Part 7: Money and Prosperity

Prosperity and Poverty

Unless you live in a cave, you will have heard of the astronomical amount of money won in the recent Powerball lottery in the USA. $1.6 billion, split three ways. To put that in perspective, a lottery was worth more than the Gross National Product of 31 different countries (according to UN statistics).

If the siren call of worldly wealth didn't work on us for mere thousands or millions, then over a billion probably sufficed to get our attention. I'm sure most of us imagined all the good things we could do for the Kingdom with this fabulously filthy lucre. This is despite centuries of evidence to the contrary – our historically unprecedented levels of wealth have not made us more effective in communicating the gospel, planting churches, and making disciples. At best, it is a stumbling block. At worst it irreparably corrupts both our witness and everything we touch. The parable of King Midas has stuck around for good reasons.

Twenty five years ago, Jonathon Bonk wrote in his brilliant work "Missions and Money":

For as will be seen, in exchange for the various comforts and securities of personal affluence, Western missionaries must sacrifice a measure of apostolic effectiveness and credibility….Failure to counter wealth's insidious effects upon its missionary endeavours 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 cares of its tiny, materially secure, ego-sized world, the richest church in the world will continue to decline in spiritual fruitfulness despite its frenetic, high profile, technologically efficient activities.
This is of course most notable in our work among the poor. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people globally live in slums. But only 1 in 500 foreign missionaries work in slums.[i] Our taste for more tolerable mission fields is evident! Yet urban slums and refugee camps that have morphed into permanent cities are the new frontiers of global mission.

Bonk, in the same book, asserts that the neglect of the urban poor by the First World missions movement is not simple neglect, but at least in part a deliberate avoidance due to our own awkwardness and discomfort at dealing with such gripping and unsolvable poverty. All well and good, of course, that the gospel should have a tangible impact on every facet of human life, including economic injustice and suffering caused by poverty. But might there also be a grain of truth to the idea that of our own love of mammon is such that we aspire to elevate the poor to a higher financial status because it puts us at greater ease in working with them? Our preference seems obvious; we would much rather minister into environments that are more palatable to our economically-honed sensibilities than amongst the truly poor.

Beyond this, an insistence on a particular standard of living can introduce divisiveness among missionaries of different economic statuses, as well as resentment and misunderstanding from those we are trying to reach. This is well documented. We can justify it for reasons of our health, our longevity of service, our children's' needs, our connectivity with sending churches back home; the list goes on. Regardless, it has inevitable effects on the very people we are trying to reach.

If the Church is to be effective in reaching out to these hundreds of millions, it will have to be able to live among them in a way that integrates into such communities. But instead of a willingness to become poor, for the sake of the poor, we exhibit an enthusiasm for exporting the message of prosperity, both as a set of socio-economic aspirations, and as a primary sign of the favour of God.

This is a part of why the Global South Initiative matters so much. It is imperative that we create dynamics that enable Global South countries to accelerate their missionary sending movements and help them become more effective as cross-cultural workers.

The West is not only in decline in overall missionary numbers, it is arguably falling behind even faster in its fundamental capacity to produce Christians who are capable of effectively reaching out to the people and communities most in need of the gospel. Our affluence, our sense of independence, and most of the very things that make the Global North the preferred destination of most migrants are also the things that make us so ineffective at incarnating the Good News into the unreached world today.

Of course, with God, all things are possible, but it will be the exception rather than the rule to find a First World missionary who is ready, willing, and able to live amongst the filth and squalor and systemic corruption and injustice that hundreds of millions of urban poor have to deal with every single day. Workers from the Global South are much more likely to be able to minister into those contexts – contexts which house over a billion people.

So, what can we do to truly serve our Global South brothers and sisters who are more than qualified to be effective in these places? Instead of this more obvious solution, we can instead hope for an economic crash that delivers us from our prisons of mammon along with a simultaneous revival that quickly and profoundly reshapes our entire church culture, discipleship process, and missionary training/sending patterns. But I wouldn't hold my breath; the former option seems a lot more reasonable!

[i] http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/1IBMR2014.pdf


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