ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS FOR MISSION FRONTIERS by Ajith Fernando, Youth for Christ/Sri Lanka
1. What would be some key elements that you would include in a criteria for strategic giving?
Let me first say that I am a little cautious about this word “strategic.” Indeed we must think strategically. For example, if a field suddenly opens to the gospel and that openness would not be for very long, then we must concentrate our energies on this field. Like Paul we should be thinking of the best way to reach a given area, and the best time to do that. In this sense strategy is important, and should be considered when we decide about giving.
Having said that I must add that in normal language the word strategic seems to suggest something that produces quick results. According to this understanding some of the most significant work that is happening in the kingdom would be eliminated. Christians should be ministering in the places of greatest need. But that work is not very attractive, and the results may take a long time to come to come. Some Christians might feel that, given the lack of visible fruit, such ministries are not worth investing in financially. I think that some of the great heroes of the church today would not be very attractive to many North Americans, as their work does not excite strategically oriented people. And some of these heroes I am talking about are American missionaries!
This is why I feel that more stress should be placed on call than on the strategic nature of the giving. The question we must always be asking is, “What work is God calling us to be involved in?” In finding this out we must get ourselves informed of what is happening in the world and where the needs are. But we can’t meet all the needs that we encounter. So we must be in prayer and seek God’s direction and then come to the sense that “this is where God wants us to be involved.” This is how the Antioch church sent out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2-3), and this is what lies behind Paul’s launch into Europe through the Macedonian call (Acts 16:6-10).
Of course there are times when an emergency situation needs an emergency response. This happened with the Antioch church when Agabus prophesied that there was going to be a famine, and Judea would be in need (Acts 11: 28-30). Christians have a good record of being among the first to come with assistance in disaster situations. And we must continue to be alert to these emergency situations which require rapid responses.
Another important criterion is that of relationship. Most Third World cultures are relational in orientation, and relationships take time to cultivate. I am finding that many Western mission groups are signing partnership contracts with Third World groups. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction, for it may help avoid some of the abuses that have taken place with the use of missionary gifts. But that is not how our people operate. Contracts should never be a substitute for the hard work of building relationships. Giving is just one aspect of a spiritual tie between Christians, and that tie involves a lot of things such as sharing of heart, praying for each other and, of course, sharing of how the funds given are being spent and the work is progressing.
2. What particular challenge would you give to a North American?
The age-old challenge of the glaring disparity in resources between North America and the rest of the world is still relevant and vitally important to stress. Paul said that one reason for giving is to achieve equality (2 Cor. 8:13-14). That is one of the most troubling statements in the Bible for me! It should make anyone who lives in relative affluence extremely uneasy. I believe we should live with this sense of unease. That unease is bearable if we have the more basic joy of the Lord as our strength. So we should not be afraid of letting our hearts be broken by the spiritual and physical needs of people. It will bring sobriety into our lifestyle and make missionary involvement a vital and primary aspect of our lifestyle.
I realise that the North Americans are motivating a lot of people today by challenging them to experience the thrill of a mission trip. I have seen how markedly these trips have influenced people to rethink their priorities and become lifelong “world Christians.” This is great.
But I think that an even more important way to motivate people to missionary involvement is to place before them the stark reality of the difference that Christ makes in the lives of people. Without Christ people are eternally lost, and with him they have eternal salvation. To me that is a brutally shocking reality. The Great Commission deals with such an absolutely urgent issue that we should be willing to die for it! And giving is just a small part of that dying!
In this post-modern world experiential motivation to mission would be more appealing than theological motivation. But we need a strong foundation to endure the suffering that will surely come to us if we do something significant for God. One of the greatest needs for Christians today is to learn to stick to their commitments when the going gets tough. That’s how we are going to bring the message of salvation to a world that is so hostile to the gospel. The theological fact of the eternal lostness of people without Christ is one such foundation that will give us the perseverance that commitment to our call requires.
3. What particular caution would you give to a North American?
I think North Americans are among the most generous people in the world. I was a student in the USA, and I experienced the full measure of this generosity. But I also think that North Americans find it very difficult to think cross-culturally. For some reason they find it difficult to think through the cultural grid of other peoples. Instead, despite all the talk about cross-cultural relationships today, they process information they receive from other cultures through their own cultural grid and end up making some very wrong judgements.
