Affluence: A Western Missionary Problem (1)

Autor: Robert D. Decker
The title of this installment in our series on cross-cultural missions is taken from a very significant book by Jonathan J. Bonk, who is professor of mission studies at Winnipeg Bible College and Theological Seminary.1 We intend to give a rather detailed summary of this book. It is our conviction that any preacher or church contemplating getting involved in foreign mission work can ill afford to ignore Bonk’s book.

The main point Bonk makes in the book is nicely illustrated by a former missionary’s experience:

The most embarrassing moment in my missionary career occurred near the beginning, 33 years ago, when our baggage arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Its arrival had been delayed for four months due to a dock workers’ strike that paralyzed the port. When the long-awaited baggage finally came to the door it gave us mixed emotions.
My wife and I and our infant daughter had arrived on the field in early May. We moved into a house the national church had rented for us and we purchased everything needed in Colombo. Our furniture was made by local carpenters. The only imported items we purchased were fans, a small stove, a refrigerator, and a water filter. Besides that we had only the contents of our four suitcases.
We were getting along fine, when word came that our baggage had finally been unloaded from the ship. As soon as it was cleared by customs it was loaded onto five bullock carts for delivery to our home. How well I remember the sight of the bullocks trudging slowly up the road. The combined load consisted of no less than 18 barrels and two big crates. On the one hand we were excited, for it was like “Christmas in August”…. But on the other hand there was something terribly disturbing about it. We kept saying to ourselves, “We don’t need all this stuff. Why did we buy it in the first place?”
Our neighbors turned out in force to see what the Americans were getting. As we opened the crates and barrels by the side of the house, our neighbors stared in wonderment. How rich and important this young couple must be to be able to afford five cart-loads of marvelous things!
For four months my wife and I had been building relationships and seeking to identify with the community. Our blond baby daughter provided a natural opener for conversations and a jump start for new relationships. Neighbors could see that we were not altogether different from other young parents trying to raise a child, solve everyday problems, and meet basic needs.
But then suddenly, we were discovered to be what some probably suspected we were all along-filthy rich Americans who could fill their home with every conceivable comfort and adornment. A thousand sermons could not undo the damage done that day. It would have been better for our ministry if the ship had dropped our barrels and crates in the Indian Ocean .2

We are certain that Dr. Greenway’s experience is not atypical of that of a great many missionaries in foreign fields. The affluence of Western missionaries creates a very serious problem for their work. The problem is not the fact that missionaries live extravagantly by Western standards. Bonk points out that most missionaries do not live extravagantly. In fact they “make do” with a whole lot less than their relatives and fellow church members in North America. By Western standards of living, missionaries “sacrifice” a great deal when they leave home and move to a Two-Thirds World country to preach the gospel.

Prof. Harry F. Wolcott having observed American missionaries in one part of Africa concluded,

“Problems related to money continue to plague and obsess many urban missionaries. They always have too much of it, and they never have enough. Their standard of living makes them seem wealthy wherever they go and results in constant conflict for them when they hold back so much of what they have for themselves. An anthropologist critical of missionaries recalled the old saw that they set out to do “good” and often end up doing “well.” 3

Wolcott further observed, “On the contrary, their (missionaries, RDD) material and economic resources were seldom, if ever, adequate-and often scarce; their possessions were meager; and their spending habits with regard to food and clothing frugal to a fault.” 4 The problem, therefore, is not that the missionaries live extravagantly.

The problem is that relative to the economic condition of the peoples of the Two-Thirds World there is a great disparity between the missionaries and the nationals among whom they work. The simple, disturbing fact is that Western missionaries, by comparison with the Two-Thirds World in which they work, are filthy rich. This is easily illustrated by a comparison of the Gross National Products (GNP) of Western “missionary-sending” countries like the United States and the GNP of “missionary-receiving” countries of the Two-Thirds World. The GNP of the United States in 1984 was 15,490. The GNP of Zaire was 140, India 260, Kenya 300, Nigeria 770.5

The relative affluence of Western missionaries is a fact. It is also true that the economic/material gulf between the Western nations and the Two-Thirds World is widening. And at this point (1991) very little has been done to correct the problem .6


Historical and Cultural Context of Missionary Affluence 7
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, if not earlier, Western civilization believed in progress with the Western nations in the vanguard. Colonialism (the British and Dutch empires, for example) played a large role in this. The superior European culture/life-style was imported to the inferior, uncivilized lands. The mission of the colonists was considered to be civilizing the uncivilized, “taming the wild natives.” The missionaries who came to the colonies regarded themselves as emissaries of progress! Mission compounds were built employing hundreds of natives. Missionaries needed lots of equipment, tools, and food supplies sufficient for several years. All this “stuff” had to be transported, and it took hundreds of natives to do the work.

