Unto the Nations

Is the focus of American evangelicals shifting overseas?

Is the collective gaze of evangelical Christian givers and volunteers in America shifting to foreign fields?

The experience of the Grahams of Boone, North Carolina, suggests so. The Grahams are in many ways America’s First Family of evangelicalism. Billy Graham took an interest in souls abroad starting with his London crusade in 1954 (in the eighth year of the ministry). Primarily, though, he poured his time, treasure, and talent into spreading the Gospel and doing good works in the United States.

Billy’s son, Franklin Graham, has taken the family interest in international missions up several notches. Soon after committing his life to Christian ministry while alone in a hotel room in Jerusalem, he sojourned on a six-week mission to Asia. From those days forward, he reports, he “felt a calling to work with hurting people in areas of the world affected by war, famine, disease, and natural disasters.”

Franklin’s most visible work today is as president of Samaritan’s Purse—an evangelical organization which raises $350 million per year to feed African children, donate Christmas gift boxes to Mongolians, provide medical care to disaster victims throughout Asia (and the U.S.), and offer HIV assistance in countries like Peru. Field offices in 18 developing countries channel donations to poor people caught up in calamities caused by man or nature all across the globe.

There is nothing new about American Christians taking up life-saving work abroad. For 200 years, starting with the rise of mission societies across the United States, committed Christians have poured themselves into transforming communities in China, the Amazon basin, the sub-Saharan region, and other lands. Many of these pioneer evangelical missionaries gave their lives to the cause.

In 2009, overseas relief and development supported by American churches exceeded $13 billion, according to path-breaking calculations by the Hudson Center for Global Prosperity. (This includes not just evangelical churches but also Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations, and covers both direct missions work and donations to private relief groups.) That compares to $5 billion sent abroad by foundations in the same year, $6 billion from private and voluntary relief organizations apart from church support, and $9 billion donated internationally by corporations. The $13 billion in religious overseas philanthropy also compares impressively to the $29 billion of official development aid handed out by the federal government in 2009.

Unto the Nations

There are reasons to think that evangelicals are now giving more to overseas causes. “Ease of travel, communications, and information exchange have opened more eyes to deep needs around the world,” says Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. “And that has definitely translated into increased involvement of Christian givers.”

“We absolutely see more international giving,” says David Wills, president of the National Christian Foundation, which bundles contributions from evangelicals across America, handing out half a billion dollars in grants during 2011. “I see three reasons: First, exposure. Christians are going overseas more, and when they go, they give. Second, people want more than ever to give wisely, and they see that in poor countries giving can produce huge effects. Third, Christians are excited by the progress they see. There is tremendous momentum today in reducing spiritual poverty, physical poverty, and injustice. People love to give to momentum.”

Wheaton College’s Mission Handbook totals up the budgets for overseas work done by prominent Protestant agencies like World Vision, Compassion International, the Heifer Project, and Opportunity International. In 2008, the sum came to $5.7 billion. That is up sharply from the inflation-adjusted total of $2.8 billion in 1992. The biggest increase in overseas spending came between 2001 and 2008, when real spending leapt upward by 39 percent.

Other intriguing hints that a shift is afoot come from the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest evangelical denomination and one of the most active. In the four years before the financial slowdown of 2008 (which dented all philanthropic spending), overseas missions expenditures by the SBC jumped from $239 million to $278 million.

The Southern Baptists have long had both a North American Mission Board (which concentrates on planting churches and serving human needs in the U.S. and Canada) and an International Mission Board (devoted to similar purposes abroad). Today, the international side has grown to a size comparable with the domestic. The NAMB supported 5,096 missionaries in the U.S. and Canada during the latest year, operating on a budget of $128 million. The IMB underwrote 5,000 missionaries in foreign posts, and had a total 2011 budget of $309 million. For 2012, international missions are budgeted at a record level of $324 million, while other missions have retreated to their spending levels of 2006–07.

