Some people might think that missionaries don’t have problems with materialism. After all, these are the people who have “given up everything” to move to a foreign country in order to preach the Gospel. Or, at least, that is the traditional way that missionaries have been viewed. In the age of globalization, however, the division between “home” and “field” is not so simple and the ease of communication and transportation can lead to heightened expectations for being able to maintain a lifestyle and standard of living similar to what you enjoyed in your home country. And that is a problem because it leads to disappointment, bitterness, frustration, a lack of satisfaction in one’s life and ministry, and in some cases attrition.
What is the root of this materialism? And how can we address this issue and keep missionaries on the field longer? I believe that the core issues are expectations and attitudes of the heart.
It is really difficult to have accurate expectations of what it will be like to live in another country until you have actually done so. Things that you never possibly thought could be different are different. One thing that is hard to predict is standard of living and the availability and quality of various products. Those going to bonafide rural areas with no electricity or running water may have an advantage over other missionaries in the area of material expectations. If you move overseas knowing that you are going to an area that is a three day journey from the closest store or internet connection, then you have probably already mentally prepared yourself for that radical change. You know that it will be VERY different, and your expectations for a life similar to “back home” are quite low.
However, those missionaries moving to larger towns and cities may have a harder go of it. They know that life will be different but they also know that there will be a certain level of modern amenities, and presumably a variety of modern goods and services available. Running water, electricity, internet, mobile phones, modern medicine and other things are all available. Or at least they kind of are. The water pressure is abysmal, the electricity dips sometimes because of moderate wind, the internet is slow, mobile phones are fine (even better!), but all the local doctors want to do is give you antibiotics. On the surface, material comforts and conveniences *seem* to be similar to back home, but they are distinctly not the same. My experience in Thailand has been that if I want to buy something that actually works (namely, it doesn’t break immediately after I buy / install it), then I need to pay exorbitant prices.
Now that I live in Bangkok, it is easy to find stores that are happy to sell me overpriced products. But when our family lived in a small town in Central Thailand, the only options available seemed to be the cheapest Chinese-made junk available to man. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like at times. And this may sound silly to some people, but one of my disappointments was not being able to find any decent toys for my kids (my oldest was 3 years old at the time). I really wanted to get some wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains for my toddler son but there were none to be had. Even in the expensive department store three hours away in Bangkok, there weren’t any (they did have the inferior plastic ones, however). If I wanted to buy some low quality knock-off product that looked like Thomas (“Train Hero for happy and fun time”), I could get that. If I want an Optimus Prime look alike (“Deformed Truck”), I could get that too. But I wanted the good stuff for my kid. Not that it is bad to want nice things for your kid, but I probably thought about it too much. Once or twice I even dreamed about it. At this point, some readers may be thinking, “Come on, man. Just get over it.” Maybe getting good toys for your kids is not your issue. But different people have different issues. When my wife first moved overseas to do missions (several years before I met her), she had to deal with the fact that the brand of shampoo that she had always used was not available. How could she think of using something different?! But somehow she got over it and used a different shampoo, and learned to not be too attached to using any particular product or brand. For other missionaries, maybe it is something different. You can’t get all the stuff you used to use for baking. You can’t get clothes that fit you right because the average size in your host country is much bigger or much smaller than your home country. When I was teaching English full-time, I could never find index cards to make flash cards. And why do business cards always have to be printed on shiny floral scented paper? I could go on and on in this vein, but I think you get the point. Anyone who has lived overseas for a long time could probably come up with a similar list.
But the core problem that I have discovered living overseas is not the lack of availability of certain products or a lack of quality in those products. The core problem is my own expectation that what was available back home *should* be available here in my host country, and at the same standard quality. I don’t know where that expectation came from, but it seems to pop up from time to time. My erroneous expectations for how things should be usually take the form of a rant, that starts with
“Why don’t they….?” or
“Why can’t they…?” or
“Is it really so hard to….?”
And after I am done with that, I realize that my heart has been in the wrong place and that my focus is wrong. I have been looking for joy and satisfaction in a certain comfort or convenience instead of in Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13) This last verse (4:13) is often misused to mentally pump yourself up to do something. But Paul is talking about Christ helping him to find satisfaction and joy in Christ alone, and not in his external circumstances. There is nothing especially holy about being rich or being poor. At various times, Paul experienced both “plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (4:12). But in all those circumstances, Paul’s joy and satisfaction did not increase or decrease depending on what material comforts and conveniences he had, or did not have. Paul learned to be content in Christ.
But Paul was not always content in Christ alone. He had to *learn* how to be content in Christ. That means that at some time in the past, Paul had issues with more serious issues with materialism and satisfaction too. I find that encouraging because it means that it is possible to grow in my satisfaction in Christ, and to reduce my dependence on external comforts and conveniences for finding joy in life. But it takes training and continual re-focusing of my heart upon Christ and learning to find delight and joy in the things that God delights and rejoices in.
And I am sure that I am not the only missionary who has problems in the area of materialism. All those who work cross-culturally in a different society and country to share the Gospel need to face up to their own wrong expectations and materialism. We need to root the idols out of our hearts so that we can find joy and satisfaction in Christ. If missionaries do not face up to the face up to their disappointed expectations for a certain lifestyle, and decide to seek Christ for joy and satisfaction instead of material comfort, then the root of bitterness will grow in their hearts. And for some, that growing dissatisfaction will overwhelm them and they’ll find themselves on an airplane, heading back to their home country where everything is (supposedly) better.