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New Horizons

The Challenge to Be Self-Supporting

David A. Okken

Note: One of the goals in the establishment of a healthy, indigenous church is that it be self-supporting. Dependency—an issue about which several books are written each year—is a constant challenge with which your missionaries must wrestle as they labor toward the goal. —Douglas B. Clawson

I now have under my belt over seven years of experience in Uganda—living, working, and learning the ways of life in what is still for me a very foreign land. Ask me to name the thing that has been the single most difficult component of life and ministry here, and without hesitation I will answer with one word: money!

Before coming to the field, I would never have guessed that such would be the case. (How naïve I was!) Yet I suppose that I should not have been so surprised, considering all the warnings that the Bible gives about money. We are told that it can be a terrible idol, engrossing the heart and arousing in men an insatiable craving (Eph. 5:5; 2 Pet. 2:14; Eccl. 5:10). The love of money is the source of all kinds of evil and has caused many to wander from the faith and to pierce themselves with many pangs (1 Tim. 6:10).

Yes, much heartache and grief have been generated over the years by the various challenges that our Mission has faced that in one way or another have been related to money. For example, I think of our relationships with our Ugandan brothers in the indigenous churches with whom we have labored in and around Mbale. On several occasions, disagreements about how the Orthodox Presbyterian Uganda Mission (OPUM) should be using its resources to best help the church in Uganda have seriously disrupted that peace for which Christ calls us to strive (Heb. 12:4). Similarly, in Karamoja our relationship with the community served by our medical clinic has been greatly affected by disagreements about the extent to which we should be charging fees for our services (albeit with greatly reduced prices, relative to the true cost of the product).

As is the case in much of Africa, Uganda is a land where, for many years, donor funds have poured into the country through a multitude of aid agencies and NGOs (non-government organizations). People are so accustomed to foreigners providing free "handouts" that they have come to expect them. When their expectations are not fully met, they can even feel as if they have been deprived of something to which they are entitled. They feel cheated. In light of this, one often cannot help but feel that the only way to avoid facing a measure of scorn from folks in the community and even in the church is to give them everything for which they ask.

Yet even if there were sufficient resources to pull that off, the peace it would bring would only be artificial. More importantly, there are many harmful effects caused by well-intended but misguided charity. It can destroy dignity and encourage dependence, rather than initiative and "grace-empowered self-reliance" (as Al Tricarico calls it). In an effort to bring hope, it can plunge men into greater hopelessness. The apostle Paul expected the saints to trust that the Lord's provision of daily bread would come as a result of work (2 Thess. 3:10). We should be suspicious of any humanitarian efforts which teach the opposite.

Indiscriminate charity can also be harmful to the purity and true spiritual growth of the church. In Uganda, the church-planting enterprise has been heavily dependent upon foreign donations. It is commendable that well-meaning Christians are so eager to help support ministry abroad. However, for so many years their contributions have come in such large a volume that "ministry" has become big business. In many places, it is commonly known that a great way to take enormous steps up the economic ladder is to become a pastor—that is, a pastor tapped into the pipeline of dollars flowing from the West. And often, without any mechanism for accountability, funds are used for purposes quite apart from, or even contrary to, the intent of the donors. Generous giving has led to drastically changed lives. But that has not necessarily resulted in spiritual betterment. With all of the scriptural warnings about the love of money being so destructive of true faith, it behooves us not only to be generous, but also to be wise.

On the other hand, there is no question that Africa is filled with much poverty. We ought to be concerned about the poor and desire to help them. The gospel requires such concern (Gal. 2:10). We must remember that the Lord has indeed given us so much, and that what we have is not our own. That is always true, and it is certainly true with regards to OPUM funds. They belong to the Lord, who has provided through your faithful giving. We must never be stingy or cold-hearted, but instead be generous, as God is so generous with us. Such kindness must adorn our gospel proclamation, even though it must never take its place! But how can we be generous in a way that truly adorns, rather than compromises, our proclamation of life in Christ?

An enormous task for your missionaries in Uganda (and elsewhere) has been to weigh the various money-related concerns and to develop godly strategies and methods. Please pray that the Lord would give us wisdom. Wherever our African missions methodology is weak, pray that we will find more biblical alternatives. Pray for godly resolve to follow such biblical methods, even when they do not bring the praise of men. Pray that the Lord Jesus would work in the hearts of those whom he is pleased to draw unto himself, so that they will not oppose ministry that honors him, but rather will embrace it. Of course, pray that the gospel will enter hearts and change lives and that, as a fruit of new life in Christ, men and women will learn how to better care for themselves with the Lord's help. Surely this will strengthen the church today and for generations to come.

And pray that we, the members of OPUM, will not become discouraged, but rather will follow our Savior in the way that we face the challenges that do come. Pray that we will walk by faith! We know that to possess Christ is to possess riches far greater than all of the treasures of this world. Furthermore, we know that the Spirit of Christ will move the hearts of men such that they will truly seek him, rather than seeking earthly wealth. Yet so often we lack the faith to expect that we will see the fruit of the Spirit's work in our own ministries. Pray that, with strengthened faith, we will never be lacking in zeal, but rather will be fervent in spirit as we serve the Lord (Rom. 12:11). Yes, pray that we will indeed think deeply and prayerfully about the issues and make godly decisions about how to go about our work.

And pray that then our consciences will be clear before the Lord, and that we will rest in the marvelous grace of our heavenly Father. After all, Christ understands our struggles and is not waiting to beat us with a club as soon as we make a poor decision. Rather, he washes all of our sins in his precious blood. So pray for us and rejoice with us in that inheritance of the kingdom of glory, where such economic struggles will be no more.

"And he said to me, 'It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment' " (Rev. 21:6).

The author is an OPC missionary. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2009.

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