One of the most awkward moments my wife and I experienced as missionaries occurred in Sri Lanka when our baggage arrived from America. A dock workers’ strike had prevented our things from arriving for nearly four months, and it meant that we had to furnish our house and get along entirely with local items. In a country where manufacturing hardly existed, this appeared at first to be quite a challenge. But to our surprise, we got along fine.
At last our baggage was off the ship. Up the road came a procession of five bullock carts loaded with no less than eighteen steel barrels and two wooden crates. Curious neighbors flocked to see what we had. They were astonished by what a young American couple could afford.
For us it was exciting, like “Christmas in August” with bullocks instead of reindeer bringing wonderful things from the north. But on the other hand, we were disturbed and embarrassed. We kept asking ourselves: “Why do we need all this stuff? How does all this look to our neighbors? Why did we buy it?”
We had every reason for feeling uneasy. A thousand sermons could not undue the damage done that day. For the ministry we were there to carry out, it would have been better if the ship had dropped our barrels and crates in the Indian Ocean. Unwittingly, we had placed ourselves in the mold of filthy rich Americans. Our neighbors envied us, and from that point on, identification with the people was a lot harder.
Missionaries working among people of meager income face a problem. It stems from the resources they have available and the high living standard most of them enjoyed from childhood. The missionaries’ purpose is to communicate the gospel and build the church. To do this they must overcome cultural barriers and establish close relationships with the people.
But as missionaries eventually realize, the greatest barriers may be their own material possessions and lifestyle. Western goods and appliances make life more comfortable, but at the same time they limit the missionary’s ability to understand the harsh realities that local people experience. This undermines relationships with the very people the missionary wants to reach with the gospel.
Sooner or later, overseas missionaries have to make hard decisions regarding their lifestyles. For the sake of their calling many of them choose a lifestyle that eliminates unnecessary barriers and identifies them more closely with the people.
I think we find a principle here that applies to all Christians. It is the principle of stewardly living for the sake of the extension of the gospel. If missionaries overseas can be expected to shape their lifestyles for the sake of their witness, what exempts Western church people from doing the same?
Granted, there is no one “Christian” lifestyle. Lifestyles differ depending on place and circumstance. But biblical principles ought to govern all lifestyle decisions, particularly those involving financial expenditures and modes of entertainment.
Between asceticism and devil-may-care hedonism lies a way of life transparently committed to imitating Christ and advancing his kingdom on earth. That way of life is shaped with others-in-mind. Its ultimate goal is the glory of God.
HAS THE RECESSION TAUGHT US ANYTHING?
There never was a better time than now to raise the lifestyle question. We have come through a time of economic recession that has been hard on many of us. We need to ask whether it taught us anything. Is our main thought to get back to the free-spending ways of the affluent 1980s? Or have we gained some better insights about values shaped by Kingdom standards?
If we are serious about divine providence, we realize that more lies behind a recession than economics can explain. God uses hard times to warn His people. When God cuts our budgets and bores holes in our pocketbooks, He may be shaking us into examining how far materialism and consumerism have permeated the church.
When times are hard, which items do we cut first? Causes that have to do purely with the spread of the gospel, and benefit other people, or things that affect us locally?
If missionaries have problems stemming from bondage to things, the root of the problem is in the church back home. The Western church’s chief weakness is its unthinking conformity to the culture’s materialistic values.
If it were simply the world at large that was infatuated with possessions, comforts and entertainment, the problem could be easily identified. But the problem has entered and settled down within the Christian community. The lifestyles of most Western church members are not significantly different than those of the culture and social class to which they belong.
WHEN GOD IS THINGS
Affluence is dangerously deceptive, and few people realize how caught up they are in the sin of extravagant living. Satan likes to keep it that way, as he beguiles Christians into believing that the “abundant life” God promises means a continual increase in material possessions along with plenty of good times. Hedonism is insatiable. Enough is never enough, and the desire for more is never satisfied.
