The Harmful Reach of Christians: A Critique of Cross-Cultural Missions

missionsBy: Michael Simmelink

You know what’s right in the world? Young adults are understanding the words of Jesus to “go and make disciples” to mean spending their time and resources helping those less fortunate. You know what’s wrong in the world? As Paul Borthwick says in his book Western Christians in Global Missions, “although globally aware, these young people seem unclear on what the gospel is beyond just ‘doing good.’”

Mission work has become synonymous with good deeds, and that is the heart of the current crisis in missiology. A good deed can be defined as a usually spur-of-the-moment act that is not expected to be replicated or establish any sort of long-term partnership. It is simple examples like holding the elevator for a guy with his hands full or lending change to the woman who is a little short at the cash register. They say “thanks,” you say “you’re welcome,” and you can walk away feeling good about what you just did. Missions is not that. Real mission work, and what Jesus was really talking about when He said “go,” is a long-term commitment to preaching the gospel while serving other children of God. It’s not quick; it’s not easy. The trouble begins when short-term projects try to mix the positive vibes of good deeds with ministry. And boy, are these projects popular. In 2005, Princeton released a survey that found 1.6 million Americans participated in mission trips that were less than two weeks long at a cost of $2.4 billion. The trend suggested those numbers will grow every year. Americans see that the world is hurting and want to help, but only in short bursts and with immediate results. They see poor people in Harlem, Guatemala, Libya, Houston, Russia, and China, so they get 15 people from their church to go to those places and try to help.

The problem is those people usually don’t need relief. Roger Sandberg, who was Haiti’s country director for Medair, (think less-prominent UNICEF or Red Cross), said that aid should be divided into the stages of relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is only given for a few short months, and usually only after a crisis when basic needs have to be met. Rehabilitation is the process of turning aid-provision over into the hands of the community. Development is what most long-term missions are interested in, and that means creating self-sustaining outposts where missionaries hopefully work themselves out of the job. Western Christians want to help so badly that they end up doing things for the people they are helping, even when the people could be doing it for themselves. As Robert Lupton, who has served in the inner-city of Atlanta for 40 years, puts it in his book, Toxic Charity, “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.” Jesus told his disciples that they would fish for men. That “for” does not mean that we stick the poles in the water for people as if they are incapable. Maybe we should hear the warning of another fishing metaphor that says, “Fish for a man, and he will have food for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will have food for a lifetime.”

Ah yes, what a problem it is fishing with (hu)man(ity). “Those people” are seen as the global masses who are without the materialism of American culture, but also without easy access to clean water or the Bible in their native tongue. Good things on one hand and bad things on the other. We look at cross-cultural people and recognize they have things of value, but also acknowledge they lack other resources. Americans focus too much energy on what is lacking. The intelligent and affluent Christians come into the backwards and downtrodden places of the world with grand ideas of reform and change. These projects hardly ever take into account what the community itself feels that it needs. Lupton tells horror stories about churches built in villages of Ecuador and never used because the congregations worshiped outside, or packages sent to Africa containing medication for diseases that did not affect native Africans. Think of the money that was wasted on these gifts by short-termers. It could have gone to roofing the thatch houses or water purifying tablets; if only the teams had been patient enough to ask the people what they need. Is it not logical that we know our own strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else? It sounds so simple, but sometimes we only look at what the needs of a person are, and don’t bother to ask them what they can offer. Carrying out God’s mission is not about bringing our plans to the corners of the world; it requires defining the assets of a person and partnering with them so their gifts may be tapped. Once they are empowered, it is expected that the assets of a person can provide self-sustaining means.

So what does this mean for people (like myself) who are planning for upcoming short-term projects? What about the professionals who cannot commit to life-long missions like the saints of yesteryear or courageous souls of today? What about all the positives that come from being involved in these trips? I make the argument that most of the positives (appreciation of new culture, relationships, feelings of accomplishment, new perspective on life, etc.) will not be compromised by the changes I propose.

First, short-termers should only be doing projects that are in partnership with long-termers. A long-termer is someone who has made at least a two-year commitment to be in the thick of a situation. True missionaries are in it for the long haul, and it is both arrogant and ignorant not trust them and use their connections. God has ordained them with a task and we should respect that. Second, mission teams need to recognize the type of aid they are giving and if it is appropriate for the setting. Is there a time to hand out food and clothing without any questions being asked? Yes, but that is four days after a hurricane has hit the city (relief), not four years (development). If working with long-termers, it’s a safe bet that development is the stage of aid. Third, the community that is being served must be included in the plans. This can be scary for people who have policies, agendas, and improvements they want to make in an area. It requires a certain kind of Godly humility to ask a group of people for suggestions because it gives them governance, ownership, and control.  As Ron Blue, a professor in world missions and intercultural studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, said, “It appears to me that those of us in the North America empire are rather slow to yield control to others.” That loss of control is essential to effective mission work.

We should not be discouraged from taking these life-changing trips, but encouraged to do them smarter. I sincerely think a cross-cultural project of any kind is essential to gaining a wider perspective on the world, and my personal experience has seen dramatic shifts in how I view poverty. However, it is time that Christians no longer hang their hats on their intentions; it is time to look hard at the results and decide if we are tangibly making a difference in the world. Let us be the hands and feet of Christ to do that, but let us also do it correctly, efficiently, and lovingly to bring the Kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.


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One thought on “The Harmful Reach of Christians: A Critique of Cross-Cultural Missions

  1. jopgenorth says:

    Good work, Michael. Thanks for writing.

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