Thursday, May 25, 2023

David W. Scott: Mission as Investment, Not Charity

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Mission and the associated financial and other forms of support that the Western church gives to the church elsewhere in the world are often framed as charity. But what if this exchange was framed differently, as an investment by the Western church in a joint partnership with the majority world church? How might that shift understandings of mission and international relationships in the church?

The Charity Framing

As I said, mission and financial and other support from the Western church to the majority world church is usually framed as an act of charity on behalf of the Western church to the majority world church. However, this framing of that support includes several latent and problematic assumptions:

  • It assumes a dynamic of inequality. Charity flows from those who have to those who have not, and those are two unequal groups. Those who have not need those who have, but those who have do not need those who have not.
  • It assumes clear roles of givers and receives. In charity, giving comes from one group, and what is given is received by a separate second group. Givers do not receive, and receivers do not give.
  • It assumes a focus on reducing deficits, not promoting growth. Charity is usually given to alleviate problems and return people to a minimal baseline. It is not given to help others grow to their fullest potential.
  • It tends to assume a short-term horizon for results. While some charity is given towards longer-term development work, and thus this short-term focus is not universal, the focus on reducing deficits rather than promoting growth tends towards a short-term time frame. One need not think about how people will grow long-term but rather about whether their basic material needs were met at the moment.

The Investment Framing

The practice of financial investment runs on very different assumptions than the practice of charity. Those assumptions include the following:

  • Inequalities may exist, but all partners are necessary. Not all partners in an investment scheme or business plan may have the same input, voice, or compensation, and thus inequalities do exist among business partners. Nevertheless, business investments only include people who contribute to the endeavor, since including non-contributors would reduce the benefits for everyone else. Therefore, if you're part of the business investment, it is because you are necessary to the success of that investment.
  • All partners contribute; all partners benefit. Building on the previous assumption, because all partners are necessary, all partners are seen as having skills or assets which they are expected to contribute. There is no free riding. At the same time, everyone who contributes expects to receive something in return. Investments are supposed to make money for those who invest; people do not invest just out of goodwill and altruism.
  • The focus is clearly on growth. Investments are not about losing less money or about meeting a minimum standard; they are about producing financial growth.
  • Long-term results may be more lucrative than short-term results. Again, this assumption varies. There are plenty of day traders and investors obsessed only with the next quarter. But there are incentives within investing to look to the long-term return: what the fruit of an investment will be in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years. Often, those who look to these long-term horizons will be more richly rewarded.

The Benefits of Reframing Church Relations

Because the assumptions behind investing contrast with those of charity at precisely some of the problematic points of the charity frame, reframing Western mission and support for majority world churches as investment rather than as charity can potentially help to correct some of those problematic assumptions. Framing Western money, goods, effort, and expertise sent to majority world churches as an investment in those churches, their people, and ultimately the reign of God reframes the relationship between Western and majority world churches in several ways.

First, such a reframing highlights the necessity of the assets that majority world churches brings to partnerships with the West. Western contributions are not sufficient to accomplish anything outside the West on their own. For the church in the majority world to successfully grow and benefit its context, it requires the assets of those in the majority world. They are not passive beneficiaries of someone else's charity; they are active partners making essential contributions to a joint undertaking.

Second, such a reframing emphasizes that, just as the church in the West and in the majority world are both givers, they are both receivers. The church in the West invests in the church in the majority world because that investment will lead to something that the church in the West values: the transformation of individual lives, the growth of the church universal, and the building up of the reign of God. This is a spiritual benefit for the church in the West, and not the only one they may receive from the investment partnership. And those benefits reaped by the church in the West are possible only because of the contributions of the church in the majority world.

Third, such a reframing shifts away from problems and towards growth. Certainly, there are many and serious problems in the various contexts of the majority world, just as there are many and serious problems in the West. The church is called to address these problems. But not in a way that is limited to trying to have less bad in the world. The church is called to proclaim good news: a vision of human flourishing that is just as much about naming positive things that should grow (love, peace, justice, etc.) as it is about naming negative things that should decrease (suffering, hate, alienation, etc.).

Fourth, such a reframing promotes long-term thinking. The question becomes not just whether someone has fish and will eat for that day but rather how they will have fish to eat tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. The focus shifts from accomplishing projects for their own sake to asking what the impact of such projects will be on churches, communities, and the world decades down the road.

Theologians are rightly cautious about relying too much on metaphors from capitalism, which can include some problematic assumptions. The framing of the Western church investing in the majority world church certainly has its limits. Yet, assumptions from other metaphors can be problematic as well, as the assumptions about charity highlighted above are. Therefore, having other metaphors to understand what is going on when Western churches send financial and other support to majority world churches is important to developing more robust understandings of mission.


  1. So insightful! Thanks for sharing! True caring and compassion expressed in these words. Thanks, David!

  2. David,

    Thanks for your revisioning of charitable giving with an emphasis upon the economic concept of investments made in partnership with specific aims in mind. Two experiments in this transformation of mission giving come to mind.

    In 1980, a Special Program named Africa Church Growth and Development was approved by General Conference with similar goals to what you have in mind. It recognized an emerging theme in mission development, namely setting aside missionary dependence of the colonial era for a commitment to African self determination in fast growing church development which promised to exceed membership of the UMC on the North America contingent within the generation. A goal was set for the first quadrennium at $7 million with the African Churches pledging $1 million from their limited resources. Decision making was placed in policy making body that featured African control with North American and Europe accompaniment. An African was chosen to be the director of the program. The Board of Global Ministries was removed from its historic dominant bilateral role in administrating country by country program funding. AFCG&D would take a continent wide holistic determination of needs and prospects before making investment decisions in areas of leadership development, community development and church construction. The program had notable successes over two decades but ultimately yielded to another vision with more urgency and attraction that emerged from within AFCG&D discussions, namely the funding of Africa University. That program found a linkage to the grass roots mission volunteer movement in generating capital and momentum in the global UMC needed to succeed while preserving leadership initiative within the African continent.

    In the same period, the World Council of Churches inaugurated its Study on the Sharing of Resources. Delegates were charged to provide a philosophy or theology for the administration of funds for programs that would eliminate the historic divide between giving and receiving members at the same table. They found a grounding in the doctrine of grace (I.e. "charis" the Greek root in charity) in which all share equally without reference to economic or political status. They declared a participatory status for member churches of absolute equality, that is no absolute donors and no absolute receivers. All share the same gift of grace in the self giving of the same Christ Jesus. As sound as was their theological reflection, it failed to find vehicles for implementation in policy.

    The concept of a stewardship of sharing is at the root of the vision you are lifting up! Models for implementation remain a challenge.