Affluence’s damaging effect on the spiritual health of the church is as subtle as it is real. I once asked an elderly pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Canada what had precipitated the downhill slide of his denomination. “Affluence,” he replied. “Our people grew wealthy, and the richer they became the less they felt they needed God or the church. They adopted a secular attitude toward life. In short, they changed their god.”
When people stop taking God seriously it is not first of all because they learned some heretical doctrine. Their attitude toward God began to change before any new teaching was mentioned. In their hearts they started moving away from God and what followed was the result of it.
A change of heart and attitude may become evident by a shift to new ideas about religion, or by the erosion of commitment to the church. Or it may be expressed by transferring membership to a church that down plays doctrine or expects less in terms of financial commitment.
Whatever forms the change takes, it is produced by something deep and subtle, namely, the shift from God who is Spirit to to God who is things. When your god is things, what does truth matter? What does sound doctrine matter? Only when your God is Spirit, all knowing, all holy and everywhere present, does truth really matter.
“ENOUGH” IS ENOUGH
One of the great needs of the hour is for Christians who know when “enough” is enough, to take a stand against the encroachments of materialism and use their freed-up resources to help the poor and spread the gospel.
Where does one go for support in this endeavor? Society as a whole cannot help us make Kingdom-based lifestyle decisions. For the most part, your neighbors and mine are sold out to consumerism and entertainment. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
Sad to say, within Christian churches and schools it is increasingly difficult to find people who understand what a distinctively Christian lifestyle means. They personally avoid it for themselves and corporately reject it for their institutions. Whether it is a question of buying a new million dollar pipe organ for the church or taking a trip to the Bahamas with the family, their governing principle is enjoy-whatever-you-can-afford.
Given the materialistic culture in which we live, persons that defend a lifestyle-for-others are liable to be misunderstood and criticized. Children whose parents opt for a simple lifestyle will more than likely be ostracized at school, which is one reason why some parents choose homeschooling. Frankly, there are Christian day schools where I would not want my grandchildren enrolled because of the materialistic attitudes and lifestyles of so many of the students.
A genuine ministry lifestyle would lead churches to look for segments of society that are largely unchurched. In North America urban blue-collar workers are generally an unchurched segment of the population. Yet they remain on the margin of most domestic mission strategies. Even churches located in neighborhoods of mainly lower income people often do a poor job of reaching them. One of the main reasons is the predominate lifestyle of the churches.
Middle class churches as a whole are reluctant to reach out to the lower classes because they realize, consciously or unconsciously, that to enfold them in church life would require lifestyle accommodations ranging from style of clothing to time and frequency of services, to music, salaries and budgets, pulpit language, style of Christian education, cost and quality of buildings and furnishings.
The prevailing opinion is that the price of such accommodations is too high, he would drive people away. It takes “missionary types,” and high commitment groups like Potter’s House in Southwest Grand Rapids, to make changes of that magnitude for the sake of others.
I have come to the conclusion that one of the church’s chief enemies is affluence, and the greatest barrier to Kingdom service is a me-first attitude and the lifestyle that goes with it.
Therefore, I propose a set of questions based on Kingdom values to help us screen out selfIsh actions:
1. Will doing this make me and others better servants of Jesus Christ?
2. Will this expenditure in some way advance Christ’s kingdom? Or might it become a hindrance?
3. If I do this, can I still keep my financial commitments to the church, to the poor and to missions?
4. Will acquiring this widen the distance between me and people I want to draw to Christ?
5. Will it complicate my life and thereby limit my service to Christ’s kingdom?
In his reply to the young rich man, Jesus made clear that how people look upon earthly possessions is a gauge of their spiritual commitment. This being so, cutting back our consumption, short of privation, for the sake of service to others, so becomes the road to deeper spirituality. Perhaps it is also the road to renewal in our churches.
Dr. Greenway teaches World Missiology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Ml.