The Commodification of Mission in the Muslim World

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by Mike Kuhn

A commodity—something that is bought and sold.

Mission—the loving and joyful response of Christ’s followers to disciple the nations, holding forth Jesus’ life and teaching among all the peoples of the world.

In theory the two appear to be very distinct concepts. In reality, mission is intricately related to the resources (finance, personnel and information) that fuel it.

There is much to celebrate in that relationship. The generosity of Christ’s church enables her to assist brothers and sisters throughout the world to make Christ’s love known in seeking assistance to the poor, justice for the oppressed and reconciliation of human beings to God through the gospel.

Despite all the good that has been done by generous giving, there is also a dark side to this inter-dependence between mission and money. This is not intended to censure solid ministry initiatives that benefit from external funding. It is a note of caution—a plea for practice that better aligns with the nature of the gospel—good news of new life freely given.

Perhaps an image will help. Consider the desert wadi. When the spring rains come, its arid dust is overcome by a torrent of rushing water producing a double effect. On the one hand, the deluge moves stones and debris becoming a lethal threat to anything in its path, whether animal life or even unfortunate hikers. On the other hand, vegetation springs forth overnight as the desert is transformed into a verdant valley.

Mission funding is a powerful force flooding the Middle East like a spring deluge through a desert wadi. It changes the entire environment, sometimes doing great good, but with the potential to do great harm. In this blog, I consider the potential for harm.

I’ll identify three areas of concern before indicating a few resources for further exploration.

The Drive for Results

Mission and church leaders are compelled to ensure that the outcomes of mission are commensurate with the investment of personnel, time and finances. To put it in crass economic terms, we need to get our money’s worth.

Granted, this begins with a wholesome concern for stewardship of resources. We feel the need to count (churches planted, new believers, children educated, refugees housed, etc.) to ensure that resources are well-used. Data is necessary to sustain the effort. We need statistics, numbers. Nevertheless, our fascination with data often bears dubious fruit. Numbers are manipulated. Statistics are stretched. Exaggerations abound in order to fit criteria established by the “investors.”

I recall working alongside a young national who administered a Christian media ministry. In a report submitted to the funding agency, my friend mystifyingly multiplied the number of respondents by 100. I read the report with shock and incredulity. My friend, at first, denied the fabricated statistics but eventually admitted that he feared the loss of funding and inflated the numbers accordingly.

The drive for data, like the desert deluge, exerts pressure on the whole chain of mission, from sending church to field practitioner to indigenous church and believer. It operates much like the chain of supply and demand, leading to a palpable sense of the commodification of mission.

Media and Communication

The contemporary explosion of media has a massive impact on Christian outreach in the Middle East both for good and for ill. Images tell stories and move emotions. Photos and film taken during ministry trips end up on social media and church and ministry videos. No doubt the medium is powerful. It raises awareness and motivates to action. But where are the ethical boundaries? Would those photographed give permission for their image to be used in such ways and what material benefit do they derive? Do they even have a sense of how their photo will be used?

I find evidence of commodification in our mission jargon. Sometimes when I hear mission theorists and practitioners talk, I wonder who outside the mission community (including nationals) could understand what they are talking about. The jargon includes DBS, DMM, C1 – C5, insider movement, insider translations, MBB, BMB, CBB, contextualization, CPM and the list could go on.

No doubt, these technical terms and acronyms can be useful shorthand in communication. Nevertheless, they can also become polarizing ideas that spark endless debate among us. Often they serve as code words—language that others inside the industry can understand, helpful to identify and quantify the means and results of our mission.

Let’s keep in mind that these terms are used to label persons…real persons who might never choose to identify themselves that way. Actually, none of these terms originates from the people (whether Muslim or Christian) or languages of the Middle East. They are all imports from economically and educationally advantaged societies, applied to the objects of our study and our “mission”. Our language itself becomes a tool to put others into categories in an attempt to describe our productivity. Unwittingly, we commodify those we are sent to serve and love.

A Shallow Understanding of the Middle Eastern Context

I recently overheard a conversation with a North African Church leader—a faithful and articulate individual whose passion and concern for Christ’s church is unquestionable. He spoke of foreign missionaries who come into his small fellowship, and take away believers to start a new church or movement. He indicated that these expatriate workers are under pressure from their churches or agencies to produce results. The short-term interests of the mission agency are pitted against the long-term vision of a local church. Tragically, the result is the decimation of that church. He observed that the drive to establish a “church-planting movement” is ripping the fabric of the church in his country. How ironic!

Recently, I was surprised by my own internal reaction to a Western visitor who expressed her excitement over several conversion stories. For this enthusiastic visitor, the goal had been reached. “Souls were saved.” I, however, immediately thought of familial and societal implications which would need to be addressed head-on in discipleship. I saw a long slog ahead with many challenges and I found myself wondering if these new believers would be as encouraged in the long haul of discipleship as they had been in their new profession.

Examples of this shallow understanding of the Middle Eastern context abound. For example, there is an inordinate number of books by Western pastors and Christian leaders that are translated into Arabic and massively distributed in the Middle East. No doubt, many translated books have been a source of great blessing in the region. Nevertheless, because Christian books in the Middle East don’t normally turn a profit, Christian publications are only sustainable if they have strong financial sponsorship. Therefore, the well-endowed ministries in the economically advantaged world are able to translate and publish their books in attractive formats. Meanwhile, there are scores, perhaps hundreds of local authors and aspiring writers whose works will never see the light of day, or perhaps be minimally distributed because there is little or no financial support for their publications. In the final analysis, the church is left with shelves of books dealing with issues of great concern in Western societies. The development of local writers addressing local issues can be impeded rather than enhanced by our mission efforts.[1]

Checking Commodification

To check this tendency toward commodification of mission we have to be aware and we have to care.

