As part of my ongoing MA in Bible and Mission I am writing an essay about Missio Dei – seeing mission as God’s mission – and what it means for the church in the 21st Century. As I’ve been researching and writing this essay I came across an explanation by Ajith Fernando of the importance of lifestyle choices related to wealth and comfort in the context of world mission.
We should be careful about the lifestyle issue when we enter into partnerships between Christians from rich and poor nations. Partnership is certainly a good and necessary thing, and it is one of the heartening areas of growth in missions today. Many churches in richer nations honestly want equality with other Christians, and this is a key for missionary motivation for partnership. Paul said, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13). Richer Christians feel bad that there is such a difference between their lifestyle and that of Christians from poorer nations. But when they come to our [poorer] nations, they live in luxury hotels where a day’s cost is about the monthly salary of a Christian worker. Unconsciously, the local leaders also get sucked into this lifestyle. And the guilty rich visitors feed this desire by suggesting that the locals need more conveniences. This is a powerful temptation, because we all like comfort and efficiency, and the simple lifestyle may be quite inefficient. If we succumb to this pressure, we will soon become distant from the people we are called to serve.
My father is a layman who has been active in the Evangelical Movement for a long time. He once told me that often a young evangelist goes to an unreached area and begins a good work of pioneering evangelism. This goes on for a time, until he comes in touch with a foreign sponsor who takes him on as “Our man in Sri Lanka.” From that point on, the ministry goes downhill. The worldwide missionary movement, therefore, needs to do a lot of thinking about the whole issue of lifestyle and how that affects the way missionary partnerships work.
Ajith Fernando, Jesus: The Message and Model of Mission, in Taylor, 2000, Global Missiology for the 21st Century
This is something that has been on my heart a lot recently, and I’m not sure there are any easy answers when we live in a world of such economic contrasts. Some people will advise missionaries from richer nations going to live in a poorer country that they should buy all the things they need to feel at home, in order that they not burn out. Often this is justified by reasoning that this is what the local people expect of outsiders, and that if they tried to live at a lower economic level their discomfort and uneasiness would be obvious to those they’re living with. On the other hand some people do try to give up their wealthy lifestyle and live as close as possible to the people they are serving, but in many cases they are only able to keep this up for a short time before returning to their home country.
I don’t know where the balance lies, and it will certainly be different for every person and situation, but I’m convinced that the area of wealth disparity is something that cross-cultural missionaries cannot just give simplistic answers to, but need to continually wrestle with.