The Impact Of Economic Realities On The Mission Of The Church
The Rev. Canon Phanuel L. Mung’ong’o,Msalato Theological College, Dodoma, Tanzania, examines the sources of inter-Christian conflict both locally and abroad. He argues that the majority of disagreements are based, either obviously or not, on economic inequalities. Rather that argue a “Leveler” program, Canon Mung’ong’o insists that the Church must turn its attention away from the enticements of the material world and focus instead on the Missio Dei, the Mission of God, as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The preaching of the Gospel is always counter-cultural and calls for transformation and change. The status quo in a society is thrown off balance and a new way of life demanded. Paul, after his encounter with the risen Lord and the resulting transformation, says,
Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ …(Phil. 3:7ff).
Paul had to give up his status, his wealth, etc., and put his life in danger for Jesus’ sake! Economic realities affect people’s lives and the church’s mission. Conflicts in many churches today are the result of financial matters and material property, either between church leaders and their congregations, or between the church and the communities they are trying to reach out to with the Gospel, and sometimes even between the church and the governments in the countries they’re in.
In this paper, I look at the impact of economic realities on mission. I start by looking at the impact of Paul’s preaching in Ephesus on the traders in silver shrines of the goddess Artemis, and the impact of their reaction on Paul’s mission. Then I discuss the impact of similar situations in Tanzania regarding the effect of the Gospel on the alcohol and tobacco industries and the counter-impact of the trade on the economy of the community and the church, as well as the conflicts that result from these encounters, and their possible resolutions. This is followed by a discussion on what mission is and what should be its driving motivation. After looking briefly at the mission of Jesus, I look at what mission is and whose mission it is, and what is involved in doing mission. I conclude by suggesting that our mission should be modeled on that of Jesus: God-centred, love-driven and not economically driven. The church’s mission is God’s mission and not ours.
Paul and the Silversmiths in Ephesus
When Paul preached the Gospel in Ephesus, Demetrius, a silversmith making silver shrines of the goddess Artemis, felt threatened that his lucrative business would come to an end because, as people became Christians, they stopped worshiping other gods, thus reducing the market for silver shrines. This would have great economic implications for Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths (Acts 19:23 – 40). A conflict of interest resulted between Paul’s mission and the business of the silversmiths.
Demetrius stirred up the silversmiths and the silversmiths stirred up the whole city in turn! Consequently, the situation threatened to have political implications. The city clerk had to intervene, urging Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen to go through the courts if they had any grievances against the missionaries. Although religious arguments in defense of the goddess’ integrity were advanced, in reality the riots were economically motivated: Men, you know we receive a good income from this business” he told the tradesmen. But to get the support of the city dwellers, he says, “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess herself, … will be robbed of her divine majesty” (Acts 19:27). An alternative source of income would have helped alleviate their fears.
Alcohol and Mission
In Tanzania drinking and the alcohol trade has been a source of conflict between pastors and their congregations in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. However, alcohol is traditionally accepted in many cultures in Tanzania and Africa, playing an important part in the social and religious lives of the people, especially in the formalization of relationships and sacrifices. Economically, it is a source of income for many. Local breweries support many poor families, and they are able to send their children to school from its income. In the absence of alternatives for their economic needs, many people would rather remain non-Christians than give up their main source of income, or opt to become Roman Catholics or High Anglicans where alcohol is supposedly not prohibited!
Recently, I had a heated discussion with a group of young, educated Anglicans, who wanted to know the Biblical basis for the prohibition of alcohol in the church. While acknowledging the truth that alcohol abuse and alcoholism has become a costly universal problem, they pulled out a 1996 article on ‘Alcohol and the Bible’ by Daniel Whitfield in which he argues that of the 228 references to wine and strong drink in the Bible, only 17 are warnings against abusing alcohol; 19 examples of people abusing alcohol; 3 references to selecting leaders, and one verse advocating abstinence if drinking will cause a fellow Christian to stumble! These are negative references, totalling 40 or 16% of the total 228 references.
