“Money often costs too much,"1 a profound little statement that is pertinent to missions.2
Missionaries from western countries like New Zealand are often vastly wealthier than the people that we go to. For example, in 2017 New Zealanders earned on average $50,000 a year,3 while in 2018 the minimum wage in Myanmar would give $1,177 a year.4 Having recently returned from Myanmar, we know from experience how difficult it is for a family to live in NZ on $50,000pa – it’s tough, and we don’t feel at all like wealthy people. But if we moved to a place like Myanmar, based on these figures, we would suddenly be at least 42 times wealthier than the people with whom we would be serving. Just think about that for a moment. If you earn about the average NZ income of $50,000pa, how many of your friends that you regularly hang out with have an income 42 times greater than that – $2,100,000? Think about the problems it would create. “Let’s go out for dinner, I’ll pay for the food, you get the drinks. How about that $700 bottle of wine?” Or, “We’re going skiing in Austria. Wanna come?” The only way most of us could join in is if they pay for it, which changes the dynamic of friendship, and is why most of our friends are of a similar socio-economic level to ourselves. If our close friends earn a lot more than us it’s still probably only twice or three times as much, not 42 or 100 times as much. Thus, it is no surprise that we have heard missionaries discuss whether it is possible to make genuine friends with local Christians on the mission field.
With the church established on the six continents of the earth, mission is often now done in partnership as we go to join with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the work of the Gospel. But although we go as equals, we are divided by money and privilege. Even if we live as they live, living simply and in trying conditions, if there’s a military uprising we will be allowed into the US Embassy for protection – they won’t be; if we are struck with a medical emergency we will receive treatment, even emergency medical evacuation
- they won’t; one way or another our children will receive a quality education
- their children won’t; and at the end of it all we will usually return to and live in the comparative comfort of a country like NZ – they will remain where they are. The list could go on.
A short article like this can’t address the issues raised by the vast economic differential between missionaries and the people we often work with. The important thing is to recognise it as an issue for mission and to be prepared for the problems it can raise. In addition to creating a barrier to genuine relationships, other potential problems are:
Being put on a pedestal. Local Christians may be reluctant to give advice or offer critique if, for example, we’re funding the programme. This can prevent us from truly entering their culture and learning to see things from their perspective. Instead, we can become (falsely) assured that our western worldview is the only way of looking at things. We can also be in danger of suffering a kind of “rock star” delusion, because of the way people may treat us. Scripture warns us, “For by the grace was given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Rom. 12:3 NIV).
Becoming the boss. “He who controls the purse strings makes the rules.” Money is inextricably linked with power, and this is an issue we face on the mission field. Money given by Christians from (comparatively) wealthy nations like NZ can be used for great good, but care must be taken in how decisions are made, and the role of local Christians in that process. This is hardly a new problem. At the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Whitby, 1947, the slogan was “Partnership in Obedience,” to which an Indonesian pastor quipped, “Yes, partnership for you, but obedience for us.”5 We must strive to genuinely realise how Christ has made us into one people, recognising how money can threaten this relationship. “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:4-5 NIV).
Creating dependency (and other problems): In 1960 Lesslie Newbigin described the crippling effect of “money which comes from afar, remote, anonymous, and apparently inexhaustible.”6 There is no question that we should give financially and give generously: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13 NIV). But it is widely recognised, not only in missions but in secular development as well, that great harm can be caused by injecting large amounts of money into a community. No easy answers to this one and no one size fits all solution, but again, we need to be aware of the dangers and seek wisdom from others who have experience in this area.
The issue of money and missions is a complex reality arising from an incredibly unequal world which divides the Body of Christ. There is an opportunity for great good, but also the danger of manifold problems. We need to think carefully about missions and money.
JOHN DE JONG
John is married to Rebecca. They both grew up in West Auckland and met at Lincoln Road Bible Chapel, which is still their home church. In 2005 they moved to Yangon, Myanmar, to work with the church there. They took Adam (two-and-a-half years old) and Grace (10 months) with them. Sarah and Charlotte were born over there. John taught Old Testament and Hebrew at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (MEGST), along with preaching and teaching in the local church. Rebecca was involved in women’s and children’s ministry, as well as home schooling the children. They returned to Auckland to live in October 2017, and John has found work lecturing in Biblical and Intercultural studies at Laidlaw College, based at the Henderson campus.
1 Ralph Waldo Emerson.
2 See especially Jon Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem-- Revisited, Rev. and expanded ed, The American Society of Missiology Series, no. 15 (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2006).
5 Quoted in David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 466.
6 “The Pattern of Partnership”, in A Decisive Hour for the Christian Mission, eds. Lesslie Nebigin et al. (London: SCM, 1960), 35.