East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Does Affluence Undermine Influence?

Roger Chapman

Eyebrows were raised when it was reported that the Moscow director of the United States Agency for International Development refurbished a seven-room apartment at an estimated cost of at least $200,000.1  In a country where many people would rejoice at any prospect of living in a simple two-room apartment of their very own, the story about the expensive renovation of what had once been a communal flat (probably housing dozens of Russians) sticks out like a diplomatic sore thumb.  That it was the home of an official representing an aid organization makes the thumb all the more ugly and swollen.

The underlying warning for missionaries to Russia  is that affluence may hinder influence.  What may be a normal standard of living to an American may seem outrageous to a Russian.  The fact that for some 70 years Soviet propaganda castigated materialism as bourgeois, and the fact that most Russians have an instinctive awareness that Christianity identifies more with the poor than with the rich, should serve as a warning to would-be missionaries.

Missiologist Jonathan Bonk has identified four justifications given by missionaries for living in comparative affluence:  1) economic, 2) domestic, 3) social, and 4) strategic.2  In a Russian context such arguments would sound something like this:

  1. Since Russia is such a difficult society to live in (especially for a foreigner), missionaries need to spend what is necessary to maintain good mental and physical health.  It is good economics for mission boards to see that their missionaries stay and not return prematurely.
  2. Since Russia's already low standard of living continues to plummet, it should not be the guideline for missionary families, because their domestic well-being is at stake.  Certainly, missionary children should not be subjected to an income level that would put them at risk.
  3. Since Russia is trying to adopt a free-market economy, missionaries should not be ashamed to demonstrate to its people the benefits of capitalism.  Western Christianity represents spiritual values that are intertwined with social and economic values.
  4. Since Russia presents enormous opportunities, missionaries should take advantage of modern technology for the swifter spread of the gospel.  The tools that such a strategy depends upon require a higher scale of affluence.
While the above arguments may have a general ring of truth, they should not discount the value of discretion.  Missionary families can take vitamins, utilize better than average medical services, and drink more costly purified water without buying groceries from expensive import stores such as Babylon or Stockmann's, and without living in four-room flats remodeled and equipped to Western standards.  Ironically, as some missionaries try to make their lives more comfortable, they only end up in frustrating situations.  For example, when landlords take note of expensive furnishings and extensive remodeling, they often conclude that foreign tenants are quite rich and capable of paying more than they originally thought.

The crux of the matter is that lifestyle must be taken into consideration if the gospel is ever to fit the context.  Western Christians are not being all things to all people if they live in relative luxury while those they hope to reach are steeped in poverty.  The heart of contextualization is identification.3  When Russians see affluence they more often than not imagine the source to be the mafia, the present symbol of national evil.

In St. Petersburg I once helped unload a container of humanitarian aid that was sent from a church in America.  Included in the cargo were mattresses and box springs for missionaries.  The bemused reactions of the Russian men assisting in the unloading suggested, "Americans think they are too good to sleep on our Russian beds."  My defense at the time was, "These are not my beds."  But I suspect that all foreign missionaries that day were guilty by association.

Commenting on the USAID director's flat, a journalist for Izvestia noted, "There are a lot of discussions in the press about how much money these organizations spend on themselves....They do useful things here but they have a bad reputation when it comes to how they spend their money--$200,000 is much too high a sum for a remont (repair)."4  Undoubtedly, at least some Russians must think similarly, that foreign evangelicals do some useful things, but they have to be pampered.  We can be certain that no missionary is spending $200,000 to refurbish an apartment in Russia, but even considerably lesser amounts may seem just as outrageous to Russians whom missionaries hope to serve. 

Endnotes

  1. Daisy Sindelar, "The $200,000 Flat That USAID Built," Moscow News, 17 November 1994, 1, 2.
  2. Jonathan A. Bonk, Missions and Money (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1991), 31-40.  Also, see related articles by the same author:  "The Role of Affluence in the Christian Missionary Enterprise from the West," Missiology 14 (October 1986), 437-61; "Affluence:  The Achilles' Heel of Missions," Evangelical Missions Quarterly 21 (October 1985), 382-89.
  3. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1979), 171.
  4. Sindelar, 2.
Roger Chapman, a Church of Christ missionary, lives with his family in St. Petersburg, Russia.


Roger Chapman, "Does Affluence Undermine Influence?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Winter 1995), 5.

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1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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