As the classic Beatles song goes, “‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, for money can’t buy me … [honor].” Wealthy local leaders ignore this proverb regularly, using their money to purchase loyalty in hopes that the community will overlook their corruption, theft, and promiscuity. But it doesn’t work. The bazaar always finds out which men are living respectably and which ones are pretending mammon to be a substitute for honor.
My painter friend has provided valuable insight a couple of times now into how local culture thinks about money. A year and a half ago he was my point-man for the different renovations we needed to do once we had finally located a house to rent (a process that involved somewhere around fifty realtors!). It was an interesting working experience, and in the hottest part of the summer. My focus was on fixing things thoroughly so that this house could provide several years of stability for my family, while my painter friend was always pushing back and telling me not to spend so much money. I didn’t quite know what to do with the fact that my contractor kept trying to discourage me from employing him and his contacts on further projects!
One day I asked him about whether we should put iron bars on our ground floor front windows. Our house is essentially a cement row home, with a front that faces the street and sides and a back that connect to other houses’ walls. Envision the narrow Philadelphia row homes from the film Rocky, turn them into cement/plaster/tile structures, and you’ll be getting close. We have a skinny house front facing the street, a small tile courtyard with a gate, and we have a back roof that we can walk out onto. The door to the roof and the window have metal bars on them. But unlike some of our neighbors, we don’t have bars on our ground floor door and windows. The painter’s response was interesting.
“Nah, you don’t need ’em.”
“Why do say that?” I asked.
“Listen, if anyone’s gonna rob a house, he’s gonna do it through the roof, where the nosy neighbors can’t see it happen. Neighbors are always watching who comes and goes through the front of the house.”
Well, that’s a bit unnerving, I thought to myself. Better take note of that for future Bible studies.
“Nah,” he continued, “You’ve got bars on your roof window, so you’re fine. Besides, everyone knows that your a Westerner and Westerners are different with their money.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“Westerners keep their money in banks! Everyone knows that. I bet the cash you have in your wallet right now is the only cash you have around this whole house, right?”
“See? Nothing to worry about. No one will bother to rob Westerners because you’re not stuffing tens of thousands of dollars into a mattress or hole in the wall like we locals do. All your money is in a bank. It’s not worth it.”
What an interesting and unexpected perspective, I thought to myself. Growing up in Melanesia, crime and robbery were a big problem. Westerners had to be extra careful. Here, being a Westerner might mean I’m less likely to be robbed!
Fast forward a year and a half to last night, and we were having dinner with my painter friend and his wife. Once again, I found him to be an unexpected source of insight into theft and money. He began laughing and telling us about some foreigners he saw in the money exchange bazaar taking pictures of the tables piled high with stacks of cash.
“That’s a strange thing for all of us foreigners in the beginning,” I said, “Those tables are just sitting there with thousands of dollars on them, yet no one tries to steal anything! Your culture has an amazingly low rate of theft. It’s really unique. What’s going on there?” I asked him. “Even nearby surrounding cultures aren’t like that.”
“Well,” my painter friend said, “If anyone tries to steal anything, the police and the secret police will be after him right away. He doesn’t stand a chance. Sometimes you don’t even need the police! The crowd will take care of him. Stealing is such a shameful thing.”
(I remember experiencing a similar thing in Melanesia. A man had robbed one of my classmates. We were able to yell and holler and send a crowd chasing him down. The police saw him rounding a corner, pursued by an angry mob, and they decided to arrest him and rescue him from the wrath of the mob. Might have saved his life.)
My friend continued to elaborate, “For us, it’s a matter of honor and reputation. To be known as a thief is one of the worst reputations you can have. You’ll never get rid of it. You’ll never be able to marry a local girl. Their families won’t let them marry a thief.”
“Really?” we responded.
“Even his father will be marked forever. People on the street will say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief!’ And his son will never be able to marry. Oh yes, they will all say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief.’ Indeed, his honor will have departed.”