Whitfield says there are 59 references of a commonly accepted practice of drinking wine and strong drink with meals; 27 references to the abundance of wine as a sign of God’s blessing; 20 references to the loss of wine as a sign of God’s curse; 25 references to the use of wine in sacrifices and offerings; 9 to wine being used as a gift; and 5 references metaphorically used as basis for favourable comparison – making the total positive references to alcohol in the Bible 145 or 59%. The rest are neutral references, accounting for 25%. Whitfield concludes that “one wonders how so many conservative Christians came to treat a prohibitionist position as a scriptural position” (p7).
The government collects a lot of money from the alcohol industry in taxes, which finances various social services such as medical care, education, road construction etc, which benefits all Tanzanians – including the conservative Christians who do not accept the consumption of alcohol on ‘Scriptural grounds’. National and personal economic realities come into conflict with the church and its mission.
It is evident that the Bible does not prohibit alcohol for believers. But it makes it very clear that drunkenness is among those deeds of the ‘flesh’ for which Paul warns: “I am warning you … those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). Abstinence from alcohol and any other intoxicating substances remains the better option for many.
Tobacco and Mission
The production and consumption of tobacco is another conflict area. It is true that cigarette smoking is harmful to both active and passive smokers, as the health warnings on packets show. But the income from tobacco is invaluable to the farmers, and the big taxes imposed by the government on cigarettes contribute a huge amount of money to the treasury coffers! In fact, to encourage more production, tobacco growers are assisted with farm inputs by the government. So, preaching against tobacco growing and smoking puts the church on a collision course with the farmers and the government.
Christians who grow tobacco are accused of contributing to the destruction of people’s health and lives. But at the same time they contribute to the GNP of the country. Even those who are not involved in the direct production and trading in tobacco still benefit from tobacco through the taxes which fund social services. Church ministers benefit from the proceeds of tobacco through their stipends. Nobody investigates the origin of every coin put in the offering plate! Preaching against tobacco thus threatens the economic well-being of the pastor in tobacco growing areas. Providing believers with suitable alternative sources of income should be among the tasks of the church in such circumstances.
We Live in a Materialistic World
We are all living in a materialistic world. The church is a congregation of individuals, most of whom are material driven. The success of a person in life is measured by the amount and quality of material things in one’s possession. Pastors and church ministers are human beings yearning for the same material things possessed by members of their congregations. Many show open resentment towards the good financial and material wealth of their congregations while they themselves make very little material advances.
Pastors’ unwillingness to serve in areas which do not promise good financial prospects leads to conflicts with bishops when it comes to parish personnel allocations. “Some pastors confess they have to battle against a materialistic spirit in themselves, finding that they, too, are influenced by a materialism culture” (White,1993, 36). Some people join the ministry purely for economic motives. Pastors become paid hirelings who have interest in the pay but not the flock, corrupting relationships between pastor and flock. Conflicts experienced in the election of bishops in the Anglican Church of Tanzania are due to the materialistic attractions of the office of bishop!
Northern and Southern Partnerships
Partnership in mission is important if lasting and tangible results are to be realized. But partnership is about the sharing of resources and assisting each other as equals. Current partnerships between the Northern Church and the Southern Church aren’t partnerships at all. Difficult financial circumstances facing the Southern Church lead to economic needs driving these relationships between our dioceses and overseas partners. Instead of partnerships, we have donor–recipient relationships, and conditionality characterizes most funding agreements. Conflict results because the recipients can only do what is acceptable by the donors. Economic realities, and not mission needs, determine the type and quality of relationship.
Today, secular tactics are used by churches, where professional tactics are employed in fundraising efforts. Compromise of values cannot be avoided in such cases. Churches have had to source for funds from secular organizations whose values are complete opposites of the church’s. The church begins to embrace the rich for financial reasons, and in doing so it is forced to remain silent when abuses and corruption happen, losing its prophetic voice. To justify this position, it has to come up with non-biblical ‘theologies’ to gain respectability,: losing its ability to be salt and light to the world.
