Christian young people in North America who sense a long-term call to the mission field in developing countries are often ready and willing to give up most of their material possessions. They are willing to go with the clothes on their back and eat beans and rice to tell about Jesus. The problem is that the citizens of those developing nations might be eating only beans or rice. Thus, the native people often perceive that the most materially advantageous job to have is one connected with Christian ministry.
The New Testament teaches that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Full-time preachers do not directly engage in fulfilling the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28 to bring forth the fruits of the earth like people in other callings. The Lord God “gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant” as Deuteronomy 8:18 reminds us. He ordains the creation of wealth to meet the material needs of his multiplying creatures so that they might know him.
Pastors, a bit like the Levites of old, receive a portion of what the rest of God’s people produce (Number 18:21). Frankly, pastors are God-appointed leeches, financially speaking. That is a humbling reality for those of us who labor in the gospel ministry. It is also a reminder that we are to disciple the nations unto God-ordained material productivity. After all, the creation mandate is part of teaching the nations to observe everything that Jesus has commanded us.
Missiologists have long wrestled with appropriate way to balance the word and deed ministry of the church. God calls the church to preach the gospel and plant churches and to show mercy in areas of physical need. Unique complexities abound in each field, and the discussion is not simple. Yet, it is easy to see how missionaries who are wealthier than the people to whom they ministry can quickly run into the ditch on either side of this narrow road. On one side, the church simply administers the means of grace as though they were the ends of grace. Or, on the other side, the church becomes a welfare institution focused on a social gospel that is no gospel at all. Either way, the culture is not much changed and the most financially comfortable positions in the culture seem to the natives to be those connected with Christian ministry.
The Lord has already changed many lands through the labor of Christian missionaries and Christian business people who have taught new converts Biblical economic principles. Recently, more and more Christians are seeing the need to disciple believers in bringing forth the fruit of the earth. That requires more Christians going to developing nations as business people who will labor alongside the missionaries who are gospel workers. They will sacrificially model profit earning businesses for saints in developing lands and teach them to work so that people might care for their own households, have something to give, and be a blessing to the other nations. They must do all that while cultivating a Scriptural ethic to avoid the sins of greed and covetousness in what are often corrupt cultures. Along the way, the Lord will use some to help set public policy in these lands.
Some missionary pastors have committed themselves to be entrepreneurs as well as gospel preachers, like Paul in Acts 18:1-4. They are doing it not only to provide for their own needs, but to model what it means to work with one’s hands to get wealth, which is a primary calling for the bulk of God’s people.
For those in the West, one useful ways to serve in the developing world is by working in economic development with the Christian diaspora groups of other lands. For many of us, that can simply start by walking down the street in our own city to shop in the stores owned by immigrants and begin to develop relationships with the owners. Those people have connections with their homelands, and some will return or at least invest in family members back home. It is a small step and may only give a little glimpse of what God may do, but great journeys begin with small steps and small glimpses give birth to great visions.
Here are a three recent articles discussing how Christian missionaries and Christian business people might proceed (note: I have not read Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus’ work The Poverty of Nations (Crossway, 2013) which also addresses some of the same issues):
A Missionary Mind for Economics highlights Mark Aubry’s labors in Haiti. A few years ago, he concluded that Haiti needs fewer missionaries. Instead, it needs greater discipleship in Biblical economics.
Gospel Dignity is Marvin Olasky’s review of Tim Chester’s book Good News to the Poor (Crossway, 2013). He emphasizes the dignity that the gospel brings. A working view of human dignity in Christ is worked out through development rather than welfare.
Indiana Couple's Off to Spread Farming Tips and the Gospel is Russ Pulliam’s account of Travis and Gina Sheets. This couple, from the Frankfort, Indiana Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is going to Liberia. Liberia’s per-capita gross domestic product is less than half that of Haiti’s. "Poverty is expensive" the Sheets like to say. They long to see souls brought to Christ and to see the agricultural economy developed there after decades of war. Travis is an agri-genius full of ideas, know-how, energy, vision, and heart. Gina presently serves as Indiana's Director of the Department of Agriculture under Governor Mike Pence where she has honed skills in international trade. She is resigning that post at the end of the year to fulfill her calling in Liberia; it is a foolish sacrifice in the eyes of many. They envision that land becoming a little "Jerusalem," from which the gospel goes to "Judea," "Samaria," and to the "uttermost parts of the earth." In like manner, they pray that Christians there will be an economic blessing by first being able to feed their own, then engage in regional trade with the rich fruit brought forth from the Liberian soil, and ultimately be a blessing to the ends of the earth through international trade and commerce rather than living in the expensive poverty they presently experience. Check out their page at Hope in the Harvest.
Our calling as the church of Jesus Christ is to teach everything that he has commanded us. We might do that by sacrificing ourselves to a diet of beans and rice. But Christians cannot be content to leave new converts cultivating a diet of merely beans or rice – or even beans and rice. We must teach them to take dominion of the earth through preaching, by example, and through personal discipleship in families and business relationships. To that end, we need to pray that the Lord will raise up men who will sacrifice themselves by going as those who are well-prepared to preach the gospel. We should also pray that the Lord will raise up entrepreneurs who will sacrifice maximum economic blessing in the West to model and teach how to gain wealth in the marketplace of the developing world.