Missionaries or Moochers? Christian Freeloaders Hiding Under a Religious Cloak

1. A young man known to me has just completed high school and is now ready to embark on tertiary education.  I met him when he was about fourteen years old; he drifted into his local church one day, somehow, and has been attached to it ever since.  I don’t know whether he got saved before he started getting involved with the church or if it happened after his involvement; but, praise God, he is saved now and has been getting involved with various activities within the church.  His plan was, after leaving school, to train for the ministry but since then, through his involvement with a youth ministry in town, he’s committed himself to them and has been accepted as a full-time trainee.  With the encouragement and backing of the interim minister, he has sent out a flyer to the congregation asking them to support him financially so that he can take up this ministry. 

He is 19 years old and has no experience of the world; he has never worked in a job, never had to pay rent or a mortgage, never had to make his own way through life, never had a wife or children to support and care for – all his needs have been met by his parents and he’s never known what it is to worry about a single need.  And now he wants to upgrade to a larger income source, and depend on the congregation to supply his lifestyle choice.  However, the congregation consists very largely of senior people who live on their old-age pensions and what little savings they’ve managed to accrue over a lifetime of working.  For many of them there is no spare cash to support yet another “missionary”.

2. The church I was involved with when I lived in another city financially supported a young woman not of our congregation, whose mission field was Catholics in Ireland.  She had uprooted home in Australia and gone to Ireland and attached herself to an evangelical church there so that she could “witness to” Catholics.  Her life seemed to be no different to a life she would have lived in Australia, being involved in a local church in Dublin and witnessing to Catholics, just like any of the other members of that or any evangelical church.  The difference is that all the other church members there and in our church work in a job to support ourselves.  It seemed to me that she was able to travel overseas and live in another culture not too far removed from her own so that it was too uncomfortable, and not have to pay for it.  All she had to do to maintain the flow of funds into her bank account was to visit the churches that supported her every two or three years and give them a glowing report of her “ministry”. 

Unfortunately the report I heard when she was addressing us and showing her slides and stuff wasn’t that glowing; I couldn’t see why she needed financial support to do something full-time that every other Christian does part-time while working in a job; and I couldn’t see why she would think of herself as some kind of missionary, because she was just an ordinary Baptist Christian involved with a normal suburban Baptist church in Dublin, and her life was no different to a normal evangelical Christian anywhere in the West.  She had simply transplanted her life from Australia to Ireland and was receiving financial support from Australian Christians at home to do so, justifying it by styling herself as a missionary.  If she’d stayed in her local church in Australia, she could still have witnessed to Catholics if she really had a burden for them, because we have Catholics here too; and she could have done it at her own expense as part of her service to God, and under the direction and guidance of her own pastor.  Are Catholics more lost in Dublin than they are in Australia?  Is there something wrong with the evangelical church in Dublin to which she’s attached herself that it needs a single woman to come from Australia to “witness” to Catholics in their back yard?  Can’t any of their church members do that?  I’m quite sure they didn’t call her to that work, as she wouldn’t have even been known outside her own circle of family and friends in Australia.

3. When I was doing my degree at theological college in 2005 I met many young people who planned to go into some kind of “full-time ministry” within Australia with some kind of parachurch organization when they left college.  This, of course, would mean that they would be seeking financial support from their long-suffering churches and “support friends”.  There were other students there who were training in fields such as youth or children’s ministry, and their hope was to get a paid position at a local church.  But surely this is the kind of work that congregational members do as part of their own commitment to the church – without receiving a stipend.  In most of the churches I’ve ever been part of, the children’s and youth ministries have been conducted by congregational members. 

In contrast, in my own church, the youth groups are led by the assistant minister; it is one of his many responsibilities in the church and for which he is paid a stipend; it is a role which has been determined by the minister and church elders.  He has also established his own business as a builder in order to supplement his income.  He had been a congregational member for some years, and felt called to the ministry as a pastor; he trained at the denomination’s theological college and was subsequently called by the church to fill the role of assistant minister.  He now trains some of the young people in youth ministry, which they do as part of their own ministry within the congregation, whilst doing their school or university studies.

4. When I was at theological college a missionary family who had trained at this institution had returned to Australia on furlough, and the husband was addressing the students, telling us of his work in North India, and how difficult it is.  He expressed his frustration because all the missionaries go to the South where they’re not really needed, because there is already so much mission work being conducted in the area, and so many churches.  Whereas the real and urgent need is in the North; but nobody goes there because it is difficult and even dangerous – but that is precisely where the gospel is needed!

Most missionaries are sincere….

I’m not saying that most people who want to serve the Lord in any kind of evangelistic or pastoral role aren’t sincere or aren’t burdened to do so – no doubt, many of them are; and they will go anywhere he calls and find whatever means of support they can.  No doubt they look to him to provide for the means to fulfil the calling he has laid on them.  And no doubt he will do so.  And that may well mean that that support comes from a willing church or group of people or churches, particularly so when the man is called as pastor of a church.  Such support is often the only way missionaries to other countries and cultures can succeed.  But I’m not referring to such people in this article.


