TUBUNGU, Swaziland — Christians in the U.S. who provide salaries for African preachers believe they are doing the right thing.
“But unknown to them, they’re slowly assassinating congregations,” Stanley Shereni says.
Shereni, a native of Zimbabwe, is in his third year at African Christian College in this tiny African kingdom. After a day of classes, he and two other students sit under a thatched-roof pavilion and share big dreams.
Shereni and Ruregerero Nyahore, another Zimbawean, want to launch a publication for churches in their home country, to inspire them to keep growing.
Zimbabweans “don’t just want entertainment,” Nyahore says. “They want something that can comfort them, counsel them and give them direction. I think that is … why we have come to further our education.”
But preachers here aren’t guaranteed a living. Moses K. Banda, a 22-year-old student from Malawi, says that almost no congregations in his homeland support full-time ministers. After graduation, preaching alone won’t pay his bills.
The same is true in Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous nation crippled by hyperinflation. People there “now need the Gospel more than ever,” Shereni says.
The three students could appeal to Christians in the U.S. for support. Many of their predecessors have. But, growing up in Churches of Christ, the students have seen foreign aid bless — and curse — the family of God in southern Africa.
When a preacher receives his salary from the U.S., he is tempted to answer only to the source of his support — not the African congregation he serves, Shereni says.
Without proper oversight, it also is easy for evangelists to falsify reports to their supporters.
“We are not saying, ‘Stop supporting us,’” he adds. Instead, he suggests that U.S. and African churches form project-driven partnerships that involve entire congregations.
“Members of the church are the stakeholders,” Nyahore says. “They have fascinating ideas that can help improve the church. But, because they don’t have access to communication with some people who can help, they go nowhere.” WHEN THE BOSS IS OVERSEAS
In the past century, mission efforts and Bible correspondence programs have yielded thousands of baptisms in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the continent is home to more Churches of Christ than the U.S.
In such a Christian-rich environment, hiring local evangelists makes more financial sense to many U.S. churches than sending missionaries — especially in the midst of an economic downturn. Supporting African ministers also helps alleviate poverty.
“If you can’t eat, you can’t tell the people that God is able (while) you are suffering,” said Julius Mwambu, an evangelist in Mombasa, Kenya. Mwambu receives support from the U.S., but it is funneled through a ministry overseen by Kenyans.
Across the continent, foreign aid is a fact of life, Mwambu said.
“The Muslims from the Middle East are pumping lots of money into Africa for their religion to spread,” he added.
Funds from the U.S. can help African churches reach the lost, said Charles Ngoje, missions director for Winyo Christian Academy in Kenya. But money also can create disunity and lead to abuse, he said.
“It is common sense that someone will do a better job if his boss were around,” Ngoje said. “A situation in which one’s boss is thousands of miles away — in distance, world view, culture — is not an effective arrangement.”
But Ngoje noted that, in some cases, African church leaders who answer only to their foreign benefactors are mimicking the behavior of their American predecessors.
Ngoje remembers a meeting when African church leaders asked a foreign missionary how he was spending his time.
The missionary replied that he was answerable only to the people who sent him, Ngoje said. A GAP BETWEEN PULPIT AND PEW
In Kenya, foreign money is one factor that has contributed to “a big discrepancy between the African clergy and the flock,” said Ronald Wasilwa.
Wasilwa works for a non-governmental organization and preaches in Kitale, Kenya.
He cited a survey conducted by a council of churches in his homeland of various Christian denominations. The study found that many evangelists enjoy a standard of living much higher than the churches they serve. As a result, religious leaders often have difficulty motivating their congregations to perform good works, Wasilwa said.
“In Africa, the pew and the pulpit live in two different worlds — and we are all to blame,” Wasilwa said. DOES FOREIGN AID STIFLE GIVING?
Dependency on U.S. dollars also can discourage African churches from contributing financially to benevolence, said Leonard Chumo Falex, a minister in Nairobi, Kenya.
When U.S. churches support works without contributions from African churches, “the African people are continually denied the opportunity to be blessed as givers,” Falex said.
African culture encourages people to share, even if they live in poverty, and the U.S. church often fails to “harness the beauty of a giving African spirit,” Falex said.
Because of dependence on American money, some rural African churches don’t practice sacrificial giving, said Fielden Allison, a longtime missionary in Kenya and instructor at African Christian College.
Allison informally surveyed Churches of Christ with about 40 members each and found that most collected the equivalent of one U.S. dollar each Sunday.
“That is an average of about 2.5 cents per person,” Allison said. “The same people drink several cups of tea per week (that) cost about 10 cents per cup.” Many pay tuition for their children and own cell phones.
“Will the African church be judged by God for their failure to give to support their own works?” he said. “Will Western churches be judged for enabling African churches to depend on outside help instead of shouldering their own responsibility? Tough questions need tough answers.” NEW MODELS, BUT RESPECT FOR OLD
The three students — Banda, Shereni and Nyahore — say they dream of a day when American and African churches can function as equal partners, identifying short-term projects and pooling funds to make them happen.
Sam Shewmaker, a longtime missionary in Africa, agrees that there is a need for “inter-cultural, church-to-church partnerships.”
“This will not be easy,” said Shewmaker, who lives in Kigali, Rwanda, and serves as African church-planting facilitator for Missions Resource Network. “It will take a humility and determination to build communication, understanding and trust … . But the payoff can be greater unity in the body of Christ and much more effectiveness in achieving God’s global mission.”
Though American money has created problems in African churches, South African evangelist Chris Burke warned against condemning the model of U.S. churches supporting missionaries in Africa.
Though not perfect, “it’s the model that effectively established the church in Africa,” Burke said.
“God used missionaries to accomplish great things, in spite of their normal, human shortcomings,” he said.
“We must not forget that there are trustworthy individuals who have been tried and tested and have (done) a great job with direct support from the U.S.,” he said. “The growth of the Kingdom is paramount and must not be jeopardized by paradigm shifts.
“Let the Holy Spirit lead willing supporters as to how best their donations can serve to bring a greater good to the missional need in Africa.”