Why Are the Laborers Few: Part 4: Supporting National Christians

We have been working through some objections that, at least in part, contribute to the lack of workers on the mission field. So far we have covered the objections: 1) “I don’t want to beg for money“, 2) technology induced sleep, and 3) it’s hard to leave mom.

Today I want to consider an objection that I have heard from time to time: It is both more effective and efficient to support national Christians. The core of this objection is that the process of sending out expat missionaries into the nations is expensive and time intensive. Further, when we as expats go into a new place, it takes a long time to learn the culture and language. And even when we do, we will never speak like nationals, or ever completely understand every facet of their culture. So, would it not be better to find believers among the nations and support them? In other words, why not support a national Christian instead of sending an expat missionary?

I am going to respond to this objection with three questions: 1) How do you find a national Christian?, 2) What is effectiveness?, and 3) What is efficiency?

1. How do you find a national Christian?

To begin, when you break down the idea of supporting national Christians instead of sending expat missionaries, it is not as simple as it appears. First, how do you find a national Christian? Probably you would be looking to support someone who sees themselves as called to ministry, so a pastor or evangelist. Here in Cameroon, I have met many pastors and evangelists (and prophets, apostles, etc.) and (sadly) few that really seem to know the Gospel. So, setting aside questions of communication, how do you know that you can trust someone claiming to be a pastor? How do you know if they will teach the true Gospel and not the prosperity Gospel? You can ask them, of course, but how do you know if they are answering honestly?

When Stacey and I first visited Cameroon in 2010 we met with a pastor and an evangelist among the Kwakum people. They both begged us to come to work with their people group because they longed for their brothers and sisters to know the God of the Bible. As far as we could tell, their church was faithful to the Gospel and from a solid denomination and their motivations seemed good. Honestly, those two men are the main reason we are working and living where we are now.

However, upon our return to Cameroon, we found neither of these men in good standing at the church. The pastor had been disciplined because of financial malfeasance. The evangelist had gone to another village and I later learned bounced from church to church in different places throughout the years. Not long ago I met with him again and he told me of the ministry he has with an apostolic church. He and his mentor spent an hour spelling out to me their vision of the ministry, which did not include the Gospel. The vast majority of what they said was either speculative or direct heresy. For instance, they told me that Cameroon was the modern day Israel and that when Jesus comes back, he would return to Cameroon. They also told me that Adam was created in God’s image, but Eve was not. And they never mentioned the need for Christ’s death for our salvation.

I would have supported these two Kwakum men after our vision trip, but now I see that this would have been an unwise decision.

On top of the difficulty of knowing the character and theology of people from afar, there are also massive differences in cultural expectations for use of finances. My experience here in Cameroon is that the receiver gets to determine how the funds are used, not the sender. So, you could send money to someone here earmarked for “ministry” and they could use it to pay their cousin’s electricity bill. In their minds there is no problem. You gave funds, they selected the most urgent need, and used the funds accordingly. In spite of this cultural difference, it is possible to find people here that will use funds as directed, but how are you going to find those people? How do you know if a person you are supporting will even do ministry?

In my experience, the only way to really know is to observe people over a long period of time. There are very few ways to do this outside of sending people to live in the country and minister alongside of them (i.e. there is still a need for expat missionaries).

Another consideration, if you are looking to support someone who is in the same people group that you are targeting, what about the people groups with no Christians, or none that are mature enough to be pastors? You might be thinking of supporting someone from a different people group, but within the same country. This is possible in places like Cameroon, where there are 270 different people groups with their own languages. The pastor at our village church (Boris) is from a people group called Bamileke, but is ministering to the Kwakum. He considers himself a missionary, and we consider him our pastor and colleague. But, how much different is Boris’s ministry than ours? Is he more effective?

2. What is effectiveness?

Boris is a godly man and pastor. He works hard to communicate Gospel truths to a mainly Kwakum church. However, I do not believe that he would say that he is more effective than we are. Boris, like us, is seen as an outsider. He speaks and teaches in French, which is not accessible for many Kwakum people. His home culture is almost as different from the Kwakum culture as ours. For instance, in Boris’s culture, people dig up the bodies of their dead ancestors, remove their skull, and set up a shrine in their house. This would never happen in a Kwakum home, and they are just as shocked to hear it as we are.

Though this does not play a role in Boris’s ministry, sometimes coming from another close-by tribe can make ministry more difficult. In the past, my neighbors tell me that Cameroon was characterized by tribal warfare. Though the war itself has ceased, the tensions have been passed down. Just as the Germans or French might find animosity here because of colonization, a missionary from the Kwakum people might be received with hostility in a Pol village.

All of that is to say, while it sounds easier in theory, in practice, national missionaries often face similar, or even greater difficulties when trying to minister within their own country. Jesus did say that no prophet is acceptable in his hometown (Luke 4:24). I am not opposed to supporting men like Boris. In fact, if you have a reliable way to know the character of national Christians, support them! However, this does not mean that they will be more effective than an expat missionary. Likely, they will share similar difficulties, and often without the training for how to deal with those difficulties. But surely supporting national Christians is much more efficient! Right?

3. What is efficiency?

Americans LOVE efficiency. It is ingrained in our culture and reaches into our ministry. In a previous post, I mentioned that God does not seem to share our desire for efficiency. He has chosen a path for history that does not result in the maximum number of people saved for the minimum required effort/money. So, even before discussing the efficiency of supporting national Christians, we need to recognize that efficiency is an American value, not a biblical one. And one of the main things I hope you will get from that post is that God commanded us to GO, not just support ministers in other countries.

However, I want to also challenge the idea that supporting a national Christian is more efficient than sending out an expat missionary. The truth is, if you are looking for efficiency, Americans are your man. Sure, not all Americans are efficient. But if you have an American that was willing to get all their pre-field training, raise support, learn 2 or 3 new languages, in order to reach the lost, you are going to get efficient work. Because of our high value on training, most missionaries are going to have a good Bible education, extensive training in cross-cultural work, and a good understanding of missions history and methodology.

Finding a faithful Christian in another country from afar is itself a challenge. Finding one that is both called to ministry and trained and capable is even more difficult. Add the difference between American culture and other cultures regarding fiscal responsibility and time management, your odds are slim. Is it possible to find a national Christian that will meet these criteria? Probably, but more than likely this will require expat missionaries on the field, living with and observing their ministries.

That means that supporting national Christians can never replace the need to send out expat missionaries. We expats are not perfect, we have our weaknesses that our national brothers mitigate. However, let us not pretend that we do not have our strengths. There are some places where the national church is so strong that as time goes on there is less and less need for expat missionaries (South Korea comes to mind). But in many places, the day of such a strong church is very far off. And my guess is that when we get to the point where there is no longer a need to send out expat missionaries, we won’t be discussing missions for much longer.

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Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

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