Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.
Buying missions is a common practice in the church world today. It is done by local congregations as well as by individuals. One simply shops the smorgasbord of available opportunities, makes a decision, and forks over the money. In such a process the conscience is soothed and one’s holy obligation to do mission work is satisfied. Little attention is paid to the consequences. The mission field suffers desperately, and Christ’s name is often blasphemed in the process.
We must be sure we are not guilty of buying missions.
The Temptation to Buy a Mission
The temptation arises in the western ecclesiastical culture, where it is fashionable to do mission work. It is born in a milieu where doing mission work is looked upon as a fourth mark of the faithful church. Precious little regard may be paid to the three marks given to us in our Belgic Confession. There we have set forth the biblical norm of orthodoxy: biblical preaching, biblical administration of sacraments, and biblical Christian discipline. It is sad how little attention is paid to any of these marks. Why then consider adding a fourth? Fact is, if we hold to the first mark correctly, we know that faithful, biblical preaching includes mission work. Such preaching is not to be done only in the established church. Preaching is the mark of the faithful church also when she preaches the gospel to all the world as Christ has instructed her to do.
When we say mission work is “fashionable,” we do not deny that it is the duty of the church to do such work. Rather, it is fashionable in the sense that the church does not look upon missions as hard work, requiring sweat and tears, done upon the wings of prayer. Rather, she is only interested in parading before others how much mission work she is doing, she likes to brag about how large a percentage of the annual church budget is spent on missions. Such churches prepare slick portfolios to display the missionaries’ work; they detail how they engage the national leaders; and there will be a statistics’ report of how successful they are, how many souls are won for Jesus, and how many more locals were added to the church in the foreign land. I say, if this is the emphasis on missions, then there exists a real temptation to buy missions.
Even well-intentioned individuals can fall into this trap. Sometimes they encounter such needs in their personal travel. Other times they may feel frustrated by their own church’s lack of mission zeal and take it upon themselves to do mission work alone. Since material needs are evident, the easiest thing is to meet these needs with a monthly check. Such a person is guilty of buying missions.
That may sound judgmental, but the fact remains that mission work done from such a perspective is fraught with danger. And that danger is not just theoretical, else I might just leave it alone. It is practical. The wreckage of mission work done from such a perspective is strewn all over this part of the world. We encounter it both in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Here is a church group getting their monthly check from an American church. Here is an individual struggling in his mission work, and he is getting his monthly check from an individual or two in America. We ask, who is supervising this work, to whom are you accountable? And the answer is that they write a letter occasionally to the ones who send the money and keep them informed of the progress. Once in awhile the person or church may send a pastor or delegation to have a look, but even this does not help. It makes matters worse. By this time the local people are well aware that the church is receiving money from “overseas” and are more than eager to show an interest in its endeavors. The presence of some “westerner” who will lead a service or conduct a seminar lends tremendous prestige to the local effort and lifts the standing of the pastor. Note with me, the emphasis is on carnal, earthly things, not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. If the church is engaged in buying missions, more than likely she is not really doing mission work.
Repeatedly in our travels this comes home to us when the local church wants us, too, to buy them. How difficult this is for us. We see all their poverty. They usually have great ideas on what they could do to serve our Lord if only they had more money. They can look at us with pleading eyes. How tempting it is just to send them a check each month to meet personal as well as mission needs. But we then would be guilty of buying a mission.
Three Levels of Buying a Mission Field
The first level consists in this, that the local congregation which is entrusted with the care of the mission field does nothing more than raise funds and pay expenses.
Mission work must be done by the local instituted church. The authority which Christ gives the church to preach the gospel is vested in the local congregation. Our Reformed system of church government recognizes this when all missionaries of the Protestant Reformed Churches are called and sent out by a local church. The local churches designate some of their authority to the broader assembly in order to work together on missions. Out of this mutual concern, a mission committee serves the churches in common. This committee works with the local calling church to govern the work which is to be done. I am thankful to God that as churches we take this responsibility seriously. We are careful how we make decisions regarding any particular mission field. There are careful checks and balances in place to make certain that the work is done according to the Word of God. This may make doing mission work tedious at times, and seemingly slow things down, yet it eliminates the evil of authoritarian dictatorship (which is highly efficient, but woefully subject to abuse) on the one hand, and democratic individualism on the other (equally pragmatic and woefully capricious).
