Can We Still Afford North American Missionaries?
Some people are asking the question, "In light of the growing body of believers around the world, is it time to find alternatives to sending Americans as missionaries?" An avalanche of books and articles is pressing such an argument. Their appeals are emotional and often poorly informed, but they are with us nonetheless.
One of the most common arguments leveled against American missions has to do with money. The argument is that it is now too expensive to send Americans into missionary work; the money should be used to send people from other countries to replace the Americans, because you can send more for your money. We will address this in a moment.
First,let me say that we should rejoice that in response to earlier missionary efforts and to the gracious working of the Holy Spirit, millions around the world are now believers. As their ranks have grown, excellent leadership has developed.
Therefore it is indeed time for traditional missions and North American churches to look at appropriate ways to form new partnerships with the family of believers worldwide. It is time to encourage the formation of missionary movements in nations where the church has been established. It is time to seek appropriate and constructive relationships between older and newer missions as they minister together.
The notion, however, that this should be done simply by transferring the money which now supports American missionaries to Christian workers in other nations is erroneous and very dangerous for the Church in North America, as well as for the recipients.
The Cost of American Missionaries
In some of the recent books and articles, one gets the distinct impression that God can no longer afford North American missionaries. Why is this argument made? Because it may now cost as much to support a missionary family as the median income of one American household-- $29,458.00 (New York Times, 7/31/87).
The missionary living allowance (salary) is generally not nearly that amount, but adding in travel and work funds will surpass that amount in some countries. With the weaker dollar, it might even require the cost of two families in some special situations. Thus it could take the tithe of ten or, in an extreme case, even twenty families to support a missionary. This brings the horrified comment: "It is too expensive to send North Americans into missions!"
Is that so? I wonder if the first American missionaries were able to serve on the median income of one or two American households of their day?
A grave concern about this philosophy is its impact on the missionary vision. If the American church begins to give to missions only its money and not its sons and daughters, the missionary vision will be dead in a generation or less. Substituting money for flesh and blood involvement is a failed policy. Some mainline churches tried it a generation ago under the name "moratorium" on missions. Many such churches today do not know what missions signify. They think "missions" is a notion that belongs in the last century.
The fact is, missionary vision is kept alive by biblical teaching strongly reinforced by the network of missionaries and their supporters. Relatives of missionaries, prayer partners, financial supporters, involved churches and others in the network keep the challenge before the North American community of believers. From this reservoir, missionaries and their support arise. It is also here that representatives of overseas enterprises present their needs and find backing for their causes.
It is very short-sighted for them to suggest dropping support for these "expensive" North American missionaries in order to support a certain number of "cheaper" workers elsewhere. With the destruction of the missionary vision there would not be support for either.
There is also the matter of obedience. I cannot conceive that God has suddenly decided to exempt young American Christians from the obligation of the Great Commission. If the Great Commission applies to our youth, how can we talk of not supporting them? Such mass disobedience would herald the end of an effective church. Surrogate missionaries will not meet the Scriptural obligation.
It is hard to imagine how impoverished the North American church would be if people decided not to support our youth as missionaries any longer. Sending dollars to substitute missionaries would create a misconception that we can fulfill our obligation to the Great Commission with money alone. This would reinforce a dangerous materialism already present in our society. Perhaps some parents who are concerned about violence, kidnapping, and other hazards would feel relieved to have the missionary obligation lifted. But a leanness of soul would result, and the American church would become more isolated from the world Christian family.
I also believe that failing to send out our youth would be a loss to the world body of believers. American missionaries are serving the world body with many important gifts and skills. Young American Christians will continue to bring to the ministry some outstanding gifts.
Certainly, North American Christians should begin to look for opportunities to form partnerships with the growing worldwide Church, but it is self-defeating to propose this be done by withdrawing support from existing missionaries. The argument should be that in addition to maintaining and increasing the missionary effort, appropriate ways should be found to support reliable and effective efforts of emerging missions. In providing this support, donors should exercise the same kind of prudence they would exercise in supporting missionaries and missionary causes from North America.
It is astounding to see people who would require accountability on the part of their own countrymen responding to emotional appeals by persons from overseas without ever receiving assurances of their accountability. To assume that deceit and misrepresentation are limited to North Americans is naive indeed.
Avoid creating dependency.
It is easy to forget the deadliness of dependency on the human spirit. Money given in a way that creates dependency will be, in the long run, counterproductive. Arrangements must be made which will not isolate recipients from normal lines of accountability to their peers. Unless care is exercised, a person can become isolated from his own church and natural leaders, hindering his usefulness in his own community.
Care must also be exercised that believers in other lands not be made to feel that their contributions to missions are unneeded or insignificant. They too are under the Great Commission, and will be robbed of blessing if they do not participate.
Some strong and effective partnerships already exist. Traditional missions have agreements with national church bodies to help in key areas including church planting, missions, medical work, education, and media.
The Missions Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship is building a worldwide network of missionary connections among traditional missions and emerging missions. This will provide opportunities to join hands in a great new effort to evangelize the world. Each part of the body has gifts to bring to the task.
Those who solicit involvement of North American Christians in the support of Third World missions should argue their case on its merits without calling for diminishing support for existing missionary efforts. In fact, such appeals would do well to reinforce the missionary vision now existing and call for expansion to greater partnership with emerging missions and the church around the world. New arrangements must be developed which create neither new dependency nor paternalism. A common vision of the lost world must bring believers of all nations together in effective new efforts to complete the Great Commission.
(This article is reprinted from the April 1988 issue of Mission Frontiers)