Americans love liars. We say we don’t, but we do.
In American politics, our financial policy is an obvious disaster and has been for years. Any thinking person knows that no matter how big you are, you can’t just keep creating money out of thin air forever. You can’t live on a credit card forever. Life is not a something-for-nothing kind of game, and that’s all there is to it. Yet — Democrat or Republican — we keep electing people whose only differences of opinion are about how much money to create out of thin air. We do not elect people who will tell us that this is a bad business from end to end, and we need to stop it right now.
We tell ourselves that all these politicians are liars, and we will blame it all on them when, inevitably, the consequences of our poor decisions catch up to us. And it’s true. They are liars. But we focus on that only to distract ourselves from a much more important truth: we elect liars. We do it on purpose, and we do it again and again, because we would rather have liars than be told uncomfortable truths.
This is also true in the church. We have no end of scandal as prominent pastors and ministry leaders fall publicly, their double lives exposed for all to see. They were lying to us. Some of them were lying to us the whole time! Most of them, though, started off well, and gradually became hypocrites and liars. But who put these particular people in positions of prominence to start with? Us. Who didn’t want to hear it when they were having an off day? Us. Who cheerfully kept supporting them without taking a deeper look at their lives? Us. Who rewarded flashy stories of street evangelism and pictures of converted headhunters with attention and showers of money? Us. Who couldn’t be bothered with hearing about building relationships over a cup of coffee or leaving the ministry behind for a week to go on a much-needed marriage retreat? Us.
We didn’t know what was really going on. You know why? Because we liked it that way. We liked it that way because for us, it was never about building the Kingdom of God. It was about idolizing the celebrities; it was about how it made us feel. As long as we felt like we had a piece of that perfect celebrity action, we didn’t give any of it a second look. And in order for us to feel like we had a piece of the action, something flashy had to happen. Paying for a marriage retreat so the couple could recharge and reconnect just didn’t do it for us.
Scandal wasn’t the only consequence of this kind of foolishness on our part. Writing a useful support letter became an exercise in spin control. (You can read more about that here, and I highly recommend it.)
Want to do better? Here are three suggestions:
1. Go local. Support a ministry you can actually see, so you know what’s going on. There’s nothing wrong with sending money halfway around the world, but start with what is near and clear. If you can’t handle the issues involved in feeding the undernourished kids that live within an hour’s drive of your home, how do you propose to be wise about feeding undernourished kids in Sudan?
2. Support people you actually know, and actually know the people you support. Don’t just throw money at things; along with your money, commit the time and effort to build and maintain a real relationship. (Big bonus here: you’ll pray passionately for people you know. That’s really good for them, believe me–and for you too.)
3. Be a missionary. Invest your time and effort in tangibly loving your actual neighbors, the people who live just a few yards from your door. Nothing reorients your priorities faster than being on mission yourself. Nothing will give you a better reality check. And besides, Jesus said to do it.
When missionaries and pastors talk to other missionaries or ministry people in the know, they tell a different set of stories than the ones in the prayer letters. The real stories. You know why? Because they trust people who are in the trenches with them, who understand what it’s really like. You want to know what’s really going on with your missionaries, your pastors? Then be one of those people in the trenches.
This has got nothing to do with what you do for a living, and everything to do with living on a missionary footing, in everything you do. Take the risks, struggle, fail, try again. And for the love of all that is holy, talk about it! Share your stories — good and bad — with your friends, with your pastor, with the missionaries you support. Two reasons to do this. First, notice who reciprocates. Those are people you want to support. Second, we’ve got to change the conversation. Missionary living is a messy business, and we need to be comfortable with the mess. If we want truth in prayer letters, we’ve got to tell the truth ourselves.