The Pitfalls of Having Foreign Contacts

Written in November 2000

The “Benefactors” Lifestyle

I have become very burdened about the issues I’ve described above because of certain problems the church in Sri Lanka is facing. I fear that there are some ideas about lifestyle and the role of leaders that run counter to the theology of joy and of the cross that I have tried to expound.

Our church is growing numerically at a wonderful rate. This growth is primarily through the ministries of unsung heroes who have gone to the unreached and are paying a huge price to proclaim the gospel.

But another sad thing is happening. Sri Lankan Christian leaders who return after training abroad or who have foreign contacts are finding it very difficult to fit into the lifestyle that is necessary to identify with the poor who form the large majority of our population. So they have developed a lifestyle that makes them more of a benefactor than of a peer to their colleagues. Owing to contacts abroad they are able to live on a higher level than their colleagues live. But they often help these colleagues materially, thus becoming benefactors.

Some send their children to international schools where the monthly fee for a student is more than the monthly salary of an average Christian worker. This is “inevitable” for some because the early education of these children was in the west, making it impossible for them now to join the vernacular stream of the “local” schools. Some of these leaders return to the west after a few years of service in Sri Lanka, sometimes feeling that they are not being used adequately in Sri Lanka or sometimes because the educational needs of their children necessitate this move.

Inconvenience and Pain through Christian Community Life

I think one of the things that has had to be changed as a result of the scenario described above is our understanding of Christian community. Today we often have the situation where there is a huge lifestyle difference among members of one body. Sometimes some members assume the role of benefactor while the others are recipients of charity from the benefactors. In such a community it is very difficult to practice the type of community described in the New Testament where the members are of one heart and mind (Acts 4:32; Phil. 2:2) and “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). In the early church the members shared a oneness of mind even in the area of possessions (Acts 2:42-46; 4:32). Today often Christians regard their possessions as private things about which they do not talk with their fellow Christians. It would be too embarrassing for the others to know too much about the lifestyle of the affluent benefactors.

Programmes and rules now govern community life, though there isn’t much oneness of heart among the members. In this way one can develop efficient working relationships. A lot of awkwardness and pain is avoided, as people do not confront each other with difficult questions about each other’s lives. When disagreements get to be very big, there is a brief flare up and a division. Those involved in the conflict go their separate ways. Some leave and join another group or start a new group of their own. This is an unfortunate feature that has accompanied the rapid growth of the church in many third world countries. Groups are breaking up and people are leaving groups with unhealed wounds at an alarming rate.

A major reason for this epidemic of church splits is that the church has not adopted a biblical understanding of body life and spiritual solidarity. Instead, community life has been fashioned according to systems developed in the contemporary market-oriented society where an individualism alien to the biblical understanding of community-life is the order of the day. People are moving from Christian group to group just like they move from job to job.

Management Gurus rather than the New Testament seem to be the biggest influence in fashioning our community life. We call ourselves families, but we operate more like corporations where one does not have to bother with the inconvenience and pain of spiritual accountability. The surrendering of ones independence in order to fully become part of the Christian community to which God has called them may be an important aspect of the cross that today’s Christians are called to bear. This runs counter to the approach to relationships prevalent in this individualistic era. It may be one of the most important issues relating to the question of the relationship between missionaries and the Christians in the nations where they serve.

If you were to make a list of all the times Paul talks about his sufferings in the Epistles, you would be amazed at how often commitment and love to those in the Christian community caused his pain. In 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 he says, “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” In Galatians 4:19-20 he says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” (See also 2 Cor. 2:4, 12-13; 7:5-7; 12:15; Col. 1:24; 2:1; 1 Thess. 3:5-7).

Pain is an inevitable consequence of commitment to people. That is an important part of the cross that Christians are called to bear. I think one reason why many Christians are not experiencing the cross of suffering as the Bible says they would, is the lack of costly commitment to the members of the community to which they belong. We have opted instead for shallow and temporary relationships with fellow Christians.

