Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem… Revisited by Jonathan Bonk

Thesis of the Book

            The affluence of Western missionaries creates a communicatory and relational barrier between missionaries and those to whom they serve with the Gospel.  The result is a Gospel misunderstood or not received by indigenous populations.  There is a dissonance between the missionaries’ “medium” and “message.”  Bonk seeks to uncover the costs of affluence for missionaries, establishing guidelines for living as “righteous rich.”

Evaluation of Sources Used

            Bonk uses a plethora of sources, which definitely helps the case he is trying to make.  Initially, Bonk uses financial sources to show the relative wealth of Western nations versus other nations (i.e., Third World Countries).  Since many of the missionary agencies are in Western countries and are being sent to impoverished nations, this helps us see the distance between affluent and impoverished countries.  Although the Gross Domestic Product is difficult to accurately assess, it does provide a general overview of wealth.

This first chapter’s sources concerning missionary affluence were probably the weakest.  Although Western countries are affluent when compared to Third World countries, that does not then entail that missionaries are affluent when they come from the West.  In some contexts, they might not be affluent.  And, supporting the argument on the fact that one missionary family received $60,000 per year (which might be considered substantial in America), does not then mean that every missionary is allotted the same.  In fact, it is quite possible that a missionary would be on a poverty level in a particular country in which they serve.

However, Bonk’s basic assertion that there is a gap between the affluent and the impoverished carries weight, especially when considering missionaries, even with a meager salary, serving in Third World contexts.  Furthermore, many of the sources in this section were close to thirty or more years old.  The financial state of things could have, though not necessarily, changed since then.

Bonk traces the history of missionaries’ wrestling with affluence through primary sources.  Many of these sources are from the 19th century into the early 20th century.  Although there are a few contemporary sources employed, they probably should have been integrated more to show that there is still an existing situation.

The theological section was good.  Minimal commentary was made; Bonk allowed Scripture to speak (without merely proof texting).  The final three chapters were written by noted theologians.  Justo L. González focus on historical theology strongly supplemented Bonk’s material position of the “righteous rich.”

Development of the Main Idea

            Bonk begins by showing the overall affluence of Western civilization in comparison to non-Western nations.  Using various instruments, such as GDP, Bonk makes strong case that affluence is an ever-expanding chasm between Western and non-Western nations.  It is not merely growing; it is exponentially widening.

Since most mission agencies are stationed in the Western nations, many of the missionaries from these agencies experience this gap firsthand.  Although missionaries may not be wealthy in a Western context, they often are very affluent when entering foreign nations.  This is especially true of Third World countries.  Bonk recognizes the many positive things that affluence can provide for missionaries and their families.  One of the greatest arguments for affluence is longevity in the mission field.  However, the Gospel is often misunderstood as primarily a way to acquire wealth or the missionaries are perceived as hypocritical to the Gospel message when the medium and message do not line.  The result is a tremendous barrier between the missionary and the indigenous people.

Bonk then looks at Scripture’s stance on wealth and poverty.  Walking through Old and New Testaments, he highlights the overall importance of stewardship of God’s resources.  God definitely sides with the impoverished, especially where the rich take advantage of them.  However, riches can also be a blessing from God!  Scriptures notes the difficulty of being righteous and rich.  The more goods one has, the more opportunity for temptation exists.  Yet, resources can be employed in godly ways for the benefit of those less fortunate.  In this way, we serve God by serving others.  Riches are not ours to hoard, but to bless others.  Bonk concludes that it is difficult, but possible to be righteous and rich.

Christopher J. H. Wright and Justo L. González argue a similar position for the righteous rich.  Wright frames his position in light of the Old Testament traditions, showing how riches bring both blessing and curse.  Ultimately, God is Creator and we are stewards of the good gifts we are given by God.  Losing sight of God’s place as Lord over everything usually ends with the rich being judged for their oppression of the poor.  González frames his argument by first looking at Acts and describing the partnership the Church enjoys with God and with each other.  The resources each one has are gifts from God that are to be shared with one another and especially with the poor.  In his final chapter, the issue of riches is looked at for the sub-apostolic church.  Shortly after the first century, writings (i.e., Didache) were composed to help the early Church discern proper living as a community of believers.  Following the tradition of the Church in Acts, the sub-apostolic Church condemns close-fisted living.  Instead, Christians are to be generous with their resources as a reflection of Christ’s generosity to us!

Personal Evaluation of the Book

            I found the book challenging.  I work within the context of the American church, which is very affluent.  There is a temptation for many pastors, including myself, to pursue “bigger and better.”  Mega-churches are in abundance in many of our cities.  Large incomes and benefits packages are more about thriving than surviving.  Some churches have abandoned the urban poor for more suitable and safe places to serve.  There is a great deal of temptation to climb the ladder and play the political game of Church hierarchy.  Yet, this is not an Incarnational model.

Bonk’s evaluation of the effects of affluence on communicating the Gospel are sobering.  Riches have a way of numbing us to the plight of the poor and the marginalized.  How can we communicate the Gospel to those people if we cannot identify with them and proclaim the Gospel in ways that speak into their context?  If mission agencies are a strong secularizing force within the world, we have to ask if the Church in the Western world is doing the same within our context.  Are we merely re-packaging culture under a thin veneer of Christianity?  Consumerism, rather than a cruciform life, often governs us.

Riches create a great temptation for us.  It is easy to become blind to its allure.  Yet, I believe that God is able to sanctify those resources and our desires.  There can be a “righteous rich” person, but one must be extremely careful.  The medium and the message cannot be separated!  We are blessed so that we might be a blessing and so glorify God among the nations.