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Sustaining Urban Poor Mission Movements

A Discussion Paper

“Servant Partners wants to initiate and contribute to church planting movements of vital reproducing cell-churches in cities around the world that transform lives and communities among the urban poor. We will place a special emphasis on preparing workers who will leave their own people or culture and serve another people or culture. We will seek to send cross-cultural workers from each new ministry and community we help to establish.”

As we strive to initiate and contribute to church planting movements among the urban poor and seek to send cross-cultural workers from each new ministry we help to establish, we will naturally confront a number of hurdles – including financing and sustainability issues.

Traditionally, missionary agencies throughout the world have been fund-raising driven, receiving financial backing from individual Christians and churches. While this is a legitimate methodology with a long track-record of supporting the world-wide mission movement, the model has a number of limitations.

Says Todd Johnson, Director of the Center for Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary: “Many Western cross-cultural missionaries who minister outside their countries of origin are of a middle or lower middle class background. Not many missionaries from the U.S. have come from an urban poor or inner city context. The same seems to be true for missionaries sent out from Africa, Latin America and Asia – though no formal research exists to back this claim.” Ted Limpic, Director of Research of COMIBAM, an umbrella organization for the Latin American missionary movement, tends to agree: “Generally, Latin missionaries are not likely to come from the urban poor classes. They have some degree of formal education and connections to the middle class. Though, with the Pentecostals now beginning to embrace their responsibility in world missions the tide might change, leading to an increase in the number of missionaries who are of an urban poor background.”

These anecdotal observations shouldn’t surprise us, given that the urban poor of the developed and developing world often come from churches that are in no position financially, to support one of their members for cross-cultural missions. They also lack connections to significant networks of middle class Christians who could support their missionary enterprise.

Another limitation of fund-raising driven mission models is their vulnerability to business cycle fluctuations. Says Limpic in a recent World Evangelical Fellowship publication: “Brazilian mission agencies cite ‘lack of financial support’ as the greatest single cause of missionary attrition. In a country which has struggled through the 1980s and early 1990s with economic instability and inflation rates which have hit 40% to 50% per month, this attrition is more than understandable.” A similar trend can be observed in the U.S. during the 2001 economic recession. David Callahan writes in a April 2003 Christian Science Monitor article: “The endowments of many U.S. philanthropic institutions have declined by a third or more in the past several years, as the plunging stock market has devastated charitable giving by individuals and corporations”. Unsurprisingly, charitable organizations have been forced to cut staff and programs. Though Paul Nelson, President of the Evangelical Council for Fiscal Accountability in Washington D.C., maintains that Christian non-profits fare better than secular ones during bad economic times since “there is more a giving of the heart, and therefore a tendency more to sacrifice”, the recent economic downturn has nonetheless negatively affected many fund-raising driven mission agencies, as anecdotal evidence suggests.

These observations should lead us to do some serious thinking about how we intend to sustain the urban poor mission movements we hope to initiate or contribute to. 

The Challenge

“Any organization is perfectly designed for the results it gets.”
Steve Beck, Executive Vice President, Geneva Global Inc

As a predominantly Gen-X missions’ organization, Servant Partner’s emphasis on movement-building versus institution-building is characteristic of our generation. More – it opens room to imagine and create models of organizational and mission movement development that would not stand much of a chance in institutionally-oriented mission agencies.

If we want to send out urban poor cross-cultural missionaries, and recruit candidates from the 2/3rds world into Servant Partners, we need to have an organizational design that allows us to do exactly this. We need to dream up models of mission support that are more self-sustaining than the current fund-raising driven models. We need to create self-sustainable sources of funding that would allow us to support the ongoing growth of the movement we are a part of.

How? In what follows, I will develop some ideas and hope that others of you will join the discussion to expand on and solidify these preliminary thoughts. I will begin with a few theological observations and then move the discussion to practical applications.

Theological Observations

“Jesus taught that his followers were to be salt and light in the world, to use their talents faithfully,
and not to hide their light under a bushel.”
Rev. David Miller, Avodah Institute

