Can We Talk About the Idolization of Christian Missionaries?

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Can we talk about the idolization of Christian missionaries in the Western world?

How, in many Western cultures, those who leave for faraway lands to “preach the gospel” or start programs seen as heroes, the best representation of humanity?

Can we talk about how in reality, just because someone picks up a noble-looking cause does not mean they are a good person, or the cause is healthy?

idolization of Christian missionaries

Just because an individual is willing to go outside their culture and lifestyle doesn’t mean their ambitions should be supported. 

Because the truth is, some people leave their own cultures, not out of the goodness of heart but to get as far away from accountability as possible. Some people move to other countries not to serve and do good work but to further their own tainted agendas.

Some missionary-sending organizations and churches think they are doing good, but their concept of “good” is drenched in superiority, saviorism and colonizer mindsets.

The idolization of Christian Missionaries 

I admit that this (and other posts) is a difficult read for the well-intentioned Christian in North America and other Western worlds.

It’s unpleasant because no good-hearted person wants to hear an individual/mission-sending organization is causing harm, instead of doing good.

When most of what we’ve known about missionary work involves fundraising, supporting, and awe, replacing our long-held beliefs with new information is difficult.

And so I understand why what I’m about to say might be challenging to digest when all along you’ve had good intentions.

Idolization of Christian Missionaries: Good Intentions are Not Enough 

Here’s the missing piece of good intentions: they are not enough. 

We must stop measuring our impact by how many good intentions we have or how much resources have been spent. It must be about outcomes. To determine impact, look at the fruit, both short-term and long-term. 

What are the everyday and long-term effects of your work among nationals? Does your impact include suppression, erosion, or replacement of indigenous peoples’ cultures, habits, language, resourcefulness and creativity?  

Are you present in these communities as the answer to their problems? (Which is another way of asking, have you deified yourself in their eyes.)

Are you engaging in racial and cultural voyeurism, consuming, objectifying or appropriating othere peoples’ culture and way of life for your entertainment or “education” and wrapping it in Missionary-cloth?1

While you might have some resources and expertise, are you passionate about finding healthy local partners who are already doing what you want to do so that locals see themselves reflected back in the faces working amongst them?

Are you okay interrupting other peoples’ daily routines with superficial, child-level participation and patting yourself on the back as “a powerful mission trip”? (Looking at you, orphanage painters.)

Idolization of Christian Missionaries: The Great Hope

If a well-intentioned organization wants to support people groups or countries far away, they must invest in vetting the kind of help and helpers they send out.

I hope that one day, Christians in Western societies will stop celebrating everyone who wants to do missionary work – long term or short term – in another country or culture.

I’m hoping Christians will accept that one of the best things they can do when someone volunteers for missionary work is to ask questions and to get curious. Not give a standing ovation and hand over their money. 

Ask questions like, why Kenya? Why not the southern part of our town? Why indigenous people across the oceans? Why not our local population and people? Why not indigenous people in their own land, aka America?

When people volunteer to serve away from home, I’m hoping more people will look into their lives: Who they are as people, not just what they want to do.

If they are a couple, that someone will be curious about their marriage. Couple dynamics are difficult to assess, especially when a missionary-sending organization or church is already conservative and unhealthy dynamics are seen as normal.2

But if more people become more discerning of what is healthy and what is not, maybe we’ll have less toxic people sent out to other cultures who have their own problems.

If sending churches and organizations do nothing but continue sending people without better vetting and accountability, the healthy people can just withdraw their money and support. 

And the unhealthy programs will dry up. (And people can find other healthy organizations doing good work and give to those.)

Idolization of Christian Missionaries: Discernment Matters

When people write to me and tell me to repent for the harm I’m causing (by speaking up), when they say I don’t understand what missionaries go through and the great price they pay to serve in the missions field, they don’t realize they are talking to the choir.

Yup, I beat them to the chastisement. I don’t want to discourage good-hearted people. I don’t want people to stop giving to healthy, worthy causes. I don’t want to stir up locals. (We have diverse views!)

idolization of Christian missionaries

But these stories need to be told. Again. And again. And again. Our voices need to be heard. For far too long, “helpers” dominated these discussions, and it’s vital for national/indigenous voices to be heard.

That’s what genuine partnerships look like: Honest, ongoing efforts that do not silence one part. Authentic collaborations where those who have been hurt have space and freedom to voice their hurts and trust they’ll be received and changes made. 

I don’t want to discourage healthy helpers because our world is imbalanced: Taking care of one another is sacred. If we have something a neighbor doesn’t have, it is human to share.

Thus, my discussion is not about ending all engagements. What I’m asking is for people to rethink how things have been done. 

Rethinking Strategies 

I’m Kenyan, born and raised (currently reside in the US.)

For over a decade, I was part of an American evangelical church plant in Kenya (which is still pastored by the same American couple who founded it.) I’ve seen missionary endeavors gone wrong: American-fundamentalism/evangelicalism-meets-unhealthy-African-culture is a grim freak-show, resulting in devastation and loss of life.

We have stories of known predator priests and non-profit founders dumped in our country instead of being taken out of civilian circulation when they were first discovered in their Western world.

Projects and programs funded by Westerners but which exploit and harm locals: Organizations that send out missionaries but do nothing to keep their people accountable or in check: Short-term missionaries whose proper description is beach and safari tourists.

I have seen and felt the impacts of the not-so-great side missionaries: The side that will not make it to the slide shows from your visiting missionary who lives in Kenya. 