The apostle said that he and his ministry team was:

“Gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (I Thess 2:7-8).

Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians was deeply personal, built on a thorough understanding of their context and coupled with the affection of a loving spiritual father. If we care, we will preserve the dignity of those on the receiving end of our mission efforts. Our concern will be holistic, for their well-being, not only their salvation. We will refrain from using them as objects in the quest to defend and promote our church, our ministry, or our idea.

A ministry of this kind is unlikely to appear “sexy.” It may move slower as it seeks to ensure a healthy reciprocity. Procuring funding is unlikely to be the priority. It will, however, be a true representative of a Savior who went to the uttermost limit of our alienation in order to reconcile us and return us to the fold of his friendship. It will be a ministry of the gospel.

Resources to Explore:

Corbitt, Steve and Fikkert, Brian. When Helping Hurts. Moody Publishers, 2014.

Das, Rupen. Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom. Langham Global Library, 2016.

Missions Dilemma.  (A video series by Steve Saint). See http://www.itecusa.org/missions_dilemma.html

Saint, Steve. The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely.  YWAM Publishing, 2013.

Wright, Christopher. “Holistic Mission.” https://innovistaireland.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/wrightchjholisticmission.pdf


Note:  This is a revised version of a post that was published by IMES on October 20, 2016.

[1] I’m thankful for some Christian organizations such as Langham Partnership that break the mold by seeking to promote scholarship in the developing world.

3 Comments

  1. Russ says:

    Dr. Kuhn, I read your post with enthusiasm. Your imagery of the desert wadi and the clarity with which you delineate your primary concerns were both gripping. You say, yourself, that you focus on the potential for harm while acknowledging that there is also great good in the inter-dependence between missions and money. I take it that you could write a similar article about how the rains of missions money are also bringing vegetation. There are a few points of comment that I wish to make out of intellectual respect for your contribution.

    In ‘the drive for results’, I’m tremendously encouraged by your realistic admission of the necessary inter-dependence of missions and money. I appreciate that you delineate the value of data and accountability. It’s easy to hear people complain about the commodification on the basis of a heart-felt desire for a truer generosity which is rarely explained and often would only lead us to distrust and unaccountability.

    So, it seems to me that the question is, “how can we separate the ‘drive for data’ from the ‘drive for results’?” For better or worse, there’s no turning back from data collection. So, what do we do with the data? As you’ve commended the church’s generosity, perhaps we need to ‘measure what matters’ and what we can legitimately control. I also see the need to embrace failure (not moral failure) in goal-setting as a necessary step toward better goals that we can increasingly align with what we see in God’s Word.

    The concern you show for the ‘other’ is remarkable and I resonate with it. Yet, I hesitate to embrace your almost wholesale rejection of labels. It seems like you find them altogether harmful and thoroughly commodified. I don’t see MBB or BMB/CMB (which I think originated with those who use it most) as necessarily connected to the commodification you adequately highlight. So my question is, “In what ways can we use labels that encourage dialogue and value experience?”

    My last question deals with the Western visitor. It seems as if you say that her ‘shallow understanding’ is a bad thing. While this woman clearly didn’t have the experience of the challenging path of discipleship for a Believer from a Muslim Background, which is different from the discipleship she could have expected for many back in the West converting to Christianity, she must rejoice! Just as someone in your role must also prepare for the long journey of discipleship in a context in a complex background you’ve learned to navigate. So, I guess the question I have in this is, how could Paul rejoice at God’s work among his precious friends in Thessalonica while still leaving Jason with his possessions on pledge? Somehow he authentically did both.

    Though my comments cut to the heart of my personal concerns, I was tremendously encouraged by the thrust of your article as you held our Middle Eastern brethren high and spoke for them and their dignity. I do thank you for this contribution and helpful chastisement.

  2. Mike Kuhn says:

    Thank-you, Russ, for your thoughtful and thorough comments. You bring up some excellent points. In fact, I don’t recall anyone responding to a blog piece of mine so thoughtfully. Thank-you for that.

    My concern with the use of acronyms and labels is possibly over-stated. I realize that some of that necessarily takes place in any field of endeavor, so why shouldn’t that be the case concerning mission? Primarily, I wanted to raise the issue to help us remember that these are persons…real people and a simple categorization such as “MBB” is hardly adequate to identify them.

    Again, thanks for your good comments.

  3. Rami Saroufim says:

    Dr. Kuhn
    Thank you for this practical topic, which is important and very true as well. From the field, I agree with your illustration in the Introduction section, about the desert Wadi and deluge. Missionaries and mission organizations like a two sided sward, on both sides there is impact on the local people, community and church. Unfortunately, when money controls missionary motives and attitudes it leads to disaster.

    Meanwhile, in your first point “Media and Communication”, I can not see a problem to use acronyms, it is not commodification our people. Some time it is useful, like it might be safe (from the security prospective for example).

    In the second point “A Shallow Understanding of the Middle Eastern Context”. Also, I totally agree with you. i can see the reason that sponsors, agencies or sending churches/organization are not conducting a field survey for the area they would like to work in. they just depending on their knowledge or experience in previous locations. they neglecting the local field needs and focus on their organization goals only. these entities are not thinking or working out of their zones. Although, Foreigner missionaries to the middle east had a great impact; organization now should add to their strategies to equip and empower the middle eastern missionaries to be sent and supported to reach out their local communities.

    Although, I don’t like taking pictures and use it as a promotional material; a question jump to my mind, how those organizations and sending churches assure the effectiveness of their giving? i believe it is a very thin line between promoting your work, and sending encouraging news to the supporters. Definitely, all fake data or misleading reports are rejected.

    Dr. Kuhn
    Thank you once again for your article
    Much blessings

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