Several observers have pointed out the increasing gap in social and political attitudes and theological commitments between the leadership and the laity of the old-line/mainline churches. The average Episcopalian, Methodist, or Presbyterian in the pew, the studies show, tends to be more theologically orthodox and socially and politically conservative than the average bureaucrat at the New York denominational headquarters.
On the whole, evangelical denominations have not experienced a similar alienation between laity and leadership. But a recent study by the Center for Survey Research (CSR) at the University of Virginia for Stewardship Journal suggests that some significant differences are emerging between the leaders of evangelical relief and development (R&D) agencies and their donor constituencies.
Unlike the gap within the old-line churches, evangelical laity and R&D professionals remain similarly orthodox in their religious convictions. This shared faith, though, does not lead to agreement on whether and how that faith should be shared in the context of actual field projects or on how it should influence agencies’ strategies for fighting poverty.
An earlier study of evangelical donors by CSR (on which I reported in “Evangelicals and Economic Development,” FT, August/September 1992) aimed at identifying their understanding of the causes of poverty and the appropriate course that Christian R&D agencies ought to follow. A follow-up survey of 164 professionals from 80 Christian R&D agencies contained virtually the same questionnaire as the one earlier administered to the donors. The professionals, however, were allowed to share their opinions in their own words in a series of “open-ended” questions that did not appear in the donor survey. Their responses to one of those inquiries”about why it was important to educate Western Christians about development”suggest that they see themselves as leaders and teachers of the donor constituency.
Like the old-line leaders, a considerable segment of the agency professionals consider their lay brethren uneducated, miseducated, or in need of exhortation. They believe that Christian R&D groups have a responsibility not only to inform the evangelical community of the extent of Third World needs but also to persuade them that “they [are] very much part of the problem.” Many believe that the materialistic, selfish lifestyles of American Christians contribute to poverty in the Third World and that the sooner people realize this, the quicker they will be able to “stop the damage [they are] doing.”
These “persuaders” are influenced by dependency-theory interpretations of Third World underdevelopment, which is to say, nearly 40 percent of the respondents argued that exploitation by the First World countries was the most important reason poor countries were poor. These professionals thought development education programs should seek to show rich First World Christians how American economic policies and unjust international economic structures impoverish the Third World. When informed about the apparent gap between their views and the donors’, this segment of agency leaders is not so much dismayed that they are not accurately reflecting their donors’ opinions as they are upset that the donors haven’t come around to their way of thinking.
The persuaders’ perception of evangelical donors as “unenlightened” with respect to neocolonialist understandings of North-South relations is largely accurate. Donor respondents overwhelmingly rejected the notion that the poor countries were poor because the rich countries were rich. Rather, the majority believed less developed countries (LDCs) were poor primarily because of misguided and corrupt political and economic structures inside the LDCs. Most others thought cultural and religious attitudes common to these societies served as barriers to development.
The potential leadership of at least the persuaders among the Christian R&D professionals is problematic, considering the weight of empirical evidence accumulated against liberationist diagnoses and prescriptions for the Third World’s woes. Beyond this, many of them seem less consistent than the donors in their application of theological conviction and economic understanding to development policy strategy.
The donors’ sense of an appropriate approach to help the poor runs something like this. Christian faith is extremely important, and agencies advertising themselves as “Christian” should hire, whenever possible, only individuals with a personal relationship to Christ. This is necessary because actual development ministry in the field should have a heavy evangelistic emphasis. Christian agencies should be deliberate and overt (though not offensive or coercive) in addressing spiritual needs as well as physical ones. Indeed, 88 percent of the donors agreed that “the ultimate goal of Christian relief and development ministry” ought to be to “spread the Gospel and convert people to the Christian faith.” Conversion, in their minds, was not only valuable for its eternal benefits (almost all agreed that “the only hope for heaven is in personal faith in Jesus Christ”) but also for its temporal rewards. Seventy percent believed that if a person converted to the Christian faith, it would help him lift himself out of poverty. Their rationale for this was not, typically, a “faith-health-wealth” perspective (“God materially blesses all who believe in Him”). Rather, most affirmed that converts who put into practice “biblical attitudes towards work and the use of resources” would experience economic advancement. Moreover, it may not be out-of-bounds to suppose that donors also emphasize evangelism because they think spiritual revival among individuals will eventually help influence positive reforms at the societal level. Recognizing that economic and political systems and cultural practices explain persistent poverty in LDCs, they might argue that personal conversion is a prelude to social reform, rather than the other way around.
Right or wrong, this package of diagnosis and prescription is logical, plausible, and coherent. The package revealed in some of the agency professionals’ responses seems less so.
Like their donor constituency, the professionals hold Christian faith very dear, are active in their local congregations, and give generously to help the poor. Like the donors, the professionals overwhelmingly affirm that the principal thing LDCs need to fight poverty are changes in their economic and political structures and in their popular beliefs about work and the place of mankind in creation. Even more of them than the donors (76 percent versus 70 percent) affirmed that conversion to Christianity could help a poor person get out of poverty.
Nonetheless, the professionals were less likely than the donors to agree that conversion is the ultimate objective of Christian R&D ministry. Nearly 40 percent rejected this notion. They were also far more likely than the donors to believe that evangelism in the context of emergency relief after disasters was “insensitive and should be discouraged by Christian R&D agencies.” Only 57 percent of the professionals, in contrast with 76 percent of the donors, agreed with the statement: “When Christian agencies distribute emergency food, medicine, and other assistance, they should also work actively to spread the gospel and convert people to Christian faith.” Though two-thirds of the agency professionals felt that non-Christian worldviews were barriers to socio-economic development, only one-third thought that R&D agencies should work actively to change popular beliefs and values.
Agency professionals have more experience with and are probably more informed about development problems than the average evangelical donor. The difference between their views and those of “lay” people is explainable at least in part by the professionals’ tendency to be more nuanced in their opinions. Most of the development professionals interviewed had worked at least ten years in this field and were likely to see the “grayness,” complexities, and tradeoffs involved in ministering to the overseas poor. In short, out of their considerable practical experience wrestling with the problems of underdevelopment, they have something to offer lay evangelicals as leaders and teachers.
On the other hand, the direction in which some of the professionals want to lead-one that plays down the Christian distinctiveness of evangelical R&D work-is one many donors wisely do not wish to follow. They are understandably reluctant to follow that segment of the R&D elite that does not consider evangelism, conversion, and discipleship (as least as donors understand these things) key components of Christian development ministry. Additionally, donors may see the propriety, in our indulgent culture, of exhortations by R&D professionals against selfishness and materialism, but they understand that development “education” that consists of popularized versions of dependency theory is not likely to be helpful-either for rich Western Christians or for their impoverished Third World brethren.
Amy L. Sherman is author of Preferential Option: A Christian and Neoliberal Strategy for Latin America’s Poor ( Eerdmans/IRD, 1992 ) and editor of Stewardship Journal. For further information about either survey, write Stewardship Journal at 745 Mountainwood Road, Suite C, Charlottesville, VA 22903.
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