A commodity is something that is bought and sold.
Mission is the loving and joyful response of Christ’s followers to disciple the nations, holding forth Jesus’ life and teaching among all the peoples of the world.
In theory, the two appear to be very distinct concepts. In reality, mission is intricately related to the resources (finance, personnel and information) that fuel it.
There is much to celebrate in that relationship.
The generosity of Christ’s church enables her to assist brothers and sisters throughout the world to make Christ’s love known in seeking assistance to the poor, justice for the oppressed and reconciliation of human beings to God through the gospel.
Despite all the good that has been done by generous giving, there is also a dark side to this interdependence between mission and money.
This is not intended to censure solid ministry initiatives that benefit from external funding. It is a note of caution – a plea for practice that better aligns with the nature of the gospel.
Perhaps an image will help. Consider the desert wadi, a ravine or valley that’s dry except in the rainy season. When the spring rains come, its arid dust is overcome by a torrent of rushing water producing a double effect.
On the one hand, the deluge moves stones and debris that become a lethal threat to anything in its path, whether animal life or even unfortunate hikers.
On the other hand, vegetation springs forth overnight as the desert is transformed into a verdant valley.
Mission funding is a powerful force flooding the Middle East like a spring deluge through a desert wadi. It changes the entire environment – sometimes doing great good, but with the potential to do great harm.
Here are three areas of concern:
1. The drive for results.
Mission and church leaders are compelled to ensure that the outcomes of mission are commensurate with the investment of personnel, time and finances. To put it in crass economic terms, we need to get our money’s worth.
Granted, this begins with a wholesome concern for stewardship of resources. We feel the need to count (churches planted, new believers, children educated, refugees housed and so on) to ensure that resources are well used.
Data is necessary to sustain the effort. Nevertheless, our fascination with data often bears dubious fruit. Numbers are manipulated and exaggerated in order to fit criteria established by the “investors.”
The drive for data, like the desert deluge, exerts pressure on the whole chain of mission, from sending church to field practitioner to indigenous church and believer. It operates much like the chain of supply and demand, leading to a palpable sense of the commodification of mission.
2. Media and communication.
The contemporary explosion of media has a massive impact on Christian outreach in the Middle East both for good and for ill.
Images tell stories and move emotions. Photos and film taken during ministry trips end up on social media and church and ministry videos. No doubt the medium is powerful. It raises awareness and motivates to action.
But where are the ethical boundaries? Would those photographed give permission for their image to be used in such ways and what material benefit do they derive? Do they even have a sense of how their photo will be used?
I find evidence of commodification in our mission jargon. Sometimes when I hear mission theorists and practitioners talk, I wonder who outside the mission community (including nationals) could understand what they are talking about.
A few examples include BMB (believers from Muslim background), CPM (church-planting movement), DBS (Discovery Bible Studies), DMM (disciple-making movement) and so on.
None of these terms originates from the people (whether Muslim or Christian) or languages of the Middle East.
They are all imports from economically and educationally advantaged societies, applied to the objects of our study and our “mission.”
Our language itself becomes a tool to put others into categories in an attempt to describe our productivity. Unwittingly, we commodify those we are sent to serve and love.
3. A shallow understanding of the Middle Eastern context.
I overheard a North African church leader speak recently of foreign missionaries who come into his small fellowship and take away believers to start a new church or movement.
He indicated that these expatriate workers are under pressure from their churches or agencies to produce results. The short-term interests of the mission agency are pitted against the long-term vision of a local church.
Tragically, the result is the decimation of that church. The drive to establish a “church-planting movement” is ripping the fabric of the church in his country. How ironic!
Finally, an inordinate number of books by Western pastors and Christian leaders addressing issues of great concern in Western societies are translated into Arabic and massively distributed in the Middle East.
No doubt, many translated books have been a source of great blessing in the region, yet the works of local authors and aspiring writers addressing local issues never see the light of day.
To check this tendency toward commodification of mission, we have to be aware and we have to care.
Paul said he and his ministry team was “Gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. … Ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians was deeply personal, built on a thorough understanding of their context and coupled with the affection of a loving spiritual father.
If we care, we will preserve the dignity of those on the receiving end of our mission efforts. Our concern will be holistic, for their well-being, not only their salvation.
We will refrain from using them as objects in the quest to defend and promote our church, our ministry or our idea.
A ministry of this kind may move slower as it seeks to ensure a healthy reciprocity. Procuring funding is unlikely to be the priority.
It will, however, be a true representative of our Savior. It will be a ministry of the gospel.
Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A longer version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.