Spamming for the Kingdom?

As Sora and I feel our way through this process of becoming missionaries, we are learning and growing in our faith. One major change in the last week was a Biblical correction to my mistaken view of fundraising. I owe this to Denise Cox, the long-term missionary coordinator at SAMS-USA, where I attended a training seminar last week.

Denise shared that she knew of one missionary on the field who began to run short of funds. It was therefore necessary for him to write a letter to his base of donors and ask for more money. She described the letter as sounding something like this:

“Dear ____________,
I know how much you hate getting these requests for money. I certainly don’t like sending them to you. But as we’re engaged in missions work, it is sometimes necessary to ask for others to support us with their financial giving…”

The letter continued in the same vein. “How,” asked Denise, “do you think a donor would feel about receiving this letter?”

The letter is self-conscious spam. The missionary feels that he is importuning, and he apologizes for it. He is made self-conscious by our American cultural values, which teach us that it is noble to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and that it is degrading to have to rely on others. Asking for donations is shameful. It is begging.

The Bible gives us a better way of thinking about all this. First Denise pointed to Luke 8:1-4, which tells us that Jesus himself was accompanied by “certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities — Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.” Here, in other words, was a perfectly healthy skilled carpenter who had “quit his job” and was traveling around with women, one of whom would no doubt be diagnosed with a psychological illness in our day — and these women were PAYING for him to do this. Is this entirely reputable?

The other passage that is the locus classicus for giving is Philippians 4. I confess to my shame that I have treated it as I have treated most of the other endings of Pauline epistles: “Oh, he’s done with the theological section, and now he’s sending greetings to people he knows. We can skip this part.” But it is in these sections that Paul (a missionary himself) models for us how to relate to our brothers:

“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be self-sufficient: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress. Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent once and again for my necessities. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God. And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in Glory by Christ Jesus.”

Let’s go through it.

First, the Philippians, who had been supplying Paul’s needs in the past, have lately renewed their giving to him. Why didn’t they do so earlier? Was it because they didn’t care? “You surely did care, but you lacked opportunity.” The Philippians didn’t know that Paul had a need. By informing them of his need, Paul enabled them to perform their own ministry of giving. If he does not tell them, they cannot do it.

Second, their giving is described as an act of worship, an offering of incense or an ascension offering that ascends to God and pleases Him. We may think also of Cornelius in Acts 10:4, who is told by the angel of the Lord, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.” Yes, it is possible to please God. No, your works done in faith and loyalty to God are not “filthy rags.” If giving support to a missionary is an act of worship, then those who have a calling to give do not think of it as a chore to be done grudgingly. They delight in the task, and rejoice to be able to worship God in this way. And God Himself delights in their sacrifice. If you are a missionary asking your donors for money, do not impugn their ministry of giving by acting as if it they do not delight in doing it. Such requests made in shame and embarrassment do not respect the donor’s ministry to you and to God.

Third, we are members of each other. Modern American rugged individualism teaches us to take pride in not needing any other person. But this is an abomination to God, who knits us together in one body. This is at the heart of the relationship between a missionary and a sender or donor: they are, together, mutually dependent. The donor cannot accomplish what his giving aims at without the missionary. The missionary cannot accomplish what he has gone abroad to do without the sender. This mutual dependence is well pleasing to God.

Fourth, Paul is not abased by asking for money. He says, after all, that he has learned “to be content (better, “self-sufficient” — αὐτάρκης) in whatever state” he is in (4:11). This is not glamorous. It means that Paul has learned how to be in the stocks; how to spend a day and a night in the open sea; how to be in jail; how to receive the forty lashes minus one. But it also means that he has learned to be content when he has his  liberty in a good rented house in Rome (Acts 28:30-31).

Matt practicing Pauline "contentment" at his school's Madrigal Dinner in 2005.

Fifth, this is not a zero-sum game, as though wealth comes from people to other people, so that all we can do is move it around from some to others.  As Psalm 50:10 reminds us, every beast of the forest belongs to the Lord, “and the cattle on a thousand hills.” It may sound cheeky of Paul to thank the Philippians for giving him money, and assure them that His God will supply their need. But that is just what he says: the wealth of donors comes from God. And can be attested by many, many Christians who have supported missionaries and given to the church faithfully, God has a way of bestowing more wealth on those who use it for His kingdom (Malachi 3:10).

The very etymology of “missionary” (from the Latin mitto, to send”) is connected to the core of Christianity. We confess one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church: that is, we confess the Church that is sent, that is representing Jesus. The Hebrew equivalent is שלח, from which also comes the Hebrew term for an agent or emissary, a shaliach, about which I have blogged before. No less than seventeen times in the Mishnah we hear the Jewish dictum, “A man’s shaliach (his “sent one”) is, as it were, the man himself.” Missionary “sending” is not the same as apostleship or the Jewish institution of a shaliach, but it too entails a relationship of representation. That is why Paul and Barnabas are commissioned with the laying on of hands, a ritual that establishes one person as a representative of another. There is thus a very important relationship between a missionary and the donors who send him: he is, in a very real sense, doing their job, acting for them, representing them on the mission field.

In this, a missionary is like Jesus: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21) Jesus represents the Father, and indeed, is called “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1). Jesus and the Father are in a sending/sent relationship.

One of the goals of giving a handout to a bum is to avoid entering into any deeper relationship with the beggar: toss him some money and walk on. By contrast, if you are supporting a missionary, you should see it as something that binds you together with other members of the body of Christ. You as a donor should ask, “Do I want to partner with this missionary? Is he the sort of person whom I want to represent me to the Philippines (or France or Haiti or India or…)? Will we, together, be doing the Lord’s work?” And if the answer is, “Yes,” then neither he who asks nor he who gives has any need to be embarrassed. The Lord loveth a cheerful giver, and a donors who are in a sending relationship with a missionary delight to hear when there is “an opportunity”.