Money and Missions: A Few Preliminary Thoughts

For more than 150 years (at least as far as Chinese missions are involved), the question of money has perplexed and divided sincere Christians who wish to see God’s kingdom advanced.

This question takes many forms, two of which are, How can we use limited resources in the most responsible way? Part of that question is, How can we send qualified missionaries overseas at the lowest possible cost, without depriving them of essential support?

Different mission agencies and churches have answered that question differently. The mission we belonged to for fourteen years, OMF International (as it is now called), emphasized frugality and faith at each point of the way. Perhaps their most helpful principle (at least to me) was that the missionary should live as close to the people as possible.

In Taiwan, that meant a life style comparable to that of a high-school teacher. In our church, that put Dori and me towards the bottom of the scale, but in other churches that might make the missionary “richer” than most in the congregation. In either case, no one considers that standard of living too high.

But then you have to consider other costs, as well. What about travel to and from the field; medical insurance; language learning; education for children (when homeschooling is not possible); travel while on Home Assignment; provision for retirement; support of the essential home staff; support for essential field administrators; conferences for the missionaries; vacations for them while on the field and at home; provision for retirement; life insurance – and so forth?

Are we to send missionaries overseas without regard to what life will be like for them when they return? If not, then we have to factor in the total cost when we figure out how much each one needs to have before going to serve.

If the cost for Americans is too high, then perhaps we have to make adjustments. Maybe we send fewer missionaries, people who are highly-skilled and well-trained and most likely to have an impact, rather than just everyone who wants to go.

Perhaps we use “tentmakers” more. But then we have to consider the very mixed record of such part-time servants of God over the past few decades, despite much fanfare when the concept was first widely introduced. With full-time jobs, often little contact with the locals; and usually not time for language acquisition or missionary training, including knowledge of the bible, theology, and principles of cross-cultural communication, these fine people often bear much less fruit that they and their prayer partners (if they do solicit prayer at all) had hoped.

But maybe the best solution is to support “indigenous” workers. After all, in many places they can live much less expensively than Americans can. Furthermore, they don’t have to cross the cultural barriers and learn the language the way Americans do.

This proposed solution raises a whole host of other questions, however:

If they are truly “indigenous,” then they are not cross-cultural missionaries. If that is the case, let us be clear: We are not comparing apples and apples, but apples and oranges. A person from the Hmar tribe preaching to other Hmars is an evangelist, catechist, or pastor, but not a cross-cultural missionary.

That raises the question: Should we support people to work in their own culture? If so, how do we avoid such problems as: Whom do we decide to support? How does our support of one avoid envy in others? How does our support of local pastors relieve the local congregations of responsibilities which, the world over, all have recognized that local congregations should bear?

If they are evangelists, going to another section of the same population, similar questions arise: How are we to avoid creating a dependency on foreign money, when almost all healthy evangelism takes place when it is funded by the sending body? To take the Hmar as an example: In the beginning, they were noted for tithing even the rice they used for cooking. Will foreign money make that unnecessary?

(More on the Hmar: They were noted for their sacrificial giving, and then foreign money became available. That lead to so much trouble within the tribe that a few split off and formed a new group: The Independent Church of India, whom I visited in 1993, and with whose evangelistic and cross-cultural missionary zeal I was much impressed. But now they, too, are receiving foreign funds! I don’t understand all this, but I am thinking that the issues are more complex than might appear on the surface.)

Or will foreign money produce a dependency on an income flow that could cease at any time? If we help them buy equipment, what happens if that equipment breaks down? Can they afford to replace it? If we build schools and hospitals, how will they maintain these institutions? If we fund faculty and staff, how will they survive if our money stops flowing?

Other questions: How do we avoid the age-old question of the connection between money and control? Perhaps we put money entirely into the hands of local leaders. Good. But how do we ensure their accountability without exercising some control?

Let us say we have good ways of choosing honest leaders, holding them accountable and giving them freedom to act.

How do we avoid “hooking” them on foreign money in a way that pressures them to give good reports? When I was in India, on two occasions the evangelists came to me privately, with furtive glances, and told me, “Things are not as they seem. It is not as good as you have been told.”

