Reflections on giving
One of the most difficult issues to think through for missions and missionaries is that of money. Here are a few honest thoughts and reflections from my time here in the Philippines.
When I first came to the Philippines, I remember being really struck by the poverty. I’d never seen anything like it before. And yet, a few years ago, arriving back in Manila and driving down the main roads, the thing that struck me most was the riches.
Cubao is one of the best examples of how poverty and riches exist side by side. Ten years ago, it was an area that was run down and pretty depressing. Now enormous tower blocks are springing up full of apartments for the rich.
The foundations have been laid for a brand new hotel. Five large supermarkets compete for customers within easy walking distance of each other. Avril Lavigne recently gave a concert in Cubao; tickets ranged from £8 for a seat in the rafters, to £120 to be up close in the front rows. In summary, there is a whole lot of money in this country!
And yet the poverty hasn’t gone away. Cross the road from the rich commercial district and see the pieces of cardboard with men, women and children stretched out asleep. And just a five minute walk away, you can be in the dark and narrow corridors of one of Manila’s many slum areas.
The first couple of years I was in the Philippines, I had so many people asking me for money. It was always hard to know what to do when approached by beggars and I often felt torn inside when seeing so much poverty around me.
And yet, to be honest, the bigger problem was what to do when people from the church came to me for help. I tried to be generous, but when asked for more than I could give I often ended up lending money.
Many of them were emergencies, such as a member of the family sick and urgently needing medicine or hospital treatment. Some borrowed money and then faithfully paid it back and it was a real privilege and pleasure to be able to help them. Some borrowed money and couldn’t pay it back, which caused awkwardness and embarrassment.
Some borrowed money and clearly had no intention of even trying to pay it back, which left me feeling frustrated and used. And within my first couple of years here, I worked out I was owed well over £1000 and most of that I never got back. It didn’t take me long to realise I couldn’t carry on like that.
It’s not just in society that you can see the big differences between rich and poor. It’s also clearly visible in the churches.
There are churches here in very poor areas, with enormous and heartbreaking social needs; members struggling to feed their families and living in dire poverty.
There are churches here in very rich areas, with multi-million pound budgets. One local evangelical mega-church just outside Cubao is adding the finishing touches to its new £22 million building. (Yes, you did read that correctly!)
To be fair to the mega-churches that I’ve visited, many of them have ministries to the poor and are actively seeking to help the needy. And yet generally there is still a massive gap between rich and poor churches.
The ideal situation, of course, would be to have churches mixed with rich and poor members helping each other, but due to location and language (most richer churches have services in English), that is not always possible.
And as we have found in San Pedro, often those who do have skills and good qualifications have to go abroad to find work. When our church began, there was a member who had a job as an engineer and was an enormous help. Then the factory he worked at closed down and he had to leave for a different country.
In the time I’ve been at the church, the two members with the best jobs have emigrated. Our church is growing rapidly, but it’s mostly growing amongst the poor, which means that instead of our offerings going up, there is more demand on the limited money we already have.
We’re not complaining about that, but it does create practical problems. How can we do all that we want and need to on the limited resources we have?
So what about Western money? I’m still trying to think this whole subject through, but, so far, here is my conclusion — Western money can do enormous good and Western money can create enormous problems.
There are some churches and pastors who don’t have it and could really do with some money to help the many needy in their congregations and communities. Properly used, it can be a blessing and a great way to show the love of Christ through practical help to non-Christians.
There are some churches and pastors who do have it and could do with having less of it! It really is so easy for pastors to be ruined, as money pours in from many different sources and enables them to live a rich lifestyle often entirely removed from the people they are shepherding.
Or for churches to be too dependent on foreign funds and grow lethargic in giving — after all, why be sacrificial in my offerings when we can get all our money from the West?
Somewhere in between all of that, there is a balance. But it’s a balance not easy to find.
Partnership: I really like that word. I don’t know exactly what it means in all its practical details, and I guess there can never be a set formula, as it will vary from place to place. But churches in the West partnering with poorer churches in different countries — a partnership that involves praying for each other and valuing the fellowship and challenge that relationships with Christians in very different situations brings. We have so much to learn from each other. But how does that work in terms of money?
Here in San Pedro, our church is enjoying a time of great blessing — many conversions and a large increase in attendance. We desperately need to move to a more suitable place to hold our services, but there is just no way we can afford it. So do we say that it is not healthy to ask for money from churches in the West to help us?
On the other hand, when my home church in Gloucester had a building project, it took them years of praying and sacrificial giving. Why should our church here be able to make an appeal and receive the whole sum immediately?
And why would we rob the people here of the blessing of years of prayer and giving, that will result in so much joy when they finally move to a new place to worship?
God willing, when we meet for the first time in our new building, there will be big smiles from people who gave year after year from the little they have to support this project. I am so looking forward to seeing that.
And so maybe somewhere there is the right balance — we save; we give; we sacrifice. And we also receive help when needed from other Christians with more money.
We want churches to be committed, to being self sufficient and not just reliant on the West. And yet we also face the reality that, in a world with such a big gap between rich and poor, sometimes help will be needed.
These are tough issues that require so much thought and prayer to think through. And there is lots more that could be said. Christians in the West are blessed with so much. How tragic that we are often so quick to complain and slow to be thankful and generous.
What a privilege and blessing that we can use our money to help fellow Christians who have so much less than we do. And yet let’s be so careful about how we do that. Pastors and churches can be ruined by money, given by generous, well meaning but unwise donations from Christians abroad.
So, in conclusion, let’s understand the tremendous good that Western money can do, and be generous. And let’s understand the tremendous problems that Western money can cause, and be wise.