Members of Metro Community Church in Englewood, New Jersey, support the missionaries sent to the Congo by their denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, but going to distant Africa can be a dangerous trip, in the view of the 400-member flock. "We can't send our short-term missionaries there," said Stephen Sharkey, the church's life ministries pastor.
Nonetheless, Metro members wanted to engage in a hands-on effort of some sort. For a while, they helped build villages for AIDS orphans on behalf of an organization featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but they were discouraged by gaps they saw in the foreign aid system.
Three years ago, members of the church took matters into their own hands. They started Zimele USA, a nonprofit that raises money for microfinance projects in South Africa. The congregation regularly sends teams to see how the organization functions.
For years, projects like microfinance ventures were the provenance of large faith-based aid agencies and denominations. But as U.S. Christians grow more skeptical about and less dependent on traditional institutions, individual churches are starting their own humanitarian aid organizations and doing projects on their own terms.
"Part of the emerging church environment is that everything is reexamined," said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.
Nearly 30 percent of all American Christian teenagers participate in some form of a short-term missions trip, according to some estimates. By the time those teenagers are old enough to lead churches, many are "confident that they can navigate international arenas without having to rely on somebody else," Gushee said.
Churches are also making their own spending decisions. The 1,250 or more megachurches in the U.S. spend, on average, nearly $700,000 a year on foreign missions and aid programs, said Robert Priest, a foreign missions expert at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. And church members, more than ever before, not only want more control of how the money is spent but also want to be part of spending it.
Without professional experience in international aid, Priest said, churches that redirect funding away from large aid organizations often wind up throwing tens of thousands of dollars into feel-good hobby projects designed more for church photo albums than for long-lasting change. The large agencies could lose a source of financial support that they've relied upon for decades, he said. …