How and why our “stuff” gets in the way of our witness.
by Roger S. Greenway
Mission Frontiers, Vol. 28, No. 2 – Mar-Apr 1992.
The most embarrassing moment in my missionary career occurred near the beginning, 33 years ago, when our baggage arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Its arrival had been delayed for four months due to a dock workers’ strike that paralyzed the port. When finally the long- awaited baggage came to the door it gave us mixed emotions.
My wife and I and our infant daughter had arrived on the field in early May. We moved into a house the national church had rented for us and we purchased everything needed in Colombo. Our furniture was made by local carpenters. The only imported items we purchased were fans, a small stove, a refrigerator, and a water filter. Besides that we had only the contents of our four suitcases.
We were getting along fine, when word came that our baggage had finally been unloaded from the ship. As soon as it was cleared by customs it was loaded into five bullock carts for delivery to our home. How well I remember the sight of the bullocks trudging slowly up the road. The combined load consisted of no less than 18 barrels and two big crates.
On the one hand we were excited, for it was like “Christmas in August,” with bullocks instead of reindeer bringing wonderful things from the North. But on the other hand there was something terribly disturbing about it. We kept saying to ourselves, “We don’t need all this stuff. Why did we buy it in the first place?”
“Filthy Rich Americans”
Our neighbors turned out in force to see what the Americans were getting. As we opened the crates and barrels by the side of the house, our neighbors stared in wonderment. How rich and important this young couple must be to be able to afford five cart-loads of marvelous things!
For four months my wife and I had been building relationships and seeking to identify with the community. Our blond baby daughter provided a natural opener for conversations and a jump start for new relationships. Neighbors could see that we were not altogether different from other young parents trying to raise a child, solve everyday problems, and meet basic needs.
But then, suddenly, we were discovered to be what some probably suspected we were all along-filthy rich Americans who could fill their home with every conceivable comfort and adornment. A thousand sermons could not undue the damage done that day. It would have been better for our ministry if the ship had dropped our barrels and crates in the Indian Ocean.
We had made our first major mistake before sailing out of New York harbor. We had listened to advice about all the things we needed in order to be properly “outfitted” for the mission field. As time moved on we would become more fully aware of the damaging consequences of that mistake.
My purpose in this article is to plead for a simpler lifestyle on the part of Western missionaries, and to increase awareness of the negative effects that an inappropriate lifestyle can have on the progress of the gospel. This is a delicate subject, and I am aware that generalizations can be unfair. But we who are dead serious about world evangelization must be willing to examine honestly this sensitive area.
By lifestyle, I do not mean such things as smoking, the use of alcohol, or sexual behavior. I mean by lifestyle the way missionaries use money, the kind of housing they choose for themselves, the type of vehicles they drive, and the kind of entertainment and recreation they spend money on. Missionary lifestyle includes everything about us that local people observe.
Bonded To People Or To Things?
Betty Sue Brewster and her late husband, Tom, did the missionary community a great service when they helped us understand how important it is for new missionaries to bond with nationals as soon as possible after arriving on the field. Effective bonding entails becoming both bilingual and bicultural. It means becoming truly “at home” with people of another land.
When new missionaries cling to a lifestyle imported from the West, it becomes a serious barrier to bonding. In one of the Brewsters’ early articles on bonding, they stated that after a decade of working with missionaries in almost 70 countries, it was their conclusion that “only a small percentage of these missionaries manifest the kinds of relationships with local people that would demonstrate that bonding had occurred.” 1 The Brewsters went on to say:
Happiness is belonging, not belongings. Yet the lifestyle of the majority of Western missionaries is a major deterrent to bonding. It is hard to devote time to pursuing meaningful relationships with local people when concerned about getting barrels of stuff through customs and unpacked and settled. This sense of belonging to one’s belongings is a bonding of the worst kind-bondage. Unfortunately, it is a subtle bondage that is difficult to throw off.” 2
I feel a jab in my conscience every time I read those lines, because bondage to belongings damaged the relationship-building process that my wife and I sought to establish with our neighbors in Sri Lanka. As the result of purchases made months before, we found ourselves surrounded by material belongings. Our possessions aroused our neighbor’s envy, conveyed wrong impressions, and hampered bonding.
What About The Crocodiles?
Lifestyle includes leisure time activities. Not long ago I visited a group of young missionaries in an African country. I was impressed with their ability to speak the local language and the contacts they were making in the villages where they lived. But then they told me about their water skiing on the river. Their mission work required the use of boats and powerful outboard motors, and someone back home had sent them water skiing equipment. On Saturdays the missionaries enjoyed the use of this equipment by water skiing up and down the river between their ministry points.
It does not require much imagination to draw a mental picture of what it must look like on a sunny afternoon, with the outboard motors roaring up and down the river, and strong, robust foreigners skimming over the water past Africans in dugout canoes. “What about the crocodiles?” I asked. The answer, which I am not sure was serious, was that they hired villagers to scare the crocs away.
