An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

Those of us who live in centers of political and financial power can, through simple neighborly actions – writing a letter to a national newspaper, buying shares in a corporation so that one can attend the annual general meeting and raise questions about that corporation’s global practices, organizing a peaceful public protest and so on – have a real influence on what is happening elsewhere in the world. The actions would express our solidarity with those we call our “family” in the world church. In our interconnected world, what we do – or fail to do – in our back yard can have ramifications, for good or ill, in remote places.

This is so glaringly obvious, and I am surprised at the resistance this suggestion often evokes. Cries of “We are powerless” greet my suggestion at international conferences. I can understand if these cries emanate from those living in, say, Pakistan or Burma. But, no, they are from people who have access to an open media, free internet services, and who can personally visit the politicians whom they voted into power.

It is troubling that mission has been reduced to what we (the relatively well-off) do in other cultures and places, and does not seem to apply to what the poor can do for us and what we can do for them where we are. Those who live in the  poorer South are constantly at the receiving end of “packaged” gospels, discipleship courses, leadership seminars, church-growth gurus, even sermons and “worship” DVDs from rich churches abroad. The latter have no desire to learn from others and, ironically, have little impact in their own societies. There is no shortage of local people who volunteer to be appointed as the “national representatives” of these churches and organizations from the North and to promote their subsidized wares.

I have no objection at all to sending people or money to support Christian ministry in other places. (Indeed, the notion of “self-supporting” churches is not a biblical notion at all.) But the important questions to address are: Who makes the decisions? And do those who come from abroad work alongside and even under the leadership of local people? This morning I listened to somebody working in rural India, supported by a wealthy Singaporean church. He poured out his frustration with the mission board of the church, who can only see the medical work that he and his wife are doing as a prelude to “church-planting.” They have no understanding of the religious and political sensibilities of the situation, nor are they willing to unlearn the theology of mission they have uncritically absorbed from popular Northern authors.

As an author myself, I am particularly disturbed by the fact that it is “fundamentalist” literature that floods into our churches from abroad. At the risk of sounding vain, my own books are all published in the United States and the United Kingdom, receive excellent reviews and are freely available in the English-speaking world. And yet I don’t know anybody, even in the organization with which I work, who actively promotes these books – and others written by African, Asian or Latin-American authors – among churches in their countries. In this regard, the American Catholic publishing house, Orbis, has been exemplary in promoting Southern authors and their writings to Christian churches and seminaries in the North.

Money has a way of skewing relationships, setting agendas and defining priorities – whether in Christian conferences, theological colleges or “mission programs.” When my wife and I spoke on the themes of justice and reconciliation at a gathering of Asian-American staff of InterVarsity (USA) a few years ago, a Chinese-American told us: “We are convinced by everything you say, but if we start doing and saying these things, our churches will stop supporting us.” He was being admirably honest. But that kind of honesty is rare, sadly.

“Partnership” has been a buzzword in contemporary evangelical circles, but cynics will say that it is simply a disguise for neocolonial mission. Like “development” and “empowerment,” the gulf between the rhetoric and actual practice is enormous. Foreign organizations divert people as well as funds away from locally initiated projects and ministries, which have much lower overheads. But, more important, there is no ownership of these foreign programs by local believers let alone by the poor themselves. Local staff are disempowered; they are merely the people who implement the programs started and funded by foreigners.

We have spoken with many Christian leaders in the South whose attitude is “We can’t change them, so let’s join them.” They have become adept at giving rich donors what they want – writing attractive project proposals has become an art form that many local people are now expert in. The problem is that what is “sexy” to donors in the U.S is often far removed from the real needs in the countries concerned. That some American donors may want to be educated does not seem to register on the thinking of local leaders.

So, what would I like to see as authentic expressions of global partnership (in addition to what I said in the opening paragraph)? (a) I am biased about books, so I want to see Christians in the North doing much more toward reading and then promoting authors from the South; and (b) Christians taking the effort to find out which local organization or individual is already working (with their own limited resources) on something that they feel especially burdened about. Ask them what they need to do their work even better; and what, if anything, you can do to help. But please don’t turn up in the South with a pot of money and invite people to use it for your projects. You will find plenty of takers. But it will scuttle the integrity and witness of the church.

Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog.

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