We desperately need to fix the reasons why support raising keeps parachurch ministries white, but there is a danger of moving too quickly to solutions before we’ve diagnosed the root causes of the problem. Without careful reflection, we face the risk of addressing surface level symptoms without the surgery needed to eradicate the disease. Later in this series I will offer potential solutions to the problems I have raised, but today I want to probe deeper.
I believe part of what inadvertently causes the symptoms of injustice and inequity to persist in our funding models is that support raising is not as biblically based as we think it is. We often limit our use of Scripture to an apologetic for the current model and we are driven more by a hidden assumption than we realize. Both of these reveal our need for a more robust theology of mission funding.
The Biblical Basis of Support Raising
I want to be clear, there is a biblical basis for support raising. The Bible teaches in a number of locations that a spiritual worker is worthy of their wages. Priests were compensated for their work (and prohibited from other sources of income). The Apostle Paul lived off of financial support from others when it was available (and made tents when funding ran low). Even Jesus was supported by wealthy women.
Scripture Limited to an Apologetic
I am grateful for the leaders who have gone before me who have articulated to the church the teaching that it is Biblical for ministers to make their living in service of the gospel. When I am on a support appointment and a potential donor questions the legitimacy of being a full-time minister, I know we are on firm ground. My fear, however, is that we have often settled for using the Bible merely as an apologetic to confirm the validity of our current models, rather than as a guide to how our systems ought to be structured.
Instead of stopping at broad principles, many times the training we offer to new support raisers serves as an apologetic for one specific model (to the exclusion of other possibilities). Consider this example from a recent popular book on support raising:
The disciples were not taught to raise their funds by going to the local synagogue for a love offering, or hold bake sales at the bazaar, or pass out pledge cards at council meetings. Instead, they were to go to people’s homes and ask them face-to-face to partner with them…I don’t think this method of support raising was just a last minute idea on the part of Jesus. It was a carefully planned-out strategy designed to multiply passion for The Lord and His work in the hearts of key citizens in each city…Apparently, in the mind of God, ‘spiritual work’ is just as valid and deserving of compensation as any form of physical or mental work.1
This statement rightly affirms that a worker is worthy of their wages. But the author doesn’t stop there. His use of Scripture serves as an apologetic for the direct, personal support raising model (seemingly to lessen the effectiveness or validity of other methods). Sometimes we can so closely tie our apologetic to one model we are prevented from seeing other options. These types of statements illustrate how our “Biblical Basis” can actually hinder our imaginations when it comes to support raising.
Naming a Hidden Assumption: The Growth-Priority Mentality
But recognizing how we can be limited by our apologetic is not enough. We also can’t have a conversation about solutions to the current support raising model if we haven’t named the hidden values that drive much of our current thinking. I believe when it comes to critiquing the current model and exploring possible solutions to inequity and injustice, we are actually driven more by a hidden assumption than by Biblical teaching.
I believe that our current mindset is overly influenced by what I will call a “Growth-priority” mentality. This is a kind of thinking that mainly evaluates funding models through the lens of growth, sometimes failing to consider other values that might be equally important in the conversation.
Desiring growth is not a bad thing. Jesus told His disciples to ask God for more laborers for the harvest, and yet many of his actions seem unhurried or inefficient towards that end. Many mission leaders question the exalted place this growth-priority assumption has come to occupy in our mindset, both as a Church and as a society. Scott Bessenecker, associate director of missions for InterVarsity, describes the problem this way:
Rather than spinning off smaller things, the Western way is to build monoliths. That’s just part of our mentality. I’d like to challenge our mentality. I think the western for-profit construct celebrates growth over flourishing, for instance. Here’s what Robert Kennedy said about the gross national product when we tried to organize…our main metric of [national] health around this number:
Gross national product measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry nor the strength of our marriages. It pays no heed to the intelligence of our public debate, nor the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our wit, nor our courage, neither our compassion, nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth living.