By contrast, a church that simply buys a mission shops around for a mission field. Usually contact is made with a para-church organization which can list many opportunities. All the church has to do is adopt a mission field, which means that it either furnishes the missionary or takes responsibility for one already in the field, prays for him, supports him, takes an oversight over him—but does it in the context of combined mission efforts. Depending on the arrangement and willingness of the local church to be involved, this arrangement does tempt the local church to be satisfied simply to maintain cursory contact with the missionary, pay the expenses, and display his work as their own. How frequently missions become nothing more than paying bills and basking in the public relations advantage of being a “mission-minded church”! Such a church does not actually do missions, it simply buys a mission. In the measure that that church either cannot or refuses to take full responsibility for making the decisions and nurturing the missionary and his work, in that measure it is guilty of buying missions.
The second level of buying missions is that the local church which is responsible for doing mission work does it by paying the monthly expenses of the nationals (local pastor or evangelists in the foreign land).
This appears to be a very plausible and frugal way of doing mission work. We quickly learn that western missionaries have serious handicaps in third-world countries. First, being western they carry cultural baggage which does not help but hinders their being accepted. Second, they carry a tag on them which indicates wealth. Everyone knows they have money, certainly a whole lot more than the locals. My wife and I have discovered, too, that the locals in third-world countries know westerners have a generous spirit as well. There are times when locals will approach my wife and me and bypass everyone else. We are pegged as “softies.” Third, it is very difficult if not impossible for a western missionary and family to live anywhere near the level of the locals. If they try, they will encounter diseases, hardships, and psychological difficulties which almost inevitably will drive them from the field. History of missions shows that western missionaries have great difficulty in living like the locals on their level, but almost always had to take with them bundles of material goods which they needed to survive. Finally, so much time is spent on survival that precious little time is even available to do the Lord’s work. All of this makes inefficiency and inadequacy inevitable. How much better to train and pay the locals to do the work among their own people and race!
This reasoning, however, quickly leads to a pitfall: just pay the expenses of the national pastors and let them do mission work. How easy! They are far more equipped to do the work. They know the language, can handle the hazards of travel, have bodies which have developed enough antibodies to throw off bacterial and viral infections. They have better rapport with the locals. They can use contextualization in a good sense and relate the gospel of Christ in the context of local false religions. Besides all this, they can live so cheaply. If we pay them only US$15.00 a month they can do more than survive, they can function very well. What western missionary can do anything like this? So the solution is simple. Train the local pastor and pay his fee and we buy another mission.
The problem lies here, in the payment of a monthly fee. What a headache this produces. Often the consequences are horrendous. We make such a worker dependent on foreign money. Just by virtue of the fact that he receives foreign funds his standing rises and complicates his work among the people. If he is foreign educated (that is, in a country other than his own), the problem is accentuated because his standing has greatly increased, he claims to have more knowledge, and he must have more privileges because of his training. Other factors enter the picture of course, and circumstances may vary from place to place, but the problems are real and have been well documented in missions’ articles. Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April 1998, for example, has a case study in an article entitled, “When the Mission Pays the Pastor.” More detailed treatment is given in the book Missions and Money, by Jonathan J. Bonk. The point I want to make is this: simply paying money, even to local workers, is not doing mission work. It is buying missions.
The third level of buying missions is by sending money to the local church in the field and permitting them to make use of it as they see fit. Details of this method are developed in the booklet entitled “Funding Third-World Missions, the pursuit of true Christian partnership,” by Luis Bush.
Using this method, the church which is responsible for maintaining the mission field includes in its work the financial support of the local churches in the field by sending to their central office a monthly check which they are required to distribute among their own churches as they decide the need. I do not place this method in the same category as the first two. I believe there is a real place and need for doing such things. But what it requires is a mature mission field which can handle money on its own. This approach is being used by the Evangelical Reformed Churches in Singapore in their work in Myanmar. We have discovered that if we take this approach in a field which is not well-developed and does not have in place the necessary structure for church government, with the checks and balances it provides, this method brings about many of the same problems as the second level.
For a church to do mission work just by sending a check to the field and letting them manage it for themselves is also wrong. Thankfully the ERCS is not simply sending money this way, but actually works hard at bringing the gospel and requiring accountability as Christ requires.
