Thursday, May 15, 2008

Analogy of Parenting and Missions

In a Q and A session in a Kenyan church one young man stood and read his question.

“You missionaries,” he stated, “come here and do some very good things. However, you live in nice houses and drives cars, but you don’t leave assets for the local church to build on so they can sustain themselves.” This man’s particular point was that they needed electricity on their church compound, which would be beneficial for them to start a nursery school. For a mere $4,000 the power line could be hooked up and they could generate some income for the church.

My answer to this veiled personal criticism was two-fold. First, I agreed that in the past some of us were shortsighted in our church-planting ministry. In hindsight, it would have probably been better if I had concentrated on building fewer quality churches rather than trying to establish many churches. Perhaps if I had concentrated my resources on establishing a quality Bible school rather than on trying to establish churches in the bush of Pokot and Turkana it would have served those regions better. But that’s hindsight.

Though I understood and accepted the critical analysis of the questioner, I took issue with his premise, i.e., that if we had helped them stand on their own they would be better off today. The problem for me 25 years ago was, and still is today, how much is enough? When does aid become dependency rather than laying a good foundation? I reminded the congregation that when I started working in the area there were not even good roads, much less electricity. My investment in every church plant, thirteen in all, was meant to help them get to a place where they could move forward on their own, not permanently underwrite their ever need. I also reminded them that as one who understands African culture, Kenyan’s always feel they are too poor to do anything on their own and that, in fact, they are many times unwilling to sacrifice to reach their own desired goals. I recounted the story how that in my days on the field people would drop one cent pieces into the offering plate but would pay the witchdoctor in the area a goat to ward off evil spirits. In today’s economy many of those in the congregation can afford cell phones and cars, but for some reason can’t come up with enough money to get electricity to their church compound.

While I admitted my failings as a missionary, I told them that being a new missionary is like being a parent; it’s on-the-job training. Like a parent, we learn as we go and often can look back at how we could have done it better in both raising our children as well as serving the church. Sometimes we did things right, sometimes, in retrospect, we could have done things differently. While I may regret some of my strategies of thirty-five years ago, I can take comfort that both my kids and the churches we established have a strong foundation for their future. A missionary’s or parent’s legacy should not be how much they provided for their children or ministry, but rather how much they instilled in them to go forward on their own.