Sunday, October 07, 2007

Missionaries to the Rich and Powerful

I was privileged, not only to be raised in a church environment, but also to be raised in a “missionary” church environment. As such, my history included numerous opportunities to hear from missionaries who were serving Jesus all over the world. This included “short term” volunteers who sought to take the Gospel to different parts of the globe.

Such an environment allowed me to hear all sorts of testimonials from people in my own church, particularly those who sought to minister in the so-called “third world.” While hearing their moving stories certainly proved motivational, I was also disturbed by the limited perspective these missionaries brought back with them. For some, the most substantive thing they could say was “I had no idea how blessed I was until I saw how these poor people live.” Now that I live among a people who, from an economic perspective, are at the opposite end of that spectrum, I know why such statements bothered me so.

I was raised in a lower-middle class, blue collar home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in rural South Carolina. Given that background, I sometimes wonder why on earth God has placed me in my current field of service. Where I live and serve, blue collar jobs account for less than 13% of the work force. Of that work force, more than 80% hold a college degree, and 31% hold a Master’s degree or higher. Even in the current “sluggish” housing market, the average price of a single family home here is well in excess of $450,000, but such prices are not intimidating to a population whose average per capita income exceeds $90,000 annually.

Adding to this demographic picture is the fact that this year, my county was named the third most affluent county in North America. Similarly, the state of Maryland was recognized as the most affluent of all 50 states, boasting more millionaires than any other state in the union.

In addition, the people who live here are as powerful as they are wealthy. God has allowed my wife and I to cross paths with high-level defense workers, congressmen and senators, Fortune 500 CEOs and business-owning entrepreneurs. In short, our mission field is largely made up of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world . . .

. . .people who are just as sick with sin as anyone living in the “third world!”

The issue in working with people of this stature is the way they are often stereotyped by the church. Regrettably, most Christians, rather than following a Biblical pattern of observing people, will adopt a cultural pattern. Such a pattern can be seen in the various ways our two primary political parties view the “rich.” One party believes that the rich are rich because they took advantage of those less fortunate, and the poor are poor because they are mistreated and not afforded the same opportunities as their more wealthy counterparts. Another political party believes that the poor are so because they aren’t bright enough to “cut it,” and the wealthy by contrast are so because they study hard and work hard. Thus, they deserve all the good fortune that comes their way.

Of course, the fallacy in both of these stereotypes is that in both, people are judged according to their possessions. The fact is that wealthy people are first and foremost . . .well, people! In that sense, their problems and struggles, while not nearly as obvious, are just as present. The “poor” are neither dumb nor righteous, and the “rich” are neither smart nor greedy, merely as a result of what they possess. Likewise, the “rich” are not satisfied in their riches, nor are the “poor” kept from satisfaction because of their lack.

Yet this stereotype is the reason we are so often quick to judge our celebrity culture. Take Britney Spears for example. The “train wreck” that her life has become is analyzed and lamented, not only by Hollywood, but also by judgmental Christians who think to themselves “what a spoiled-rotten girl! With all her fame and fortune, she still can’t get her act together!” Such statements assume that one’s money and fame will somehow make one’s life less of a mess, and those who make such statements should read afresh Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes!

This is a lesson I have learned from experience as I seek to reach the people of my area with the Gospel. When my family and I first moved here nearly three years ago, I thought to myself, “I’m a southern, blue-collar redneck. How on earth am I going to effectively minister to wealthy, powerful, white-collar people in the northeast?” My presumption of course, was that because they possessed more money and power than I would likely ever enjoy, that I couldn’t help them. Obviously, I had forgotten about Phillip.

In Acts 8, Phillip is providentially brought in contact with an Ethiopian eunuch. “Providentially” is a key term here, because the likelihood of this kind of encounter between a middle-class Jew and a wealthy and powerful Ethiopian official happening serendipitously was slim to none! Nevertheless, what Phillip discovered was that while this man was powerful, wealthy, famous and influential, he was also very lost! In commenting on this passage, Greg Laurie describes this encounter as “a very empty man [the Ethiopian] who met a very satisfied one [Phillip].” Ironic isn’t it? It was the “poor” man who was satisfied.

Yet the Scriptures tell us that this is exactly the way we should view our lost friends, regardless of the income bracket to which they belong. I appreciate and admire my friends in other parts of the world who minister to the “least of these.” But let’s not forget that from an eschatological standpoint, there is no difference between “rich” and “poor.” More than eighty percent of the population in my area has no relationship to Jesus Christ. They may drive a Mercedes, live in a “McMansion” and embody the epitome of the “American Dream,” but inside, their condition is identical to that of the unregenerate of the visible church in Laodicea. They are “miserable, poor, blind and naked.”

Dan McMillan was one of those people. At the top of the venerable McMillan Publishing company, he enjoyed all the benefits that came with wealth, fame and power. Still, something was missing that made all the accoutrements of his life seem worthless. Thankfully, a young church planter of “less than average” means named David Draper, brought McMillan to understand his need for Jesus Christ. His conversion led to a weekly breakfast and Bible study where McMillan sought to reach his friends in the publishing industry with the Gospel.

Not long before his death, McMillan allowed folks from the North American Mission Board to interview him about his conversion. Toward the end of the interview, this wealthy and powerful man made a desperate plea to his Christian brothers and sisters: “The church is always focusing on the poor and disenfranchised, and that’s good. They certainly need it. But what about me? Why did it take so long for someone to get to me?”

Dan McMillan is with Jesus today, not because of his money, but rather because someone loved him enough to share Solomon’s wisdom that riches, while nice, are ultimately “vanity” and “meaninglessness” if not accompanied with a fear of God that leads to keeping His commandments. I am convinced that God wants to populate heaven with people like this. But if we are to play any significant part in getting them there, our focus needs to shift from the back pocket to the soul.

1 comment:

David Phillips said...

Great story Joel...what a story!