Economic realities cannot be escaped in mission. The church needs money for mission work. To travel from one place to another you need transport — cars, motor cycles, bicycles, etc. These cost money. You need to pay salaries for ministers and employ quality support staff. There is need to re-determine the essence of mission and come up with a revised approach to mission, so that our mission may be modeled on that of Jesus and obedience to God, and not just on economic considerations..
What is Mission?
The term ‘mission’ comes from the Latin word ‘mitto’, the Greek equivalent of ‘appostello’, which means ‘to send’. It has no biblical equivalent, and its earliest occurrence in the Oxford English Dictionary is said to be in 1598. By 1729, church use of the term focused on the Great Commission only (Matt. 28:16-20). Mission is “an act of sending” in order to perform a certain function; to represent the interests of the sender. In church usage mission includes everything the church does, although God’s mission is not limited to only what the church does. God works both in and outside the church. He sets the agenda for mission, and the church isn’t the sole player in mission. Mission is the task of the church as a Christian response to “the universal and exclusive claims of the Triune God who has revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ. It involves crossing human boundaries by Christians who are called individually and corporately to proclaim God’s purposes” (Breward, 1978, 664-667).
‘Missio Dei’ is “used in Roman Catholic theology to describe those activities within the divine Trinity itself by which the way for mission is prepared” (Vicedom 1970, 387). It is God’s mission. Our understanding of mission is based on the understanding of God as a missionary God. “Mission is primarily and ultimately the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry which the church is privileged to participate” (Bosch, 1991, 393). Protestants adopted the concept of Missio Dei in 1952 at their conference in Willingen as their basis for missionary activity. “God starts by sending the Son, and then continues through his Holy Spirit in the church until the end of time” (Vicedom, 1970, 387).
The church is therefore called and sent by God through the Son. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn 20:27). It is sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit. Before his ascension, Jesus warned his disciples not to do anything until the Spirit came (Acts 1:4), who would then empower them for mission (Acts 1:8). Jesus himself did not start his earthly ministry until after his baptism, when the Spirit descended on him. The Spirit then led him into the wilderness to be tempted, after which he returned to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit and started teaching (Matt. 4:1; Lk4:14). “World-wide evangelization will become a realistic responsibility only when the Spirit renews the church in truth and in wisdom, faith, holiness and power” (Lausanne 1974, Art.14). If mission belongs to God, the church can only do mission with God; not apart from God. We can’t put our trust in our own ideas about mission.
It is fashionable today to use modern multi-media techniques in worship as a way of attracting more people, purely for economic considerations. Attractive as this might be, it can never bring about real church growth on its own. “Even as we use the best modern media, our reliance from beginning to end must be on God’s Word and Spirit and formation and mission” (Guinness, 1989, 5). God is the initiator of mission, and only he can equip the church for mission.
Prayer needs to be the heart of mission. When the church in Antioch was in prayer, God revealed his purposes for Saul and Barnabas. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” he told them. The outcome of that was to be the spread of Christianity in a way that has no parallels in history. “Prayer is fundamental in the kingdom of God. … We do not just pray for the work, prayer is the work. Prayer lifts Christian activities from the realm of human effort to the divine” (Johnstone, 1995, 11). As we pray, we become co-workers with God. “We move from time into eternity, sharing in the eternal counsels of God” (op. cit.). Prayer not only changes things and situations, it changes those who pray too. “The devil mocks our activism, scoffs at our strategies, sniggers at our synods, laughs at our PCC agendas, rejoices at our divisions, but trembles when we pray” (Jackson 2005, 220). Prayer in conflict situations is important for Godly resolution.
