minimal inconvenience, much less any sacrifice. In the several years I have known him, he has asked for outside financial help for exactly one project: travel and materials for nationals training Sunday School teachers in several provinces. Nothing else.

He explains why. First, he has seen great damage done by foreign money to Chinese churches. Second, he wants to challenge Chinese to be more generous to God's work themselves. Third, he ultimately wants this project to be one hundred percent indigenously supported, although that goal is not yet viable.

Should I help? For the last few years, yes, our agency has advocated for this project and annually networked support. Why? Here are my reasons:

  • I have known this brother over 10 years.
  • He is respected and recommended by other trusted Chinese and experienced foreigners with no vested interest.
  • He recognizes the downside of foreign money and lobbies for it only rarely, and never for himself.
  • He asks for other kinds of help more often, help that does not involve money.
  • He has a fine marriage and family life.
  • He consistently manifests the fruit of the Spirit and carries the aroma of having spent time with the Lord.
  • The implementers of the project are volunteers, not asking for compensation.
  • He answers all questions and gives progress reports that include disappointments.
  • Nationals are also supporting the project; he does not ask foreigners to fully fund it.
  • The budget is substantial but not huge. (Not multiple six figures, for example.)
  • He does not use tear-jerking stories or manipulation.
  • I have other collaborating sources affirming the project.
  • He welcomes receiving project materials instead of money to purchase them.

In my opinion, it is a strategic project, replicating, cost-effective, and without buildings.

I met the main implementers and quietly observed their fervency during worship when they thought no one was looking and their willingness as urbanites to suffer rural inconveniences. They have never dropped hints of any other financial needs whatsoever.

This has been a positive experience and, as far as I can determine, fruitful for the Lord. There have been others like it with other national co-workers. However, there have been experiences with the other edge of the sword as well.

Negative Experience

Another national believer was highly recommended to me by more than one credible China mission veteran. I began to spend some time with him, off and on for about a year. He already had a ten-year track record of ministry. Now, he began to share his vision to address a major need in the Chinese church. I was interested, and he asked to introduce me to his foreign partner, an American pastor, so they could present their plan together. Everything sounded good to me; plus, I ran it past others I respect and they liked it. A board was formed. Together we raised a substantial amount of dollars.

Now, I regret every penny. After a year or two we began noticing patterns like evading accountability, a troubled family life, disappointing feedback from involved nationals and foreigners, and ever-expanding new "opportunities" requiring more money. We went to considerable lengths to determine the facts, which proved worse than feared. I confronted this believer face-to-face with a respected witness, experienced his dishonesty firsthand and sadly had to personally break fellowship with him completely.

This experience damaged me for at least two years, dissipating motivation and discouraging my personal faith. Far worse, however, is how much more profoundly it must have damaged those we intended to serve. It was a sobering lesson, and in retrospect I recognized many mistakes.

  • Too much depended on trust that was concentrated on just one person.
  • Enthusiasm to meet the pressing need ran ahead of patient application of due process.
  • Discreet back-door references from key national leaders were not sought at the outset.
  • Foreign China veterans with a track-record specializing in the same dimension of ministry were not consulted.
  • Early signals of possible problem issues were overlooked rather than pursued.
  • Everything boiled down to one thing: foreign moneyand lots of it.
  • Expansion outpaced quality control and evaluation.
  • The relationship was young and had not been tested over time.
  • I was naively overconfident in my "gift of discernment." Skepticism was minimal.
  • The key foreign partner was hardly known at all. He knew little about China and zero about its culture while manifesting some classic traits of Westerners who fail in China. I overlooked this.
  • Smooth talk alone was granted the power to persuade because we wanted to believe.

At this stage of the journey, my conclusion is to allow neither apparent successes nor failures to dictate a simplistic, predetermined philosophy to be superimposed on every opportunity. It is so easy to relieve ourselves of the troubling responsibility to wrestle through the ambiguous factors in a given context and instead substitute a more convenient "always or never" policy to make the decision for us.

Scriptural Directives

Are there scriptures that will help? Second Corinthians is a fund-raising letter soliciting financial donations for brothers and sisters in need in another city, namely Jerusalem. Details of the process for accountability are disclosed.

