Money: The Most Complicated Part of Missions

A missionary’s guide on how to faithfully steward finances in foreign contexts.

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

Without a doubt, financial issues are the most stressful aspect of missionary work for the average Western missionary. Consider the following:

  • In 2012, if someone made $34,000 per year, they were among the 1% of the planet’s highest salary earners.
  • In 2020, the average income in the United States is $63,051 (IMF estimates). Therefore, the average American is in the global 1%
  • In 2020, the average income in India is $1,877 (IMF estimates).

Many Western missionaries come from middle-class homes. However, upon arrival in South Asia, they are relatively wealthy compared to most South Asians. In a country like India or Pakistan, income inequality is much broader than in the United States. When a Westerner arrives, he is confronted by poverty on a level he has never seen.

The problem is even more pronounced when particular states are examined. For example, the per capita income among the 220 million people of Uttar Pradesh is $972 per year or half of India’s national average. Uttar Pradesh is also home to some affluent areas, such as Noida and Lucknow. There are even some billionaires in Uttar Pradesh that pull this average up significantly. The result is that the average resident of Uttar Pradesh is poor on a level that the average American cannot understand without first experiencing it.

As Western missionaries encounter this poverty, many issues collide in their hearts and minds. Here are a few of them.

The Bible commands followers of Jesus to care for the poor. Here are a few verses that we missionaries wrestle with almost daily.

“Give to everyone who asks you.” (Luke 6:30)

“They only asked that we would remember the poor, which I had made every effort to do.” (Gal 2:10)

“If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)

Just as Paul was eager to help the poor (Gal 2:10), the average missionary is filled with compassion regarding the human tragedy surrounding them. We want to help! Moreover, Scripture commands us to help.

In our countries of service, we missionaries are the rich. When we move overseas, we have to wrestle with verses like these for the first time in our lives.

“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:23-24)

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort.” (Luke 6:24)

“But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim. 6:9)

Personally, I never considered myself to be rich before moving to South Asia. However, I also remember having a roof over my head, decent clothes, and eating three meals a day. We had a refrigerator in our kitchen as well as an air conditioner and heater in our home. I slept in a comfortable bed and had enough money to take my wife out for a nice meal. Sometimes my wife and I shared one car, but other times we each had our own vehicle. In South Asia, these are all signs of wealth.

At one point, we moved into a middle-class neighborhood in South Asia. We installed one of the first air conditioners in our community to manage the hot South Asian summers. Our little apartment cost $70 USD but was nice compared to many of our new friends.

At the same time, whenever we go back to visit family in the United States, we switch from being rich to being dependent upon others. We have no home nor car in the United States. Everything in the United States is costly in comparison to our South Asian home.

We feel guilt when we enjoy comforts that were normal to us growing up. When I take my family to McDonalds here (which is a special treat!), we usually spend about $10-12 USD. From an American perspective, this is a minimal amount. From a rural Indian perspective, this is enough money to feed a family with rice and beans for a few weeks. Often, I have a hard time enjoying such extravagance while thinking about a friend who may or may not have food for their family. More than one night, I have laid awake in bed, looking at the air conditioner pumping cool air into my bedroom, wondering why I should have the luxury of this device when most of my friends do not. Likewise, I sometimes feel guilty when going to the doctor. I know that my insurance will pay for my bills, while others that I know are praying for God to take care of their medical needs. They are not going to the doctor simply because they lack enough money. Why should I get decent medical care when they cannot? All that I have is simply because of God’s sovereign choice. I could just as easily have been born into a poor family in rural Uttar Pradesh.

I grew up in the most comfortable country in the history of the world. The kings of ancient times would have been jealous if they knew the comforts that Americans experience today. For example, the average American sleeps in a comfortable bed in a temperature-controlled home. The contrast is stark when I stay in rural areas in South Asia. Once I attended a meeting in a village with about a hundred people. I wondered where we would all sleep that night. In the evening, they put out bedsheets on the concrete roof of the church building. There was no pad and no pillow. We each had a bedsheet on a concrete slab. To say the least, I had a poor night of sleep. However, for the South Asians around me, this was normal. A few days later, when I got back to my bed, I felt both grateful and guilty.

It is confusing to know when to help others and when not to help. Today, I have the following requests in front of me. One man is asking me to help him pay for his children’s school fees. If their school does not receive payment in the next five days, his children will be kicked out. Another person is asking for help with a CT scan to understand why they are having chronic headaches. Yet another friend is asking for money to help meet their societal obligations for a relative’s wedding. On top of this, I am helping two brothers in Christ start small businesses that I am hopeful will help make them self-sustaining in the long run. Also, some believers in rural areas have been telling me that they are low on food. I know dozens of others who are in genuine need who have not asked.

