Aquinas was walking with the Pope through one of the grand cathedrals of his day. The Pope gestured to the art and beauty all around and said, “Behold, Master Thomas, no longer can Peter (the Church) say, 'Silver and gold have I none.' And Aquinas replied, 'It is true, holy father, nor can she say to the lame man, 'Take up your bed and walk.'”
Western missionary wealth is a barrier to the gospel of Christ. St. Francis is attributed as saying, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” The implication is that our lives preach the gospel more loudly than anything we say or even our “ministry activities.”
Missionaries are aware of this on the level of personal morality and devotional habits, but have often failed to make the connection that our wealthy lifestyles and how we use money are part of the gospel we are communicating. Often, our lifestyle inadvertently preaches a gospel of wealth instead of the good news of the Christ born in desperate poverty (Luke 2:24), who became a refugee (Matthew 2:13) and a homeless man (Matthew 8:20), who told his followers to not take anything with them on their missions (Matthew 10:9) and to give all their wealth away to the poor (Matthew 12:33).
The sad consequences of our unexamined lifestyles include creating dependency on the foreign mission instead of authentic national expressions of ministry. It creates barriers to intimate friendships between foreign missionaries and members of the host culture, barriers to missionary bonding and understanding the host culture leading to premature foreign missionary attrition, and unsustainable or un-replicable models of ministry.
Cultivate a Vision for Simplicity and Humility
As Western missionaries and sending agencies, we need to break our own cultural taboo against talking about money and give practical support to missionaries in adopting appropriate standards of living in host countries.
Implicit in this is a denial of the false assumption that how we live does not affect our ministry or mission. It has been a long time since westerners routinely lived where we work; we are often accustomed to separating our work and home lives. This leads to otherwise moral people justifying unethical decisions in business because “that is the way business works.” We can also falsely assume that how we live at home does not affect our work or ministry. Often missionaries, faced with issues of poverty and wealth, create two separate worlds for themselves.
They have a home set up with a lifestyle that they would reasonably expect in their home country; however, it is a very affluent standard of living in their host country. Because it is hard to relate cross-socio-economically, the families end up relating only with other westerners. To deal with the dissonance, the missionary doesn't invite nationals to the family home.
One of my teammates had a candid conversation with a national pastor who remarked that “those missionaries are happy to preach in my church, but I have never been in their home.” The pastor's conclusion was that the missionaries looked down on the nationals; however, I suspect that the missionaries were ashamed of their relative wealth and unsure of how to reconcile it with their ministry.
Being a guest in a foreign culture is an experience that affects every aspect of our lives, and therefore creates an opportunity to re-examine our unspoken cultural assumptions and to re-integrate our lives in a way that is often not possible in our home country. Although far from having arrived at perfection in this area ourselves, the InnerCHANGE community has found it useful to cultivate a vision for simplicity and humility when we enter a host culture. We try to take on a posture of learning from our hosts, as well as a vulnerability and reliance upon our hosts, as we see modeled in Matthew 10.
The following suggested guidelines for missionaries are meant to offer practical ways to live simply and humbly in a host culture.
1. Missionaries should only bring what they can check in on the airplane. People have been surviving and even thriving in host countries for millennia. Missionaries should not bring any household items, but should endeavor to adopt local habits for their first term. A first-term missionary packing list might include nothing except a few personal mementos (such as Christmas decorations), special children's toys, a few pairs of “airplane clothes,” and essential personal medication. There is a spiritual process when we move overseas and have our old lifestyle habits and possessions stripped away.
2. Missionaries should live with a host family before setting up their own household. One of the more helpful approaches that I have seen under-utilized is the immersion experience, where new missionaries live with a host family for one to three months as soon as possible after arriving in the host country.
In addition to the obvious language, culture, and bonding benefits, this helps missionaries to observe closely how the host families shop and set up their household. It also gives missionary families time to learn how to interpret the context enough to be able to choose a home that will continue to facilitate bonding with the culture. While the idea is often initially overwhelming for new missionaries, it often proves to be the highlight of their first term.
3. Missionaries should expect to adopt the standard of living of national pastors or NGO workers in the host country. It is, of course, a great and tragic irony in this world that the poorest twenty percent are dying of under-consumption and the top twenty percent are dying of over-consumption.
Moving cross-culturally affords us an opportunity to examine our standard of living, learn simplicity from our host culture, and attempt to make the uneven ground in this world level (Isaiah 40:4). For Western missionaries, a good rough goal in moving to a developing country is to aim to adopt the standard of living of a national pastor or NGO worker in that country. Aspects to look at would include where and in what kind of housing a national family would live in, where they would shop, what household items they would typically own, and what kind of vehicles they would use.
Westerners are often unaware that wealth can communicate distance and be a hindrance to relationship. This seems to come up on our team in relation to cars. If it is necessary for a staff member to own a car (and even that assumption should be questioned), what kind of car should that person drive? Better to arrive hot, dusty, and flustered on a local form of transportation and allow your host to show you hospitality with a cup of cold water and an opportunity to wash than to communicate wealth and inaccessibility in an expensive Land Rover.
4. Missionaries should seek out cross-cultural mentors. Although not always easy to find, cross-cultural mentors can be invaluable in helping to interpret the culture and in making economic decisions. Ideally, cultural mentors should be nationals who are familiar with foreigners. For example, a national educated in a Western country or one who has experienced Western culture in some way that allows him or her to bridge differences is invaluable. The mentor should be a peer or of slightly higher status and not economically connected to the foreigner or the foreigner's agency in any way.
The role of the mission agency and missionary leadership on the field in most circumstances is less to legislate than to set a vision and to help the missionary family in making decisions while they are still young in the culture. Often, I have found that when I am welcoming new missionaries I have a desire to “soften the blow” and try to make cross-cultural adjustment easier for them than it was for me by inviting them over for Western meals, DVDs, or setting up their household for them.
Other missionaries I have seen have the opposite reaction and take on a “it-was-tougher-in-my-day-so-what-are-they-complaining-about” attitude. Neither is helpful to the new missionary. As leaders, our primary goal for first-term missionaries is to give them every chance to bond with the host culture, acknowledging that it will be difficult no matter what we do and that they do not need to have the same experience that we had, while offering lots of grace in the process.
Althen, Gary, Amanda R. Doran, and Susan J. Szmania. 2002. American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners Living in the United States. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Intercultural Press.
Bonk, Jonathan J. 2007. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem…revisited. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis.
Brewster, E. Thomas and Elizabeth S. Brewster. 1982. Bonding and the Missionary Task. Pasadena, California, USA: Lingua House.