Many of today’s mission agencies have not yet overcome the dichotomy between clergy and laity that has plagued the Church and its ministry since the 3rd century AD. In most of the evangelical world, missionaries, like pastors, are still considered spiritual “full-timers”, set aside by their local congregations or denominational bodies for the work of ministry. The role of the laity is confined to holding secular jobs, volunteering in church programs and supporting the work of these “full-timers” through regular tithes.
    A close reading of the Judeo-Christian tradition however, shows that such a distinction is unwarranted. Faith has a role to play in all parts of life, including work. The Holy Scriptures insist upon a connection between faith and work. Vocation and calling are not restricted to a privileged few who are then called out and set apart to engage in “full-time” ministry.
Already Martin Luther warned against the artificial distinction between clergy and laity. With a sharp pen and eloquent words he affirmed the priesthood of all believers. In his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he writes: “It is pure invention that pope, bishop and monks are called the spiritual estate, while princes, lords, artisans and farmers are called the temporal estate… All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference between them except that of office… We are all consecrated priests through baptism as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9.”  It follows that the poor peasant is able to fulfill his God-given vocation and calling as much as the bishop is. No one vocation is more spiritual than the other. Unfortunately, Luther himself backed away from consistently integrating this theological principle into the life and work of his reformed Church.

Today many religious leaders and theologians continue to criticize and devalue the contributions of business and those active in it. Sometimes their critique is justified; other times their pronouncements are more a testimony to their ignorance of economic matters than anything else. Some believe that God has a preferential option for the poor and is against wealth creation, capitalism and profit-making organizations. At the opposite end, the so-called "Prosperity Gospel" holds that God will lavish financial and material blessings on the truly faithful. Free market capitalism “Anglo-Saxon-style” is baptized as the ultimate economic model, believed to reflect God’s view on economic matters most closely.

Unfortunately the majority of evangelicals continue to muddle their way through the extremes between seeing business and the free market either as a curse or embracing it as a divinely ordained enterprise. No wonder, many Christians and foremost business people feel a division in their life, a compartmentalization between their weekend worship and their weekday work. In one recent survey, 90 percent of churchgoers could not remember a single sermon having to do with the workplace over the past year, according to Rev. William Messenger, director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Sadly, those who believe their faith should shape their work find little help from their denominations, congregations and even mission agencies.

The Catholic Church is a few steps ahead of most evangelicals in this regard. Over the past century a growing body of knowledge known as Catholic Social Teaching has begun to acknowledge the “vocation” of business.  Pope John Paul II has been especially active and eloquent in addressing businessmen and women. In its treatise Economic Justice for All the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states: “The Church is, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, ‘a community of disciples’ in which ‘we must see first and foremost Christ saying to each member of the community: Follow me!’ Jesus summoned his first followers to a change of heart and to take on the yoke of God's reign. They are to be the nucleus of the community which will continue the work of proclaiming and building God's kingdom through the centuries. As Jesus called the first disciples in the midst of their everyday occupations of fishing and tax collecting; so he again calls people in every age in the home, in the workplace, and in the marketplace.”

Indeed, Scripture sees business as a calling that can be entirely consistent with high ethical standards and serious moral purpose. Business people are called to be stewards of God’s creation. Applying their skills to manage assets, to create and distribute wealth, to provide employment, and to offer needed products and services – is nothing less than a vocation. Says Rev. Miller, “Notably, over 50 percent of the parables Jesus told were concerned with and situated in the marketplace, not the temple.” And in case you didn’t notice:  “Jesus didn’t select a single priest or minister for his team of followers. All of his first disciples were businessmen and women; members of a professional guild and/or small business owners.”

Where does this leave us in our discussion of sustaining urban poor mission movements?

        The Growing Movement of Social Entrepreneurship

“A social entrepreneur is someone who founds an organization committed to large-scale social change as well as to long-term self-sustainability of the organization. Such an organization could be a non-profit or for-profit venture, or a hybrid enterprise that steps beyond the bounds of traditional structures.”

Rinconda Ventures Foundation

Prophetic entrepreneurs are needed to develop new models of social enterprise for a new century; entrepreneurs for whom mission-related impact becomes the central criterion and wealth is just a means to an end. Thanks to God, the number of people who, though driven by a social vision, also understand the maxim “no margin, no mission” is growing. This growth is evidenced by movements such as the National Gathering of Social Entrepreneurs in the U.S, and the following inspiring examples from the 2/3rds world:
        Acción Andina, a community development organization based in Ayacucho, Peru has decades of experience in helping impoverished rural Quechua communities move towards self-sustainability, by raising family incomes and educational levels, while reducing malnutrition and infant mortality rates. Like other Peruvian NGOs, AA has faced increasing difficulties in recent years securing funds. To achieve the stable, multi-year funding necessary to minimize project delays, staff turnover and the erosion of trust capital, AA has sought alternative revenue sources to reduce the organization’s dependency on institutional donors. To meet those goals, AA created Finandina to serve as its financing arm. The innovative idea has been to use the profits of this savings-and-loan program geared toward middle and lower middle class business people, to provide AA with a sustainable and ongoing source of funding of approximately $45,000 per year for its community development work.

