My friend Dougald and I get together almost every Friday morning for breakfast and we usually end up discussing something about either the Old Testament, Missions, or both (surprise, surprise since we are getting degrees in these two fields, respectively). This morning, we settled on my area of study–missions.
Specifically, we were talking about missionaries and self-support. Generally, though, in discussions surrounding self-support, the object of the discussion is usually native churches. However, we find that not enough is said about missionary self-support.
Both of us are members of churches who voluntarily cooperate as a convention of churches, i.e. the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the jewels produced by this effort is the Cooperative Program, a joint financial endeavor to fund a host of convention-wide institutions, with 50% of the funds dedicated to international missions, 22.75% to home missions, and the rest split up in various degrees to theological education, and some other important entities, as seen here. One of the benefits of the CP has been the ability for Southern Baptists to fully support missionary units serving overseas; (that’s not to say that Southern Baptists weren’t funding missionaries prior to the advent of the CP in 1925). The CP was a vast improvement over the funding drives and giving methodologies prior to 1925. Even though the Great Depression took its toll on Southern Baptist entities, the convention came out strong and the CP (along with an economic boom) helped the SBC go strong for decades. Not only that, the types of support missionaries received has only gotten better over the decades; higher salaries, vacations, more frequent furloughs, full health coverage, and retirement benefits are types of all the things missionaries have enjoyed since 1925 that they weren’t guaranteed before. However, the current global financial troubles combined with a decrease in CP giving, have led us to reduce our deployed missionary presence and streamline our efforts at home. Certainly economics isn’t the only force at play, the health and spiritual vitality of our cooperating churches is a major factor. Still, we wonder if it’s not time to reconsider the way we fund the missionaries we send.
Should missionaries, for the sake of the gospel, reconsider whether the types of benefits they receive are best for the kingdom?
Is full-support the best thing for the on-going pursuit of reaching the unreached? Could it actually be hindering our progress? No one is calling our paradigm bad or sinful, but is it wise?
Ultimately, as far as it is possible, should missionaries first pursue their own self-support?
Right now, these are just questions. They are tough questions, the answers to which require conviction and dedication, especially if you say missionaries should support themselves. I’m not ready to commit, yet. I can imagine a plethora of scenarios when having a support structure seems to be right and best. But here are some more questions to ponder that speak to the unspoken assumptions that often prop up our views, including my own:
How much does our own American nationalism keep us from approaching missions with wild abandon? By this, I don’t mean “manifest destiny” or “American Exceptionalism”, but the fact that we still consider the US as our home, where we will retire, where our kids will go to college. Is emigration a possibility? Like the monastic missionaries who spread the gospel all over Europe and across Asia?
Do we overvalue health and security? Unlike our forebears, we are not accustomed to infant mortality, spousal mortality, disease mortality. We don’t give birth in primitive hospitals, like billions of the people we serve do, we don’t go to their dentists. The early “modern” missionaries worked the land with their hands and walked and rode horses to their fields of service. We aren’t of the same pioneer spirit. Does that make us value the ease of modern living too much?
Are we afraid of hard work? Do we expect to be paid? Having a salary is a right for nobody! It is a privilege provided by labor. National missionaries will live off of almost nothing to share the gospel in a neighboring country, why are we any different? Have we imbibed too deeply the entitlement mentality of our home culture?
Would we stay if the money ran out? During the Great Depression, missionaries lived together, some living on the field without support, just so they could continue to proclaim the gospel. The greatest missionary organization the late 19th century was the China Inland Mission, founded on the principles of faith and prayer. They did not solicit funds and volunteers crossed the oceans from every class. Are we attracted to missions because of a guaranteed salary in an exotic land? It is much, much harder to be a bivocational church planter in the US, financially speaking. Is it only money that keeps you from going?
Have we considered how many more missionaries could be sent if we supported ourselves? I wonder if our answer to this question reflects our fixation on going, and not on being sent. In the Great Commission, Jesus is the one who says “Go!”. John makes it absolutely clear that we are “sent” by Jesus. Mission is a sending, much, much more than it is a going. If your local church is sending you, how can money be an object? Could it be that the CP has kept some churches from actually being obedient in the sending of missionaries? (Lest you be discouraged, healthy churches haven’t let cooperative money keep them from sending.)
These are all complex questions requiring complex answers. But, I think I must say, “Don’t let money keep you from being sent.” If you have the nations on your heart and you believe God is leading you to another country, approach the elders of your church and ask them to send you, no matter the cost. Be prepared, though, to be an active part of the provision!