A teammate leaned over to me to emphasize this final phrase, “Did you catch that?” he said, “His honor will have departed.” I nodded. Now there’s a phrase to memorize for those seeking to communicate the fallenness of humanity. All of us have sinned, and all of our honor has departed.
“So that’s why thieving and robbery are so rare?” we asked.
“But what about government corruption?”
“Ha!” My friend responded, “Yes, we have a lot of that. The normal people don’t steal, but the political class? They’re sneaky. They steal billions in deceptive ways. Such is our situation.”
And such is the surprising nature of theft and money in our corner of Central Asia. In general, you don’t have to worry about pick-pockets, people breaking into your car, or kids stealing from shops in the bazaar. But you have a project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Watch out. At that point the thieves will come calling.
Last week a local believer surprised us, asking to spend a couple nights with us as he waited for his university dorm to open. We were heading into a needed slower weekend after a very busy week. So we had to take a minute to wrestle with whether our family could absorb the good cost of overnight hosting in the local fashion – where chai and conversation often last until well after midnight. In the end, my wife and I decided it would be the right kind of sacrificial call to make. We’ve learned the importance of making these kinds of calls together, even though it’s a little weird in local culture for me to tell a friend I’ll call him back rather than just immediately extending gushing invitations of welcome. But ministry can be quite costly to family, and unity between spouses is essential for navigating when and how to absorb those costs.
This particular young man has been a fun example of providence for me. Years ago I met him in a bookshop in our previous city. He shared with me that he and some of his high school buddies ran a philosophy discussion group in their very conservative Islamic city. I had felt keenly that this was the kind of group I should try to visit, but I had never followed up on the opportunity. Nevertheless, his number remained in my phone and his unique name in my mind. A few years later we had returned from six months in the US and had moved to a different city. At our first visit to the international church here, who should walk up to me at the end of the service? This very same young man – now a professing follower of Jesus. I don’t know how, but I knew I would run into you again, I thought to myself.
During my friend’s stay with us we talked a lot about his work with local radio stations – including our only local Christian radio station. He shared with me how our newly completed audio bible in the local language was recorded at their studio. This project is worthy of celebration since so many of the women in our adopted country are illiterate and much of the general population is only functionally literate – meaning they will never read a book for fun or personal interest. Having the whole Bible now freely available via radio or a free smartphone app means access to the word of God just increased exponentially.
“You know what really surprised me?” my friend said to me. “The project was funded by churches in Africa. How can that be?”
I was thrilled to learn about this aspect of the project. How amazing that African churches have just funded an audio bible for my Central Asian Muslim people group! I’ve never heard about this direction of partnership for the work here before, but it seems like an exciting preview of things to come. I proceeded to explain to my friend about the massive Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa and how I have heard it is set to become a major force and sending base for global missions. This was brand new information for my friend and he leaned in as I explained how the Church in the global south is in many ways the future center of global Christianity. The Church in the West may be declining or plateauing, but God is raising up churches all around the world to fill the gap.
In our previous city we partnered closely with a Mexican family. Their unique strengths were key to our fledgling church plant getting up and off the ground. We were able to lean on them for the areas of working in the local culture where we as Westerners were weaker – and vice versa. When that term came to an end I took a couple seminary classes while in the US. In both of my classes was a student from the very same country in Melanesia where I had grown up. Turns out he had been discipled by a pastor my own dad had discipled before he passed away. Now this man had been sent to get further seminary-level training. His dream is to return and start the first seminary in the country in order to train future pastors and missionaries. I watch with gratitude on social media as Melanesian guys I played volleyball with at Easter Camp are already going out and planting churches locally and even ministering in neighboring nations. Back here in our Central Asian context, it’s not uncommon to hear of cross-cultural workers from Asia and Latin America who have come to also see the Church take root here.
