The Commodification of Life and the Spread of the Gospel

Because the church exists within a societal and cultural matrix it both influences and is also subject to the influence of those societies and cultures. This is quite clear to Western Christians when they visit nations in Africa, Asia or South America in that they immediately find the church is somewhat different than they are used to in their homeland. Music and worship styles are new and unusual and differences also exist as to standards of conduct in social relationships, financial accountability and many other issues. For those from the US and Europe all such differences tend to be judged based upon a most often unfavorable comparison between the practices found on the mission field and those present in their home church or denomination. But the society and culture of the West also influences the viewpoint of the Western church on issues of morality, character, and, of course, finances.

One of the characteristics of the Western world is the commodification of life. What I mean by this is that everything has a price. A person’s time is paid for by their employer whether by the hour, week or month. A person’s tragedy, transgression or crime can be sold on television, print, or the internet. Virtually everything in Western life can be assigned a monetary value. I would suggest that this sort of commodification reduces the value of the most precious aspects of life. Family and love are reduced to sex and pornography. For a fee we can find your perfect companion through your internet profile and you can avoid actually building relationships with “unworthy” candidates and thus wasting your time. After all “time is money.”

When interacting with women from Muslim cultures, Americans and Europeans  often approach the situation with a built-in assumption that such women are oppressed and lack freedom and respect in their societies. The Muslim woman or women are usually clothed in their rather unfashionable (by Western standards) clothing. They are normally covered from head to foot, wear a head scarf or in some cases a veil or burqa. The Western woman is usually talking to such a woman in a sympathetic tone indicating her deep heart-felt sorrow that a woman in the 21st century should need to dress in such an unflattering or male dominated manner. And so the talk moves forward with both women talking past one another. The Western woman is offended on behalf of the Muslim woman thinking that she would never wear such clothing and could not live in a society in which her freedom of expression was so curtailed. The Muslim woman is often saying something like, “You claim freedom from oppression in your self expression and yet you parade around your society half naked, exposing virtually all parts of your private self with men ogling your exposed body on every street. Is this freedom? Is this what you call having self-respect?” To a Muslim woman it is the Western woman who is male dominated as it does make sense to her for a woman to expose her body in public except for the ogling pleasure of men.  To a many Muslim women such behavior is not showing or having self respect at all but rather a shameful lack of both respect for self and encouraging the sinful fantasies of men.

In many American churches women, and men, are encouraged to dress in a manner that reflects modesty respects the house of the Lord but what this means is clearly affected by the surrounding society and culture. In most respects to be one step better than the culture is to be properly Christian.  Sex is for sale not only in the pornographic movie theater but at the fashionable stores, the TV ads, the billboards and magazines found in every city, town and home (even Christian homes) of Western culture. Is it wrong to be fashionable? Not necessarily. But where does the desire to be fashionable come from? Is it an outgrowth of our spiritual life and our relationship to Christ or is it a product of the society and culture we live in. And so we judge others who are not “fashionable” and are “frumpy or “out of date.” Beauty, sex, love, and relationships, all have a price tag in the Western world and those who choose not to buy in are ridiculed.

Unfortunately these things do indeed affect the missionary enterprise in many ways but we will discuss only a few here. What is the impression of Western Culture in the Muslim world? Of course there is variation. In places like Dubai where a modern and secular culture has been embraced there is a general interest and acceptance of many aspects of Western Culture. Certainly the consumer culture of the West has found a home in Dubai. But even there many Muslims are uncomfortable with the degree of incorporation of Western culture and even the English language and its affect on Arab culture and values. However, in more conservative Muslim societies there is a quite different reaction. The sensuality of American culture is seen as shameful and decadent and reveals the degenerate and sinful nature of Western culture. People from such a culture are not looked to for religious instruction and missionaries cannot easily separate themselves from their own culture.