Often when my western friends hear of all the problems we face in our war-torn country, they tell me something like, “We don’t realise how fortunate we are to live in the west where we don’t have all these problems.” If I am able to respond to this I usually say that the biggest pain I have experienced has not been in connection with the war in the land but in connection with Christian community life. And that pain is not confined to our nation. Anyone practising true biblical community-life in any part of the world will have such high standards that they will experience much pain. But most communities have lowered their standards and thus avoid this pain. Of course, by doing so they have also avoided the depth of love and joy and enrichment that God intended to give us through community too!

Identification Fosters Ownership

When leaders identify and suffer with their people, the people in turn develop a sense of ownership in the movement or church. They begin to contribute financially and in other ways to the movement. Unless they contribute in this way they will never sense ownership, and thus never really develop into leaders themselves. But why give to the group when the leaders live such affluent lives? Surely the leaders would meet all the expenses?

I know that there is an alternative way of motivating the poor to give that has been very successful recently. This is the promise of material blessings for those who give. Proponents of prosperity theology who live affluent lives often use this method of motivation with much success. The extreme application of this is when the rich preacher tells poor Christians that they too could become rich like him if they follow “the laws of prosperity” one of which is tithing. But addressing this issue is not within the scope of this paper! I want to present another motivation to giving which I believe is more biblical, and that is the motivation of ownership. In this scenario, the poor Christian will reason, “This is the group God has placed me in. I must somehow do my part to make it grow and succeed.”

My dream (partially fulfilled, I hope) is to see the poor giving to our work and therefore sensing that they have ownership in YFC, so much so that they can protest when something happens that they don’t like. If they were only helpless recipients of aid, then they would not have the courage or the freedom to protest when they are angry about something that is happening which they feel is wrong. Leaders will grow, even from among the poor, in an environment like this. Usually these leaders from among the poor are so much more effective in ministering among the poor than leaders from affluent backgrounds.

Christian Fulfilment versus Western Job Satisfaction

Most Sri Lankans Christian workers who have come back after some years abroad (me included) struggle with the sense of frustration that they are not being used “properly.” We feel that the people have not recognised our gifts and that we are not “fulfilled in ministry.” The problem is that our countries are so poor that they cannot afford specialists. So if we are to use our gifts, it will have to be done while doing many other things. Gifted preachers cannot give themselves solely to the ministry of preaching. They will need to do visiting, counselling, fund-raising and a host of other things. The result, of course, is integration that avoids the unhealthy specialisation that we are seeing in the west. I believe that such integration is one of the biggest contributions that we in poorer nations have to make to the rest of the world. But there is a big price to pay if we are to use our primary gifts while doing so many other things. That price may be severe tiredness and strain.

Unfortunately many who have returned to Sri Lanka after studies abroad have got their understanding of fulfilment in ministry from the west where it is often drawn from secular ideas of job satisfaction rather than from the biblical theology of the cross. I have had to think of this a lot because I have recently had four foreign “job offers.” I never gave any of them serious thought. But two of them were very attractive because they claimed to give me a platform for a wider influence for my writings and also freedom from some activities, like fund raising, that keep me from concentrating on my first love, the ministry of the Word. Sometimes the thought would come to me, “How nice it would be if I could write without the severe exhaustion that comes from trying to write and do active ministry among a people who don’t have a western approach to time and efficiency.” But my call is to Sri Lanka. Sadly, many of our sharpest minds have left the country. Many Asian Christians, who are writing, are writing from western countries.

The salary one receives is another aspect of western idea of job satisfaction. It is quite normal for institutions and churches in the west to lure capable people by offering them a better package of salary and benefits than what they have in their present place of ministry. Salary determines what one understands to be his or her call. To me this is a scandal, but few people seem to be protesting about this practice in the west. Isn’t the call of God a call to a community in addition to being a call to a type of ministry, like seminary teaching? I fear this is not something that is too common in the thinking of western Christians. So a rich seminary will try to lure, by offering an attractive package, a brilliant teacher in a small denominational school that cannot offer him much. Though in the individualistic west the idea of luring people with the promise of bigger salary and benefits does not seem too scandalous, it is scandalous in most third world countries where community solidarity is still an important value. And I believe that this is a biblical value that the western church has neglected. But such luring is taking place and that is bringing much dishonour to the name of Christ. Unfortunately these practices are slowly coming to our churches too.