Perpetual growth becomes this construct that comes to us from this worldview. There are things that grow perpetually. Cancer grows perpetually. We need to think differently about how we measure success.
More Money, More Ministry: The History of the Growth-Priority Mindset
It is important for us to realize that modern Protestant mission has not always been quite so motivated by the Growth-priority mentality as we are today. A fundamental shift occurred in Evangelicalism around the time our current support raising models were developed. In his essay, “More Money, More Ministry: The Financing of American Evangelicalism Since 1945”, Michael Hamilton shares the following:
It must be remembered that Evangelicals [like George Mueller and Hudson Taylor] first adopted faith principles as a way to demonstrate God’s presence and power, not because faith principles were an especially efficient way to raise money. Since World War II, evangelical entrepreneurs have shown less interest in proving God’s existence through their fundraising strategies than in growing their ministries. Increasingly, ministry leaders came to feel handcuffed by faith principles, which seemed to place arbitrary limits on the amount of money they could raise. The mindset now locked into place in the parachurch world is the assumption that “more net income translate[s] directly into more ministry. [emphasis added]2
This shift in philosophy contributed to the creation of the personal support raising model which has dramatically increased the number of missionaries sent to the world. In a desire to see our ministries grow larger so more people could be reached, we elevated growth to a preeminent place in our thinking. In so doing, I submit that we’ve unintentionally valued growth above equity and justice. In an effort to improve models that weren’t working as well as we wanted at the time, we failed to ground solutions in a whole Bible basis for funding mission. There is a danger we can repeat the process again.
If we’re not careful we can let the tail wag the dog. If our main criteria in solutions to current models is what will result in the most donations (or what donors will give to, or what causes the most growth in our ministries), we will miss the opportunity to develop a whole Bible basis for mission funding that is rooted in more than mainly our growth-priority assumption. We could aleviate the inequity issues currently plaguing us but completely miss the hidden disease: our models aren’t as Biblically based as we think they are.
A Robust Theology of Mission Funding
One of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism is our love for God’s word. But somehow, when it comes to issues of ministry funding, we’ve gotten slightly off track and allowed the hidden assumption of growth-priority to dominate our thinking. What if we could reconnect our passion for Scripture and our strategies for support raising? Might we see a new season of flourishing?
We need a more robust theology of mission funding. A theology that is able to hold equity, community, and interdependence in concert with our desire to grow the number of missionaries we send to a dying world. Could we return to the Scriptures we love with a new question and see what God reveals? How might some of the following principles inform our theology:
Are our funding models as Biblically based as we think they are when they are rife with inequity? It is time we affirm that for mission to be truly Christian it must be funded equitably. Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. Our funding models should do no less. If Marshall McLuhan is right and ‘the medium is the message’, then the structures we use to spread the gospel are saying something about the gospel. Are we really okay with a gospel propagated by funding models that include inequity? The way we go about sharing the message must live out the values of that message.
How should our understanding of the nature of God shape our funding models? Justo Gonzalez states, “If the Trinity is the doctrine of a God whose very life is a life of sharing, its clear consequence is that those who claim belief in such a God must live a similar life.”3 We need to ask ourselves, is the “every staff for themselves” paradigm of personal support raising really compatible with the shared relationships we see modeled in the Godhead or even Paul’s description of the Church as interdependent members of Christ’s body?
I don’t think this means we have to all utilize a common purse, though that is a Biblically based option. There is much space in the continuum of possible solutions between the current “every staff for themselves” and living with a common purse as in Acts 2.
Other Values to Influence our Theology
A more robust theology of mission funding would replace our growth-priority mindset with other values we see in Scripture. What do principles like loving our neighbor as ourself, pursuing flourishing not just growth, the priesthood of each believer, and the creativity of our God have to teach us about how mission ought to be funded? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I believe a renewed commitment to our Evangelical roots of grounding ourselves in Scripture could pay huge dividends as we seek solutions to the problems in our current funding models.
