How It All Began
Several years ago while I was serving as a missionary in Peru, I was an eyewitness of the great advancement of the Gospel through many indigenous workers in spite of their severe poverty. I began to pray and search the Scriptures regarding my proper response to such choice servants and their need. In III John 1:5-8, I found a compelling teaching:
“Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, so that we may be fellow workers with the truth” (NASB).
As I read through this passage, I began to ask myself how its admonition should be applied. Should North Americans send only North American missionaries on their way in a manner worthy of God? Was it biblical for North Americans and Western European Christians to help indigenous missionaries outside of their own countries and cultures? Should the abundance in the West be used to help indigenous missionaries in less prosperous countries and people groups?
Opposition and Answers
As I began to discuss this idea with other North American missionaries, I met with some opposition. I often heard that if indigenous missionaries were given economic support from the West, they would become dependent, or it would spoil them, or they would become lazy. I was also given many examples of western missionaries who had supported indigenous missionaries with little or no success.
As I carefully considered the objections and the examples of failure, I began to see serious flaws in the arguments that had been given to me. First, I never heard a North American missionary tell a church to withhold support from him because he was afraid that too much support might make him dependent, spoiled, or lazy. Secondly, there are many missionaries from North America and Western Europe who are extremely ineffective, apathetic, and who do not even believe in the authority of Scripture. Should we stop sending missionaries to the foreign field simply because some are unworthy? Thirdly, the countless stories of failed attempts placed the blame solely upon the indigenous missionaries, but failed to see the other obvious reasons for failure:
- Those who were supported did not measure up to the qualifications of a minister given to us in the third chapter of First Timothy. They should have never been supported in the first place. The foreign missionary who supported them was as much at fault as the unqualified national. For this reason, the Scriptures warn us not to lay our hands too hastily upon anyone (I Timothy 5:22).
- Those who were supported did not demonstrate the validity of their calling. They were not men who were diligent to present themselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the Word of Truth (II Timothy 2:15). They were not working in the harvest prior to a promise of support. They were hirelings who were unwilling to work in the harvest unless they had the promise of support.
- The indigenous missionary was often hired by the foreign missionary to act as a servant to do his will. I have seen indigenous missionaries who were called by God to preach the Gospel reduced down to nothing more than a house boy hired to wash the foreign missionary’s car, clean the missionary compound, and take the missionary’s wife shopping at the market.
- The foreign missionaries who supposedly attempted to support indigenous missionaries neglected to involve the local church. The foreign missionary alone does not have the right to call out, approve, or send out missionaries. This is the work of the local church and its elders. I found it interesting that the local church was never really involved in most of these cases that failed.
As I studied the failed attempts to support indigenous missionaries, I began to see that the blame lay primarily at the feet of those foreign missionaries and foreign missionary agencies that approved them. The failure was not the result of supporting indigenous missionaries, but the result of violating countless biblical principles and the masked prejudice of some foreign missionaries who treated the indigenous missionaries as inferior. As I considered the Scriptures, I began to see how churches in the more developed nations might support indigenous missionaries outside the West.
Indigenous Missions and the Local Church
As I considered the support of indigenous missionaries, the one truth that kept coming to the forefront was this: The indigenous local church and its elders must be the key players in the work. It is not wise to support indigenous missionaries in a country, people group, or geographical area unless God opens the door to work through indigenous pastors, local churches, and/or a fellowship of churches that have an established and enduring reputation (national or even international reputation).
The HeartCry work in Zambia is an excellent example of this principle. Conrad Mbewe of Zambia is a highly respected pastor whose reputation extends far beyond his own country. He and his church are responsible for training the missionary candidates, ordaining them, sending them forth, and holding them accountable on the field. The demands they place upon their missionaries and the degree of accountability to which they hold them far exceeds most, if not all, other missionary-sending agencies. They have the expertise to train missionaries, the endurance to work beside them in the field, and the wisdom and boldness to hold them accountable. What they lack are the financial resources that can be found in the West. The HeartCry Missionary Society works with men like Pastor Mbewe to provide what is lacking so that the Great Commission might be fulfilled.
The need to work through local indigenous churches and their elders cannot be exaggerated. Many pastors and other concerned Christians from the West sometimes visit third world countries and see the economic poverty of the churches and their ministers. They return to their home churches in the West and enthusiastically raise money to support the indigenous missionaries they have known for only a few days. Sometimes it works out and the Kingdom of God is advanced, but more often, the whole enterprise ends in discouragement. A few months of correspondence begins to reveal the true character of the missionary. He is not as qualified, not as dedicated, and not as selfless as first supposed. Support from the West has not corrupted this indigenous missionary, but it has simply revealed that he was not qualified to begin with. The pastor from the West was wrong in recommending a man that he had known for only a few days and that he could not hold accountable on the field.
We often fail to realize that missions must be guided by the principles found in God’s Word and not by enthusiasm, sentimentalism, or romanticism. Men and women should be supported only after careful and prolonged scrutiny. They must have a solid testimony and a strong reputation among the churches and elders who know them best. We must never forget that a foreigner is easy to deceive. Throughout America’s history, we find unscrupulous people who have made fortunes by deceiving the immigrants who came here from other countries. It is a simple truth that anyone is more susceptible to deception when coming to a land where the language and culture are not their own. Well-meaning Christians are often the most susceptible to such deception. For these reasons and many more, the support of indigenous missionaries must involve indigenous churches and elders with long-standing and worthy reputations. It is easy for a Peruvian candidate to deceive a North American Christian for a few days, but it is nearly impossible for him to deceive a biblical and Spirit-filled group of Peruvian pastors who have scrutinized his life in the light of the Scriptures for an extended period of time.
Having worked through the arguments against supporting indigenous missionaries, the conviction continued to grow that a society should be formed for their benefit. But how could such a society be financed? It seemed good that we should not raise money or ask another to meet our needs. If God was truly the Author of this radical approach to missions, then He would be its Sustainer. We felt that we could bring the greatest glory to God by trusting in Him alone. We would set out by faith and support a few Peruvian church planters. If God provided for their needs, then we would continue to expand according to the doors He opened for us and the resources that He provided.
It was not long after that the door opened up for us to do the same in other countries. From such small and feeble beginnings, God has enabled us to support national missionaries, distribute Scripture and Christian literature, and provide tools for evangelism in South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. All this has been done not according to our faith, but beyond our faith, and even in spite of our frequent unbelief. If anything worthy has been accomplished in this ministry, it is the result of the absolute sovereignty of God and His willingness to use the lowliest and weakest in order to confound the wisdom of the wise and embarrass the strength of the strong.
It is our strong desire to see the Gospel preached to all nations. We believe that it is God’s will for us to trust Him as never before, to call upon Him in prayer as never before, and to expect great things from Him as never before. It is our hope and prayer that God might raise up an army of indigenous missionaries to carry the light of the Gospel into the darkest and most forgotten places on earth. We trust in His absolute sovereignty, and we rest in the certainty that He will call forth a people for His Son - a people chosen before the foundation of the world!