Continuing in “Missions and Money”

I have been continuing in the book Missions and Money by Jonathan Bonk, and am now in the section which will begin addressing the difficulties raised by Missionary affluence. The summary (quote at length below), which introduces the upcoming section is particularly penetrating and bodes well for future reading:

On the surface, there can be no denying that the advantages of affluence far outweigh the disadvantages. Ther preference for more rather than fewwer material accoutrements seems to be universal. To my knowledge, no human society deliberately acculturates its young to strive for personal destitution. The benefits of missionary affluence are obvious, relating largely to comfort, security, and efficiency. The often over-looked costs, on the other hand, must be calculated in more difficult-to-tally social currencies. How missiologically significant is the virtually unbridgeable economic gulf between Western missionaries and their proteges within the Gospel communication process itself? What effect — if any — does welath have upon the misisonar’s personal credibility as communicator and teacher? And what influence does the material privilege of the missionary have on reluting percetpions of just what constitutes the good news? Since Jesus made it clear that medium and message cannot be separated in matters of faith, answers to such questions will have a direct bearing on the Western missionary understanding of themselves and their modus operandi. The following chapters attempt to explore some of the direct and acnillary effects of affluence upon both Wester missionaries and their culturally packaged modeling of the Good News.

Many of the questions and issues he raises in this first paragraph were pressing themselves into my mind during our time in Malawi. We lived very close to a sprawling shanty town; I was pressed by these issues and was not able to fully rest in the answers I came there with. In the picture below (if you squint) you will see in the upper right corner the shanty town.Half a mile down the road, in the bottom right hand corner was the campus where we lived (for which we were very grateful). I don’t mean to bring doubt on any of the wonderful missionaries there, or the general strategy of the mission; they had embraced their poor neighbors much better than I did, and they simply were committed to providing good Christian tertiary education for the sake of the poor next door. I had doubts about my own calling on that campus, and my own interaction.

Bonk continues in some good but hard words:

Western missionaries constitute part of a rich elite whose numbers, relative to the burgeoning populations of poor around the world, constitute a steadily diminishing proportion of the world’s total. Furthermore, the economic gulf separating the rich from the poor is widening, despite sincere but essentially desultory efforts on the part of the "developed" nations and "development" agencies to reverse the trend. Accordingly, the price that missioanries must pay as personal beneficiaries and exemplars of Western affluence has never been higher. In exchange for the comforts and securities of personal affluence, missionaries sacrifice apostolic effectiveness and credibility. More troubling still is the damage to personal integrity suffered by a rich missionary purporting to represent a Lord who for our sake became poor.

Failure to recognize and somehow address wealth’s insidiously corrosive effects upon its domestic and missionary life will ensure the continued ebb of the Western churches as a Kingdom force. Increasingly mesmerized by the deceitfulness of its own riches and by the cars of its gated, materially secure world, the fruitlessness of the richest church in the world will continue apace, however impressively frenetic or technologically proficient its home and foreign missions (Mark 4:18). Like their first-century Laodicean counterpart, whose spiritual penury seems to have been apparent to everyone but herself, affluent Western churches will become bywords for spiritual sterility (Rev. 3:14-21). As our Christian Scriptures and subsequent history attest, repentance among the secure and the comfortable is exceedingly rare. But it is possible.

The negative dynamics of economic disparity in four overlapping spheres of missionary life and work — relation, communicatory, strategic, and theological — are explored in the following chapters. The relative affluence of missionaries whose ostensible mandate it is to lead the poor of this world in the way of the cross influences each of these spheres in profound if not always immediately obvious ways.

[Jonathan Bonk, Mission and Money: affluence as a missionary problem revisited, Rev. and Expanded Ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2006), 51-52.]

All of this comes after a long historical survey of the benefits of wealth for the missionary. I am excited to chart the authors picture of the costs of affluence for ministry among the poor, especially his arguments for the above and his resolution to the issue; neither of which have been given yet but are on the way.

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