If we have two cloaks and a brother has none, we are to give one away "that there may be equality." To tell the truth, it sounds a bit too socialist for my taste, but that is what it says.

In one case (but not all cases) when Jesus sent out traveling evangelists, he instructed them to take no money, not even indigenous Jewish support. Rather, they were to be completely supported by those to whom they ministered.

Looking at these scriptures, we must ask: Does a broad scriptural study support either an "always" or a "never" policy? In fact, it seems to carefully avoid mandating either.

Questions to Ask

With both positive and negative experiences behind me and considering scriptural examples, I have determined some important questions to ask when considering future opportunities. Here are questions I find helpful.

  • How long have we known these people?
  • Who else knows them, either Chinese or foreign, and for how long? Do they recommend them?
  • Is anyone else already helping support them?
  • Would we be "leading them into temptation" with money or creating unrealistic future expectations?
  • How can we arrange accountability that is culturally appropriate?
  • Should we begin by building a relationship based primarily on money?
  • What if the police find out they are getting money from foreigners?
  • Will the project be perceived as "ours," rather than their own? Whose is it?
  • Will they feel pressure to invite us to come and minister, even if the danger far outweighs the benefits to them? Will they feel compelled to use "our" material? How will we know these things, realizing that Chinese are too polite to be candidespecially if they think much-needed support is at stake?
  • How can the effectiveness of the project be gauged and by whom? What will the process be? Who are the key implementers and what are their qualifications?
  • How are key direct participants/beneficiaries selected? If more money were available, would that motivate leaders to select more relatives and friends rather than the most qualified for this "benefit"? (They face great cultural pressure to do just that.)
  • If we cannot support all the project venues, what is the best way to allocate support among them? (Foreigners like to "sponsor" specific venues which are then relatively blessed, while others that are not sponsored suffer, making leaders appear unfair.)
  • What successive steps will be implemented after the project? Where and why? At what point will they be locally supported?
  • Which of these questions are culturally appropriate to ask? When should they be asked, and how? Should they be asked indirectly through someone else (the Chinese way), and if so, who should do this?

A Practical Example

Pastors "Jiang" and "Chang" together lead more than 500 churches that Jiang has planted. However, they also know there are many other places where people have never heard the Word at all. So these churches, dirt poor and barely able to support their own pastors, have begun sending missionaries. Like missionaries in most places, they need to be trained and supported. With their own funds already stretched to the max, Jiang and Chang asked me and a larger ministry I was advising to help support the training.

So, what did we do? First, we learned their history and began to answer some of the questions above. Then, at a first meeting, we gave them only enough for their expenses in coming to meet us and a very modest amount (a few hundred RMB) to each, to bless them and their own poor families. Why? First of all, our long-time, respected Chinese friends, who had introduced and recommended Jiang and Chang and were present during the entire meeting, recommended doing exactly that. They knew what was best, far better than we did. Secondly, we prayed and felt God's positive leading to do so. Thirdly, Jiang and Chang themselves agreed we all want a genuine long-term relationship and to start right off by transferring a lot of money would set the wrong tone.

Two months later, we were all back together for a second meeting. In the meantime, we had done some checking, and maybe our Chinese friends had too. We asked more specific questions, prayed and conferred, and at the end of the meeting did give some moderately significant (around US$1000) financial support for their training.

Before long, Jiang and Chang asked us to support one of their missionaries who was ready to be sent out. It seemed to me this was too quickly crossing into the next level of financial support—a bad sign. Would this create an unhealthy dependence on foreign money? Could it eventually lead to financial corruption? Might it cause the evangelist to transfer loyalty to us at the expense of his/her Chinese leaders? Would it extend the gospel into unreached areas that are now without Christ? All of the above? Ultimately we declined.

Determining funding is never simple. It would be a lot easier to just give financial support and go away feeling good about it—oblivious to whether good is actually accomplished! But responsible stewardship requires that we prayerfully ask the pertinent questions and follow intentional protocols as well as the Holy Spirit's leading.

Image credit: Yuan by Christina B Castro, on Flickr