Missions: the bad!

Stained glass
Photo credit: Felix Krohn (Creative Commons)

Tony and I were in Nepal training church planters:

"What should simple/organic church should look like?" someone asked me.

My answer surprised them: "It should look Nepalese!"

I have a photo in my possession that epitomizes the problem with much of what is seen on the mission field today. The picture, taken in a culture hostile to the gospel, is of a secret church meeting taking place where the authorities cannot find them. A group of new disciples,dressed in rags, squats on a riverbank. A man, clad in a suit and tie and holding a large black book, stands in front of them, obviously teaching them. He looks totally out of place. What have we done?

Western missionaries have exported their culture as well as Christ!

In Hindu culture, the sign of marriage is a red dot on the forehead. It has the same significance as our wedding ring. Missionaries asked their new converts to remove the dot because it is a Hindu symbol. Naturally, women do not wish to appear unmarried, so this is a big hindrance to the spread of the Gospel. The missionaries simply didn't understand the local culture. There are countless examples of this kind of cultural insensitivity.

We have exported a rulebook based on our culture, not Christ!

In the early 90s, there were 6 known Christians in Mongolia. Now there are around 100,000. Praise God for an amazing work of his Spirit. But there are also denominations, organizations, church hierarchies, and all the trappings of Western (and Asian) Christianity. We missed an opportunity to see the body of Christ grow without all the divisions we take for granted.

Christians exported denominationalism, as well as Jesus!

In many nations we have been to, the church resembles any traditional church in the West. The buildings look the same, the people dress in Western clothes for services; they sing translations of Western hymns or songs. Pictures of Jesus portray him as Anglo. The people love God with all their hearts, but Christianity is known as a foreign religion by those outside the church because it looks so different–so Western.

The history of missions shows much insensitivity to local culture. Missionaries, with the best of intentions, confused Christianity and Western culture. They are not one and the same.

The Good News of Jesus transcends culture; it can be contextualized within any culture. 

Please, in simple/organic missions, let's not make the same mistakes. Let's introduce people to a Jesus who is relevant to the local culture. I'm not talking about compomise or syncretism, but, like Paul did in Athens, demonstrating a Christ who is culturally relevant.

9 replies on “Missions: the bad!”

In their excellent book, The Shaping of things to come, Frost and Hirsch discuss making mission suit the context, based on ideas developed by Parshall and Travis. They identify 6 levels of greater contextualisation, from C1 (traditional western church with English language) through to C6 (Small communities of secret believers).
They suggest that somewhere in the C4-C5 range (using local culture and language, and reduced distance from the outward appearance of local religions) is best, both for overseas missions and for mission at home. I reckon Simple Churches fit here much better than most “Legacy Churches”.

Hi Felicity.
I really enjoy your blogs. This one is especially close to my heart. I recently had an article about this issue distributed by Assist News – God is not a foreigner –
I would like to quote this article in my own blog.
Thank you for drawing attention to this so clearly.
Let’s keep doing so till we stop exporting our cultural rulebook in the name of Christ.
God bless you. Keep up the great work.

What an excellent post, Felicity. What you have written here is so, so true.
And it’s also true one on one. If, for example, I have an opportunity to introduce a Muslim to Jesus, I need to understand that Islam is a culture as well as a faith and a religion. My duty is to share Isa (Jesus) and the good news, not to be anxious about what will happen next! Let everyone be free to carry Jesus with them IN their culture.
Peter had to receive a vision three times before he understood that a person could be acceptable without being Jewish. But there was a pharisee who understood this surprisingly well, Paul of Tarsus.
You’d have thought a fisherman would have found it easier than someone with a traditional and strict religious background!
Am I going to be like Peter or like Paul?
And as for exporting division in the body… Argghhhh…

Thanks for this, Felicity. It touched my heart and reminded me that God became one of us in the greatest act of contextualisation that this universe has ever seen.
I live in Africa. One of our writers, Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, wrote a classic book that you may have heard of or even read – “Things Fall Apart” – in which a story is told of how a Nigerian man experienced the arrival of missionaries in his country. It is a tragic story and has an important message, and is definitely worth reading for gaining an important perspective on this discussion. The beauty of the Organic/Simple Church is that it is relational and not institutional, and so the risk of the above happening is minimised. But certain challenges remain, and so I am grateful for the discussion and the posts.

This reminds me of slides I saw of missions work back in the early 70’s when I was a new believer wondering why all these students preparing for church leadership in a seminary in Central Africa were dressed in Western business suits.

Great post. It would be fun to hear some of your examples of when culture has been accepted and what those organic churches look like.
It’s hard to believe that the training of missionaries does not include cultural awareness training. I’m not familiar with the kind of training they go through, but it seems like this would be “Missionary 101.” Even politicians get it. You see it all the time on the TV. I’m sure everyone has seen Hillary Clinton with her head covered . It’s not like she goes to other countries and tells them to dress in pant suits! That would be insensitive (as you mention) and arrogant. We just don’t understand the psychological effects of some of our actions. Beyond just being insensitive (and although unintentional), don’t you think we’re subconsciously communicating that their culture is of the world and God established Western culture?.

Great comments everyone. We all have so much to learn. I’m sure those from a simple/organic church background who are involved in missions will make plenty of our own mistakes, but hopefully there is no need to repeat the mistakes of others who have gone before us.

Simple yet excellent post. We are working here in Thailand on creating a new movement within a contextual simple church model. We have 180 years of church history here to deal with. Even though our nation is over 65 million people there are still only about 185k ethnic Thai who are believers. About 0.3%. I often ask myself “Is it the people’s fault (ie, hard hearts) or is is mainly because we have given them the Gospel in a way that instantly makes them a foreigner in their own land.

John, thank you. You ask an excellent question. My observation from what we have seen around the world is that while there is obviously a “God’s sovereignty” component (for example, now it is his time for our M cousins), we make it incredibly more difficult for people to become disciples of Jesus if we ask them to change culture too. I like the way you phrase it–that we make them an instant foreigner in their own land. There has to be a better way. We have a friend in India who sees many, many people of both Hindu and M backgrounds come to Christ and he does it through their own holy writings before introducing them to the Bible.

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