AMERICAN CONGREGATIONS send more than money overseas, missions experts say. Dollars and doctrine can have destructive effects on young churches.
The divisions also hinder church work, said Dick Stephens, who coordinates medical and relief ministries in Malawi.
“All of this is going on while people are starving to death, babies are dying of malnutrition … villages are not hearing the gospel and Muslims are trying to make deep inroads in Africa,” Stephens said.
The problem affects members in far-flung mission fields and members in the back pews of U.S. churches, said Ken Beckloff, an Oklahoma minister and former missionary to Kenya.
“We all live in a world where divisions from long ago have been ‘exported’ to our own time,” Beckloff said. “We always need to be working to overcome artificial divisions and focus on following Jesus.”
SOWING DISCORD OR SHOWING LOVE?
Few missionaries set out to split churches, said Ken Hines, a former missionary to Ecuador. Most seek only to preach the Gospel.
“My view is that they are good people who love the Lord,” Hines said, but young churches in Ecuador have suffered from their “criticize-and-debate approach to ministry.”
Oji O. Oji, a minister in Lagos, Nigeria, said that a visiting minister created tension among church members earlier this year when he spoke against the practice of supporting church institutions.
Keith Sharp, of the Tri-County church in Black River, N.Y., quoted Scriptures and focused on preserving the autonomy of individual churches. “We all agreed with him,” Oji said.
Sharp told the congregation that any organization that accepts contributions from churches — including a television program some Nigerians were putting together — could deprive those churches of their autonomy.
“He is succeeding in polarizing our brethren — those who agree with him and those who disagree,” Oji said.
Sharp told the Chronicle that his goal in Nigeria was “not to cause confusion or division, but to call brethren to the unity of the Spirit based on the one faith.” Many ministers in Nigeria share his convictions and have preached them since before he came to Nigeria, Sharp said.
His church is one of about 2,000 in the United States often classified as “non-institutional.” The churches oppose church support of institutions and the sponsoring church concept for missions.
When churches divide over the issue of institutionalism, “the cause of division is not the criticism of the practices, but the practices themselves,” said Stan Cox, minister for the West Side church in Fort Worth, Texas. Members of the non-institutional congregation support mission work in India.
Oji criticized the workers for focusing on existing churches “instead of starting new churches of their own.” Cox said that he and other non-institutional members are acting out of love and concern for brothers and sisters they believe are in error. He does the same “for those who have never darkened the door of a church building.”
“We see what we perceive to be sin, and so we call brethren to repentance,” Cox said. “That is why we do what we do. … We care for their souls.”
MANY ISSUES, MANY SOURCES
Institutionalism is one of many potentially divisive issues faced by mission churches. Jerry Ervin, a church member from Mississippi, said that missionaries who take doctrinal disagreements to the field have contributed to the collapse of churches in Venezuela.
Ervin visited a young congregation in the South American country a few years ago. “There were about 30 Christians there, all with great enthusiasm,” he said. “Their group was growing.”
When he returned a year later and asked a Venezuelan minister about the congregation, Ervin learned that visiting church member had told the church that only one translation of the Bible was acceptable and that women should have their heads covered during worship.
“There was division and eventually hard feelings,” Ervin said. “The church has disbanded and no longer meets in that city of 100,000.”
In India, the practice of women covering their heads while praying predates the arrival of Churches of Christ, said missionary Ken Grimm. A U.S. church member contributed to division recently by teaching that such practices are heretical, Grimm said.
Division doesn’t always originate from outside the congregation, said Randy Short, missionary in Recife, Brazil. Some missionaries, after years on the field, change their views on church practices or “go public” with views they’ve kept hidden.
“I suppose that courage is coming because of the changes taking place in churches in the United States,” Short said. “It certainly did not originate here.”
A COMPLEX MATTER FOR U.S. CHURCHES
In Malawi, some church members estimate that it could take a generation to heal the division in their country.
“I personally do not believe that,” Nkhonjera said, adding that the best remedy for division is “perpetual teaching of the word of God.”
In Nicaragua, like many countries, issues of money and control are intertwined with the threat of division, said Mike Lechuga, outreach minister for the Edgemere church in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Some ministers in the Central American nation embrace the convictions of their U.S. supporters, even if they don’t share — or even fully understand — those convictions, Lechuga said.
“They believe —sometimes quite rightly — that if they clash or oppose their sponsors, then their support will end,” he said.
Members of the Edgemere church are struggling with the issue and praying for guidance as they consider the best ways to support the work in Nicaragua.
It’s a complicated issue, Lechuga said, because “our missionaries mirror the divisions and factions within the Church of Christ here in America — and how are we going to fix that?”
Oct. 1, 2006