What I do have a problem with is people such as I’ve mentioned above whose preferred method of income is receiving it freely from other people.  Perhaps a small number of those who want to do “full-time service” for the Lord choose this career path because they don’t have the courage to face life and join the workforce, as the world is a bit intimidating to them.  They might have difficulty relating to others, but feel more comfortable and confident in a church situation because Christians are more tolerant and they accept social misfits more readily.  And perhaps others are simply lazy and don’t want their lives to be regimented doing a 9-5 job, being told what to do or else face the consequences; if they can find a place in a church in another country and culture, so much the better.  For others, it may be that they just want to live in a cosy Christian bubble, surrounded by Christians.  So a nice stay in a local church with friendly environment and all expenses paid is a good option; justify it with a religious gloss and it’s all OK.

In the Middle Ages the common people constantly had to support fat, lazy, friars who chose no other means of support than begging.  These professional mendicants took an oath of poverty and renunciation of property, choosing to live on the goodwill and practical support of those who worked hard for a living.  And they lived very comfortably by doing so.  It doesn’t seem like much has changed.

It is so clearly against biblical teaching that so many Christians think they can choose a cushy lifestyle and expect their brothers and sisters to support them in it.  The Apostle Paul wrote For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.  For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat (2 Thess 3:7-10).

There is a case for financial support…..

Am I against supporting missionaries or pastors or those studying for the ministry?  No.  When Jesus sent out The Seventy, his instructions were that they should receive support from those amongst whom they worked: “…in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7).  And Paul’s instructions to Timothy were “.…the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn, And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (1 Tim 5:18). 

…..but there are boundaries

What I am against is this rising tide of (mostly) young people who presume upon their fellow Christians to support them in a life which has a religious garb but is in fact a lifestyle choice with the grandiose and pious title of “mission”.  Most of the “work” they do and need finances for is simply that which they ought to be doing as part of their work in their local church, expecting neither reward nor praise from men but from the Lord Jesus himself, doing all as unto the Lord.  And the churches and Christians on whom they rely should be telling them to get a job and earn an honest living: “…study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing” (1 Thess 4:11-12). 

No place for independent para-church groups…..

This situation also highlights the fact that it is the Church’s responsibility to send out missionaries and workers.  If there weren’t so many missions organizations and other para-church bodies there wouldn’t be so much finance being siphoned off from the Church’s income in order to support various individuals and independent organisations; and the Church would be better able to fulfil its purpose of sending the gospel into the world.   As it is, church members now find themselves in the position of contributing regularly to their local church while also feeling burdened or pressured to contribute to various para-church missions or overseas works, or just individuals here and there who “feel called” to some kind of Christian “full-time service”.  And the churches themselves are contributing to various independent missions and Christian groups which are not accountable to anyone but themselves, and therefore they (the church) have no say as to what these groups teach or how they spend their money. 

…..or independent theological colleges

This also applies to theological and bible colleges; they too should be under the authority of a church or denomination and be accountable for what they teach their students.  Some of the major colleges in Australia have been established by a denomination to train students for the ministry; however, there are many independent colleges here and internationally which are not accountable to anyone except the board members, and who are therefore free to teach whatever error they wish.  But even within some of the denominational colleges the lecturers are free to espouse their own theology; so there could be some evangelical and conservative lecturers on the same faculty as lecturers with a more liberal bent. 

Many students who study at these colleges are young people who only want to expand their understanding of the bible, and they trust that what they’re being taught is biblical truth.  Sadly however, they’re often being taught error and they don’t even recognise it, trusting that their lecturers will teach them the truth.  So every year each of these colleges unleashes a bunch of formerly keen young Christians who will then inflict their heretical ideas which they’ve imbibed at college during 2, 3 or 4 years of “training”, upon a trusting and unsuspecting Christian laity.

It doesn’t help when theological and/or bible colleges insist that their students who go on short term missions locally or internationally are told not to pay their own way but must find full financial support from churches and/or individual Christians, as happened in the theological college where I studied.  Thus, a major part of their training for missionary work consists in learning how to sponge off long-suffering Christians.  This faulty principle also encourages churches to opt out of their responsibility to overseas missions and local evangelisation, leaving it up to para-church missions, evangelistic, and bible translation organisations, to do the work for them. 

All should be under the umbrella of the Church

The New Testament knows nothing of such independent para-church organizations. Any and all mission activity was under the direct control of the Church in conjunction with the Holy Spirit.  In the book of Acts, for example, it was the church at Antioch, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which sent out Paul and Barnabas on their mission (Acts 13:1-4).  And when Paul and Barnabas did go out they supported themselves – Paul tells us that he was a tent-maker by trade and worked while on his mission to the churches (Acts 13:1-3).  This passage also tells us that Aquila and Priscilla worked with Paul (Rom 16:3) and they too supported themselves.

However, Paul didn’t give up his right to be supported in his mission work.  He showed from the Law and the Gospel that he was entitled to it as were the other apostles (1 Cor 9:1-14).  And he wasn’t simply sponging off anyone, trying to get a comfy lifestyle; he recounts for us the many severe trials he faced as he travelled around the empire preaching the gospel (2 Cor 11:23-33); and in 2 Cor 1:8 he tells us “we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life”

So when somebody asks us or the church to support them in their desire to work full-time for the Lord, perhaps we should question them closely and ask them the nature of their call and why, as their first option, they can’t support themselves as they do the work of the Lord.  Working for the Lord by faith shouldn’t mean that the Christian worker’s first step is to garner support from a group of people and/or a church or churches; their first priority should be that they get a job and support themselves as they work, still trusting God to provide.  And if the work grows, and the load with it, then they can consult the leadership of the church, set before them the situation, and await their decision.  But they must be prepared to be accountable to those who do contribute to their ministry, and be conscientious that they use their money in the most productive way they can.