A Small Example of How We Sought Solutions
For the past five years my wife and I served as the main leaders for the global missions department of the Latino college ministry with which we previously served. As a Latina, my wife felt a unique connection with Arab college students we had ministered among overseas in the past. As we researched her experiences more, we became convinced of what missiologists have been saying for years, there are amazing cultural connections between Arabs and Latinos. God grew in us a passion to see Latino college students involved in world missions among unreached peoples.
However, we quickly faced a problem. In our organization Hispanic and Latino college students had faced difficulty in raising their support for short-term mission trips. In fact, in the previous year before we joined, regional leadership in the ministry had to supply $10,000 at the last minute so the six Latino students on a multiethnic team could go on their trip. The ministry was committed to seeing Hispanic students on mission, but I wonder if they had lost hope that it was possible in a sustainable way.
We were convinced that God wanted to use U.S. Latinos and Hispanics in mission. We believed the theme of COMIBAM 1987 that there was inherent dignity in being participants in mission, not merely recipients. And while we didn’t have solutions for the problem of short-term mission funding, we were compelled by a more robust theology to keep trying until we found them.
The strategy in our previous organization to fund short term mission trips was to have students send out letters to people they knew asking them to give financially and then followup for a decision. For majority culture students like myself, you could typically train them in the process in February and then rarely talk to the student again before May and they would have raised the money for the trip.
For the Latino college students we served, this model simply wasn’t working as well. On average, we saw 1 out of 10 of our mission trip participants be fully funded through the letter writing strategy. Some would raise 75% of their goals through letters, many others only 50% or 10%.
We began to ask students for ideas on ways their communities had raised money in the past that were congruent with a broader Biblical basis of support raising. After sending out and following up their letters, students did bucket brigades (three students together raised more than $5,000 in loose change through this strategy) or planned barbecue plate sales. We also had a foundation give to students who still came up short. Through a combination of these strategies and personalized coaching from staff members, our trip in 2008 was the first all-Latino trip that we knew of in our organization’s history to be fully funded. We also saw every trip be fully funded for the next five years. Last summer, 33 Hispanic and Latino college students raised a combined total of over $100,000 to minister around the world, including among the unreached.
By expanding beyond the letter writing strategy, they helped engage more people in the process of mobilizing them to the world. Family members who couldn’t afford significant financial gifts offered to cook the food for the barbecue plate sales. Friends from church stood in the heat at major intersections to help receive community micro donations. When students met their funding goals they voluntarily kept raising to make up for shortfalls for their teammates. They were examples of Trinitarian sharing in community. They taught us a robust theology of mission funding, and they weren’t okay with the status quo. God was changing them, and they wanted to share that with the world.
The students solved the problem, not us. Our theology of mission funding allowed us the intellectual flexibility to empower our students to be creative agents of change. Not only did they raise the necessary funds to go on the trips, but they also helped shape a more robust theology of mission funding in the process.
This is just a small example of how a broader Biblically based support raising model can provide solutions. It doesn’t solve all of the issues raised in the previous post, but it’s a start. It’s an imagining of what could happen when we use the Bible as a compass and the Holy Spirit as our guide to create new funding models. It is an example of flourishing…and an example of numerical growth. More Latino college students are going around the world to help fulfill the Great Commission than ever before. Ironically, though, it wasn’t a growth-priority mindset that fueled our increased sending numbers, but rather a robust theology of mission funding.
Our fears will tell us that challenging the growth-priority assumption will lead to less ministry. In our limited experience, my wife and I have seen the exact opposite happen. Embracing a fuller Biblical basis for support raising compelled us to think outside the box and to listen to the expertise of those we were serving. It resulted in more Latino college students sent on mission by our organization than ever before. May we be a people led not by fears or unnamed assumptions, but by radical faith in our God and the message He has for the world. We could see a flourishing of mission like never before.
image credit: le vent le cri
- http://amzn.to/1eiqzZG , Kindle Location 1064 [↩]
- More Money, More Ministry: The Financing of American Evangelicalism Since 1945, Kindle location 1112 [↩]
- Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, p. 114 [↩]