The Nations Are Poorer Than You

Global WealthYou may not be aware of this, but even the “working class” in the United States is richer than most of the people in the world. This economic discrepancy is known in even the most isolated of places, and certainly everywhere missionaries go.

The image on the upper right is a cartogram (a map deliberately distorted to illustrate global statistics) of the projected global distribution of wealth for the year 2015. The actual dimensions of the map are exaggerated according to where the wealth is. The bulging United States, Europe, and Asia show the concentration of material wealth. Compare that to the cartogram below that illustrates the world’s population. If wealth were distributed equally around the world, both maps would be the same.

Global Population CartogramBefore anyone complains about my use here of the term “distribution of wealth” instead of something more guilt-assuaging, like “earned wealth,” consider the luxuries we take for granted: clean water, choice of diet, education, the protection of a local police force… At this point in history, we are not all on an even playing field.

To make matters worse, the images of American culture that are aggressively exported around the globe is one that flaunts our excesses. A common international news item is, “what’s news in America,” which usually has more to do with celebrity gossip than international crises. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to be sure you realize the ramifications for international missions of the uneven distribution of wealth around the world.

  • When American missionaries come to a place, their arrival is usually viewed in one of two ways: 1) excitement over the potential material help, 2) resentment that the rich would presume to tell the poor how they ought to live and believe.
  • Often, people extol the virtues of mobilizing missionaries from within unreached cultures. In developing countries, it is very easy to find people who would be willing to accept our money to do pretty much anything.
  • Great needs must be met before people will listen to any sort of gospel message. But by meeting those needs and then calling for repentance, the behavior is inadvertently tied to the material gifts. Jesus met the same problem when he performed miracles; some were healed and didn’t even thank Him. Others followed Him around, expecting Him to put on a show. The difference, however, is that Jesus wanted people to be totally dependent on Him. We don’t want people to depend on our handouts.
  • Every report (substantiated or not) of the mismanagement of funds by anyone who calls himself a “Christian” negatively affects our reputations on the field. Same goes for the major building campaigns, and fund raisers.
  • American missionaries and volunteers often (unknowingly?) perpetuate stereotypes by the way they live and present themselves to the people they work with. That said, in most parts of the world, for an American family to move in and live just like their people group would be strange enough to prevent real relationships from being built. People resent missionaries who live in mansions, but they are suspicious of missionaries who move their families into the slums and ghettos.

There are but a few of the implications of being an American missionary. The reality of global discrepancies make for a sensitive dynamic in strategic missions engagement. These are some of the things we have to think about on a daily basis.
By the way, check out Worldmapper. It’s a site that redraws the world to illustrate global discrepancies.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.