What does "sustainability" mean in terms of world evangelism?
Sustainability is discussed in fields like agriculture, business, fishing, and forestry, as well as Christian missionary activity. To be sure, what sustainability involves will vary somewhat from field to field. However, at the core of sustainability is the idea of productivity and long-term viability.
Regarding world evangelism, a key indicator of sustainability is that churches and ministries are supported locally without expecting subsidies from faraway places to stream 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 initially embrace a sustainability pattern. In other 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 with ups and downs and hiccups.
Today, one missionary responsibility is fostering a culture of sustainability. That has not been true in all world evangelism efforts. For instance, in earlier decades, home-based supporters back home frequently assumed that foreign missionaries would start churches for which missionaries would serve as 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 or sustained long term.
Leaders must insist churches and ministries look to God and to their communities for resources and solutions rather than assuming they should be 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 a subsidy 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."
This 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.
Sustainability is essential for the long-term viability and effectiveness of church-planting movements. Sustainability means involves moving away from external subsidies while emphasizing empowerment and resiliency grounded in local communities. To avoid postmodern colonialism, leaders must encourage a self-reliance that accepts outside resources only to develop capacity. Creating a culture of sustainability will lead to healthier and more effective disciple-making churches and ministries.