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Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem.

Six generations ago David Livingstone promoted "commerce, civilization, and Christianity." His modern counterparts promote capitalism, consumption, and Christianity. Jonathan Bonk, a second-generation Mennonite missionary in Ethiopia and now professor of mission studies at Providence College & Seminary, Winnipeg, focuses his book on the second of this triad. His basic thesis is that the imbalance in wealth between the missionary messenger and the receptor "distorts the transmission and inculturation of the Gospel" (p. ix).

The author first analyzes the historical and cultural context of missionary affluence and the economic, domestic, social, and strategic rationale given for it. Why did the issue of appropriate standard of living, raised so eloquently by Daniel J. Fleming in Living as Comrades (1950), disappear from the missiological agenda? Bonk argues that later missionaries accepted uncritically Western ideas of inevitable progress, imperialism, and the value of high consumption.

In part 2 the author is at his best as he analyzes negative consequences of Western missionary affluence. It creates the illusion of superiority, blinding the missionary to the resulting insulation, isolation, mistrust, and often hostility. The outline of biblical teaching on wealth and poverty that follows is replete with Bible verses but without exegesis.

The third section, "Grappling with Affluence," is short and less satisfactory. Bonk doubts that Western missionaries can shift from their affluence or begin insisting that missionaries lower their standards of living.

"It may be that societies of a new kind will have to be generated," Bonk concludes, citing historic evangelical models, including the Moravians, the Salvation Army, and the China Inland Mission (p. 128). The account, however, is silent concerning exciting alternative models. Mother Teresa inspires thousands to live simply, both within and outside her order. Third World missions are mushrooming, especially where old missionary patterns are rebuffed (e.g., China and India). Presbyterian "Frontier Interns" and United Methodist "Mission Interns" readily accept voluntary poverty. Innumerable "tent-making" persons in mission, from before-career youth to postcareer seniors, often live simply and effectively in cross-cultural witness and service but are rarely counted by mission agencies because they are not on an official payroll.

Bonk's call for "venturers in simpler living" deserves careful study and reflection by mission administrators, missionaries, missionary candidates, and all concerned for the future of the missionary enterprise.

Norman E. Thomas is Vera B. Blinn Professor of World Christianity at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. From 1962 to 1976 he served as a United Methodist missionary in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
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Author:Thomas, Norman E.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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