Book Review:

To Give or not to Give? Rethinking dependency, Restoring generosity, & Redefining Sustainability

by John Rowell, published by Authentic Publishing, Atlanta.  2006. 253 pages of text plus Bibliography.  ISBN 978 1 932805 86 4

At one level this book challenges the "three-self" paradigm of modern mission practice (self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating). But it does so in a global context in which the author describes the rich western churches deciding not give generously to new churches in poorer countries in case they become dependent. At another level it is about giving and generosity. The discussion is set in a mission context. The author has been working together with Bosnian Christians to see churches planted in that war-torn country.


Rowell traces the origins of the three-self paradigm back to the English Anglican Henry Venn, the leader of the Church Missionary Society from 1841. (His father was the pastor to William Wilberforce.) However Venn's concerns were different to the discussions today. He was concerned with the mission parallel to colonialism, namely ecclesiastical imperialism. His concern was not dependency but domination. He wanted to to bring an end to outside governance not outside giving.

One of the features of the book is the attempt to understand why western Christians have been so unwilling to give to the poorer churches. The author documents the development of ideas about giving to the poor in the history of the United States. He traces this development from what he calls Social Calvinism, a way of giving by persons to persons in their community but which distinguished between the "worthy poor" and the "wayward poor", through Social Darwinism (eliminating or allowing the unfit not to survive), through to Social Universalism which eliminated both personal giving (the government took over responsibility for welfare) and any distinctions about whether people actually needed welfare help.  The result of these welfare programs was a cynicism that the public support programs didn't work. "Compassion fatigue" set in.

Rowell also documents the generally poor contributions of his home nation to the poorer nations. His claim is that both as a nation and as churches, 98% of all income is kept at home. He says that a mere 0.18 percent of church income goes to outreach ministries aimed at lost people living in already evangelised cultures, and only 0.02 percent goes annually to help reach truly un-reached peoples with the gospel.

His major plea is for western rich churches and Christians to work in covenant partnerships with churches in poorer nations as partners who contribute different things. He compares the Lend-Lease policy of the United States during World War II, and says that those with money can add it to those with human resources and expertise on the ground. Rather than fearing a welfare mentality he says we should be thinking of a warfare mentality in which we pool whatever resources we have for the good of the gospel.

He promotes the idea of compassionate conservatism, which is roughly a personal giving based on relationships, distinguishing between the worthy poor and the wayward poor, and setting a high value on the employment of heads of households. He outlines what he calls a Missionary Marshall Plan (modelled on the plan that helped re-establish the economies of some European nations after the second World War). This gives the primary responsibility for mission ministry to the local church not to outside donors. It also focuses efforts in areas where the Lord has opened doors to work.

One of the major themes running through the book is that Christians need to practice biblical generosity and not use the three-self paradigm as an excuse to withhold gifts to those in need. He has many strong things to say about the self-interest and greed of western churches and Christians, and also challenges the lifestyles of western missionaries who work among the poor. Rowell includes a helpful section on how Christians can help tackle poverty.

Overall the book is well thought out and practical. It comes from solid biblical study informed by personal experience and practice.

It should be read by church leaders, members of Church Councils, Boards of Deacons or Elders and those involved in mission outreach. It is an impassioned and challenging but practical book which has many important things to say to affluent western Christians.

Dale Appleby

November 2007