Fostering Sustainability

What does "sustainability" mean in terms of world evangelism?

Mission Briefing: Ideas that shape world mission outreach today

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."

Discussion questions

  1. What are some challenges and potential benefits of moving away from models of external subsidy and towards self-sufficiency in churches and ministries? How can leaders manage this transition effectively?
  2. How can world missions leaders avoid falling into the trap of postmodern colonialism? What are the potential negative consequences of relying too heavily on external resources and expertise?
  3. Why might fostering a culture of sustainability in world evangelism lead to healthier and more effective disciple-making churches and ministries in the long run?
  4. In what ways does sustainability in world evangelism imply more than financial resources? What other factors should leaders consider to achieve the goal of sustainability?
  5. In what situations might reliance on external subsidies be necessary for church-planting movements in places where the church is not yet established? How can outside resources be best used to judiciously support sustainability?
    -- Howard Culbertson,

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.

Unintended consequences

"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.

Two years later a message from Guyana arrived at the North American church. It said:     'The roof on your church building is leaking. Please come and fix it.'

"In this case, a short-term missions trip group had ignored the need for ensuring psychological 'ownership' when doing cross-cultural ministry.

"In West Africa, a young volunteer worked with a congregation alongside a medical doctor/church planter missionary. That missionary had been encouraging the local church to increase their awareness of world missions and evangelism. He was elated to hear from the local pastor that their annual missions offering had increased from forty-five dollars to sixty-one dollars. That step caused rejoicing on the local scene. It also motivated that particular church to set about to plant another church some kilometers away.

"At that point, the young volunteer from America, feeling pity for the local pastor and his congregation, sacrificially gave $6,800 -- out of the goodness of her heart -- to build them a new church building. One immediate result of that gift was that the local pastor took his eyes off what his people had accomplished. He began to ask where he could find more of that kind of money. The missionary was devastated as he saw his efforts at promoting local self-support go down the drain.

"If short-termers can learn the importance of being rather than doing, great good can be accomplished."

   -- Glenn J. Schwartz of World Mission Associates

Afterword

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.

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