What does "sustainability" mean in terms of world evangelism?
Sustainability is talked about in fields like agriculture, business, fishing and forestry as well as in Christian missionary activity. To be sure, what sustainability involves will vary somewhat from field to field. However, the core idea is the presence of productivity and long-term viability.
In terms of world evangelism, a key indicator of sustainability is that churches and ministries are supported locally without an expectation that resources from faraway places will be streaming in.
In conversations about sustainability, "resources" means more than finances. There's no doubt that looking at funding is important in assessing sustainability. However, sustainability involves more than who pays the bills. It also involves things like:
Clearly, the topic of sustainability fits in perfectly with discussions of topics like contextualization and the "three selfs."
In some cases, churches and ministries embrace a sustainability pattern from the start. In situations where reliance on external subsidies has been part of the equation, moving away from that model may not be an immediate destination. Rather, it may be more of a journey.
Today, one missionary responsibility is that of fostering a culture of sustainability. That has not been true in all world evangelism efforts. For instance, in earlier decades, home-base supporters frequently assumed that foreign missionaries were going to start churches of which they would become the pastors. Because those foreign pastors were not supported locally and, furthermore, brought in outside resources to subsidize various initiatives, it is not a model that can be infinitely duplicated and sustained long term.
Leaders must insist that churches and ministries look to God and to their own communities for resources and solutions rather than assuming they should be he perpetual recipients of what outsiders can do for them. For sustainability to be achieved, what has been called postmodern colonialism must be avoided. In a postmodern colonialist context, outsiders are celebrated as superheroes whose help has "saved the day." Outsiders are lauded as "experts" whose opinions override everyone else's. That is not a positive thing.
Does aiming at sustainability mean that all outside resources will be shunned? No. However, they must be used sparingly and judiciously.
Does sustainability mean believers need not give sacrificially to world evangelism? No. Outside help is often necessary if we are to foster church-planting movements in those places "where the church is not yet". Outside resources can also be helpful in developing and expanding capacity (as opposed to being subsidies proving for basic expenses).
Embracing sustainability increases the likelihood of having healthy, disciple-making churches and ministries where believers give birth to new churches and ministries, take responsibility for them, resource them and lead them. Following patterns of sustainability will do much to move the global church toward fulfilling its mission of "making Christlike disciples in the nations."
-- Howard Culbertson
This 500-word mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage magazine.
Does the way we do short-term mission trips actually create obstacles on the road to sustainability? Check out these thoughts about negative "unintended consequences" from Glenn Schwartz.
"A group of young people went from
North America to Guyana (South America) where they built a church in three weeks. They
joyfully presented the new church building to the people and returned home.
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