When it comes to missionary work, I fully understand how delicate you have to be.
Just reading title of this article probably stirred feelings of indignation or even anger. Many of you readers (and even myself) have participated in overseas mission work – either long-term, short-term or from a financially supportive role.
No one wants to be told that their work was in vain. So please pay attention when I write:
I am NOT saying that all Western global missionary work has been useless. I am NOT saying that the work, in which you participated was wrong. I am NOT saying that any of that.
In order to say those things, I would need to have studied every single instance of missions over all of history, and know all the people involved and their hearts behind it.
I am not so arrogant. Neither do I make that claim.
With all that being said, I do believe that our overall way of thinking about missions should be reconsidered, as most of our methods come from colonialism and the modern paradigm. Well, we are in a post-modern time, and being a colonialist has proven to be unnecessarily culturally destructive.
And most importantly, all of us want to do it the biblical way.
Specifically for this article, I want to defend the capabilities and God-given rights of the indigenous missionary. And this is over and above what we have believed to be our “calling”.
Missionary Work from a Purely Practical Viewpoint
Jeff Reed, the CEO of BILD International, has said that on average, it costs $100,000 per year to fund a western missionary family overseas.
All of us should be willing to admit that it is a TON of money.
And yeah, we might ask, “Can you really put a price on the work of the Lord?”
Well, of course not. We sacrifice our entire lives and bodies to serve God.
But we must always be asking ourselves if we are using the resources He has given us to their full potential. No one would argue that a church should spend a huge amount of money on donkeys (as an example) just because there are donkeys in the Bible and they might be able to teach some cool object lessons with them.
That would be a waste of money. Or maybe I should say, we could spend our money in a wiser way.
Look at the Parable of the Talents. The allegorical master (who is meant to represent God, Himself) was furious with the servant who did not bring about a good return on investment.
Likewise, at the very least, we should consider whether we are using our money in the most strategic way.
Again, with BILD International, they allow you to fund an indigenous missionary in India, China, Africa, South America, and so many other places for only $1200 per year. And that covers EVERYTHING for them: leadership development, institutional costs, ministry costs, and personal/family costs.
So it’s either $100,000 or $1,200 per year. Do the math. It’s hard to argue with the numbers.
Then think about how much time and money it takes to train the Western missionary in the language and culture of a foreign people. It takes someone years to learn that stuff. Whereas the indigenous missionary knows it all innately and immediately. No resources used.
And they can reach people much more easily, because of the simple fact that they look like the people around them and have a culture and heritage in common. This is something that Westerners may never be able to overcome, unless they are already the same race as the people being reached.Are we using the resources #God has given us to their full potential? Click To Tweet
Paternalistic Missionary Work
By paternalistic, I mean it in the sense used by the Chalmers Center in their seminal work, When Helping Hurts. Paternalism means that the helper views himself as higher, smarter, and more capable than the ones he is helping.
Most of the time, paternalism comes from people who have the right heart, but still end up treating others like they have no dignity. It’s usually not a conscious thought (anymore, at least). But as Westerners we end up conquering the culture and harming the people we’re trying to reach.
As an example, a Western missionary goes into India (This is, of course, after 3 years of training in Telugu language and culture). He spends another 4 years getting to know the people, being accepted by them, making local connections, and then plants a church.
He then stays resident as the primary leader. He teaches them ministry, but requires that those who are serious as leaders to go to seminary. The people begin to rely on him as the wise leader.
He tries to solve problems in the community, by bringing in resources from his missionary agency – money, a tractor, irrigation equipment, and more.
The missionary lives there for the rest of his life and then eventually dies. His family tries to continue his work in the area.
In every circumstance, this missionary has disabled the local peoples from becoming all God has made them to be. All that God has made them to do.
They believe they cannot be the primary leader of their own church. And if they want to, they must spend years and money they don’t have on a Western education. They believe that they cannot solve their own problems without the aid of Western resources. And they cannot continue the work in their area, because the American family is doing it for them.
This is paternalism.
In reality, the only difference between a Westerner and an indigenous missionary is the access to resources. We have more money. But does that mean that we can do it better than them?
No, they have the same spirit as us, and we should respect them for that.
If you want to do more reading on this idea, look at this past article, titled “Why Our Foreign Missionary Philosophy is Patronizing“.Indigenous missionaries have the same #spirit as us, and we should respect them for that. Click To Tweet
An Example of Missionary Work which is not Paternalistic
Well, what is missionary work supposed to look like then? Not all of the nations have been reached, so isn’t there a need for traditional Western missionaries?
I’ll start by answering the second question first.
Yes. There are exceptions where Western missionaries should step in, simply because we are the only ones in the area with the Gospel. But that is true in far less of the world than we often want to admit. Therefore, it is an exception, not a rule.
I want to give a positive example of the Western church partnering with indigenous missionaries. It allows for Western missionarily-gifted people to exercise their spiritual gifts. But it also allows the local people to do the same.
BILD International, as stated above, partners with a multitude of international church planting networks. They don’t go in and tell them what to do. First of all, they only go in when they are invited by a network.
Then, when they go, they don’t try to do the work of ministry, such as church planting or evangelism. They work with the leaders who are already doing that work with their own teams.
Instead, they help the leaders think through biblical issues which relate to their problems. But the thinking is done by the local leaders. And the implementation is also done by them. Not BILD’s people.
BILD provides global partners in counsel, and accountability. They also help with translation of establishment materials and dissemination of those materials. But they do not carry out the work of the ministry for them.
Consider your role in global missions and determine whether you have personally been paternalistic. Determine if you are using your resources to maximize the work done for God’s Kingdom.
I am not trying to tell you that you are doing it wrong. I am only asking that you make those considerations.
As your local church makes decisions to support global missions, which do impact your own local situations, be wise as well as generous.
And allow the Holy Spirit to do the great works which we see in the book of Acts.
Also published on Medium.