Evangelical Engagement pt 5: The Problem of Dependence

So I’m going to write something blasphemous now.  To wit: long-term financial support from the USA for European pastors and churches can be bad for the churches.

Let me explain.  I see three ways that this support becomes counterproductive.

FIRST, the “cultural thing.”  Long-term support comes with strings attached, expectations that are sometimes not sensitive to the culture in which the European churches operate.

When American churches send missionaries and money to other countries, they expect that the churches they support will follow the cultural and doctrinal distinctives of the supporting churches.

This is a logical expectation, but the details require examination.  These generous churches need to consider whether their cultural distinctives have a different meaning in Europe than they did in the USA, in their home contexts.  They need to decide how much of what they expect is doctrine (and therefore non-negotiable), and how much is culture (which SHOULD be negotiable).

For example: most of the Churches of Christ in America do not use musical instruments during the worship service; their worship is a cappella singing.  This style of worship is a part of their cultural heritage.  It fit the communities where they thrived after the Civil War in the USA.

(Some Church of Christ congregations assert that it’s not just cultural; they claim to have biblical reasons for holding to a cappella worship only, and believe that worship with musical instruments is a grave doctrinal error.  But that’s beside the point for this post, and I’m not going to adjudicate that claim here.)

For the Churches of Christ in the southern and midwestern USA, non-instrumental music was appropriate for their culture post Civil War. And it still fits them today, because it reminds them of their history in revivalism and the Second Great Awakening.

But to Croats, who are 90% Catholic, non-instrumental worship is associated with the Serbs (Croatia’s long-time ethnic rivals to the south) and the worship of the Eastern Orthodox churches.  In Croatia, “real” churches worship with musical instruments, organs and orchestras.

To be clear: I AM NOT saying that churches shouldn’t expect the missionaries they support to adhere to the doctrine and faith of the supporting church.  They SHOULD expect such adherence.

I AM saying that supporting churches need to examine their cultural distinctives and ask themselves how those distinctives will translate into the target culture (or if they will translate at all.)  Those churches need to decide whether a distinctive is based in culture or theological conviction.

Then they need to ask themselves whether they can allow the ministries they support freedom (and if so, how much) with regard to how they reproduce these distinctives in the target culture, which can be very different from the culture in which the supporting churches thrive.

Sometimes American churches are more interested in producing American churches (exporting American culture, values, and customs, etc.) in Europe and elsewhere than they are in producing healthy churches that are characteristically European, well-adapted to the indigenous culture.

SECOND, long-term support can encourage the members of supported churches to be passive, consumers.  As we’ve seen, European Christian culture has a long history of both separating clergy from laity AND a lack of volunteerism. These factors and others combine to encourage passivity; church becomes a spectator sport, and the ministry that gets done is done by the clerical class, the professionals.  THIS IS NOT HEALTHY.

THIRD, long-term support infantilizes European Christians.  It makes it harder for them to learn to give, to grow in stewardship. In many European countries, the government continues to support the state church with tax moneys.  Even where there is no longer financial support from the government, there is a long history of such support.

These factors can cause Europeans to resent the state church, their riches, their demands on the people over history.  In the minority churches, this resentment makes stewardship and giving a touchy issue.  It’s easier for church leaders to back off and “allow the Americans to handle it.”

Combining #2 and #3, here are the assumptions European believers seem to be making:

  1. Ministry is “something that the professionals do (not the people in the pews like me)”;
  2. Pastors are supposed to be full-time professionals, like in the “real” churches (the Catholic or other state churches, or the mega-churches in the USA that support us);
  3. Real churches are supposed to have buildings where they meet;
  4. We (the European believers) don’t have enough discretionary money between us (again, the average size of a European evangelical church is around 20 AWA) to support a full-time pastor and a building.

A few recommendations:

  1. It’s better to train Europeans to be pastors and church leaders in Europe than it is to send pastors and church leaders to Europe from America or elsewhere.  It’s more cost effective; the cost ratio is something like 10:1.  It’s a better use of resources.  It’s less likely to cause cross-cultural train wrecks.  This is the philosophy that Biblijski institut has followed from the beginning.  We work to raise up, train, and equipe European Christians to lead the European church.
  2. American churches should allow the European church leaders they support maximum freedom as to the kinds of churches they plant, the styles of worship and outreach they utilize, etc.
  3. At the same time, European church leaders are products of THEIR culture (i.e., where everything is dominated by the ubiquitous state church).  Both the Americans who train and equip them and the European leaders who lead the churches need help to see the possibilities of church “outside the boxes.”

As an example of #3: instead of what we Americans think of as “traditional church plants,” I wonder if a better practice for planting churches in Europe might be founding networks of neighborhood-based house churches led by teams of bivocational pastors.

Such churches would intentionally take the house church approach, NOT as an initial step (“We’ll do this until we’re big enough to have a building and be a REAL church”) but as their vision for the church.  They would say, “We’re never going to own a building.  We’re never going to pay a full-time pastor.  We’re not trying to compete with the state church on their terms, or chase their definition of legitimacy.  But WE ARE THE CHURCH, nonetheless.”

Such a plan would allow for plural leadership, a mix of gifts in leadership, congregations that sink into and minister to their neighborhoods (because no commute) without the financial demands of full-time support, buildings and upkeep, etc.

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