Then there is the competition among evangelistic outreaches, who can save a soul for less? In my crusade we can save a soul for $25, but another ministry retorts, for us it is only a $20 investment to save a soul. We can train a leader for $50 but another claims, our leadership training program is only $30 per leader. Then there is the orphanage or feeding programs. We feed for .50 a day, can you do better than that? We provide school supplies for $5 per student, but another can do the same for $3. Evidently souls and children have also become commodities to be assigned a price.

I suppose if the point were being made that the ministry is not wasting the funds donated but rather emphasizing the efficiency of the operation of ministry that may be a positive thing. But if that were the case it seems that a financial report clearly indicating the percentage of donations going for overhead would be provided. But financial abuse is not the topic of this blog post. The issue here under discussion is how such comparison is used to market Christian ministry. We compare claims of the cost for which various ministries can perform and then we are evidently motivated to give to those ministries for whom a soul can be save for less or a child can be fed for less. We actually have no idea of the quality of the work being done, we do not know anything of how Christian character and values are being expressed. We do not know what the reputation may be of the ministry in the place where that ministry is operating. We are only interested in the dollars and cents.

Commodificaton brings focus to numbers and quantification of ministry. Recently a Muslim leader was saved here in Ethiopia. He was baptized three times in order to give photo opportunities for three different ministries who were using the report to raise funds in the US. Evidently each one is claiming him as the fruit of their ministry and the evidence of their effectiveness. Crusade ministries all market the number of “decisions for Christ” they have had in previous ministry outings. And the most successful in terms of numbers seem to be the ones who are able to raise large sums for future campaigns. In the early 90’s many ministries went to Russia and Eastern Europe that had suddenly become accessible. At one point I was adding up the number of “decisions for Christ” claimed by the various ministries and it seemed that virtually all Russians should be saved and the work must be finished. Yet as I visited Russia in those days there remained a great many unsaved in every city, town and village.

And so we have the negative side of putting a price on saving a soul or training a leader or feeding a child in the name of Jesus.  On the other side of the issue is the fact that traditional missionary work has gone forward over long periods of years with little or no result and the idea put forward that simply being in the field and doing something was enough and that Christian missions did not have to show results or be accountable to accomplish anything measurable. Such an attitude is also not godly in my view. Simply being present in another country or culture with the attendant sacrifices does not mean that the kingdom of God is being extended or that the ministry is necessarily worthy of support. While God loves each of us unconditionally, that does not mean that no results are expected from our work. Jesus repeatedly taught us that He is the vine and he expects fruit from His branches. Indeed unfruitful trees are cut down and servants are responsible for what they have received from Christ to produce increase for Him (not only for ourselves).  But accountability does not equal quantifiability.

Ministry in various places cannot easily be compared. Ministry among an unreached group that has never heard the name of Jesus, has no scripture in their language and not a single Christian cannot proceed at the same pace or expecting the same quantity of results as a ministry among a people among whom Christian work has been ongoing over a period of many years. Are such unreached people groups of less value than others because the price per soul is higher?

Commodificaton also leads to marketing abuses. In my years of involvement in missions I have found that there are missionaries who write wonderful newsletters and have wonderful websites but who may not actually be doing anything productive for God’s kingdom. On the other hand I have seen missionaries and national workers who are doing a wonderful and fruitful work but could not write a newsletter or put a picture on a website if their life depended on it. Appearance is not always reality in marketing and when missions enters that arena abuses are inevitable.

It seems to me that Christians ought to be concerned for the evangelism of the world and as Christians we need to invest some time, some prayer and even some money in educating ourselves about the Christian missionary task. Jesus commanded the church to disciple and to teach all nations and peoples and the task remains unfinished. Commodification of the gospel, quantification of ministry, and marketing missions seem to me to be a poor substitute for the conviction that the world needs the gospel of Jesus Christ and as Christians we are called to sacrifice not only in financial terms but in dedication to prayer, involvement, and personal commitment. It is not enough to achieve large numbers if Christian character is not expressed both in our personal and our ministry lives. It seems to me Christ deserves our best, not just in saving souls for less money but our best in terms of how we represent the character and nature of Christ in the work of the church.

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