·        Ravages from 10 years of civil war have left Sierra Leone in last place among 173 nations on the UN 2002 Human Development Index. It has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate one of the highest infant mortality rates and the average life expectancy is 39, half of that in the US. A shortage of nurses worsens Sierra Leone’s desperate health situation. By generating funds through tuition, canteen services, animal husbandry, cash-crop farming, small-scale income generating projects and some outside funding Mattru Jong Hospital of the United Brethren in Christ Churches is able to establish a self-sustaining nurse training school and support the salaries of an agricultural worker and 2 hospital chaplains. Involving nurse trainees, the agricultural worker and the hospital chaplains in its public health and evangelism programs the ministry will be able to halve infant mortality in the region, decrease risks from preventable diseases and malnutrition for 30,000 rural villagers and plant 15 cell churches in a Muslim-dominated region over the course of 3-5 years.

·        Many Honduran ministries struggle to survive on outside funding, but Scripture Union Honduras (SUH) will sustain its own expansion, tripling its reach to primary school children over the next 3 years. Revenue from a small cement-block business will fund new ministry coordinators who will recruit and train volunteers. The volunteers will start 80 new Bible clubs, which will include 7,000 children in public schools over 3 years. As the number of pupils increases into the thousands, the Gospel will indirectly reach more than 35,000 people.

·        Christian evangelists from Hindu backgrounds are superb at reaching rural Indians, but weak at raising funds to support themselves. Evangelical Church of God’s program of buying a herd of 80 buffaloes will result in 40 church planters gaining long-term support to effectively reach 14,000 Hindus in Western Uttar Pradesh. This project provides each church planter with 2 buffalos each, to produce milk, a strategy highly appropriate in the world’s number one milk-producing country. Loan repayments purchase additional buffalos supplying other church planters.  So far, the ministry has served 337 villages and over 50,000 people.  Every month 70-80 baptisms take place in each of the 9 districts where ECG works.

·        “Medellín, dubbed the city of eternal spring, is encircled by the Andean mountains and graced with near perfect climate. Yet, with 15 homicides daily, local people know it as the city of eternal gunfire”, says Tear Fund. Although the violence seems unstoppable, a beaten soccer ball and the Word of God prove unlikely solutions to the underworld of guns and cocaine. Club Deportivo Union Cristiana (Christian Sports Club Union) has a successful track-record of protecting 1,200 boys and girls, aged 9 to 18, from the lure of street gangs, paramilitary organizations, and drug-lords through a soccer-training program. Aside from twice-weekly soccer training sessions, CDUC coaches hold Bible studies with kids, engage in one-on-one mentoring and integrate interested CDUC participants into local churches. Using revenues from a microbus business, a shoe manufacturing enterprise and a bakery, CDUC is able to self-support 10 full-time soccer coaches/mentors whose full-time status allows the organization to deepen its discipleship focus for the 1,200 kids and begin a new outreach and counseling program to 250 families.

·        John Linc Consulting/Music City SDN is a music recording studio and CD-pressing enterprise in Singapore, founded by two prophetic entrepreneurs with an initial investment of $20,000. The studio’s vision is to capacitate youth to develop their musical talents while generating income to fund numerous church-related youth ministries throughout the city state. One of the bands they helped sponsor, “The Angel Creed”, landed a first prize in a national music award competition, allowing the business venture to generate and channel revenues of $200,000 to numerous youth ministries after only 2 years of operating.

As the aforementioned examples show: “The idea of ‘social entrepreneurship’ has struck a responsive cord”. Says J. Gregory Dees of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University: “It is a phrase well suited to our times. It combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with … the high-tech pioneers of Silicon Valley. The time is certainly ripe for entrepreneurial approaches to social problems.” Daniel Pryfogle, principal of Signal Hill, a North Carolina-based mission-driven consulting organization adds: “Academia is taking notice of the trend. Harward, Berkeley and Duke are among the business schools now offering programs in social enterprise. This spring [2003], Yale School of Management, The Goldman Sachs Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts will award $500,000 in a competition for the best business plans with a social agenda.”

Servant Partners will do well to tap into the energy generated by this movement and glean insights for our own organizational development. To help sustain the urban poor mission movements we hope to initiate and contribute to, we need to spearhead innovative ideas that will decrease our dependency on the traditional fund-raising driven model and allow workers from among the urban poor to leave their own people and culture and serve another people or culture. How though, will we be able to do this in practice? How can we tap into a pool of innovative and entrepreneurially-minded people?

