In recent years, there has been a trend for some missions supporters and churches in the West to move away from sending their own missionaries in favor of supporting “native missionaries.” The logic goes something like this: “Why pay $60,000/year or more to support a family of American missionaries who will struggle to learn language and culture when you can support a native missionary who knows the language and culture already for $50/month?” At first glance this seems like a great idea. And in some places it might be. But there are other factors at play when deciding to support a missionary from your home country or someone more “local.”
The historical, cultural, religious, and economic situation varies greatly from country to county and not all non-Western nations can be lumped together when evaluating whether foreign missionaries are still need. In this post, I want to look at several questions that can help us evaluate whether missionaries are really needed (or wanted) in a given location. I will use Thailand as a case study since it is the context that I am most familiar with.
1) Can the Local Church(es) Carry On Without Missionaries?
A rule of thumb for foreign missionaries is that if there are local people who can do the job, then it is time for the missionary to move on to someplace else. In the case of Thailand, if all the foreign missionaries went home tomorrow, would the churches in Thailand be able to carry on by themselves? Absolutely, they would. As of May 2014, there are more than 400,000 Thai or tribal Protestant believers in Thailand, and over 5,000 churches (see stats). There are numerous viable Thai-led, largely Thai-funded Protestant denominations. So in one sense, foreign missionaries are not needed anymore in Thailand. If they all left, the church would go on without them. In any location where the church(es) are able to take care of their own finances, train their own leaders, and evangelize their own people, there may be a good case for phasing out foreign missionaries or finding a new role for them.
2) Are There Enough Local Evangelists and Leaders?
While it may be that churches are growing and taking care of themselves in a given country or people group, Christians might still only make up a tiny percentage of the overall population. In Thailand, Protestants only make up 0.6% of the entire population of 66 million people. Even if you wanted to add in Catholics, you’d still only be up to 1% or so of the whole population. Thailand is divided into 77 provinces, which are then divided into districts and sub-districts. 62% of all the sub-districts in Thailand have no church of any kind. Those churchless subdistricts have a population of about 38 million people (see stats). That is 38 million people without any local church to check out and learn about the Gospel. So how are we going to reach those people with the Gospel?
It is sometimes claimed that “native missionaries” are the solution. The era of foreign missionaries is over, it is said, and (mostly Western) missions supporters should make the financially and strategically sound decision to support so-called native missionaries instead of expensive Westerners. So where are all those “native missionaries” for us to fund and send out? Maybe other places are different, but Thailand has no army of native Thai evangelists and church planters sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for Westerner dollars so that they can go out there and plant churches. Only about half of the existing 5000 or so churches in Thailand have a full-time Christian worker of any sort, and it is hard to find anybody (Thai, tribal, or foreign) to go plant churches in all the places that need them. Therefore, when there are not enough local people to get the job done in the places where work is needed, a strong case can be made for foreign workers to come and help.
3) Do the Local Church(es) Still Want Missionaries?
Unfortunately, missionaries are not always wanted in all the places that they go, even by the Christians who are there. And even if missionaries are wanted, local Christians may have different ideas than the missionaries themselves as to what they should do. During World War 2, all the missionaries had to leave Thailand and the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) was completely on its own for the first time. Many Thai church leaders rose to the occasion and cared for their flocks even as their church buildings were seized by the Japanese and public worship banned. After the war, many of the missionaries came back and took up their old leadership roles. But the problem was that the Thai church leaders didn’t want missionaries to do that anymore. They wanted co-workers, not bosses. It took more than a decade, but eventually the missionaries got the message and the American Presbyterian Mission decided to dissolve itself, and put its missionary workers under the leadership of the Thai church leaders.
In Thailand today, there are both more established churches (like the CCT, for example) and less established churches. There are many small churches and mission groups, both Thai and foreign, with plenty of work for everyone to do. The majority of Thai church leaders are happy to have missionaries in the country, but they want them as friends and co-workers. They want them to fill the gaps in places where Thai churches lack sufficient personnel to get the job done. Sometimes that means new church planting alone, or with Thai co-workers. Sometimes that means assisting in specialized areas such as theological eduction, student ministry, or publishing.
While it may be tempting to dump foreign missionaries in favor of native missionaries (or evangelists), we need to listen to what the local churches are saying. In Thailand, Thai churches still want missionaries to come help in various capacities, so we should listen to and respect their views.
4) Does Funding “Native Missionaries” Undercut the Local Church?
The local church is the place where Christians are discipled and raised up to be leaders. Schools and parachurch organizations can help, but Christians are responsible and accountable to their local church. And local churches are responsible for supporting evangelists and missionaries in both their local community and among the nations. With that in mind, imagine that your church is deciding whether to support a man and his family to go out and do church planting somewhere. You have a good relationship with them and want to be involved in their work, although it will take dedication and some financial sacrifice to make this happen. But as the mission committee is deciding on how much to contribute to their support, he announces that a foreign donor that he has never met is going to fund their work at 100%. In a sense, this is great. He can go off and do the work. But in another sense, a disconnect is created between his source of accountability and his source of funding. And maybe you think to yourself, “What was the point of making financial sacrifices if some outsider is just going to parachute in and fully fund it?” The next time that your church wants to send out a missionary, would you put in the effort to figure out how to help him... or just wait and hope that some mysterious funding source from abroad appears out of nowhere? Now if we put this situation in a non-Western context, and add in the history of colonialism and paternalism, I hope that you can see how Western funding of native missionaries might create problems.
I have briefly answered the questions above largely in relation to Thailand, but each of these could be asked of any location. Does India need missionaries from North America? Does North America need missionaries from Africa? Does the Middle East need missionaries from China? Does Europe need missionaries from Latin America? Maybe yes, and maybe no. The answer is more complicated than simply asking who is less expensive to support.