by James E. Plueddemann
Is affluence the Achilles’ heel of modern missions? It is helpful for us to be challenged to think about the possible hindrance our possessions may have in our ministry.
Is affluence the Achilles’ heel of modern missions? It is helpful for us to be challenged to think about the possible hindrance our possessions may have in our ministry. It is easy for missionaries and for all Christians to make an idol out of possessions and comforts. This article can help us to recognize the dangers of affluence. Yet the simple lifestyle can just as easily become a subtle idol and a hindrance in our ministry.
The author’s observations from history give the impression that missionaries selfishly carted expensive comforts around Africa. The article neglected to say that the average life span of a missionary in much of Africa in 1877 was about a year. Missionaries didn’t go to Africa to live in an affluent paradise. We hear stories of how missionaries at times packed their "wealth" in a coffin. They assumed they would not come back. It is interesting to note that these same missionaries not only died for the ministry, but planted one of the fastest growing churches in the world. History doesn’t "prove" that affluence was the Achilles’ heel in obstructing the gospel. The argument based on common sense raises questions. Were rich missionaries to poor countries really ineffective? Why is it that the church is growing fastest in the poor countries of the world and is facing much resistance in the affluent countries of Europe and Japan? It may be true that economic disparity breeds envy and suspicion, but fake disparity probably will not overcome suspicion. There is no simple formula for deciding what constitutes modest living. Even the poorest Westerners are perceived as rich – don’t they arrive in silver airplanes? The real problem is the question of how we can show love to people who are less affluent. The issue is love, not affluence.
I doubt if the doctrine of the incarnation was intended to give us a model for missionary strategy. I am tempted to write a book entitled, Missionary Equipment: Saint Paul’s or Ours? The incarnation does not teach that we are to give up our wealth and become poor. The incarnation teaches that God became human for our sakes. The analogy does not quite fit missionaries. We may need to give up affluence out of love, but that is not the primary meaning of incarnation.
Another problem is in the economic assumptions of the simple lifestyle. The general argument implies that if we in the West become poor, the rest of the world will become wealthy. Bonk carries the argument further to imply that wealthy countries cannot successfully do mission work in poor countries. The economic theory is questionable. Nor does it seem helpful to place a load of guilt on missionaries who for the most part are already living a lifestyle that is simple by Western standards.
The greatest problem is that we have a more dangerous Achilles’ heel. Effectiveness in mission service probably has very little to do with affluence. Our Achilles’ heel is more likely to be lack of love for the people we work with. It doesn’t help if we give all we possess to the poor, live a simple lifestyle, or even give our body to be burned, if we don’t have love. Lifestyle is not the primary issue. Love is.
If we need a challenge, it is for us to use all our resources in a manner that shows deep love for people. A simple lifestyle may be one indication of that love.
Many missionaries are already practicing a simple lifestyle. I observed the lifestyle of two nurses living in the back of a truck so they could show the love of Christ to the people of Sudan. Nearby lived a husband and wife team who had been teaching literacy for two years while living in a tent. (It still costs thousands of dollars to keep them on the field even if they live in a tent.) Not far up the road lived a young family with small children in a two-room, locally-made mud hut. On the other hand, there are missionaries who feel more spiritual than affluent missionaries because they use outdoor rather than indoor plumbing. I hope the article will not make these missionaries feel they are doing well merely because they use an outhouse.
Our real Achilles’ heel has very little to do directly with lifestyle. We need to be encouraged to love one another more deeply. Affluence can be used for the Kingdom or it can be used selfishly. It won’t hurt any of us to ask if affluence is a hindrance to our ministry, but affluence as such is not our Achilles’ heel.
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