Question and Answer
Spiritual and Diaconal Missions
How does the OPC reconcile economic and spiritual ministry in the field, especially in light of "fake Christians" who come for the worldly benefits?
I am familiar with this real problem as a missionary to Uganda where the OPC has two mission stations. James 2:15-16 (as well, of course, as many other passages) teaches that we must demonstrate Christ's love financially as well as spiritually. In trying to faithfully follow our Lord in the mission field, there are three principles by which we try to be directed.
First, 2 Thessalonians 3:10—"if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." The financial assistance we offer is primarily geared toward helping people to provide for themselves (micro-enterprise loans, vocational training, etc.).
Second, our primary goal is to help establish the indigenous church as the "go-to" party in the individual Christian's life (as opposed to the missionary). This drives our general ministry goals—we train pastors, elders, and deacons to do the work of the ministry rather than pastoring congregations ourselves. In the area of economic assistance, this means that we try to work through the individual's pastoral leadership. In a cross-cultural situation, we simply aren't aware of all the resources that a person must access to handle a financial need—how to approach the clan, the procedures for going through the LC system (Local Commissioner), etc. These are things that the brothers and sisters here know well, and the pastoral leadership can guide the person through the proper procedures and weed out a good 90 percent of the financial problems. Generally, people approach the American missionary because he has all the money, and it allows the person to avoid conflicts within the clan or community.
Third, we try to keep the spiritual ministry at the forefront of our presence in two ways. First, we don't provide large amounts of assistance to people that we are developing a relationship with. We try to keep the focus on the spiritual ministry, and then after a period of time are more open to financial requests. The goal is to weed out those who are simply "in it for the money"—if it takes a long period of time to get hold of the cash, they become discouraged and leave, and the ones who remain are (generally) the ones who are truly interested in the spiritual ministry. Second, we first offer small loans and see whether or not the individual is trustworthy to repay those small amounts before going on to larger loans.
In all of these principles, we are daily crying out to Christ for wisdom and strength. This is a very pressing problem in engaging in ministry in the third world, and there are always exceptions that need to be made. For example, the AIDS patient who is born again and needs immediate assistance with medications. Should we assist and then run the real risk of the church being seen as a "free AIDS clinic" and setting up financial burdens which the indigenous church can never support, or should we hold the line and say "until you have gone through a 6-month membership class, you will not be eligible for any financial assistance" and place ourselves in the position of watching a new believer die because he or she hasn't dotted our "i's" and crossed our "t's". Each individual case is an opportunity for prayer, counseling, and teaching, and each one brings with it effects that will resonate for years through the church and community. We would certainly appreciate your prayers that we would be faithful vessels of Christ's mercy (both spiritual and physical), would be strengthened in our labors here, and would be a strengthening influence in the African church.
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