It is, as Bonk points out, no different today. Whereas one hundred years ago missionaries imported their “stuff,” today they just buy it. And, missionaries need lots of “stuff.” They need transportation (automobiles, planes, boats, motorcycles, e.g.). They need computers, fax machines, and other office equipment. They need air conditioners. Missionaries purchase these things at exorbitantly high prices. They think little of paying $1.00 to $3.00 for a gallon of gasoline.

The result of this is that, though the standard of living of the missionaries may be frugal by Western standards, it is far beyond even the wildest dreams of the nationals.

Missionaries still regard themselves as emissaries of progress. Only the terminology has changed. Now we no longer speak of progress, civilizing the uncivilized, or “taming the wild natives,” but we speak of the developed countries of the West and the undeveloped countries of the Two-Thirds World. Along with preaching the gospel, the missionaries’ task is to help the underdeveloped peoples reach the level of the developed countries.

The relative affluence of the Western missionaries must also be understood against the background of racism, according to Bonk. In the nineteenth century European/North American whites regarded themselves as superior to all other races, especially the blacks. A missionary delegate to the Liverpool Conference in 1860 remarked, “The Indian (India) looks upon himself as being of an inferior race; and his desire is to rise as much as possible to the level of the white man…. Civilized men should therefore go amongst them, men who will be looked up to by them … and from whose lips they will expect words of wisdom.”8 Wrote a Scottish missionary in 1863,

In estimating the vile, sunk, and wretched moral condition of the heathen, it matters not whether we look to China, Japan, Burma, or Hindoostand, lands in which a barbaric civilization has existed longside of the most childish superstition, or to Africa, whose Negro tribes have, since the days of their father Ham, kept sinking, from age to age, unaided, until a dreary and bloody fetishism has swallowed up all, and made them the lowest of beings that are called men. Look where we will in heathen lands, we behold the infidelity … and piety.” 9

The nineteenth century missionaries conceived of their task in terms of raising the backward, inferior, heathen to the level of Western civilization. Accomplishing this, they thought they would be able to “Christianize” the inferior heathen peoples and nations.

Little has changed today, except for the terminology. It is not politically correct to speak of heathen, Negroes, barbarians, etc. But, American economic growth and prosperity are possible, desirable, even necessary for the poor, undeveloped countries and peoples of the Two-Thirds World. And, the American life-style is driven by consumerism (more wealth, more and better products and services, etc.).

All this has affected the missionary enterprise. If we can raise the standard of living among the underdeveloped countries in which we work, we can pave the way for the preaching of the gospel and the planting of churches. Meanwhile the standard of living keeps rising. Missionaries continually need so much more today. A computer, for example, can do so much more than a typewriter, a plane is much faster than a train, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is better than a motorcycle, etc. This only widens the economic/material gap between the underdeveloped and the developed nations.


The Rationale for Missionary Affluence 10
The question Bonk poses at this point is, “Shouldn’t missionaries be comfortable?” There are economic arguments for missionary affluence. “The cheapest mission is the mission which can keep its missionaries the longest.”11 Therefore, the argument runs, missionaries must be properly housed and fed and provided with adequate medical care. These are costly necessities, but they enable the missionaries to work without distraction. Most missionaries who withdraw from the work, it is pointed out, do so on account of ill health, and they leave during the first term. The cost of preparing the missionary (education, orientation, learning a foreign language, etc., all of which can take three to six years) is lost.

Hence, the argument for affluence is: a) The cheapest missionary is a live one. b) A live one is a healthy one. c) A healthy one is a comfortable one. d) A comfortable one is a missionary whose standard of living most closely approximates that of his fellow saints at home. The conclusion? Wealth, relatively speaking, and health go together. Missionaries need comfortable homes, good furniture, good food, a decent means of transportation (preferably an automobile), vacations, good office equipment, etc., etc.

There is also what is called domestic rationale for missionary affluence. Missionaries’ children (MKs, hereafter) need a proper education. Typically there are three ways to provide this proper education. If the mission is large enough, a school is set up and teachers are imported from back home. Many missionary families send the children to boarding schools.12 The third way is to send the children back home for their education.13 Home schooling in rare cases may also be an option. Generally, however, it is not practiced because it takes too much time for the missionary who, after all, ought to be doing mission work.14 However the church provides for the education of the children of her missionaries, it is very costly. Only a very tiny minority of the nationals can even consider the possibility of providing what Westerners consider an adequate education for their children. Thus, educating MKs contributes to missionary affluence. As necessary as it is, educating the MKs serves to widen the economic gulf between the missionaries and the nationals.

