A few years ago, I was attending a mission conference in the Los Angeles area. In one of the smaller sessions, a group of us began to discuss and debate one of the most important topics in missions today, 'foreign missionary vs national missionary'. A number of folks there were likely foreign missionaries themselves and it seemed that the majority of the people in the room seemed to favor sending foreign missionaries. 4 or 5 people spoke up and gave their 2 cents about their take on the subject, and I, of course, did what I could to give a voice to the voiceless in the room (the national missionaries who do about 90% of all pioneer evangelism). From there, the debate turned heated and we ended up hurling random pens and staplers at one another. Just kidding. The discussion lasted a brief time, but was healthy and done in good will.
During my drive home, I reflected on the issues raised and the problems that some of them had with supporting national missionaries. I then realized that some of us in the room were speaking past one another to some degree, like two ships sailing by one another in the night. While I was focused on supporting national missionaries in a format similar to Gospel for Asia, where they require financing at first, but go self-supporting once they have planted a few churches, they were thinking about national pastors who are often hired to take over churches that have been planted by foreign missionaries. In many cases, these national pastors will never go self-supporting. They simply maintain the ministry and activities that were active while the foreign missionaries were there. This just goes to prove that our opinions are shaped by our experiences. In regards to mission work, the opinions of the national workers is largely going to be defined by one's prior experiences with them. This results in some positive opinions of the national wokers and some negative opinions of the national workers.
In Reformation in Foreign Missions, Bob Finley describes how simply hiring national pastors can be a problem area. The reason it can often become a problem is because the foreign missionaries have first come and established a church that is highly Westernized. It has all the bells and whistles of a church one might see in the heartland of America. There will be pews, a pipe organ, nice dress, a stage, a foyer, a steeple, offering plates, communion paraphinalia, programs and classes for each age group, etc. When the foreign missionaries prepare to leave, they select a local believer to take over the ministry. Here's the problem: that new pastor is now expected to continue an elaborate ministry that cannot possibly be kept alive on the meager earnings of the local believers. In order to maintain all the bells and whistles and continue doing ministry in the same manner as the wealthy foreign missionaries, the church will forever be dependent upon the foreigners who have all the money. (This is a reason missionaries are now beginning to understand that the form of Christianity that should be brought to a new people, should be stripped of all excessive cultural traditions, so that the pure gospel can spread unhindered in a way that can be multiplied many times over.)
There can also be instances where the national pastors are just not the right caliber. They don't have the will to plant new churches. They don't want to go self-supporting, because quite frankly, it's easier to rely on support from the wealthy Americans. They've been receiving a very generous pay and for them to rely on the tithes of the locals would be a drastic decline in their income. In this case, I would argue that the mistake was made in the beginning when the foreign missionaries selected a national who was not up for the challenge.
So as you can see, a situation like this can get quite messy. Just hiring the local pastors can be a problematic area. So, if someone's experience with national workers is similar to these circumstances, it's obvious to see why the opinions of supporting national workers will be negative.
However, there is another method of supporting national workers. Gospel forAsia and Empart are two of the best examples of this form of missions. They support national missionaries, not national pastors. From the very beginning, the nationals are expected to go out and plant churches and go self-supporting. They are interviewed, vetted, trained, and sent out. The ministry leaders make sure the trainees are individuals desiring to reach their own people. During the whole process, the nationals are made aware that they will be going out to plant churches and go self-supporting. In these situations, there are no cumbersome bells, whistles, and cultural traditions that the national missionaries will have to carry with them to each church they plant. They don't even have to build a church building for each church they plant. They stick to the basics that can be multiplied everywhere – Bible, prayer, worship, outreach. It's often as simple as that. And you know what, when missionaries start out on this path, there is little resistance when the time comes for them to go self-supporting. It was expected of them all along and they did it. This is how agencies like Gospel for Asia and Empart operate.
Unlike those who have the experience of supporting national pastors indefinitely, those who have the experience of supporting national missionaries for a temporary time, generally have a very favorable opinion of it. Thus, there is going to be a discrepency in opinions when it comes to supporting national workers. The method you are familiar with will often dictate your opinion. This is why I have learned that when speaking on the subject of supporting nationals, it is very important to define precisely what method is being used and what are the parameters of the ministry.
This topic is discussed on pages 14 and 15 of Missions in the Third Millenium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century by Stan Guthrie.
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