Jesus started his earthly ministry by clarifying the essence and source of authority for his ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19). John3:16 states what the Spiritual aspect of his ministry was all about: salvation to the world. There is an obvious dichotomy in the way the church has carried its mission, separating evangelism from social action. In Luke 7:21-23 Jesus demonstrates by action his claims made in Luke 4:18-19 and then tells John’s disciples, “go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor” (v.22). Is the church good news to the poor as its founder was? John Stott once called upon evangelicals to “see mission as the church ‘sent’ into the world to serve just as Jesus served, including evangelism and social responsibility as partners in the missionary task” (Moreau, 2000, 637).
Stott saw the origin of mission as being in the mission of God, and modeled on it. “If then, we are to understand the nature of the church’s mission, we have to understand the nature of the Son’s” (Stott, 1975, 67). Jesus sends the church just as he was sent by the Father. He sends us into the world. Jesus “actually became one of us and experienced our frailty, our suffering, our temptations” (op. cit., 66). The mission of the church also needs to be incarnational. Jesus sends us into the world to identify with others as he identified with us, to become vulnerable as he did. But we are very good “at shouting the gospel to people from a distance [rather] than involv[ing] ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their problems, and to feel with them in their pains” (op. cit.).
Mission has to be motivated by God’s love. Boosting numbers and income shouldn’t be the motivation for the church’s involvement in mission. We undertake social responsibility not just to give credibility to the image of the gospel, but because the love of Christ compels us. “Love does not need to justify itself. It expresses itself whenever it sees need” (op. cit., 68). The church, modeling Jesus, is called to be salt and light to the world. Compromise in order to avoid conflict for the sake of economic security discredits God’s mission.
Mission fields have drastically changed. Populations are increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith. There is a strong competition in the ‘market’ for people’s time and spiritual yearnings. Sunday is no longer special for ‘church’, as other activities (economic) in the secular world have taken over. (see Mission-Shaped Church, p4). There is no alternative to a consumer society. “That’s what we are, that’s where we are, and that’s where we must be church and embody the gospel. … we are called to be church ‘in’ consumer society, but we dare not let ourselves be ‘of’ consumerism” (op. cit., 10).
Paul concerned himself with the social and economic welfare of his converts, urging Christians to offer themselves in love and service to one another, putting each others’ needs first (Rom. 12; Phil. 2:1-11). This was a survival strategy in the face of economic hardships — a conscious, calculated action directly related to people’s need. “One consequence … is that it allows an individual a call on resources in time of need” (Meggitt, 164). There is to be mutual dependence and reversal of long-held ideas about status and importance (1 Cor. 12:14-26); needs should determine a just distribution of resources (2 Cor. 9); and love expressed in attitude and practice (1 Cor. 8, 10). The collection of money for ‘the saints’ in Jerusalem, among other purposes, “aimed to ensure that the resources of one part of the church were available for the whole church, especially for the poor” (Ziesler, 126).
To resolve conflicts that are due to the impact of economic realities on mission, we need to model our approach to mission on that of Jesus himself. Love for the sinner should be our motivation, because the incarnation is the result of God’s love for lost humanity.
Jesus, in Matthew 8:20 says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. Material things were not his motivation, and he warns followers not to expect material comfort in his service! Love drove his entire ministry, and love is costly. It involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus. But for our needs he says: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you”. By asking we will receive from God all that we need for his mission.
Again, he says “do not worry about what you will eat or wear”, because God knows what you need even before you ask. When he sends his disciples out for mission, he says, “As you go, preach the message, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is near’. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons….”. To be able to do this we need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit and not money! Jesus instructed his disciples: “Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belt, take no bag for your journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep” (Mat. 10:7–10). What we need for mission is to be found on the mission field itself.
Conflicts in the church resulting from the impact of economic realities are the result of our wrong approach to mission. Instead of starting with God we start with economic considerations. We let the materialism of the world set the agenda for mission instead of God! Mission becomes ‘our mission’ and not the ‘Missio Dei’. We need to honestly and faithfully go back to listening to God’s voice as he speaks to us through the Spirit and the Scriptures.
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