The situation of seminary teachers leaving seminaries for economic advancement show what a low priority commitment to the seminary community plays in the life of the seminary teachers. More than anything else seminary teachers must model the values of biblical ministry to their students. One of the most urgent needs in the ministry today is the recovery of a biblical understanding of community. What model of community life would our people have got from their teachers?

The salaries of Christian workers in Sri Lanka vary markedly in Sri Lanka according to the group one works with. A person working for an organisation with foreign contacts may get a salary five to ten times bigger than one with the same qualifications and ability working for an indigenous organisation. Sometimes the indigenous organisation may be much more effective in its impact upon the nation than the one with foreign contacts. If foreign-trained workers follow the examples of their teachers, we may find the best people leaving the most effective organisations to work for richer but less effective organisations. Those foreign-trained people who remain with the indigenous body to which they belong may feel resentful that they are not being paid what they deserve and feel trapped by their commitments to this group.

What of those who benefit from the generosity of the “benefactor” leader with foreign contacts? Many wait until they too can get a foreign sponsor. The moment they do that they “liberate” themselves from their benefactor and become benefactors themselves. They praise God for the provision of funds to have a more effective ministry. Unfortunately the time they make this foreign contact is sometimes the time their ministry begins to slide downwards. They lose touch with their people. They are comfortable and prosperous but ineffective.

Many Christian workers all over the world regard their early ministry as their best period of ministry. Along the way they took a step that impeded their growth. At the time, however, it seemed to be a wonderful opportunity for career advancement. Some took jobs that would put them higher in the ecclesiastical status-ladder (How often ministers think that promotion in status is the rightful and necessary reward for service!). Some became consultants concentrating on their specialisation without having to endure the inconvenience of being part of a community that required that they do many other things. Some left places of political instability and danger. They felt that they had served there long enough, and that now it was time to come to a place where they and their children could have better educational and cultural opportunities. Some found their spouses unwilling to share in the difficulties of their call, and thus they were forced to relocate. Some decided to go for higher studies. But what these moves did was to take them away from the way of the cross, and thus from effectiveness.

Applying these Ideas to the Missionary Movement

I realise that what I have said above does not apply directly to missionaries. But the principles advocated are important to them because they too experience the challenges, frustrations and temptations that nationals with foreign contacts experience. Missionaries from affluent nations have usually inherited the western idea of job satisfaction even more that nationals who spent only a few years in affluent nations. Many modern missionaries are told that they don’t have to struggle like the earlier missionaries did. But we are seeing that they don’t really make an effort to fully identify with our people. Many come for only a short term, so they feel that they don’t need to identify in this way. They live like westerners in Sri Lanka—quite removed from the people. Locals who join them often do so with the hope that some of the missionary’s riches will trickle down to them. The missionary then also becomes primarily a benefactor.

Some sensitive nationals stay away from these missionaries lest they be open to the charge of being motivated by mercenary considerations. Consequently missionaries have bad experiences. They are “taken for a ride” by people who joined them with the hope of exploiting them. The missionary ends up saying, “You can’t trust the Sri Lankans.” The non-Christians, on the other hand, are saying that a new colonial era has dawned. Earlier the Christians came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other. Now they come with the Bible in one hand and dollars in the other.

I believe that one of the biggest problems in missions today is the “softness” of the missionaries who are going out from affluent countries. They are finding it difficult to endure frustration and strain. After some time in the field, they either modify their goals so as to be involved in programs that do not entail much suffering, or they go home for good disillusioned over the suffering and frustration that they had not been adequately prepared for. They were influenced in their decision to become missionaries by attractive advertising and recruiting procedures that seemed to have downplayed the pain that goes with the missionary vocation. This may result contribute to their developing a perception of having been deceived by the missionary motivators or recruiters who influenced them to decide on a missionary career.