What an exciting time to be a part of global missions. Many countries and people groups that used to receive missionary church planters and Bible translators are now organizing to themselves send workers to the unreached people groups of the world. It’s often messy. We learned some hard lessons about how difficult it can be to have to contextualize to two foreign cultures at once, trying to keep in mind both local Central Asian and partner Hispanic culture. I can only imagine the epic culture clash if someday my Melanesian friends come as workers to Central Asia. “My grandpa was a cannibal” meets “My grandpa was a terrorist.” Sparks will certainly fly at times. And yet the advantages far outweigh the costs. The picture alone which is painted for our local friends is spiritually powerful. I relished every opportunity I had to point to our former partners’ ethnicity and our ethnicity and the locals’ ethnicities, holding up the supra-cultural power of the gospel for every people group of the world. “They’re Mexican, we’re American, you’re Central Asian. Look at the power of Jesus to save us and make us into a new people!”
I don’t know yet which churches from which African country funded our local audio Bible. But I praise God for them. Only the proud feel threatened when new regions of the world get involved in the missionary task. Many of us simply rejoice. Blessed reinforcements with unique strengths and needed experience! The promises of God are coming true. If all the unreached people groups of the world are to be saturated with healthy churches, it will have to be through a combined effort of the global church sending workers to the areas of greatest need. No longer mainly the West to the rest. Instead, all nations to all nations.
“How can I not give a support salary to a local believing leader when I myself am funded by support?”
This is not an uncommon struggle for missionaries who are trying to plant self-supporting churches in foreign contexts. If it’s OK for me to be living on support from Western churches, well then why not this local evangelist? It’s easy to see why this question rests heavy on the minds of missionaries, awash as they usually are in requests for financial help from locals.
And yet dependency upon Western dollars is a major problem, undercutting the emergence of healthy churches in many places overseas and stunting local believers in their growth. Time and again, well-meaning teams, organizations, and visitors will generously give out cash, vehicles, and salaries to locals who are indeed in financial need. Soon this becomes the expectation. In my Central Asian context there has never been a self-supporting local church. The precedent set by Christian organizations here is that local believers should usually be hired, salaried, and otherwise financially supported. Because of this, local aspiring church leaders hunt on social media and in our region for foreign patrons who will bankroll them so that they can finally serve Jesus as they feel they deserve to. Locals hosting a house church demand that the church pay their monthly rent. Other believers balk at the idea of doing discipleship without financial remuneration. After all, a worker is worthy of his wages. Sadly, entitlement is not too strong a word to use for the money culture that exists here among the small community of local believers.
The saddest part of it all is that local believers don’t learn how to give sacrificially. Dependent as they are on Western dollars, they often give a tiny symbolic amount to their local gathering – a massive contrast to their generosity toward their kin and close friends. The culture of giving among local believers is woefully underdeveloped. So it becomes a reinforcing cycle. Locals don’t give because the Western dollars are expected to flow liberally. The Western dollars flow because the locals don’t give, meaning their leaders can’t provide for their families. Locals therefore stay spiritual children in this regard, not growing up into the mature blessings that come from giving sacrificially (2 Cor 9).
My approach among my local friends is to simply ask their community to do what ours back in the West (and in Melanesia) has done. Work hard. Give generously to the church. Support your pastors. Serve the poor. Then give even more to send out your own evangelists and church planters. This is what has happened among healthy church networks all over the world. We are not asking our local friends to go through any kind of a different process. “Your people should do what my people have done.” It’s that simple. The shortcuts are treacherous. I live on support, yes, and I am therefore a preview of what your church will also be able to do if you embrace the New Testament vision of work and giving to the glory of God. You will send supported missionaries to other places who will also there raise up self-funded churches.
