Missions in the Post-Communist Context
Hampered by the Handicapped Child Mentality
An Anonymous Contribution from Eastern Europe
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s, American Christians have been fascinated by the new mission field in Central and Eastern Europe. These countries have experienced spiritual revival, yet the needs there are noticeable and many. The response of our American brothers and sisters has been to reach out and lend a helping hand in any way possible. Since almost ten years have passed, it is time to evaluate these efforts, presenting some of the assets and liabilities of American approaches to supporting its family in Christ in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Two Models for East-West Ministry Relations
This article will present a very limited scope of issues involved in foreign support in one church in one country in Eastern Europe. It is likely a similar case can be made for other countries which are struggling to find their way in the post-Soviet era. Generally, missionaries and foreign supporters follow one or the other of the following models. In the first model, local leadership is not considered trustworthy. Foreigners bring their own resources, their own people, and pretty much do their own thing with little or no cooperation with the local church. This type of colonialism certainly is unhealthy and proves unfruitful in the long run. In the second model, a healthy relationship exists between the supporter and the supported. East-West partners discuss and evaluate plans together in a spirit of mutual respect and great sensitivity. A well-functioning accountability system helps make the ministry effective. This model of partnership has proven to be the most helpful and fruitful option available in the long run.
And a Third Model
Yet there is more. A third model I have observed is based on reverence for survivors of Soviet persecution to such a degree that Western support becomes almost indiscriminate. Americans want to do everything possible to make our long-buried dreams come true. Unfortunately, little or no accountability can lead to inefficient use and even misappropriation of funds. Nevertheless, financial supporters prefer to stand by rather than interfere in any way. While noninterference is a noble idea, beautiful ideals do not always match painful realities. This uncritical approach to support is the subject of this article.
European people have a rich cultural heritage which can become grounds for national pride, self-sufficiency, and confidence that can easily lead to arrogance. We think we have all the answers; the only problem seems to be the missing financial resources. With the growing materialism of secular culture, the ultimate solution seems to be more resources and bigger churches, in order to impress the world around us. Since that is the "vision" of the "faithful," nobody dares object, though some building projects seem too ambitious and fanciful, hardly compatible with the small number of worshippers and their ineffective ministry. Perhaps the greatest needs in our context are fresh vision from God and hearts prepared to follow His leading.
The Handicapped Child Mentality
Western supporters sometimes succumb to the temptation of providing formerly persecuted churches with funds the way some parents tend to indulge a handicapped child. Oftentimes, children who suffer from a physical defect grow up socially handicapped as well, just because their parents love them…too much! If one child is suffering or has suffered more than others, surely that child should get the best presents and the most expensive toys. And parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make this child the happiest person in the world. Often, however, the parents’ efforts just lead to bigger and better toys, which never completely satisfy the child. In many ways, that is what seems to have happened to some churches, with foreigners doing their best to support the local leadership.
Fostering Integrity or Perpetuating Paternalism
The word accountability has already been mentioned in connection with the partnership model. In drawing the fine line between accountability that fosters integrity, and control that perpetuates paternalism, much depends on the context and the level of maturity of those giving and those receiving. Sometimes a lack of accountability can lead to becoming socially handicapped. Decades of Soviet rule have left us with the heritage of doing business the Soviet way. I remember feeling shocked years ago in a Western school where I had to pay for every single sheet of paper—why? Office supplies had always been "free." Likewise, it didn’t hurt to bring something home from your factory because everything was "shared." Similarly, working on the job was not essential; the main thing was to be present. Furtively, the same attitudes have permeated the church unnoticed. For example, the church often tolerates a lax attitude towards finances: "Oh well, the main thing is that people get helped." Or, "As long as it is done in love with good intentions, it does not really matter that a few rules are bent here and there." Ironically, the secular world around us has dealt with these "legacies," naming them for what they are. Yet some churches still stand as bad examples of the "old ways."
The church in Eastern Europe still seems to view the Western world, and especially America, as the "dreamland come true." It seems to be a place where money grows on trees, where people do not quite know what to do with their wealth. The daily struggles of average Americans, much less Americans living in poverty, just do not make sense to us. It is not surprising, however, for the only homes many of us usually see as church visitors from overseas are the fancier ones—with swimming pools in the backyard, computers everywhere, you name it! It seems so easy for such people to give. Probably, in the back of our minds there is the consolation: If I can ever get THAT rich, I will start giving as well. An appalling discovery was recently made by a fellow countryman. Visiting the not-so-rich people in a church in another country who had given a million dollars, he realized: If we could ever get our people who are financially on the same level to give in the same way, the sky is the limit!
Reading and Misreading Another’s Faith
Closely connected is the delicate issue of praise and admiration of our American friends. Americans come and admire our faith and commitment and trust in the Lord. Sometimes, however, this trust is little more than a refusal to take responsibility. Thus, saying "God will take care of everything" can cover up inadequate planning and initiative, rather than reflect deep conviction. At the same time, Americans downplay their own faith and commitment, which in a free society may be an even greater challenge to maintain. Unfortunately, our people tend to take these comments at face value, failing to recognize the deep spiritual ways of many American Christians. It is impressive how well many American churches are organized and administered, and how much time and effort is devoted to seeking God’s leading. By sharing these skills and experiences, the church in America could help us, thus providing the fishing rod rather than the fish.
In conclusion, I would like to thank our American brothers and sisters for their unconditional love and commitment to us. I am deeply humbled to realize that sometimes our little "innocent" games and unconscious schemes are seen through, yet the commitment continues. I would only like to encourage our Western supporters, on the one hand, to trust local leadership to make responsible choices, yet, on the other hand, to provide leadership and accountability systems with great sensitivity and respect. In doing so they will be acting as responsible parents so that the once-handicapped children will finally be able to get up and walk on their own.
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© 1998 Institute for East-West Christian Studies