Generosity and Dependency in Missions

Many mission fields are very poor. Many missionaries come from very rich nations.

Even if many missionaries live below an "average" economic baseline when compared to their own countrymen, we must realize that the average "poor" missionary from America is still often a "rich" man overseas.

This economic disparity creates a ripe breeding ground for dependency.

What is dependency?

Dependency is the loss of local initiative and ownership that can unintentionally result from our giving. People are given a hand-out instead of a hand-up. Or they are given help only based on certain conditions which serve to disempower them. The recipient becomes "stuck" - and is left feeling helpless - in a state of having his identity defined as being merely a pitiable recipient of the charity of others, rather than a person of dignity who is providing for his own family and determining his own future. Motivation and initiative is thus squelched. Resentment may even arise in the hearts of some recipients because such giving is an insult to their dignity and self-worth.

It is not merely the fact that we give that is important. HOW we give is also important. We are not loving others if, by our giving, we are demeaning their self worth.

We do not want our generosity to produce unintended negative consequences, such as enabling idleness, stealing local ownership or communicating a message that defines others only through their poverty and need.

Imagine yourself as a father and breadwinner unable to feed your own family. Imagine the shame of having others provide where you have failed. Imagine having to endure such charity regularly. Imagine being the object of someone else's prayer letter or blog back home; your existence and identity being defined by your want and your privation rather than by your achievements and successes. Imagine the cumulative toll and the hopelessness and despair that such a situation could provoke.

Stinginess is not to be our default:

Let it be noted that, in our attempts to avoid dependency, we are not to take a default position of stinginess, but that generosity and self-sacrifice ought to be clearly evident as we engage in ministry.

Two books that I highly recommend are (1) When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett and also (2) To Give or Not to Give: Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity & Redefining Sustainability by John Rowell

Here are some further suggestions drawn from the two books above for avoiding dependency, even while exercising generosity:

• Christians are giving people. And there are appropriate pathways to channel this generosity. In our efforts to reduce the risk of dependency, we ought never to limit generosity. Given the great needs in the world, better channels of giving, rather than reduced giving, is the better pursuit.

• We will distinguish between relief and development. Those who are experiencing disaster may need an immediate outpouring of monetary and material aid. This can come from the outside and come with little local initiative or ownership. However, for long-term development, sustainable strategies that increase local initiative and ownership ought to be encouraged (giving a hand-up rather than a hand-out).

In general, we are to avoid doing anything for the people which they can do for themselves and any monetary or material aid merely ought to be used as a catalyst to encourage or sustain existing locally-initiated efforts or as a bridge enabling local communities to work towards the eventual goal of self-support.

• Money ought never to be used as a tool to dominate. We ought to avoid any giving that reduces local leadership, initiative or ownership. We should not give to enforce our wills on others, but to make possible what is agreed upon by both the mission and its indigenous partners.

• Works of compassion are not to be treated merely as a means to an end. We help because we love. Humanitarian work is not to be used as a bait-and-switch technique to lure people to Jesus through material gain, but naturally springs forth from Christian compassion.

• Those who will not work should not eat (II Thessalonians 2:10). We ought to ensure that our generosity does enable locals to depend on us or feign greater levels of poverty or self-pity in order to increase their dole. If someone is, in fact, working but their work is inefficient, it is permissible to give a hand to the industrious, remove barriers from the inefficiencies of work, or to help remove hindrances or even oppressive power structures which contribute to inequities and deprive the poor of the fruit of their labors.