In light of all of these requests, a few things are clear. First, I am incapable of meeting the needs of everyone who asks me. Second, a dependency problem exists among many South Asian Christians. Dependency means that many Christians are dependent on outsiders to meet their needs rather than being locally sustaining and independent. Let me share how this works. Imagine a foreigner begins working with a South Asian Christian. The two of them become like brothers, which leads the foreigner to share more and more financially with his friend. He helps his friend get a better home and pays for his children to attend a better school. The South Asian believer quickly becomes dependent on the foreigner to sustain their new lifestyle. Compared to the foreigner, they are still living on a low-income level. However, it is beyond the South Asian believer’s capacity. Now imagine that the foreigner has to go back to his home country for any reason. After a few months or a few years, the funds stop coming to this South Asian believer. Now he is in a crisis, unable to pay the rent at his home and afford to put his children in the new school. So, what does he do? The South Asian believer looks for another foreign income source!

We want to leave healthy churches and ministries in South Asia. The vision of this page is “No Cousins Left.” This vision means that we want to see local ownership of the core missionary task. When we define local ownership, we tend to think of four aspects of this local ownership:

  • Self-propagating. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are propagating the gospel themselves. They are making disciples, planting churches, and developing leaders rather than depending on outsiders to do so.
  • Self-governing. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are led by local leaders. Outsiders are not making decisions for the group.
  • Self-funding. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are financially independent and take care of the ministry’s financial needs locally.
  • Self-theologizing. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders study the Scriptures themselves under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to determine truth. Their theology is not being dictated from the outside.

If we think about these four aspects, it quickly becomes apparent that “self-funding” is a core issue. For example, we know that ultimately whoever pays the bills is the one holding the authority. If the person paying the bills is not happy, then they will withhold their financial help. Therefore, whoever is paying makes many of the decisions about strategy and theology. As a result, if a church is not self-funding, it is also not self-governing, nor is it self-theologizing.

Imagine a South Asian leader was being paid to focus on Muslim ministry. While the support continues, it is easy for them to continue this focus on Muslim ministry. They are afraid to leave Muslim ministry since this would cause a loss in their support. The result is that they are led less by the Holy Spirit than they are by an outside donor. Now imagine this external support ceases. If they want to continue in Muslim ministry, they struggle to determine how to do so without support. Imagine that they are having trouble paying their bills a few months later. Someone comes and offers them a salary for translation work or radio ministry or something else. Seeing their family’s needs, they eagerly take this new role while trying to continue in Muslim ministry on the side. After a few years, their passion for Muslim ministry is squeezed out by their employer’s new emphasis.

We want to be wise in our giving. The above just scratches the surface of the issues related to money in missions. Missionaries are usually burdened for the poor. Missionaries are often filled with compassion and want to help. However, missionaries are also often thinking through all of the questions related to money above.

On top of these issues, most South Asians and most Westerners have a vastly different approach to money. In his book, African Friends and Money Matters, David Maranz shared a great deal of wisdom about how Westerners and Africans differ in their approach to finances. A few years ago, I read through this book with one of my good South Asian friends. He was shocked at how Westerners think about money. I was also shocked to learn about how South Asians think about money! While this book was written for African and not South Asia, it is amazingly applicable. I highly recommend this book for understanding two divergent perspectives on money. These divergent perspectives on money often lead to significant misunderstandings.

For example, I knew a Westerner who was starting a business with a South Asian partner. The Westerner was leaving to go back to his home country for a few months, so he gave around $10,000 of cash to his South Asian partner. There was a highly developed business plan for these funds to get the business started while the foreigner was abroad. However, once the foreigner left, the South Asian man’s extended family came to him and pressured him to use large portions of these funds for weddings and other needs. Because of how social pressure and finances work in South Asia, this man gave most of this $10,000 to these needs. When the foreigner found out, he was angry and felt betrayed. This event ended the relationship between these two men. The foreigner ended up moving back to America. The South Asian partner never became involved with ministry again. One of the core issues was that the foreigner involved had no idea how money works in South Asia.

In the end, what should missionaries do regarding money? Let me give five of my convictions.

  1. Be frugal. While most missionaries are “rich” when they come to South Asia, it is best to moderate spending on their personal needs.
  2. Be generous. Missionaries should model 1 Timothy 6:18-19, “Instruct the rich to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.”
  3. Be wise. Missionaries should seek to invest money into developing others so that they are self-sustaining after the missionary leaves. Care should be taken not to create dependency but to use their finances to build others so that they become strong and independent. One good book on this subject is When Helping Hurts.
  4. Be Spirit-led. Missionaries should be wary of depending on their own wisdom regarding finances. Instead, they should pray and consult with other godly men and women to make Spirit-led decisions.
  5. Be forgiving. If we are generous, sometimes we will be cheated. Some people will lie to us or deceive us to get money for something else. Sometimes, the money will get used in a way other than our intention. When this happens, we need to forgive. One big key is not to trust anyone with more money than you can lose. Then as trust grows through experience with that person, you can entrust them with more money.

In the end, remember that “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out” (1 Tim 6:7). Money is a temporary part of this life that will not be part of eternity. Let us seek to glorify God with the money that he entrusts to us.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on No Cousins Left. Used with permission.