A Suggested Paradigm Shift

 “Earn as much as you can. Save as much as you can.
Invest as much as you can. Give as much as you can.”
John Wesley

Spiritualities of all shades and types are becoming “in” once again, explains a January 2003 Christianity Today article. While much of it is based in New Age thinking, we are fortunately also seeing the growth of the “faith at work movement” as evidenced in the emergence of over 900 marketplace ministries in the past decade within the U.S. alone. The numbers of business people who believe their faith should shape their work seems to be increasing. Unfortunately, many of those who are hungry for more than just “making money” and writing a check to a Christian organization or local church each month find only scant help from their denominations, congregations and mission agencies. 

Servant Partners is committed to build bridges and mutually enriching partnerships between wealthy Christians/churches and Christians/ churches among the urban poor. We also want to see movements of disciples established among the educated elite and middle class, who have a biblical theology of justice, economics and society.

Yet, in many ways we remain a rather typical mission agency and we might not achieve that goal if we stay that way. We have “full-time” missionaries and church planters on domestic and international mission fields, supported by administrative personnel “at headquarters”. We rely on our home-churches and individual lay members for our support. Although theologically most of us would have some quarrels with the artificial distinction between clergy and laity, our organizational structure indirectly upholds this division.  

How can we overcome this theologically questionable distinction and actively encourage the building of bridges and mutually enriching partnerships between wealthy Christians (domestic and international) and the urban poor? How can we tap into the rich knowledge base of the business and entrepreneurial community and utilize it for the sake of sustaining urban poor mission movements?

I suggest we begin by doing some creative thinking about our organizational structure. We could expand Servant Partner’s membership base, for instance, and adopt a 2-level membership approach. 

Field-level membership:
High standards will be maintained in the selection and orientation of field-level team members and administrative personnel. In addition to a deep and growing commitment to Christ and a lifestyle of worship, faith, compassion and service in the context of everyday life, desired qualities include good health, personal maturity, theological perception, cultural sensitivity, openness to change, and ability to work cooperatively with other members of the team.

Extended membership:
We will welcome people (domestic and international) to become official members of Servant Partners, if they share our vision and values and want to contribute to the sustainability of urban poor mission movements in an extended capacity. Though not directly participating at the field level, these extended team members will be involved in yet-to-define team activities, for instance regular visits to a specific mission field.  They will have to go through an application process and sign a covenant form indicating their degree of involvement and consent to Servant Partners’ vision and values.
    Some extended team members may be social entrepreneurs who will call into being for-profit business enterprises, whose sole purpose is to generate revenues for the holistic urban poor mission movements we want to initiate and contribute to.
Others may be traditional entrepreneurs, business people and professionals who long to be more intrinsically involved in the ministries they help support financially. Servant Partners’ willingness to provide them with an avenue to integrate their faith and work will give their business enterprises and professional lives a greater purpose, meaning and sense of mission. John’s Wesely’s abovementioned exhortation will become more alive, as they begin to experience business as a calling; a calling whose purpose is the expansion of the work of the Kingdom. As much as we now encourage the missionary vocation of pastoring and church planting, we would also encourage the missionary vocation of business.
       What’s more, extended team members could connect Servant Partners to the life of the local church in a more intentional way. Indeed, as the local church needs business people and professionals filled with the Spirit of the living God, so does the mission agency. Finally, extended team members could be a resource to provide technical guidance and assistance to some of the economic development projects and business ventures undertaken by our various holistic church planting teams around the world. 


“I realized that they had more talent as missionaries than I did. But I also realized that I was more talented with money than they were. So I decided to devote myself to helping the missionaries financially.”

Sir John Templeton

Given the limitations of a fund-raising driven model of missions support, I began this discussion paper by raising the question how we could sustain the urban poor mission movements Servant Partners hopes to initiate or contribute to. The preliminary thoughts outlined above suggest that we should tap into and glean from the growing movement of social entrepreneurship. We should also rethink the theologically questionable distinction between clergy and laity that continues to shape our organizational structure. Possibly we should think about expanding Servant Partner’s membership base to include Christian business people, entrepreneurs and professionals. This would provide them with an avenue for integrating their faith and work, while strengthening Servant Partners relationship with local churches and decreasing our dependency on a fund-raising driven model of mission support.

I would welcome any comments, feed-back and further thoughts with regards to this topic, and hope this may serve as a basis for ongoing discussions.

© Viv Grigg & Urban Leadership Foundationand other materials © by various contributors & Urban Leadership Foundation,  for The Encarnacao Training Commission.  Last modified: July 2010