Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Missionary Tithe

For the past couple of years a mission organization has asked me to speak at their candidate school and I am asked to speak on what people need to when they get on the field. I have entitled these talks, “It’s Tuesday, Now What Do I Do?” In addition to what people need to do the first 12 months they are on the field I have a list of things new missionaries should not do! In this category I touch on the sticky issue of the missionary tithe.

At the outset let me state clearly that I am well aware we are not under the Mosaic Law and the tithe is not applicable for New Testament believers. Nevertheless, I grew up believing that giving ten percent is a good yardstick to gauge Christian stewardship. The little Baptist church I attended in Gardena, California drilled into me that a Christian should give, at a minimum, a tithe or we might be guilty of holy theft, i.e., robbing God! So, from the proceeds of my paper route, for every quarter I collected (yes, that was the months subscription in 1959) two and half cents of that two bits belonged to God. To this day I still remember the pride I took in placing my “tithe,” usually about a dollar and half, in an offering envelope each month. It’s one of the really great spiritual habits that were formed in my childhood. I still enjoy giving to God’s work.

When I arrived in Kenya as a missionary many years later there was a discussion among my colleagues on where the missionary tithe should go? I must admit, I have vacillated on this issue over the years. My friends on the field were adamant that the tithe should be given to the local church that a missionary was affiliated with on the field. I do indeed believe that the local church should receive the tithe, but the problem I had with that theory was that it gave a false impression, especially in developing country like Kenya, of how well that local assembly was doing.

Working among semi-nomadic tribes of Turkana and Pokot, the offering of 50 church attendees wouldn’t be enough to buy a half-kilo of beans. If, however, I put in my tithe then the church was almost self-supporting, able to pay the pastor a salary and going a long way in constructing a sanctuary. And, while my fellow missionary friends seemed to have no problem with reporting such church growth, I had a big problem with it. In addition to falsifying an autonomist national church to donors back home, the local church itself operates on a bogus assumption. Forty cents given by the congregation and forty dollars provided by the missionary is not congregational solvency, it’s an ecclesiastical ponzi scheme.

Additionally to be misleading, a missionary’s tithe sucks the life out of motivation for local Christians in the assembly in getting involved in their home church. There is no incentive for the national member to give to the church as their attitude is, “If it’s really important, the missionary will take care of it.”

I came to the conclusion that a missionary should not give a tithe on the field but to his/her home church back in the U.S., Korea, Philippines or wherever that missionary is from. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, I am coming to believe that the issue of money control is a sin against God.

We all know or have heard of people who withhold giving when they are offended or disagree with how money is spent by their local church. I do not see in Scripture where the Lord’s followers are given that power. I believe we have an obligation to give to the Lord’s work and I have a conviction (like Paul, I don’t speak by command but by persuasion) that my giving should not directly related to how it benefits me or, in the case of a missionary, my ministry. As a result of that persuasion, as a missionary on the field until today, I give to the local church of my membership, not my residence.

While a resident in Kenya of course I supported and raised money for many projects. But I never propped up a church with a false regular tithe. Indeed, I went out of my way, to the dismay of many African congregations, NOT to support their local church because I wanted to disciple them in the great gift of giving and not rob them of that joy, though they were not particularly happy with this aspect of spiritual growth.

To this day my wife and I tithe to our sending church. We also give weekly to the church we attend as well as to certain missionaries we support. And by the way, this is out of our salary, not from our organization. I think it’s unseemly for mission heads to tithe to their organization for the benefit of their own ministry.

Our gifts should be to God freely. If our giving is so we can control how the money is used I think we are not only cheating Him, but ourselves as well. That’s my opinion, but no doubt some would disagree.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Mari People of Russia

During Soviet times the city of Yoshkar Ola in the region of Mari El was “closed,” to outsiders. Because of the sensitive work of military projects, only Russians on special assignment could enter the area and, of course the residents were locked in. After church recently, myself along with my colleagues, visited a small Mari village ten miles outside Yoshkar Ola.

The living area of the home we visited is sandwiched between the car garage on the right and a storage/utility courtyard on the left. The first floor of the house is the living area, wood plank floor, small couch, dining room table, refrigerator and bookcase. Gas and water pipes run across the walls, as well as electrical outlets. The cooking stove was in another room below the platform living space; a staircase leads up to the sleeping area. The window sill had an assortment of potted plants and as we looked across the street we were told that the snow was so high this year that they could step outside their window and walk across most of the village.