Independent groups like International Justice Mission illustrate how some categories of evangelical work abroad have exploded. IJM places experienced criminal investigators in undercover settings across the developing world to ferret out slave labor and sex trafficking operations that exploit children and women. Lawyers and social workers are then dispatched to help local authorities prosecute crimes and aid victims. IJM started in 1997 with one employee; today it has hundreds of staff in 14 developing world field offices, and a $29 million annual budget.

Last year, 1,400 different evangelical ministries that are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability reported they had raised more than $9 billion in 2010. While overall giving was up a crisp 6 percent from the year before, the rise was not even. The council tallies donations into 29 different organizational categories, and certain categories far outpaced others.

The strongest growth of donated income came in sectors that primarily represent overseas giving. Child sponsorship is up 24 percent, while spending for adoption (most of it involving foreign children) is up 15 percent. Orphan care (again, primarily overseas) rose 21 percent. General international relief and development saw an 8 percent rise. The largest increase in any segment? Clean water projects in the developing world, a 35 percent jump.

Return on Investment

Part of the appeal of undertaking philanthropy overseas today is that it can sometimes move very rapidly. In many developing regions, a donor who wants to construct a well or church or school will be received with open arms and an unforgettable welcome. Starting a school in South Central Los Angeles or a Sioux Indian reservation is, well, complicated.

“In the Third World, getting people to work hard and do the right thing is not usually an issue,” remarks Dale Dawson, an investment banker and evangelical Christian who now conducts extensive philanthropy and business investment in Rwanda. “I’m surrounded by people who just need opportunity and training, because they will work harder than I could ever imagine to keep their kids alive or to meet basic needs.”

The most promising developing nations have relatively few official hoops to jump through. Donor motives are not usually questioned. The hearts and minds of recipients are often very open, particularly in rural areas. Small numbers of dollars can go a startlingly long way. There are whole communities that can be transformed by some basic medicines and one small well.

Mind you, developing nations often feature their own distinctive obstacles. Some countries have crushing bureaucracies. A Christian philanthropist abroad will run up against the reality of corruption and graft far more often than at home. And cultural attitudes—hostility to private property, resistance to the elevation of women, weak rule of law, superstitious views of technology, simple enervation—can sometimes be crippling.

On the whole, however, many donors are attracted to the developing world by the feeling that they can achieve dramatic results. “There is one organization I give to where I can get seven times the impact internationally as in their equivalent operations in the U.S. And of course the people are in much greater need internationally,” explains David Weekley, a large-scale homebuilder from Houston who now devotes half of his time and half of his money to Christian philanthropy—with a fast-rising portion of that going to overseas work. “If indeed we are all created equal, it is hard not to get involved in serving ‘the least of these.’”

Back home in America, no one doubts that topics like substance abuse, family dissolution, and prisoner re-entry are burning issues worthy of charitable mobilization; but how tractable are they? Fixes can seem horribly tangled and distant. Despite the barriers of distance and culture in overseas philanthropy, working in societies where the crunching shortage is simply money—rather than, say, motivation—can sometimes seem like a more efficacious way to help fellow human beings.

Where Tourism Meets Idealism

There’s also no denying that the spice of adventure and cultural romance gives overseas mission work special appeal. The helping professions are just like any other undertaking: people are drawn to excitement, freshness, and fun, all of which international missionary work has in abundance. And philanthropy has fashions, even crazes, just as all human activities do.

The thousands of Christian kids pouring themselves into projects in east Africa today are reacting against horrors like the Rwandan genocide and the AIDS epidemic. But they are also responding to the thrill of new experiences, and the company of people whose lives are exotic by American standards.

There’s also what Christian journalist Marvin Olasky calls the “grass is greener syndrome.” “We all are attracted to the stimulation of new settings,” he notes. “I remember a time when I was in Jackson, Mississippi. A youth group from a large northern church arrived to spend their break helping the downtrodden of the American South. That very same week, I discovered, the youth of Jackson’s own local megachurch were also spending their break doing mission work. In Poland.”