Please do not misunderstand me; I love and respect those young missionaries. Compared to their counterparts back home, they are sacrificing a great deal. They are living under stressful conditions, and by their mastery of the local dialect, they show that their motivation is high.
But in one area of their lifestyle, they have not reflected hard enough on the impression they make and the kind of barriers they erect when they don their colorful bathing suits, fill their boats’ gas tanks with expensive fuel, and entertain themselves with American- style water skiing in view of poor African villagers. Missionaries in cities make similar mistakes when their lifestyle becomes a barrier to relationship-building and identification.
Jonathan J. Bonk, professor of Missions at Winnipeg Bible College and Seminary, published a powerful book in 1991 entitled Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. Bonk examines the consequences of the disparity in living standards between Western missionaries and the nationals among whom they live and minister.
Bonk concludes that, in exchange for the comforts and securities that their lifestyle provides, missionaries sacrifice a large measure of effectiveness and credibility. While they purport to represent a Lord who became poor for our sakes, they project the image of persons who love the world a great deal. Bonk warns that “failure to counter wealth’s insidious effects upon its missionary endeavors will ensure the continued ebb of the Western churches as a Kingdom force.” 3
The relative wealth of Western missionaries, Bonk points out, almost inevitably affects interpersonal relationships in a number of ways, each of which is antithetical to all that Christ modeled for his followers. The Western missionaries’ higher living standards insulate them from many of the harsh realities experienced by the people to whom they minister. While in this way life may be more bearable for the missionaries, it severely limits their ability to understand and communicate with people who do not enjoy the same privileges.
Their relative affluence isolates missionaries socially. Such isolation can be seen in some of its worst forms in mission compounds and residential areas protected by fences, armed guards, and electronic surveillance systems. Since biblical faith is a relational faith, says Bonk, it is not only sad but sinful, when protecting personal possessions and privileges prevent, distort, or destroy close relationships between missionaries and ordinary people. But this is almost inevitably the price of affluence and the lifestyle that accompanies it. 4
A Serious Dilemma
In the Western missionary community we face a serious dilemma. It is rooted in the fact that compared to most of the world, the West is wealthy and Western culture is pervasively materialistic. During the decade of the ’80s Western society was swept from one end to the other by the spirit of “consumerism.” Not only did it pervade the world at large, but it captured the church community as well. With some shades of difference, the evangelical community that is the support base of missions, and from which missionaries are recruited, came to reflect the culture’s materialistic values.
Most evangelical leaders have long ago resigned themselves to popular demands and expectations, and they no longer challenge the consumerist mentality of church members. Likewise, most of the missionaries sent out by Western churches have been enculturated since childhood to take for granted a very high level of physical comfort and an array of gadgets to entertain and make life easier. To be deprived of even some of these is considered great sacrifice.
What is the unspoken message that Western materialistic values translated into missionary lifestyles convey? Or to state the question personally and point the finger at myself, what message did our 18 barrels and two large crates communicate to our Buddhist and Hindu neighbors? What invisible barrier did our possessions erect? Did it have anything to do with the fact that in the years that followed, none of our converts came from our immediate neighborhood, but all from places some distance away?
When Jesus said to the crowd, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15), he issued a warning and addressed a basic question. It was the question of what should be our relationship to material possessions. Jesus was saying that material possessions should never become major concerns in his disciples’ lives. They should never be allowed to impinge upon Christian witness.
When Christian people whose basic needs have been met continue to accumulate possessions and add to their physical comforts and pleasures in sight of people who are suffering and in need, they are making a statement. They are communicating a message about their values, priorities, and the deep affections of their hearts. And that message contradicts the gospel.
Are Non-western Missionaries More “efficient?”
So far I have been addressing the question of missionary effectiveness, and I have argued that an affluent lifestyle can damage our ability to bond, identify, and communicate our message. Related to this is the question of “efficiency,” which means the financial cost of achieving intended results. The most efficient mission strategy is the one that achieves the intended goals at the lowest cost.
When we consider on the one hand the billions of people who need to be evangelized and discipled, and on the other hand the high cost of Western-style missions and the increasing limitation of mission resources, we cannot avoid concluding that less costly ways must be found to reach the world with the gospel.
This leads to an even more sensitive question: Is it good stewardship to continue sending thousands of high-cost Western missionaries, when missionaries coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America can be supported for much less money, can identify more closely with common people, and achieve the same or better results?
As mission costs escalate and financial support becomes difficult, more and more people are going to raise that question. I have a feeling that it may become the question of the decade for Western missions.
