I originally published this on the previous incarnation of this blog, Onesimus Online. But I continue to be challenged by the content, and given that I find myself in an ongoing missionary capacity, I think it's healthy to keep wrestling with these issues, especially since things since I first posted this go on unchanged. It's intentionally provocative, and that is because I want to stir up discussion and encourage us all to think about the nature of Western missionary involvement at this stage in the history of the Church.
‘Missions’ has undergone a very interesting transformation in my lifetime. I can speak only as a North American Evangelical (who has recently become Orthodox) who has been a part of the North American missions scene since I was a university student in the 1970s. I have been on short term mission trips. I have coordinated a short term missions program for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I have served as ‘chair’ of a presbytery ‘mission’ committee (PCUSA, in case the subtle shift from ‘missions’ to ‘mission’ didn’t tip you off). I have served as a missionary as a member of the largest independent mission organization in the world (SIM), first in Ethiopia and now in Kenya, where I have served variously as a faculty member of several theological colleges and also as the senior pastor of a very large ‘international’ church. By mentioning all this, I am not trying to impress anyone; rather, I’m simply trying to establish that I am not some neophyte.
During these nearly four decades of my missions involvement, missions has been ‘sold’ to individuals and to churches in my home (US and UK) contexts as God’s call for us as Christians to supply what is lacking, Christianly-speaking, in other parts of the world. So off we go to ‘preach the gospel,’ to ‘plant churches’, to translate the Scriptures, to train leaders, to ‘build capacity’, to build and staff clinics, hospitals and schools, to care for orphans, and generally to reach the (fill in the blank) for Christ. I’ve also observed first-hand the revolution in both communication and travel and something of the effects on how missions is done. When I first came as a short-termer to Kenya thirty years ago this summer, there was no telephone in the community where I lived. It took two weeks for a letter to my mother to reach home, and another two weeks for her reply to catch up with me. Tonight, I will probably video skype via wireless internet from our back patio from our suburb of Nairobi with my daughters who are in their end-of-year exams at university in Virginia. Thirty years ago, international travel was exotic and rare. This past year, various family emergencies have meant that I have traveled back and forth between Kenya and the US three different times. When we lived in Ethiopia, it was possible to have an early breakfast in Addis Ababa, Lunch in London and a late dinner in Washington, DC, all in the same day.
Used to be us Western missionaries came out for life. Now ‘long term’ averages about eight years, with the majority of people coming for ‘short-term’ assignments from two years to two weeks. Very few Westerners are going out to live in remote areas as all-purpose missionary generalists (it still happens, but as the exception rather than the rule), with most coming to urban areas and providing some sort of service or skill. For example, my wife and I are niche missionaries, with our PhDs enabling me to meet a very specialized need at the top of the theological education food chain.
The other big change is that, while I was in my country of origin, we very much thought we were at the center of the world and at the center of what God is doing. When I travel back to my ‘people’, I find this still the assumption, whether in local churches or theological colleges/seminaries. But I’ve also observed that, increasingly, Americans are almost the only people left who think this way about Americans anymore. The Christian world has moved along, and our multi-billion dollar ‘Christian’ media and music and publishing and conference and education industries, um, 'ministries' are all busy generating the sorts of things that they have always generated, but with less and less relevance to the rest of the world.
Now that I’ve been here (on the ‘field’) for a while, I am realizing that we Western missionaries are not the wonderful blessing from heaven to all these poor and lost people that we like to think of ourselves as. While we have been certainly busy ‘preaching the gospel’ all these years, we’ve actually succeeded in reproducing some of our less savory attributes much more than anybody is admitting. Most people who come here as missionaries only know what they know and do not know what they don’t know. While this is endearing in children, it’s been disastrous on the mission field. We have reproduced not just our seriously inculturated Western understanding of ‘the gospel’, but we have also reproduced our various and seriously inculturated understandings of the church as well. The problem is, most of us missionaries have really not thought that much about what sort of ‘church’ we are planting, assuming this to be obvious. As a result, we have succeeded merely in passing on our ignorances and prejudices, all dressed up as Bible truth. We came here as Baptists (of multiple sorts), Presbyterians, Methodists, Bible Church Independents, Brethren, Pentecostals, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc, etc, and wonder of wonders is it not surprising that we have succeeded in importing all of our Western arguments and divisions and prejudices in spades. We excuse our differences by calling them ‘distinctives’ and by saying that they are essentially adiaphora (matters of indifference)—especially your adiaphora—but then fight like the devil when someone actually presumes to treat our distinctives as adiaphora (‘no, really, believer baptism is necessary to be a real NT Christian!’).