But Christian philanthropy in the developing world is not just adventure tourism. Part of the appeal of supporting work (or working personally) in places like Burma, Uganda, and Thailand is having a hand in some of the great moral and cultural struggles of our time: ending child labor in India; fighting sexual slavery in Asian brothels; healing genocidal rifts in East Africa; keeping HIV victims healthy in South America; joining the contest between Christianity and militant Islam for African hearts and minds; protecting religious, cultural, and political dissidents in places like China, Sudan, and North Korea.


Photo by Karl Zinsmeister ©

The key factor, suggests Fred Smith, president of the Gathering, one of the country’s largest networks of Christian philanthropists, is whether people are becoming involved simply because their feelings have been manipulated (“there is what I call ‘poverty porn,’ which makes people feel riled up and motivated to act, but eventually deadens the senses”) or whether they are making a long-term commitment to act and accomplish things. “The risk of some of the high-visibility overseas work is the cause du jour—which splashes onto TV screens, but soon slides into inactivity.” Of course, that is a risk across modern life, where video imagery and instant communication seem to be shortening attention spans.

In any case, it is hard to see how expanded attention to some of the poorest citizens on the planet could be considered anything other than worthy philanthropy and good Christian discipleship. It is certainly a good thing for the villagers and urbanites being helped. Compared to government aid, Christian charity tends to be much less bureaucratic and free of corruption. Groups like World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Food for the Hungry, and IJM are famous for eschewing red tape, arriving first on the scene where there is need, and just getting things done.

Christian philanthropic aid also tends to be more personal and more closely linked to local communities. “As is a risk with all foreign aid, some Christian philanthropists blunder into what I would call ‘the Western rescuer complex,’” says Jedd Medefind. “But many of the Christian groups are very good at mobilizing indigenous leaders in the areas where they’re working. Christianity is a completely trans-national idea, and through shared faith, local residents and newly arrived aid workers are often able to establish deep mutual sympathies right away.”

While smart government agencies and secular NGOs often hire local workers to help them navigate crucial cultural nuances, Christian aid generally takes place in close partnership with indigenous church members. Those partners, who are both local and motivated by religious conviction, are especially good at opening doors, establishing trust, and mobilizing communities. That’s why AIDS care, health clinics, schooling, and similar assistance provided by Christian philanthropists and volunteers is frequently more transformational than aid delivered by other organizations. (Recognizing this advantage, some governments and NGOs seek out partnerships with religious philanthropies—as happened with AIDS assistance during the Bush administration.)

Doing Good, Doing Well

Some of the most interesting Christian philanthropists now working in the developing world are altogether tearing down the walls that separate faith from business, and doing good from making money. Steve Beck, a management consultant educated at Stanford and the London School of Economics, founded SpringHill Equity Partners in 2008. SpringHill invests money in new businesses in poor countries that will simultaneously serve some important social need and create profits to fuel operations and growth.

One of SpringHill’s investments is a chain of private schools in the slums of Nairobi. For $4 per month, parents can enroll a child. The schools hire teachers from the same slums and train them intensively to administer a heavily scripted curriculum. Though the fee is significant for many families, the students are producing test results so much better than in government schools that parents are lining up to enroll. “The fees make school and parent accountable to each other. The state schools lack that,” Beck notes. By the end of January, 60 of these for-profit schools were serving 15,000 children, with a new school now opening every week.

A second SpringHill investment is a company that sells efficient cooking stoves for around $15. These not only conserve fuel but dramatically reduce indoor air pollution. A day’s cooking over a traditional open fire can expose a family to the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes, so the public health effect of these stoves is enormous. Plus the family saves money.

It is early in the day, but the value of SpringHill’s investments has more than doubled in two years. This is venture capital, so busts will surely occur as well. And the viability of these businesses as investments will ultimately depend on their ability to eventually sell their shares of these private companies. The concept of combining investing and doing good, however, is off to a promising start.

Dale Dawson has also built a for-profit entity—the Urwego Opportunity Bank—that is having powerfully positive social effects in Rwanda. “Our goal is to prove you can make money in Africa in useful businesses. If we can prime the pump that way, then people will come in as businessmen rather than philanthropists. The flywheel will start to turn on its own, and the huge power of market economics will begin to fill the gaps in African society.”

