Is the Traditional Missionary System Sustainable?

April 10, 2012 — 1 Comment

Do you know how missionaries in the traditional sense fund their efforts? Growing up in and being an active of a Christian church, I have become quite familiar with how missionaries fund their mission efforts. In fact, it was just last week that I met up with a friend of mine who, with his wife, is an official missionary with a particular denomination.

He and his wife returned from overseas for 2 short (and meeting-filled) weeks in the U.S. In fact, it was so busy for him and his wife that I only got to see him for a couple hours. One of the primary purposes of their trip back to the U.S. was to raise more monetary support. While it was great to see him and he was able to connect with friends, I can’t help but question the sustainability of the Missionary system. While my particular friend wouldn’t consider himself a traditional missionary, I still can’t help but criticize the traditional system of missionaries, with particular attention to the finances.

What is a Missionary?

For those who didn’t grow up in the church, you may be wondering what I am referring to or what/who is a missionary. Let me first start by defining missionary, as it has traditionally been understood within Christian churches. While I would like to trace the development of this term, it would take thousands of words to do so – and unnecessarily so.

In the traditional sense, a Missionary is one who is on a mission by God. While this is the basic understanding, the term is most often used to refer to a religious individual who travels overseas for the sake of spreading the gospel – i.e. sharing about the influence of Jesus Christ in their lives in order to make the world a better place. The actual work that missionaries get involved in varies from person to person. Some see the most important aspect as winning souls, saving innocent people from an eternity in Hell. Others find the purpose in making this world a better place and focus more on social justice issues.

While there are recent voices who stress the importance that anyone can be a missionary in their home location, there is a strong correlation with moving overseas or to a foreign place.

How Missionaries Traditionally Fund their Efforts

Moving to a new place is difficult enough without having to worry about how to provide for the family. Given the primary purpose of a Missionary’s effort to be about church-related activity, it is often difficult, if not impossible for Christian missionaries to provide for themselves as they work in a new place. As a result, missionaries are often financially able to do what they do only by support from the sending communities. It is through the financial support or sponsorship that they are able to leave and pursue this work.

My friend and his wife are only able to live overseas as seminary instructors and members of the church through the support of many local churches here in the U.S. Simply put: sponsorship makes their work possible. This means lots of visits to churches and correspondence with local churches to fund their trip(s) and effort(s).

Is this Missionary System Sustainable?

While I think sponsorship is an important step in the right direction, I can’t help but wonder about the sustainability of this system. First and foremost, (and not just financially) this form of Missionary work can easily be seen as charity (in a bad way). What I mean is that this type of work, while helpful for many people, does nothing to help the other community long-term. It is a short-term fix; a band-aid.

Financially speaking, the system to fund missionary work is very similar. In order to obtain enough money to support their efforts, missionaries are often required to return to their home to ask for financial support. For many people, this could mean long periods of time away from what their work. It is not only dependent on the willingness to give of the rich communities, but does nothing to stimulate the economy where Missionaries are working. This is all done instead of trying to create a business in the new community, which would be of greater help to the communities in which missionaries serve.

To put it simply, the traditional ways that missionaries fund their efforts is not sustainable. It is always dependent on the sending community’s support and does very little to empower the community that missionaries serve. I don’t mean to say that the entire concept should be thrown out the window. But, if Missionaries want to have any lasting influence on the community that they are serving, they should make every effort to create sustainable change.

What are your thoughts on Missionaries?



Corey is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in religion. While he enjoys learning and writing about Christianity, another one of his new passions is writing about personal finances in order to help others make wise decisions with their money.

One response to Is the Traditional Missionary System Sustainable?

  1. As I understand it, the medieval way of evangelizing northern Europe was to establish monasteries that supported themselves through farming.  Maybe we can learn something from the economics of this.  Maybe missionaries should be starting businesses…?

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