It is not hypocrisy for me to live on support and to ask my local friends to have locally-supported leaders. I am for them. I am for their spiritual maturity. I long for the day when local funds raised by local churches will send locals as cross-cultural missionaries to other people groups. This can happen. But it won’t happen if they remain dependent on Western dollars, stunted spiritually by the lack of this spiritual discipline of giving – and in greater danger of the ever-encroaching love of money. A worker is worthy of his wages (1 Tim 6:18). But let’s make sure we notice the context of that verse. The previous sentences are speaking of elders who lead well (v. 17). These are men who are tested, who are not new converts, who were free from the love of money before they became elders (1st Tim 3, Titus 1). These are men who have a track record of faithful leadership. Years of faithfulness have been invested without pay into the local church. By all means, let’s salary these kinds of brothers so they can be more free to devote themselves to the word and to prayer! But let that salary be locally-raised, or, part of high-accountability decreasing support plan where foreign support gets lower as local support ramps up – not unlike what we do for most North American church plants.
I’m not saying that there’s never an appropriate time for foreign dollars to fund local leaders overseas. But in many contexts it has caused absolute carnage among the churches. Foreign dollars are certainly among our top three church-killers locally. We need to grapple with this. Foreign financial support, if attempted, must be done very carefully and wisely, always with an explicit vision toward self-supporting local churches. There are usually better ways to invest Western money, such as helping local leaders get the training needed to start a business or get hired. Teach a man to fish, as the saying goes. Or, like Paul, teach a man to make tents.
I will have another chance to sit down with some local brothers this next week. They have asked to meet me and I’ve learned that they have a reputation for being salary-seekers. Money will likely come up. I hope to humbly invite them to follow me as I follow Christ. I’ve walked a good, hard, slow path toward now being fully supported to do gospel work. My path involved years of faithful volunteering, demonstrating to myself and to the church that I would do the work of evangelism, discipleship, and service no matter what, support or no support. “Will you also follow this good path that many others have walked before us? Will your people do as my people have done?” It may be harder, but in the end it is indeed a sweeter road – and safer too.
It is not uncommon for Western missionaries to be considered wealthy by the locals where they serve. This is certainly true in tribal contexts. Even in developing regions like Central Asia, Westerners are assumed to be fabulously wealthy. Many locals where we serve own decent homes and buy nice cars. They probably have more cash (or gold) reserves than we do. Central Asians and Middle Easterners value bling and have an uncanny ability to amass concrete wealth even in the midst of ongoing political crises.
And yet we are wealthier than they are in many ways. We are wealthy in our overall finances, compared to many. While we may not have much cash on hand, we have a steady income, generous health insurance, savings, and a retirement plan. We have access to lots of easy credit on reasonable terms. We have powerful credit cards that reward us with free rewards just for using them because we have been deemed a “safe risk” by our credit rating.
We are wealthy in our ability to travel on our blue passport (well, before the pandemic anyway). Our organization flies us out of our host country once or twice a year for meetings or trainings, providing us the opportunity to affordably attach a few days or a week of vacation to these trips. We tend to pay for these times of rest by using our credit card points and some leftover cash.
We are wealthy in our education. Whether we were home-schooled or went to a public or private school, the quality of our K-12 education outpaces anything available to our Central Asian friends. Our bachelors and masters degrees from accredited American universities are powerful for acquiring credibility and employment. We have the ability to find and win scholarships if we desire to get more education. Some universities will give amazing discounts to our children because they are MKs.
We are wealthy in our connections. Even though we come from a society based more on merit than relationships, we know so many people who can point us toward the information we need to advance in a given area. We know how to network globally and how to leverage the internet and the English language to get the knowledge we need. Even in the West, who you know still matters for giving your resume that extra shine if competing with others with similar qualifications.
We are wealthy in our Christian heritage. We have been raised to know so much about the Bible and about Church history. We have countless resources for studying the Bible and history in our language and within reach (often for free) on our smart devices.
If we compare ourselves to other Westerners, we feel we are normal and perhaps less wealthy than most. But when we compare ourselves to our Central Asian friends and the majority world population, we see that we are actually in the category of the rich.
This means that James 1:9-11 is speaking to us when it addresses the rich.
