Missionaries were sent forth into a poor country where few people knew of the salvation made possible through the blood of Jesus shed at Calvary. They went with much zeal and enthusiasm and had no trouble finding people who wanted to hear the gospel. Before long they had gathered many converts. In fact, it seemed the hunger for the gospel was beyond their ability to satisfy. A call went back to the home church for more missionaries to go to other areas of this country where people were crying to hear the gospel story.
This was a poor country with so many needs. Farming methods were primitive, jobs were scarce, most people were illiterate, they could not afford health care. So the missionaries asked the home church to help these poor people. They bought land and established model farms to teach better faming methods, they helped poor people start farming, they built schools and health care facilities, set up a printing press to produce Christian literature in the language of the country. Some members found employment in these facilities, which were run pretty much according to the standards of the missionaries’ home country.
The mission flourished, small congregations were established in many places, eventually a few ministers were ordained and the number of members increased rapidly. Sometimes the work of the ministry seemed too much for the meagre resources of the minister, so the mission provided financial help.
After many years, a disturbing trend began to be noticed. Baptisms were as numerous as ever, but now the number of people leaving the church was greater than the number coming in. Dozens of missionaries were in locations across the country and they all laboured valiantly to prevent the losses. Yet people continued to leave. Eventually the truth began to sink in; the material help being given was undermining the goal of creating a self-sustaining indigenous church. People had grown accustomed to being helped by the foreign missionaries and had no idea that they really should be helping each other. Everything that needed to be done was done by the missionaries or under their supervision.
Missionaries went to another country, even poorer than the first. They understood that they were sent to bring the gospel, not the attitudes and way of life of their home country. As congregations began to develop, the members were encouraged to help each other. If there were needs that were beyond their ability, the missionary might give a little money to the church and let the local leaders determine how to use it. The missionary left it up to the members to decide whether converts were ready for baptism. When a convert meeting was held, the members questioned the converts much more closely than the missionary had. Sometimes the missionary had been confident that an individual was ready for baptism, but the members felt it would be best to wait a little longer. The missionary soon realized they were aware of something in this person’s life that he had missed.
The home church felt compassion for the poverty of this country and began material aid projects. Well drilling and other projects were done for the benefit of the whole community. Food aid, when it was needed, was distributed without favouring the members. The church grew in numbers, ministers and deacons were ordained and the missionaries withdrew from those congregations. The congregations established their own mission committee and sent out their own missionaries with the little means that they could scrape together. Eventually the foreign mission board withdrew altogether from the country, recognizing the maturity of the native church. There are still occasions where missionaries come from another country, but they are supported by their home congregation and work under the direction of the native mission committee.
Sometimes a minister from this country will be called to go to a congregation in the countries where the missionaries came from in the beginning to preach in revival meetings. It is evident that they have the same faith, the same vision and the same spiritual maturity as the brothers and sisters in other countries.
As for the first country mentioned, there are not nearly as many missionaries anymore, the church continued to shrink until only the truly committed Christians were left. It has slowly begun to grow again, this time on the initiative of the native brethren rather than the patronage of the foreign mission board.
[This tale is a composite of the history of mission activities in many lands. I have condensed it to two countries for the sake of making a point. It could perhaps be called an allegory. There is no country where missionaries have done everything wrong and no country where they have done everything right. We have learned that no lasting benefit is provided by rushing in to help with our superior resources and knowledge and thereby rob the local people of the ability to help themselves and each other. We are learning also that it is possible to do mission work in settings where our resources and knowledge are not superior to those of the local people.]