Western missionaries and money

01 Jul 2023

“What’s the current distribution of cross-cultural workers and money among the unreached” is one of the questions repeatedly asked, and I’ll present the best stats I have in a near-future issue. But there are some issues.

We have traditionally thought of two types of missionary workers in the world: those who cross international borders (“foreign cross-cultural”) and those who are “home missionaries” or “national workers.” National workers have outnumbered foreign missionaries for at least the last century. Today, there are 440,000 foreign missionaries and 13.6 million national workers. We ask what percentage of those 440,000 missionaries work among unevangelized peoples to measure how well the church addresses the unevangelized. We know that percentage is low. But the number of national workers among the unevangelized has risen dramatically.

Additionally, it’s becoming harder to measure the percentage of foreign missionaries among the unevangelized. As governments put up barriers to the long-term presence of foreigners, missionaries are finding it challenging to live in-country. At the same time, they are having less impact through their work than national workers would have. It is far more effective for them to serve the many more national workers who are laboring among the unreached–and to do so only sometimes requires living in-country. They often live in “nearby” more open spaces and help from a distance. However, statistics of how many workers are working among the unreached are usually based on their country of service, determined by where the worker resides. These statistics may become increasingly less accurate because of this trend.

Meanwhile, whereas cross-cultural workers have a clear-cut path to finances (nearly all raise their budgets in their home countries as a precondition to going), the question of financial support for national workers persists. They are often in economic markets where fundraising is challenging. But: “if they’re gonna work, they gotta eat.”

Thirty years ago, when I was getting started in missions, there was a considerable debate over support for cross-cultural missions vs. support for “native/national/indigenous workers.” I see less of that debate today, although I’m not sure it’s because I read less of mission journals or whether there’s less said (and perhaps done) about it. In that debate, the questions quickly moved from eating into dependency, vulnerability, structures of power, issues of reporting, and so on.

Today, at least within the movement world I work in, I rarely see funding for such things as salaries. But there’s still some fundraising, mostly tied to capitalizing projects that can provide ongoing funding (like startup business capital for tentmaking/BAM projects) or extensive projects like Bible translation, media production, or training. Most of the time, we have questions about how we get money into these places–and some of the time, about ROI.

Insofar as the bulk of support funding goes, however, I have witnessed two channels. The first is the financial support of the believers in the new church plants. The other is businesses started by the church planters. In this latter vein, I have been amazed at their entrepreneurial inventiveness. I won’t discuss specific business types (security). Still, they are often innovative, technologically advanced, and inventively balance the need to provide value with the ability to meet people in their homes. More and more work in places near the unreached world is done with less and less reliance on Western money, which leads to less and less official reporting. It’s true tThat makes it more and more difficult to find out just how much is being done among the unevangelized, but that’s just an issue for researchers. Less reliance on Western money also means less need for non-Westerners to be Western-trained or for there to be less communication with the West in general. Just how far, and with what impact, will this go?