February 26, 2024

Why do we raise thousands of dollars of monthly support and move ourselves and our families to foreign cities? Why do we learn their languages and cultures, and seek to establish churches or disciple-making movements within those cultures? Because Christ tells us to go and make disciples of all nations. See Matthew 28:19-20.

But here is the response we often get from those who have thought about the cost of human and financial resources in this effort: Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more effective to train and support indigenous believers to reach their own people?

Why are expatriates needed?

How should you and I respond to this pushback?

We need to say that among many truly unreached peoples, there are no indigenous believers to train – or so few that they are not capable of reaching their own people in their own strength.

We can talk about the value of an outsider’s perspective. Someone from another culture can offer new ideas and resources and open new doors that a small, struggling local church in that context might not be able to access. Insiders and outsiders working together in partnership will inject new energy into the disciple-making process, and provide vision and hope to a church that may feel like they are struggling just to survive.

We need to address the danger of dependency. Supporting national workers with foreign funds can undercut the national church’s development as a mature church and ownership of the Great Commission in their own country. An excellent discussion of this danger can be found in Corbett and Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself

Two opposite positions on supporting indigenous workers

There seem to be two extremes in mission thinking about supporting nationals.

One position says, “Send your money, not expensive missionaries. Local missionaries are far more effective and much cheaper.” Bob Finley (in Reformation in Foreign Missions) and K. P. Yohanan (in Revolution in World Missions) have espoused this position.

But there is another position that warns us to never give money to the national church. This position claims that finances from the West only create unhealthy dependency. Glenn Schwartz (in When Charity Destroys Dignity) and Jean Johnson (in We Are Not the Hero) would fall into this camp. Schwartz is the founder and Johnson is the current Executive Director of Five Stones Global. This organization focuses on helping missionaries address dependency issues. You can see a whole host of articles by Jean Johnson at https://fivestonesglobal.org/resources/articles/

Subsidizing training of indigenous workers

Yes, providing subsidized training (not ongoing financial support) for indigenous missionaries is a possible solution to this dilemma. SEND International has done much of this. One of the very first projects of our mission organization back 75 years ago was to start a Bible college in the Philippines. SEND International missionaries have served as professors in Bible colleges and seminaries in many of the countries we serve. Not nearly all the training has been formal institutional instruction. Back in the ’90s, I headed up a Training and Publication department in the Philippines. We conducted seminars in various locations to provide nonformal training to lay leaders.

But providing classroom training or seminars for indigenous workers is not nearly always the best solution. I have seen many examples of indigenous missionaries and pastors going to training events that they did not really need or maybe even want. But they went because the training was free or almost free – and they could use the foreigner’s training event as a way to pay for their travel to a location that they needed to go for other reasons.

I have also seen many examples of poor training by an outside teacher who had just arrived the day before. The visiting professor does not speak the language, nor understand the culture or the challenges of working in that context. The students then do not apply the training because it never addressed a felt need. Possibly the methodology taught was not financially feasible. If initially adopted, the training does not stick. The trainer was not able to contextualize the teaching material. Nor does he or she stay around to mentor the trainees in implementing changes.

Developing credibility before indigenous believers

The best trainers are not determined by how many degrees they might have or how big their churches are. What matters is how credible they are in the eyes of the trainees. What does it take to be credible? I believe in a simple formula: Credibility = Expertise x Trustworthiness. Your expertise as a missionary is what you know that can help the national church accomplish its goals. Your trustworthiness, on the other hand, is determined by several factors – your mission’s reputation, your personal integrity, your love and concern for those you are teaching, and your understanding of them and their context.

So how do we become credible? This brings us back to the original question. Why do we bridge cultures and seek to live incarnationally among unreached peoples? By becoming incarnational missionaries to unreached peoples, we are in the process of becoming credible teachers and trainers of indigenous workers.

We contextualize our expertise as we learn the culture in which we have become resident. Furthermore, we demonstrate our trustworthiness by our willingness to engage in deep friendships with people of different worldviews. We need to be ready to walk the Jesus Road together with them, exploring what it means to be a follower of Jesus in that culture.

Not only will we be able to conduct seminars and teach classes for indigenous workers with culturally appropriate content. More importantly, by living in the culture, we will be positioned to credibly introduce and try out new ideas and strategies, model them in front of new believers, mentor them while they are experimenting with using them, and then provide ongoing coaching when they start to run with them.

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