The Mari people of the Volga region of Russia have a population of roughly 500,000, a Finnish-Ugric people who are sometimes characterized as the last practicing European pagans. The Joshua Project states that there are few, if any, evangelicals among the Mari, but we were honored to have Sunday lunch (buckwheat and liver, potatoes and mushrooms, bread, pickles, cheese) with a Mari family who were believers and attend a local Baptist Church in Yoshkar Ola.

As a quasi-anthropologist I am fascinated with the culture of the Mari. Within this people group there are clans divided between the “low” (those who live in the Volga Valley) and “high” (hill) Mari population. The wife of the family proudly brought out a traditional dress of their clan and, in times past as well as traditional holidays today, clans are indentified by the different patterns of dress. I asked about marriage restrictions between clans and they said there wasn’t any, but I still wonder as all cultures have incest boundaries.

As a missiologist I am interested in what cultural boundaries can be crossed in presenting the Gospel. The Tatar people, the Mari neighbors to the east, are resistant to Russians but are more welcoming to Ukrainian’s. The Mari’s have no problem mixing with Russians but do not easily interact with Tatar’s. The pastor of the Baptist church we attended on Sunday was from Moldova.

With less than .20% evangelical Christians among the Mari, I felt privileged to be in the home of a Mari Christian family. Through rough translation we learned the eldest brother (center) came to the Lord first, who in-turn led his brothers (our host, left). While the church worldwide spends a lot of energy on programs the reality is that most people who come to Christ through family lineage and friends.

Crossing cultural boundaries in presenting the Gospel is a study of people groups. Through my partnership with Craig Ludrick and CLDI we are making in-roads in facilitating the church in understanding that the Great Commission is not just to the nations, but to every ta ethne groups in the world.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

People Group Thinking: Dividing The Church?

In last weeks discussion with pastors in southern Russia I was confronted again with the sticky issue of people group thinking. I feel strongly in what Donald McGavran stated three decades ago that, “People will not easily cross cultures to hear the Gospel.” So when I talked to the Russian and Ukrainian pastors about doing outreach exclusively among the Tatar, Chuvas or Mari there was an almost immediate negative reaction. Of course, this was not the first time I heard such protests; it’s a common disagreement in my class. The argument is that the church should not be divided and that, indeed, to divide people among ethnic lines not only borders on prejudice but also is anathema to the unity of the Body of Christ.

It takes me several hours to explain my reasoning of outreach to specific people groups. I am not advocating dividing the church, but I am making an appeal that, before conversion, people naturally associate with people of their same ilk. Even after conversion human beings like to be with their own kind. I call it the “birds of a feather flock together” effect. Even in the conference last week I used the diverse group in attendance as an example. I pointed out that during breaks or over lunch usually, not always, Russians gather around other Russians, Ukrainians sit with other people from their own country and, yes, Americans sit around the same table. We don’t exclude people from sitting with our own kind; we just are more comfortable being around people who share a human commonality.

If there is a cultural barrier in a city or town, and believe me there is in every place on planet earth, people who are not yet followers of Christ Jesus will have a very difficult time crossing into a social environment of people who are not like them. This, I found out this past week, is certainly true among the Tatar’s, a culturally Muslim population in the Volga region of Russia. There is a long and sad history between the Tatar and Russian’s. Ivan the Terrible, the Czar of Russia who lived in the mid-1500’s, was brutal in his reign against the Tatar’s, forcing Christianity on them by the point of a sword. Though many of the Tatar are secular and do not practice their faith the words “crucifix” and “baptism” are expressions of deep emotional offense. Even the best Russian Christian has a difficult time winning over the cultural barrier of history.

Thus, my suggestion that, rather than trying to bring Tatar’s into a Russian assembly, they should find ways of outreach which will make it easier for them to hear the Gospel. In my short time with the pastors I learned also that Ukrainian’s working among the Tatar has a more favorable audience than Russians, though they, too, must steer clear of the offensive language of the cross.

I am not at all sure that I convinced many of the importance of reaching people of other cultures on their own terms. Christianity has a long history of having only one model of doing church; meeting collectively on Sunday and supposing that anyone and everyone is welcome to attend. And, even though I know that is God’s great design for those who follow Him, I still maintain that humanity will not easily cross cultural boundaries to hear the Gospel. I am not proposing we divide the church, but I am suggesting that we understand culture and its implications as we tell those outside His marvelous grace.