by Bob Lupton Colonialism is out. Independent rule is in. Colonialism was once a good word. European countries invented it back in the 1500’s. Send an explorer, stake a flag, lay claim to a land. That’s how it began. Colonize it with your own people to establish a government and assert control. America was one of those colonized lands.
But eventually occupied people grew tired of foreign domination and one by one they rebelled. The United States declared her independence in 1776. Other countries followed suit. By the latter part of the 1900’s almost all colonizers had been thrown out. Today colonialism is a bad word.
At first colonialism was about economic expansion. Sugar cane, cotton, furs. Religious colonization was not far behind. Evangelization, converting the natives, establishing churches. By the late twentieth century, however, most indigenous (or indigenized) people wanted full control of both their own economies as well as cultural and religious institutions. A lot of chaos ensued. Plantations were broken up, foreign corporations expelled, and businesses nationalized. Proselytizing missionaries were asked to leave and church leadership shifted to local control. It was all part of a global movement that recognized the importance of respecting indigenous cultures and protecting the right of self-determination.
And so the western church stopped sending out full-time missionaries. The indigenous church must take control of its own destiny, we agreed. Instead of sending professionals to lead, the western church determined to affirm and support the indigenous leadership that would surely emerge to fill the vacuum created when we stepped back. “Partnership” came into vogue. Partnership implies parity, equality, friendship. As partners we may serve, we may train, but we do not take control. We send money to support our partner ministries, send volunteers to help build their churches, send doctors for short-term medical junkets. But we go at the invitation of indigenous leaders. Consequently our mission budgets are at an all time high but our full-time missionaries are at a hundred year low. So how is this new partnership arrangement working?
In terms of cost-effectiveness, the present system is abysmal. The two million short-term missionaries the western church deploys annually consumes somewhere between $3.5 and $5 billion of our mission dollars. A Delta Airlines official recently told me that a full half of their Central and South American flights would have to be terminated if it were not for the mission trip traffic. Our mission budgets may well be at an all time high but Delta Airlines is getting the lion’s share of that money.
And how are the partnerships working on the ground? Juan Iello, president of one of Nicaragua’s most successful micro-lending ministries, revealed to me that there are entire sections of his country where he is unable to provide any micro-loans. These are the areas where there is a concentration of U.S. church partnerships. “My people say ‘Why do we want to borrow money? The churches give it to us. Why do we want to borrow money to build a church? They build it for us.’” And then Juan declared with great emotion: “They are turning my people into beggars!”
The more mature U.S. mission partners understand the danger of dependency. They emphasize the importance of mutual relationships. Though still spending the majority of their mission dollars on airfare, they refrain from giving money directly to their indigenous partners. They feel good about training and volunteering but prefer relationship-building activities over financial support. In time, loans or matching gifts may be acceptable as start-up investments for orphanages or health clinics or schools or seminaries. Such grants may be on a multi-year basis but on a declining scale to ensure local self-sufficiency. And sometimes this works. But more often, when the missioners have returned home, there develop misunderstandings over how the money is being spent, concerns over inadequate financial management, disagreements about mission priorities, dissatisfaction over leadership capabilities and communication. There is a fine line between accountability and control. It is hard to maintain a good partnership when you are half a world away.
Value differences may be the most difficult challenge to forming mutually satisfying partnerships. In our culture when a manager or trusted employee uses the resources of an organization for his own personal gain, an ethical red flag immediately pops up. Approved perks, like a company car, may be perfectly acceptable. But unauthorized mis-allocation of funds could be crossing the line. Embezzling or outright theft is cause for immediate firing. That is American business ethics. But in other lands the ethics may be quite different. In some cultures there is no ethical issue at all in pocketing unguarded assets of a wealthy company (and in developing countries all western-funded organizations are considered wealthy). When we fired the bookkeeper of our Nicaragua food processing operation for embezzling funds, the local staff was incredulous. “He’s a good guy,” they insisted. There seemed to be no ethical issue in their minds with an employee taking money from the company. A rich company can always get more money. What’s the big deal? Value differences can make cross-cultural partnerships a real challenge. They are difficult enough to negotiate when you are working side-by-side every day. But successful long-distance, cross-cultural partnerships, without highly accountable systems, are really quite rare.
Could it be time to reconsider our rom Coantic notions of partnership? Most of us would agree that returning to the practice of colonialism – economic or religious – would be a step in the wrong direction. But international business practices have taught us that careful oversight (call it control if you will) is essential. France′ and Michael Allen spent two years living on site in Mexico to launch the first international branch of their U.S. based Ventura manufacturing company. And now every morning at 9:07 they have live Skype report-in from each of their domestic and international managers. They have learned that detailed reporting, daily communication, tight controls and frequent visits are essential for good business – and especially so when it crosses over cultural lines. Would we call this economic colonialism? I don’t think so. I think we would call it sound business practice.
Should healthy co-venturing with international ministry partners be any less rigorous? Why then do some fault investor oversight as colonialistic? Is it not healthy ministry practice to have trusted, capable managers on the ground to ensure that the ventures we fund will be well conceived, well planned, well structured and well led? Careful management need not imply “We know what’s best for these people” or “We can do it better than they can” or “We don’t trust them.” Rather, it communicates that we are serious enough about the work to invest not only our dollars but our best talent and expertise as well. Call it colonialistic if you will. I call it responsible investment. I for one think it is time to replace the short-term mission trip fad with a longer-term missionary strategy and convert our so-called partnerships into true teamwork rather than minimally accountable one-way giving.
And if we are really serious about moving the poverty needle, we will institute a new type of missionary – the economic missionary. The pews of the western church are filled with business people whose expertise is creating successful, profitable enterprises. They are the ones uniquely qualified to create jobs in under-developed places, jobs that would enable families struggling to survive to begin to thrive. These entrepreneurial members to whom God has entrusted the ability to create wealth are seldom asked to use their best gifts in direct Kingdom work. We ask them to fund our service projects and mission trips but rarely do we ask them to use their business ability in mission. Yet, in fact they are the only ones equipped to ignite a self-sustaining economy that enables a community or region to thrive. It’s time to change the paradigm.