by Stan Nussbaum
Affluence as a missiological problem is both a major and a neglected issue.
Affluence as a missiological problem is both a major and a neglected issue, major because it is so closely related to the way the Third World perceives the message that North American missionaries preach and neglected because of our ethnocentric perception that missionaries are not rich but belong to the lower middle class. Bonk does well to direct our attention to this issue.
Bonk identifies three aspects of the affluence problem of mission work: missionary standard of living, the use of high tech in missions, and the lack of social contact and genuine friendship between missionaries and their hosts. His solutions are to reduce the lifestyle, eliminate high tech, and watch the genuine friendships grow naturally in the new atmosphere that is relatively free of the affluence/poverty dichotomy.
I would strongly agree with his plea for a simpler missionary lifestyle, appreciating his caution that there are no simple solutions and supporting the concrete recommendations he does make (even though he begins by stepping on the toes of missions professors such as myself). The argument against high tech is much less convincing. The reference to Christ’s temptation does not in my opinion offer a parallel or even an applicable case. I do not see a necessary disjunction between Bonk’s opinion and Winter’s – why not have both a "cross strategy" and the latest in technology? Here I recognize that Bonk will say I want to mix oil and water (or light and darkness?), but his paper does not explain why the two approaches cannot be combined.
Bonk seems to assume that if the first two problems, lifestyle and high tech, are dealt with, the economic gap will be reduced and true friendships will then be possible. This has the appearance of logic, but in practice I believe it puts the cart before the horse. The incarnation strategy was not to reduce the size of the gap between heaven and earth in order to make it more bridgeable. Instead, Jesus bridged the unbridgeable by becoming something that no one could have logically predicted the God-man.
What I am suggesting is that the meaningful relationships Bonk desires may miraculously precede the economic adjustments he urges. A rich missionary may indeed have poor friends, but these very friendships continually provide the incentive for progressive simplification of lifestyle. The tension which had existed between the rich missionary and the poor host is shifted to a new position within the missionary himself. He is rich-poor. His relationship with the poor survives, while he himself is torn apart from within by the dual identity he has been given in order to carry out the mission God has for him. Is not this following the example of Christ?
If it is true that the basic problem Bonk is addressing is not affluence per se (as his title would have it) but rather the refusal of missionaries to incarnate and develop close friendships with people who happen to be poor, then it will be necessary to add one recommendation to his fine list. I believe that mission boards must adjust their policies so as to encourage missionaries to relate socially and economically to their neighbors. When has a mission administrator probed this area? How does mission policy promote, guide, and reward these relationships? Does it in any way discourage them? There is much room for discussion and growth in all these areas. His concluding invitation to dialogue is an apt ending to an important paper.
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