In global mission today there are now more non-western message bearer (alternative term for missionary) teams than western. They are struggling under the strain of a funding model that often doesn’t fit their economic circumstances. Yet, they love Jesus and are eager to effectively serve His Great Commission purposes.
Because we are not doing colonial missions anymore, frontier workers need to be more incarnational, living with the unreached peoples. Therefore, integrating a Biblically based, alternative funding model helps overcome many current issues in mission including security and church financial limitations.
To consider this further, it is helpful to grasp how the apostle Paul faced this very issue. A careful study of 1 Corinthians 9:1-18 reveals Paul’s clear understanding of the historic Jewish model related to material support while simultaneously providing his grasp of the shifts in that model as the doors were opening to the Gentiles. In doing so, Paul reveals the crucial overarching principle of the whole matter – laying down perceived rights.
When we read 1 Corinthians 9:1-18 at a glance, from a surface level perspective, we easily miss the underlying principles Paul is getting at. Many use this passage incorrectly as a “proof text” to defend something Paul is trying to refute.
It is necessary to grasp the bigger picture context of 1 Corinthians 9:1-18. Paul is providing a defense of his apostleship to the Corinthian church (a primarily Gentile church), which was being challenged. In the early portion of the passage (v. 1-6), he compares himself to the “other apostles,” asking a series of questions to reveal he is among them in every way.
The early Church apostolic leaders were seemingly supported materially in the book of Acts and throughout the first century. Paul appears to agree with this in the 1 Corinthians 9:1-18 passage, making many statements seemingly supporting the idea of the apostles and himself being supported economically in some measure by the churches.
Paul lays out a historic Jewish model of financially supporting their apostolic leaders while also completely understanding that it is not economically feasible for many churches, if not most (in his society as well as much of the non-western, global south church today), to do so.
Paul argues from verse 3-14, with statements like “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things (vs. 11),” and “even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should live from the Gospel (vs. 14),” while using illustrations from warfare, growing a vineyard and farming, as well as from Jewish history itself, that an apostle has the “right” to be supported materially to some degree.
Paul highlights that though he is “deserving” (because he is a true apostle as evidenced by his argument) of the churches supporting him materially (v. 11,13,14), he is willing and even desirous of their not doing so for the sake of “not hindering the gospel (v. 12,15).”
Digging a little deeper, we observe that Paul was the first apostolic figure to ever work among the Gentiles. His reference to “other apostles” (vs. 5) who were supported materially correlated with their working only among the Jews (Peter, James, John in Acts 1-7). Paul established that he and Barnabas (vs. 6) were in an evidently new apostolic category.
Once the doors opened to the Gentiles, the finance model applied to the churches shifted, not in the ideal of being supported materially but in the Kingdom orientation of laying down that “right.”
The reason for the shift was not wanting to “hinder the gospel” among the Gentiles by misunderstandings about money. While God provided a historic, Jewish model for apostolic leaders to rightly receive material support among Jewish churches, Paul would not take it from the Gentile churches because to do so would “hinder the gospel.”
Paul would not let the historic, Jewish model be more important than the Gospel going forth among the Gentiles. In this way, Paul embraced the upside-down Kingdom of prioritizing the Gospel over a particular “right.” What was most necessary to Paul, as must still be in the modern global Church today, was the Gospel advancing among unreached people groups.
The Holy Spirit was introducing a different funding model through Paul, applicable primarily in economically challenged contexts – using skills and professions to earn an income among the unreached people while planting churches. All the apostles serving among the Gentiles from that point on in the New Testament were financed in this way.
We can apply the theological and missiological principle from this passage to our current mission sending context. It is fair to say our traditional mission funding model has “hindered the gospel” by keeping the number of message bearer teams being sent to what a church can financially support. This is because few non-western, global south churches can financially support their own message bearer teams to the unreached.
Instead, shifting the financial responsibility from these churches potentially allows many more message bearer teams to be raised up and sent to the unreached. If message bearer teams, like Paul, laid down a perceived “right” of receiving church funding and instead took up the “intercultural marketplace” context of the early church mission movement, churches would undoubtedly send forth a much greater number of message bearer teams to both near and distant culture unreached peoples.
The vast majority of global south message bearer teams need to adopt the “intercultural marketplace message bearers” concept, just like Paul voluntarily chose to do, within the unreached community they are seeking to reach. This is not only prudent given the economic contexts but is the way of the Kingdom to not “hinder the gospel from advancing” due to material limitations across churches.
This article has sought to consider a theological and missiological basis for adopting the “intercultural marketplace message bearers” model. Yet there are many additional, practical questions needing to be considered by each church which are beyond the articles’ scope.
These include – How can churches financially help message bearer teams get into their contexts (maybe 2-3 years), while learning the language, before the worker finds a suitable job or starts a reliable “business as mission” project? How can churches hold message bearer team’s accountable so that the marketplace work is done well while simultaneously prioritizing their church planting work among the unreached?
For further information on this subject, please see a PDF of the very helpful book “Intercultural Marketplace Discipleship” edited by Jonathan Lewis, for practical ways to integrate this concept among your church’s message bearer teams.