 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,  and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.  For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (ESV)
Clearly, the rich are called to boast in their humiliation. So how should we missionaries do this? What does this mean?
It’s not uncommon for local believers to bring up our wealth (real or imagined) eventually. It might be when we’re speaking about enduring persecution and they say that it’s different for us because we have a blue passport and can leave anytime. Or it might be when we are we speaking of putting the kingdom of God ahead of politics and they say that it’s different for us because we actually have a nation-state for our people. We speak about being willing to risk our lives for Jesus and the pushback we receive is that if anything happens our Western families will be provided for by our sending churches, but theirs will be alone and abandoned in a hostile environment.
Sooner or later the differences in our wealth that we have been trying to play down will enter into our conversation with local believers. They see us as rich and see themselves as poor. They are, to some extent, ashamed of their lowly position. Perhaps also envious of ours. And the enemy wants to use these differences to sow division between us and our local friends.
The answer is not usually to erase all distinctions of wealth between us. There is much wisdom in living a simpler lifestyle that does not cause a hindrance to local believers. We Westerners give up our comforts too slowly. But I cannot undo my education, nor should I throw away my life insurance nor my knowledge of the Bible. The kind of wealth that God has given us must be tested by 1st Corinthians 13 – can it be leveraged for the sake of love? If the answer is yes, then we do more for the kingdom by leveraging these things for others than by discarding them. And if we discard, we must also ensure that it is done for the sake of love – not for pride or for mere appearances.
Here is where James 1 can be so helpful to us. We don’t have to pretend that the difference in wealth is not there. We don’t have to awkwardly change the topic when it comes up. Instead, we have the opportunity to turn worldly thinking on its head and to glory in the effects of the gospel. There is a particular way in which the poor in the world’s eyes are supposed to boast in the gospel. And there is a particular boast also for those whom the world calls rich.
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,  and the rich in his humiliation…
The good news of Jesus Christ exalts those called poor by this world. It takes the poor and it makes them sons and daughters of king, the heirs of all creation, citizens of heaven, the recipients of infinite wisdom, the possessors of eternal glory and honor – those who sit on the throne of Christ himself. They may be despised in this world, but now in Jesus their true spiritual identity is one of honor and spiritual riches – Even if their position in this world doesn’t change.
The gospel also brings down the rich. Those honored and praised by the world are reminded that they are just as worthy of hell as everyone else, that they mere slaves of Christ, that they will fade and die like all others. No amount of wealth or power will be able undo the great leveling of sin and death. They are saved by becoming spiritual beggars, just like everyone else. God shows no partiality.
Someone could push back and say that everything in both paragraphs above is true of all believers, whether they are rich or poor. And that would be correct. And yet isn’t it interesting that James commands a specifically different focus for the poor and the wealthy? Yes, I am a spiritual beggar and a spiritual billionaire at the same time. And yet because I am rich in this world, James would have me focus on how the gospel brings me down, how it humiliates me – especially if I am in fellowship with those who are poor in this life.
This is practical! Instead of trying to ignore our difference in wealth, I can now turn my conversation with local believers to this truth. Yes, I am a US citizen, but in Jesus I have become a spiritual pilgrim and wanderer, counting as loss the worldly honor I get from being born in the land of the so-called superpower. Yes, my friend is a member of a persecuted ethnic minority, enduring the shame of having no homeland. But in Jesus he is given a passport even better than the strongest in this world. God has given him a better and an enduring homeland, and proclaimed him fit to judge angels.
God does not see me as more honorable than my local believing friend, even if his culture wants to place me above him as his patron. God sees us, yes, as equals in Christ, but as both unique recipients of the great reversal – he has been brought up, and I have been brought down.
We need to learn how to boast and glory in this. I believe that when we and our local friends truly believe these things in our hearts we will have dealt a deadly blow against sinful comparison, partiality, and shame. And in this world of screaming inequalities, we will be in the place to powerfully share the gospel.