Perhaps this is because Americans have not been forced to face up to revolt from colonies like the Europeans had to. They are such a huge economic block that they haven’t needed to adjust much to the rest of the world, though the rest of the world has had to adjust to them in order to survive! So they haven’t needed cross-cultural thinking for survival like the rest of the world has.
Perhaps another cause for this weakness is the efficiency orientation of the West. Westerners often take words at face value, come to conclusions and get down to action rapidly without going through the painfully slow process of relationship building that is necessary in the relational cultures of the Third World. The result is that they often end up supporting people who are not very honest. And, given the huge problem with the lack of integrity in the world today, you find a lot of such people in the church too! I am amazed sometimes how Westerners are so impressed by people about whom many Third World Christians have so many questions!
Let me try to suggest some ways to overcome this cultural blind spot. I think the first thing is for Westerners to be aware that they have this problem and therefore to be suspicious about their initial conclusions about people and projects. Then they can ask trustworthy people from within the culture for help. Of course, our people are very reluctant to be critical about a fellow countryman. So they will usually just give a small hint to suggest that they have reservations. The Westerners, who are by now very enthusiastic about this person, usually do not catch the hint. They latch on to the positive things that the one who advised them said (usually out of cultural politeness). They go ahead with their plans to back this person, and they often end up being taken for a ride.
Then it is vital to take time to cultivate deep friendship and spiritual accountability with the individuals you are hoping to help. I believe that one of the keys to overcoming the problem of the lack of integrity in our cultures is Christian community that seriously practices spiritual accountability. I have seen dishonest people change in these environments. Those who don’t want to change usually leave. They find the demand for openness in such a community too difficult to handle.
Let me give just one more caution. In our cultures people find it very difficult to say “No” to a request made by a donor. If a donor says that he or she is coming to visit the receiver, the receiver would usually immediately write back saying, “Come,” even though such a visit would be extremely inconvenient for that person. I think this has become a very serious problem in recent times. We have a shortage of leaders in our part of the world, and I find that some of the few leaders we have are unable to do the work they desperately need to do because they are so busy hosting foreigners. I have had friends who have told me of their great frustration over this. But they would never say a word about it to the visiting donor. The hospitality traditions in our cultures would make telling their guests such a thing quite unacceptable. I think Westerners need to be conscious of this and be on the look out for any hint that may suggest that it would be unwise to visit at a given time.
4. How would you challenge a Sri Lankan (or someone from another developing country) differently than you would a North American?
I think the thing that we have to convince Sri Lankan Christians about is that they do have something to contribute in terms of missions. Our problems seem to be so great that this is not easy to communicate. Besides, so many of our leaders have gone to the West that many of our people feel we have given the West enough “foreign aid” by giving away our greatest treasures—our key leaders. The reasoning is that so many of our people are using their brilliance to enrich these already rich cultures that we must use all our resources to look after ourselves.
But all Christians, wherever they live, must be missionary minded. Henry Martyn said, “The spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions; and the nearer we get to him, the more intensely missionary must be become.” This attitude is something we must inculcate in all Christians whether they are from economically rich or poor backgrounds. All Christians are rich, and have something to offer to the world, even though they may be economically extremely poor. Our challenge is to convince our people of this!
5. Do you see a pattern in America of believers being willing to give of their resources but less willing to give of themselves? [please comment]
This is a pattern we see everywhere, and, in a sense, it cannot be helped sometimes. Given the great needs in the world, we can’t get personally involved in all the projects we give to. That would leave us emotionally burnt out very soon! So we may need to give to some projects without too much involvement. But we must get involved personally when it comes to our primary missionary concerns. I have tried to outline something of what that involves above. Our ministry has benefited from the giving of some North Americans who are doing this, and they have been a great blessing to me personally. But the pattern of giving without personal involvement is something that we see too much of all over the world.
I think that the best way to get personally involved is to pray. What a wonderfully exciting privilege prayer is! To think that we can influence the course of history thousands of miles away from home by spending some time in our homes praying for missions. I think prayer is more powerful than money. Therefore I think we must give motivation to missionary praying a bigger priority than it is given today.
Of course, when you pray with your spiritual ears open, God starts prompting you about other ways to get involved in missions. Prayer is dangerous business! But I would much rather choose the dangerous excitement of being open to God’s wonderful surprises to the deadening boredom of living for self which is what so many affluent people have condemned themselves to!