A good friend stopped by the other day to meet Baby Elijah. She fundraises her salary to work with our Servant Partner’s internship program, and during her visit, it came up that she had lost a few donors in the last couple of months and that she was facing a critical lack in financial support to continue her work.

I have heard similar stories from more than a few people who serve through para-church ministries in recent days. Just this past week I read of a blogging friend’s situation where he and his wife are seriously reevaluating their ministry commitments as a result of diminishing financial support for their work. From a purely anecdotal perspective, it does seem to be a trend of sorts: either folks are giving less to what has traditionally been considered “missions”, or they are shifting how and where they do give. My friend, Jamie writes this reflection on the shift:

I started doing some digging and found that one major factor for the drop has been that churches (and people in those churches) are giving more towards their own missional endeavours, thus not giving as much to outside missionaries, organizations and projects. As many people believe that parachurch organizations exsist only because the church isn’t doing all it is called to do, the result is that few feel they have any responsibility for the well being of those groups or individuals. And so missionaries everywhere are seeing this decline.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying people are selfishly or callously cutting us loose. I am excited to see churches and Christians owning their missional role in the Body of Christ. While I might argue that we need to find a way for these too often alienated groups (local vs. para) to work together for a mutually beneficial solution, this does not seem to be happening at this stage…

I too have seen an exciting shift in churches that are eager to rediscover the centrality of mission; churches that for years viewed mission as something that others did that they supported from a distance through monthly or annual checks. I agree with Jamie that churches today are much more likely today to spend their financial resources in ways that involve and equip their own members in mission rather than give to one of the many worthy para-church organizations in their community. This certainly raises questions regarding what the future holds for mission and para-church organizations like those my friends represent, and those who have given themselves vocationally to serving through them.

The same day that my friend shared with me about her financial shortfall, I received my monthly newsletter from Bob Lupton, a leader and innovator in Christian community development in urban Atlanta. In his essay, he takes the idea of the Hippocratic oath in the practice of medicine and claims that Christian workers among the underpriviliged, “helpers” as he calls them, should take a similar oath to “do no harm” and refuse all ministry practices that build dependency or erode dignity or provide short-term benefits with no means for long-term sustainability. His article is provocative and I believe fairly condemning for much of what we do under the guise of “mission” today. He writes:

For centuries the Hippocratic Oath has served well the medical profession and countless millions of patients. It has guided physicians toward astounding medical breakthroughs as well as constrained them from endangering patient welfare by risking questionable treatments. Perhaps a similar type of code would be useful to those who wish to serve the poor. We know that helping can certainly be for better or worse. Even as a misdiagnosed ailment will lead to improper (even harmful) treatment, so wrongly given assistance may well prolong or even worsen the plight of the needy. Good intentions and kindhearted spirits, while commendable, are insufficient guarantees of positive outcomes. Unexamined service that risks leaving the served worse off than if they had been left alone is irresponsible if not unethical. Guiding principles are needed…

While we cannot foresee all the potential consequences of our service, we should at least make some attempt to predict their impact. Are we luring indigenous ministers away from their pastoral duties to become our tour-guides and schedule coordinators for our mission trips? Are we diminishing the entrepreneurial spirit in a culture by offering our free services, gifts and grants? Are we supporting irresponsible lifestyles by indiscriminate giving from our clothes closets and food pantries? Before we embark on a mission venture we should conduct an “impact study” to consider how our good deeds might have consequences we never intended. As Hippocrates admonished: above all do no harm.

Lupton’s article made me think about some of the potential effects (beyond the vocational ones being felt by my friends) the shift away from para-church support in favor of more church-centric mission could have. If resources that previously went toward funding long-term “missionaries” in communities are shifted toward financing lots of people engaging in one-time and short-term mission “experiences” (what I see a lot of churches doing as their primary way to engage their membership in mission), I wonder about the impact on how communities are served. Lupton continues:

The poor we serve may be quite reluctant to reveal “the whole story” to would-be helpers for a host of reasons — fear of judgment, fear of losing support, not wanting to appear unappreciative, intimidation. It would be very difficult, for instance, for a pastor in a poor Guatemalan village to tell a supporting church in the States that it would be a far better use of their money to help him create jobs for the men in his village than to spend it on plane fare to send 30 unskilled volunteers to come and do construction work for them…

I remember when I was working at North Park University leading a campus outreach to urban youth in the community, I would butt heads with certain administrators over whose experience was more vital in determining what we did and how we did it: the college student’s or the neighborhood junior high kid’s. Ultimately, the administration wanted their students served, and that was to be our program’s overarching goal. And thus the butting…

I feel like for a lot of churches, the same kinds of situations can arise where communities are served in ways that reflect more about the needs of congregants than those of the communities being served. And so thousands are spent on plane tickets for a week instead of being given to support a worker making a long-term commitment to serve.