In a book published in 1991 by Creation House under the title, Why the World Waits: Exposing the Reality of Modern Missions, author K. P. Yohannan attacks the issue of the efficiency of traditional Western missionaries. Yohannan is the president and founder of an Indian mission organization called Gospel for Asia, and he argues that if we really want to evangelize the world as quickly as possible, and with the best use of money, mission organizations ought to shift to supporting nationals.5
For traditional mission supporters, Yohannan’s book is disturbing and provocative. He insists that we calculate how much it costs an individual Western missionary to start a church, compared to the cost of supporting a national missionary to do the same work. He probes the pay-off value of our mission conferences, retreats, and consultations, and then presses home the issue of stewardship. Is it a responsible use of mission money, he queries, to keep sending Westerners when nationals can do it cheaper, and maybe better because their lifestyle is that of common people?
My wife and I have weighed this issue carefully as we think of two of our daughters who serve with their husbands in foreign countries. One is married to a North American and together they have served for nine years in the Dominican Republic with our denominational mission agency. Their annual support package is in excess of $35,000. The other daughter is married to a Latin American who serves as a church planter with a Mexican church. By virtue of his gifts, practical training, and high commitment, he has started three churches in the past 12 years, while all the time he supports his family by working in a factory.
I regard both of my sons-in-law as effective missionaries. Their lifestyles are modest and appropriate to the cultures in which they work. At the same time, I recognize that there is an enormous difference between them as far as the economic support they require. When I reflect on the thousands of church-planting evangelists who are needed around the world, and when I consider what it would cost if most of them had to be supported at $35,000 a year, it becomes very plain to me in what direction we need to go in world evangelization.
Yohannan’s questions need to be answered. Wherever Western missionaries go, they must be increasingly sensitive to matters related to lifestyle and should scrupulously avoid anything that alienates nationals or leaves wrong impressions. Once missionaries have learned by experience what it means to develop a church in the local culture, they should give top priority to equipping and deploying nationals.
Western missionaries, costly as they may be, are still very much needed in at least two areas: where the gospel has not yet penetrated and no non-Western worker is available; and where missionaries by virtue of their training and full-time efforts can multiply and equip local evangelists, teachers, and church developers. That is what my son-in-law and his colleagues do in the Dominican Republic and it thoroughly justifies their presence.
William Carey’s Eleventh Principle
Since this year is the bicentennial of the so-called modern missionary movement, it will be helpful to reflect on the attitudes and principles that guided the movement’s founder, William Carey. For the sake of evangelizing India’s lost millions, Carey was willing to risk everything. He lived and died in relative poverty, though he might have become well off through association with the East India Company. He faced crisis after crisis within his family, the scorn of the religious establishment at home, and periodic lack of support. The barriers Carey faced back then can only be compared to what Christians face today in fiercely anti-Christian countries.
Carey composed 11 principles for doing mission work which became known as the Serampore Covenant. Carey required everyone on his staff to affirm publicly their commitment to this covenant three times a year. It was meant to set the tone for all the work that followed Carey’s initiative.
Carey had no senior missionaries to mentor him, only the Bible and the example of Jesus and the apostles to shape his thinking. Yet he grasped the essentials of missionary vocation and the incarnational lifestyle that always marks great servants of God. The 11th and last of Carey’s principles reads as follows:
Let us give ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strength, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own. Let us sanctify ourselves for His work! Let us ever shut out the idea of laying up a dowry (nest egg or financial estate) for ourselves or our children. . . . A worldly spirit, quarrels, and every evil work will succeed the moment it is admitted that each brother may do something on his own account. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards such a measure. Let us continually watch against every indulgence. Rather let us bear hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and endeavor to learn in every state to be content.6
Is it too much to imagine that in this materialistic age a new generation of missionaries will arise from East and West, North and South, for whom the ideal of imitating Christ in simple lifestyle, identification with the common people, and single-minded pursuit of mission will again be the powerful, life-shaping ambition that it was for William Carey?
1. “Bonding and the Missionary Task,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, editors. (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1984), p. 452.
2. Ibid., p. 461.
3. Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 44.
4. Ibid., p. 48.
5. K. P. Yohannan, Why the World Waits: Exposing the Reality of Modern Missions. (Lake Mary, Fla.: Creation House, 1991), pp. 135, 136.
6. A. H. Oussoren, William Carey. (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff’s Uitgeversmaatschappij N.V., 1943), pp. 283, 284.
ROGER GREENWAY is professor of world missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich. He has been a missionary in Sri Lanka and Mexico and executive director four years with Christian Reformed World Ministries. His article is based on a paper given at the September, 1991, executives’ retreat of the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies.
Reprinted by permission from Evangelical Missions Quarterly (Box 794, Wheaton, Ill. 60189), April, 1992. It is adapted from the chapter, ‘The Lifestyle of the Urban Disciplemaker,’ “DISCIPLING THE CITY” A Comprehensive Approach To Urban Mission. Edited by Roger S. Greenway. Baker Book House, 1992.