Solving Money Problems in Missions
I am hardly so foolish as to imagine that I can propose solutions to such a persistent and pervasive problem in the few lines I have remaining in this article. Yet there are certain things we do well to consider that may help us work toward solutions.
First, the preaching of the gospel must always have the emphasis in missions. Money matters must arise out of this activity. If we lose this priority, mission committee meetings will be nothing more than solving money problems. In initial stages the preaching may involve western missionaries, but the goal must be that the locals are trained to preach the gospel. This work must be done, or missions is not being done. Hence, the training of local pastors and missionaries must be given priority. The chief role of the western church today is in the area of theological training. No one can do that better than mature churches who have the benefit of theological development and mission experience. The locals can bring the Word to their own people in their own land better than anyone else.
Second, we must come to grips with our perception of money and wealth in connection with missions. If western churches are going to continue in mission work, they will have to revamp their entire attitude toward money. All of us are living on too high a financial level. If the church is going to send out missionaries to third-world countries, such missionaries will have to take far more seriously what it means to become poor for the gospel’s sake. We must not imagine that Christianity and wealth go together. I had to re-think my concept of gospel and poverty, and I concluded that God does not intend for everyone to become richer or rich through the gospel. We must accept poverty as a way of life which God ordains. Any missionary among the poor will have to be willing to become materially poor for his hearers’ sake or he might as well stay home. If not, his life-style will contradict all he has to say. If the church desires to send such a one out of their midst, the congregation will have to abandon their own attitude toward wealth or the church will never produce a missionary who has such a spirit. Furthermore, we must not imagine that it is our duty to elevate the economic level of those who become Christians. The bottom line is we have to come to terms with poverty.
Herein lies the temptation to buy a mission, we think we can stay rich and still help the poor in missions.
Thirdly, it is amazing how much good mission work “poor nationals” can do in the midst of their poverty. Jobs are very scarce, and the few that are available pay only enough to earn food to keep alive. It may be that full-time pastors will be able to bring the Word more effectively with minimal financial support. The biblical principle is that he who brings the Word lives from the Word. Where will they get support if they do not get some foreign money? The key is to help the people of the congregation so that they can support their pastor. This is biblical. When we first discussed this subject in the Joint Mission Committee we focused on helping the pastors so that they could earn a little on the side, following the tent-making idea. Yet, when Brother Armand of the Philippines helped us, he taught us that if we help the people to raise pigs or chickens, or to grow mushrooms, or teach the ladies to do hand-work, they would in turn have money to pay the pastor and the pastor would not be elevated above them financially. This we call a self-help program, which we are now seeking to implement. Our Projects Committee is arranging for more trips to Myanmar, and they are working closely with the deacons and Joint Mission Committee. We have made a decision that on a projected quarterly basis, we will decrease the monthly payments to the churches as we provide them the means to help themselves.
Finally, there is much need for diaconal work. It is also biblical that the poor must be attended. This is true for the individual Christian as well as for institutions which minister to the orphans and aged. We are just beginning to give training to the local churches in the work of deacons and how they are to function. Already we handle requests for the poor, especially medical, through the deacons in Myanmar and in Singapore. They give us a list of needs which they judge important, and the deacons in Singapore consider this and provide the deacons in Myanmar with the funds. This is in an infant state and being developed through practice, but it too is an important way to meet financial needs in the mission field.
Doing these things, we conclude that we are not simply buying a mission. God has given to us mission work and the potential of many fields, more than we can handle for the present. They all have one thing in common, they suffer lack of basic needs: food, medicine, clothing, medical treatment, and such like. The pastor has to work in order to earn even the little he can, which still is not adequate for his family. He learns to live with poverty. But by the combination of self-help programs and diaconal mercy, we trust that God will use us to enable the saints in Myanmar and elsewhere to do the work Christ has called them to do, to preach the gospel and serve Him. Under His blessing and the presence of the Holy Spirit, they seek to save lost souls in the midst of their poverty.
I trust this article will force every reader to ask, “Am I willing to become poor for the sake of the gospel.” If so, there ought to be plenty of missionaries and funds to support them.
Then we will not go out to buy missions. We will, by the grace of God, actually do mission work. May God be praised in this.