Combining spiritual insight with business judgment is a standard part of the investment process. “We’re very interested in the character—the motivations and ethics—of the local entrepreneurs we back. No legal agreement or formal diligence can guarantee that,” says Beck. “But through the networks of Christian friends and church leaders that we’ve developed in Africa over many years, we can usually get a quick character reference and reputation check on the entrepreneur and the business. And we increasingly find business people of faith starting enterprises that are designed to do well and do good at the same time.”

This integration of business with Christian principle also solves other dilemmas, according to Beck. “Sometimes Christian friends tell me they want to spend the first half of their life making money, and then the later portion ‘giving back.’ I ask them: What are you going to ‘take’ that you feel you have to give back later? People needn’t feel there is a contradiction between making a financial return and having a positive impact on society. Successful enterprises do both.”

“When I look at Africa today,” Beck concludes, “I see a market of a billion people, where aggregate economic growth has been 5 percent annually for many years running, where there are huge underserved needs. Governance has improved. There are now 17 democracies; in 1988, there were three. We need to start treating people in Africa as peers with choices and desires and dignity, not poor people who need to be rescued with our donations. We need to treat them as entrepreneurs, customers, and partners; not beneficiaries.”

Both Kenya and Kentucky

Whether it takes the form of giving, investing, or both, one remaining question about the increased overseas focus among American evangelicals is whether it is good for America, specifically for the needy in America. One occasionally hears murmurs: “We have plenty of hurting souls in Michigan, New Mexico, and Kentucky. Churches and church people should lift up more of our own widows and orphans and addicts at home before they become too distracted abroad.”

“I think it’s a false dilemma,” says Jedd Medefind. “Interests in foreign and domestic philanthropy are often mutually reinforcing. In my experience, donors, volunteers, and families who take an interest in overseas orphans will often simultaneously get involved in the foster care system in their own back yard.”

“Evangelicals give 4 percent of their total income in charitable donations. While that’s more than average Americans, there is still room for increase,” suggests Medefind. “So it’s not a zero-sum game. Exposure to need in one sector often opens people to thinking about how they can serve God in other areas. And small acts of charity, once begun, often grow into larger ones.”

Just the same, the latest numbers from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability—which showed those dramatic jumps in several categories of overseas giving—also show that the biggest drops in evangelical philanthropy last year came in alcohol and drug rehabilitation, medical care, youth programs, and prison ministries. Those are some of the most pressing vulnerabilities in America’s inner cities and struggling rural areas.

The test for Christian philanthropy over the next generation will be whether it can be a force for demonstrable good both at home and in scores of countries overseas. On this central question, Fred Smith is crystal clear. “The capacity of evangelical America is enormous. It’s not a limited pot. Wealth is continuing to be created at amazing speed and depth and numbers. Christian donors can do great things both overseas and at home. It’s just a matter of capturing their imagination.”

Karl Zinsmeister, vice president for publications at The Philanthropy Roundtable, has lived, worked, or traveled in 40 different countries.


The Deeper Forces at Work

There may be an even deeper force impelling the shift of Christian philanthropy to the globe’s poorest nations. Historian Andrew Walls notes that Christianity is different from all of the other major religions, which are still centered where they began. Christianity’s heart has always migrated away from power and wealth, and toward the vulnerable and the unwashed. From Jerusalem to forsaken Greece, to north Africa and pagan Italy, then to the wilds of northern Europe, over to frontier America, and now across the developing world, Christian witness has moved restlessly toward the weak and unwanted.

A more self-interested explanation for today’s increased interest in overseas missions is that the developing world is now Christianity’s most flourishing market. In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the number of Christians is currently rising 10 times faster than population growth. Within the last few years a milestone was passed: the majority of all Christians now live in the less-developed world.

“One of the reasons we’re seeing more overseas spending in many Christian denominations is because church membership is growing faster in the developing world than anywhere else,” notes Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Of course some of the causation might run the other way: today’s rapid expansion of Christian practice in poor regions of Africa and Asia may stem partly from communities being touched and inspired by Christian philanthropists acting out the Gospel.

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