I would like to suggest that there are very few places left in the world where a Western Christian presence is advisable, at least the way it has been practiced in the recent past. I have several reasons motivating me to make this suggestion.
First, our continuing presence as mission organizations actively facilitates a church-killing dependence among the Christians we are supposedly trying to help. In the churches of sub-Saharan Africa that I am most familiar with, many if not most Christians have never learned to give in a way that enables them to support a local church that is actually sustainable. We in the West never let them. For the most part, we dictated what their churches would look like, what their leadership structures should look like, what their ministry programs should look like, what their staffing needs should look like, what their theological education programs should look like, and as long as we were around, we could make it happen. But take Western money away and all these components collapse of their own unsustainable weight. And so we rush back in with our ‘resources’ (read money and ‘free’ staff) and thereby keep the plates all spinning until the local churches can keep them spinning on their own (according to our standards of how fast they should be spinning, of course). But notice in all of this, we from the West simply assumed what was needed and then imposed it on the nascent Christian movements of the non-West. In the spheres of politics and economics, this is referred to as colonialism. This sort of intervention has long been understood as disastrous for the economic and political development of sub-Saharan African countries. It’s time to acknowledge that the ongoing uncritical spiritual colonization of Africa is having just as devastating effects on the long-term health and viability of the African Christian movements. The problem is, too many African Christians have developed a taste for Western Christian money and programs and education and the local status that comes with being associated with such money, programs and education. We have created institutions that are perceived by those involved with them as being ‘too big to fail’, as well as created an entire class of dependents who would be destitute were we no longer around to pay the salaries or provide the scholarships or fund the aid programs.
Secondly, this sort of dynamic works the other way, too. There are too many Western mission organizations and NGOs who, except for spiritualized lingo, have become little more than giant corporations, with layers of management, following every leadership and management trend, focused on the bottom line and becoming ever more efficient in connecting donors with the product as well as expanding the market for the product (i.e. the field/area in which we missionaries or NGO people can ‘serve’). We’ve become increasingly a missions and aid industry, with our own versions of success and upward mobility, jetting all over the globe to this and that conference, looking always to expand our ability to raise ever more money to fund our salaries and lifestyles and ‘ministries’. We’ve made ourselves indispensible by convincing ourselves and our donors (and our clients) that we really are not only necessary, but the best, most efficient, most biblical and most convenient way to get whatever done. We’ve done a superb job of creating a market for what we have to offer. Some ‘missions’ in the countries where I have lived have been there for 80, 90, 100 years and more.
Thirdly, it is long past time for local Christians to take responsibility for their own churches and training and programs. This is happening in some places, like India for example, where for years missionaries were forbidden by the government from operating as ‘missionaries.’ Local Christians were forced to take responsibility for themselves. And while not perfect, there is a maturity among many Indian Christians that is refreshing. And if taking responsibility for one’s own Christian life and one’s own local church or ‘ministry’ means some churches and schools and programs fail, then it likely means that they were not viable to begin with, at least on the grandiose scales they were conceived when an open tap of resources from the West was assumed. And if it means that Christianity evaporates from some areas, then that should tell us that whatever ‘Christian’ things were going on there before were not making real contact with the lives of real people. There comes a point when local Christians must take responsibility for their own fellowship and mission. If something cannot happen without Western funding and staffing, then should it be happening at all?
The bottom line is that, if we Westerners don’t get out of the way, the churches of Africa and Asia and Latin America will remain the spiritual infants and self-absorbed teenagers that many of them really are. I was a teenager once, and I remember seething with resentment when a parent forced me away from entertaining myself with TV and music and from stuffing my face with all manner of junk food and made me work as a responsible family member. With all our faults, we in the West have been instrumental in relaunching Christianity as a global religion. But our current posture is no longer healthy. That movement now needs desperately to stand on its own two feet and be made to use limbs and muscles that have been coddled so long that they seem to have atrophied. We’ve been addicted to each other for way too long. And as long as we are around, we (the West and its ‘resources’) will be your (non-Western Christians') preferred drug of choice, rather than learning what every other legitimate disciple and church of our Lord has had to learn, that his call means that each one of us pick up our cross and follow him to our deaths. Our imported business models of ministry success have persuaded too many non-Western Christians that the cross can finally be avoided and that victory is ours for the grasping. But this sort of hyper-over-realized eschatology is little more than the ‘American Dream’ writ large, which actually is one of the devil’s more effective delusions.
I would love to have some thoughtful discussion on all this. But I fear that this is one of those untouchable topics in Evangelical and mission circles because, truth be told, too many of us seem to have too much to lose.