How do we avoid rewarding the local leaders who can make a good impression on the foreigner? This problem vexed Chinese missions so badly that in the early 20th century some Chinese leaders just said that they wouldn’t take any foreign money. Predictably, their churches grew faster. Even today, churches in China find that foreign money tempts people to make a good impression and even to compete with each other for overseas funding. This is the origin of the so-called “Three Self” movement in China. Its recent perversion by the Communists should not blind us to the original impetus for it, which came from the Chinese Christians themselves.

An authoritative study of Taiwan church growth (Mending the Nets, by Allen Swanson), demonstrated that there was an inverse ratio between the amount of foreign money received and the health and growth of a church or denomination in that country.

But let us suppose we have found ways to avoid dependency; allow local autonomy; forestall misuse of funds; prevent any envy; and guard against pressure to give a good impression to foreign donors.

We still have another question: How Biblical is the idea of giving money to support local pastors and evangelists? Paul could be cited, since he “robbed other churches” in order to minister in Corinth. But was he local?

That brings us to another question: Should we support cross-cultural missionaries from other countries to places closer to them than we are, and thus (presumably) with fewer financial and cultural barriers to cross?

Thus, P.M. Thomas went from southern Indian to Kashmir (and the Hmar send missionaries to Hindus and Muslims). For the first few years, he had to learn a new language and culture and adjust to a new climate (he hates the cold!). He also had to overcome local hostility and the prejudice that northerners have against southerners. But he persisted, and has built a great work.

Having visited him, I know that he and Kristie do not live extravagantly. I also know that they live in far greater comfort that many around them, and than do their fellow workers. The same goes for Paul Pillai. I do not begrudge them this higher living standard; it allowed them to receive me when I was there. They need extra quiet for their work. But let us at least not ignore the similarity of their situation to that of American cross-cultural missionaries. Perhaps there is something about cross-cultural work that requires a standard of living higher than that of the locals.

And let us not ignore the fundamental similarity of their cross-cultural adjustment to that of the American who would go to Kashmir. Yes, they are Indians, and thus know far more of the politics, etc., than any American would. And yes, they are dark-complected, which presumably helps. But they still had to take a long time to adjust and learn, as we would. And I have been told (by Chinese as well as by Indians) that fair-skinned Americans have a much easier time gaining a hearing than do fellow Indians and Chinese, at least among certain people. Not always, and perhaps not for long; but sometimes. And that should cause us to pause just a bit before making generalizations.

Still, I’m sure it cost much less for PM to go to Kashmir than it would have cost an American. Two questions: Should we support him and others like him? And should we not support Americans?

How did he make it as long as he did? He was supported by his fellow Indians in the South. Being closer, they could assess his performance; they knew his worth; they entered into his work. I’m not sure when he started getting foreign support, but it wasn’t at the beginning.

Which raises an interesting question: At what point does foreign support become useful? I’m not sure I even begin to know the answer to this one. I’m sure others have thought about it. My guess is that foreign money works best with a group that already has momentum and strong backing from much closer than America.

And when does foreign money become a burden? I don’t know the answer to that, either, but I have some guesses. Like: When it goes on too long; when it comes with control; when it puts pressure on the recipients to make a good impression; when it distracts them from local work and necessitates travel to the US (very expensive and time consuming); when it creates dependence by setting up something that could not be sustained if conditions changed and the foreign funds ceased; etc.

Back to the second question posed earlier: Should we send Americans overseas? That, too, is not easy to answer. If they are not qualified; if they would be met only with hostility; if the locals don’t need them – these are some “red lights.” But the Great Commission applies to us as well as to people from southern India and South Korea.

Furthermore, Americans have some unique resources to offer (such as management skills; Bible training; communication skills; lack of identification with nearer enemies; a different cultural experience and therefore a distinct perspective; etc.).

And what about those who go from other parts of the world to still other parts of the world? Are they more effective than the much-criticized Americans? Ask anyone who has worked with missionaries from South Korea, whose great zeal is not always matched with equal patience and tact, and whose home congregations impose huge pressures to perform within a short period of time.

It would be helpful for all who have to make such decisions to read Donald McGavran’s classic, Understanding Church Growth, which drew on dozens of studies from around the world and throughout mission history to chart the basic conditions for healthy church planting and development. It’s not as if people haven’t faced these issues before. And tried. And failed. And sometime succeeded, by God’s grace and to His glory.