There is also a social rationale for missionary affluence. In 1880 a certain Dr. E. J. Southon produced a pamphlet for the London Mission Society in which he wrote,

In his travels, the missionary should always present the appearance of a gentleman. There is no necessity for discarding civilised habits because civilisation is left behind; on the contrary, it is for him to carry with him the impress of a society better than that to which he is going; hence, he should always be neat and clean in his appearance, and scrupulously careful that his garb is tidy. An untidy European will surely be criticized by the gentlemanly Arab, if not by natives. 15

The point here is that just because he is Western he occupies a higher status both in his own thinking and in that of the nationals.

The close connection between the missionaries and the highly visible power and wealth of the West makes it extremely difficult for them to disassociate themselves from the status and roles assigned to the privileged. Church Missionary Society missionaries tried to do this one hundred years ago. The result was that they were regarded by the nationals as either hypocritical or failed Europeans. The missionary who attempts to “go native” today will at best be regarded with suspicion. Speaking to this point an American missionary in Peru wrote, “When we lived in Ecuador, we did ‘go native’ and the local people just thought that we were crazy.” He went on to explain,

They have a conception of ‘gringo’ and in order to gain their respect, we needed to meet their expectations, build a nice house, get a better vehicle, etc. Too close an identification with native culture diminished our standing in the community, and therefore any message we may have had for them. 16

Bonk concludes, and correctly so, “Aversion to the unpleasant side effects associated with diminished standing in a community is indeed a powerful rationale for maintaining and even increasing Western missionary affluence.” 17

Finally, there are strategic arguments for missionary affluence. The industrial revolution dramatically increased the wealth of the Western nations. Thus the industrial revolution enabled missionaries from the West to reach the ends of the earth. The industrial revolution also provided the means and technology to facilitate mission work. The point is that the wealth and technology greatly enhance the missionaries’ work and effectiveness in every sphere: education, literature, service and/or support, development, aid/relief, medicine, media, and more. It takes tons of money to provide hospitals and their equipment, vehicles, computers, radios, airplanes, etc. And the West has the money to provide these goods and services! The argument is, missionaries “need” all these things, along with servants, to do the Lord’s work efficiently and effectively and speedily.

Not only so, but missionary riches make a big impression on the nationals. They watch the missionaries build their houses and do their gardening and other activities and conclude that the missionaries are superior to them in knowledge, energy, and wealth. And, therefore, the missionaries, in the minds of the nationals, are worth listening to on all subjects including religion and Christianity.

Therefore missionary affluence is defended by the missionaries. This is powerfully illustrated by Bonk’s quotation of the remarks of an American missionary in Peru who said,

While committed to a Peruvian church staffed by Peruvians, we find that Peruvians will listen to a gringo and give him much more credence than one of their own. So, while we have a few Peruvian members in our mission, they are less persuasive in dealing with their own people than we, the rich, educated foreigners are!”18


1. Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991). Hereafter we will refer to this work by the author’s name, Bonk. Return

2. Roger S. Greenway, “Eighteen Barrels and Two Big Crates,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, vol. 28, 126-127 (April, 1992). Return

3. Quoted by Bonk, p. 12. Return

4. Quoted by Bonk, pp. 12-13. Return

For several tables listing a number of these interesting, telling comparisons see Bonk, pp. 5-10. Return
6. Bonk, p. 15. Return

7. Bonk, pp. 16-29. Return

8. Quoted by Bonk, p. 21. Return

9. Quoted by Bonk, pp. 23-24. Return

10. Bonk, pp. 30-42. Return

11. Bonk, p. 31. Return

12. For an excellent discussion of what is involved in this see, J. Herbert Kane, Understanding Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1982), pp. 58 -60.

13. The Christian Reformed Church provides Mk with tuition free education at its denominational college, Calvin College. Return

14. While doing mission work in Jamaica for the Protestant Reformed Churches Rev. and Mrs. Wilbur Bruinsma home schooled their children with the help of several teachers from the Christian Schools in Michigan. This worked out quite well for the Bruinsmas. Return

15. Quoted by Bonk, pp. 37-38. Return

16. Quoted by Bonk, p. 38. Return

17. Bonk, p. 38. Return

18. Bonk, p. 41. Return

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