Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Affluent missionaries

Yesterday’s post brought my mind to a topic which I had decided to write about some time ago. But this is also one of the topics which needs to be discussed and pondered about, as the final solution is far from clear. So this will not be the last time that I write about it.
Jonathan Bonk wrote a book with the title Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. To be honest, I have not read the book myself, but I have read a number of articles about the book, available on the internet, here, here and here. And to be VERY honest, I don’t want to read Bonk’s book, because I’m afraid of what I may read there and I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.
Bonk’s argument boils down to the fact that most missionaries’ standard of living, compared to the locals amongst which he/she is working, results in a gap between them which may make it very difficult for the gospel to be accepted. When we moved to Swaziland in 1985 we were, according to Western standards, really poor. My wife and I both had study loans that still had to be repaid, our furniture consisted mainly of hand-me-downs from my parents and my wife’s parents and six months previously we had started to find out what it costs to raise a baby! And then we moved into a HUGE four-bedroom house in Swaziland which the church had bought. Two of the bedrooms’ doors were permanently closed, because we had no furniture to put there. And then we had the shock that people came to our door and asked for accommodation. And when we told them that we did not have rooms to spare, they looked at us in disbelief! How could a man, his wife and a baby fill up a huge house like that? As I wrote some time ago, this was probably one of the biggest issues that we had to come to terms with.
Bonk suggest a number of radical changes which missionaries need to make. These include things like living in the same houses and in the same circumstances as the local people and making do without luxuries such as fresh water, electricity, medical support, schools and such things if the locals have to do without them.
Rationalising about these issues, I know that our eldest son would not be alive today if we did not have access to medical support in South Africa at one stage when he was critically ill. Would God have wanted us to make do with the medical support given by the nurse at the local clinic rather than a paediatrician in a major hospital who was able to save his life? Would God have wanted us to deny our children opportunities which came merely because they attended government schools in South Africa rather than government schools in Swaziland, between which there is a vast difference in education standard? (I know of some missionaries who have their children placed in prestigious private schools. Personally I do have a problem with this, as most people supporting missions don’t have the money to have their own children placed in such schools.)
One of my earlier colleagues have four sons, one of whom studied theology and then became a full-time missionary in South Africa while another became a medical doctor, married a medical doctor and both of them worked for many years as mission doctors in Mocambique. Had they done their schooling in government schools in Swaziland, they would most probably not have been able to accomplish this.
But as I said: This is my way of rationalising about the problem (and perhaps finding excuses for myself).
Things are changing in Swaziland. There is a higher class starting to establish itself in the country. The middle class, if I look at housing and vehicles, is also starting to live on a higher standard. But the lower class still exists and may even be becoming poorer. I heard yesterday that 67% of the country’s population have to survive on 45 US cents per day – that’s about $165 per year! And these are the people which form the greater part of our church and on whom we focus our home-based care.
And compared to them I’m like Bill Gates!


Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - Posted by | Africa, Building relations, Church, Comfort Zone, Culture Shock, Evangelism, Giving, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Indigenous church, Jonathan Bonk, Mission, Poverty, Swaziland, Theology


  1. I have been giving this a lot of thought over the past several years. If one visits the website globalrichlist, you can type in your income for the year and see how you stack up to the rest of the world. To illustrate how U.S.-centric I was a while back, I thought it was showing me about how we stood financially within the U.S. but I then realized it was throughout the entire world. We are definitely middle-class (although in the beginning of our marriage we were very poor by American standards) and we still ended up in the top 1% of the WORLD’s richest people. Sure opened my eyes!

    I can certainly see the value of living as the nationals do. That would remove the “gap” you spoke of financially. However, I also think of how the L-rd chose to place you in the position you’re in with the resources you have for a reason. This is a difficult situation to figure out to be sure. I liked the example of the children who received a good education and then ended up using it for missions work (obviously they are using their gifts for the good of others) so that is a more obvious reason why it was good for them to benefit from a higher education, but it is a muddy situation to think through, isn’t it?

    I often wonder why G-d chose to plunk me down into this country at this time in the family that he did with the finances we had. I am very blessed and part of me wonders (often during prayer) why I was able to experience such abundance when MOST of the world’s population doesn’t. It makes me that much more sure that we must use our funds, assets, and abilities wisely and for G-d’s purposes. It is an important and large responsibility that many don’t give a thought to.

    Comment by Maya | Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thanks for that link. That’s neat. It certainly confirmed what I knew, although I’m further down the list than you are, but still in the top 7%. I’ve been on guilt trips but now it is more a matter of deciding how to live with my income in such a way that I can be a blessing for others.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | Reply

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