  1. Erika, this is such a critically important post … Your voice needs to be heard on this more widely. An article perhaps? All my experience makes me passionate about the points you are raising (deftly, as usual).

  2. Great article, sister.
    (It’s good to have you back.)

    As the husband of a full-time missionary, this is very fitting. Michelle and I have been married for just over a year. She has been a local missionary here in Chester County, PA, particularly Coatesville, for 10 years. She has 3 churches that support her on a monthly basis, and a bunch of individual supporters who love Michelle and want to be a part of what she is doing. When we got married, her support dropped almost 50%. The Lord has been gracious, and it is almost back up again.

    I digress…my point was that we personally support other missionaries, along with sponsoring a child with Compassion International and one with World Vision, in addition to our giving to our church.

    It feels so much more meaningful to support someone who you know, and who you know is following the Lord in their calling. We are more prone to pray for someone we write a check to every month than we are to pray for someone in Africa that our church supports. (Maybe I’m speaking solely for myself.)

    Anyway, good thought-provoking article.

  3. Important stuff. Glad you highlighted it.

    Good that evangelical churches don’t outsource much of their outreach ministry in the way they once did to para-church groups. Important to introduce a more ‘missional’ and authentic Christian life to folks accustomed to consuming a version of American Christian culture. Understandable stuff.

    But not so good that many of them have now taken that healthy corrective to unhealthy extremes that damage the creative reformation of ministry that so often characterizes para-church work.

    Para-churches can do the irreplaceable creative research and development and the visionary and prophetic applications that American institutional churches simply can’t do for a variety of reasons.

    In my previous para-church stint of 15 years in leadership with InterVarsity we enjoyed a lot of support from institutional and more traditional churches. Different nation and different church culture at that time.

    Established para-church groups like IV continue to enjoy the benefits of their roots in that older US church culture, but newer and more controversial ministries like Servant Partners have got to make their way in a church culture that’s a lot less generous to people outside their institutional fold.

    I think the biggest change was the mega-church movement. When American churches decided that most of their members were ‘the mission field’ you could hear the doors closing shut on financial support for more creative missions working on the cross-cultural and cross-class edge.

    When I moved from LA to Denver I spent a few months talking to pretty much every pastor and missions chairman along the Front Range.

    Only two churches were even willing to consider (as a matter of policy) giving to a para-church ministry like Servant Partners. Both were very large Presbyterian churches steeped in an older way of thinking due to their tradition and resources.

    Having said all that, folks that join cutting edge ministries don’t get in it for the money or the consistent support :^)

  4. Great post (and thanks for the shout out). I think this is a really important set of issues that need to be handled carefully. While there are many irresponsible uses of resources and time, I think many groups that do short-term missions are doing it responsibly along side long-term efforts.

    Here’s an interesting example. We send teams to Uganda every year. While it could be argued that the money spent to send our team could do better good given directly to the Ugandan church, we have found it more complex. Here are just a few reasons why. When missionaries are at food/clothing/etc. distributions, it is distributed fairly, but when they are not, there is a significant abuse of authority, etc. Also, we have seen a significant acceptance of colonialism within the local Christianity, often requiring our involvement to see this shift in perspective. Our participant come back as very powerful advocates for Christian giving and involvement in world missions, more than compensating for the cost of their time (not to mention the incredibly hard work they do their). Finally (and harder to quantify) is the importance in our global village to build churches of the nations- that is Christian communities that respect and celebrate their international expressions.

    This is not to dismiss what the article said. I think it made good points. However, I am concerned that much of the critique I hear about short-term missions and such issues look at past models and a few exceptions. Thanks for raising this here.


  5. I appreciate all the great comments here! And Jamie, I agree with you completely that short-term missions can be done very, very well and can be used powerfully to transform. I speak from personal experience as both a participant and a leader of such initiatives. That said, I think Lupton’s comments point to the side of such initiatives that many would simply rather not examine.

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