But I live in America now, and I have this corner of the internet, and I’m determined to advocate for those whose voices have been ignored: I am the “mission field” speaking up.

What About The Good Missionaries?

If you love the good work missionaries have done, you should be appalled where harm is done in the name of Christ.

Well-intentioned Christians should be open to receiving from those they want to serve or partner with. They should sit down when the populations they serve speak up. 

They should approach indigenous tables with humble hearts, ready to learn and understand how to tighten those loopholes and areas that allow harm to flow unchecked.

It’s like when we talk about abusive marriages (which is my typical focus here.) I’m not saying good marriages don’t exist.

I just have a higher view of marriage and believe some people shouldn’t have access to a spouse or kid because they cause harm. We are saying that marriage should not be used to cause harm to others.

Same same here. Some people should not have access to other populations. Keep your bad people/organizations to yourselves, if it comes to that. Lock the doors and throw away the keys.

But “missionary work” should never be used to cause harm. Individuals and organizations with predatory, colonial ways of thinking and operation should stay out of other people’s cultures.

We can’t ignore the bad missionaries because we love the good ones.

Missionary supporters, those who actually give their money and time, and resources, must be wise. Ask questions and expect high accountability. Refuse to be emotionally manipulated by the pictures, slides, and stories.

Weigh in when your church wants to go across the ocean but won’t touch local causes. Get curious when someone wants to “serve” in Africa or other parts of the world but is not consistently engaged in local similar work.

Is the Reputation of Missionaries More Important?

I believe it’s Christlike and human to share resources, medicine, technology e.t.c. with those without easy access.

What I don’t believe is stripping people of their dignity, culture, and personhood. What I dislike is white Western culture exported and presented to nationals as the gospel. 

What I don’t like is colonialism wrapped up in Christian cloth and forced down people’s throats in exchange for help, programs, and resources. People who say they represent Christ but don’t recognize or uphold the dignity of those they “serve.” Those should concern us all.

Bottomline:

Lets stop the idolization of Christian missionaries by remembering that the reputation of missionaries is not more important than the concerns of nationals. 

If a well-intentioned organization wants to support people groups or countries far away, let them invest in vetting the kind of help and helpers they send out. If they can’t do that, closing shop is really good option too. (Let your support dry up.)

ADDITION: Offering Solutions After Missionary Critique

After the article went live, I received a suggestion to offer “more solutions after the critique” and “more detailed ways to be a good missionary, rather than vague concepts.” (The individual actually agreed with what I wrote, they just had an idea.)

It’s a query I’ve received before, where people genuinely (as far as I could tell) want me to provide them particulars on how to vet missionaries and missionary organizations and provide deeper information on how to do better. I responded to the Commenter, but I’ve decided to add my reply here, so we’re all on the same page, hopefully.

~

I see how that (the suggestion) can be helpful. However, my thoughts (so far) are about grief, lamentations, truth-telling, and asking for change.

When individuals and communities have experienced loss, and others are observing that loss, there’s a tendency by the observers to ask the wounded and lament to hurry up. To move on to the next thing, the thing that appears more helpful, as per the observer’s assessment.

However, it’s vital to cultivate space for all the dimensions of truth-telling and not ask people to give us what WE want, rather than what they are giving. 

The observer might not be aware of it when they ask for the “next more suitable thing” but they are participating in the same superior attitudes and behaviors the wounded are grieving: the loss of voice, agency, being bossed and owned.

In my post above, I ask specific questions and propose areas individuals/organizations can work on. I don’t see those as vague at all.

Those with good intentions who want to be proper allies will take the next step themselves. Find that healthy training. Do their due diligence. Read the research and books. Talk to these organizations and their churches. Find who’s healthy and who’s not.

Rather than promptly put the responsibility of education on those who have asked them to do better.

The Idolization of Christian Missionaries: Maturity

The idea that people/organizations, who spend $$$ to assess, plan, and execute trips and programs across the oceans, need to be spoonfed on how not to harm (and by those they are going to “help,” no less) doesn’t sit well with me.

Again, when we want to do better, we don’t put the responsibility on those we’ve harmed to help us think and do better. We go back, talk among ourselves, strategize, figure out how to get the information we need to make the changes that are required and show up as better human beings.

Undoubtedly, there’s room for awareness-building and those conversations I discuss in the post. But. Lots of these resources already exist. They might not be many, but they are there. For example, a simple Google search will yield ideas.

My point is allies need to do their own work. And I believe it’s possible for them to. They just need to listen well and do the actual work.

Further Reading: Missionary articles


Ps: Kenyans – and Africans – hold diverse views on the impacts of Christian missionaries in our culture and lands. So please don’t recommend so-and-so who holds a different view from mine. You might not know it but setting up the exploited and marginalized against each other is something supremacist love to do. This post, as always, is my assessment and opinion.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Idolization of Christian missionaries: On marriage relationships: For example, if someone believes men are leaders and wives should submit, there’s a high chance they will be merchants of death in cultures with entrenched prejudices against women. Instead of conviction and being nurtured to follow Christ’s gentle, loving, equality-bearing ways, men who come to church or engage in training programs will be affirmed and emboldened in their cultural beliefs. And Jesus-loving women will submit themselves – sometimes, quite literally, to death – because they don’t want to displease God. 

2. Cultural Voyeurism: Further Reading: The Problem with Cultural Voyeurism, The virulence of cultural voyeurism in art and the humanities, How Your ‘Interest’ in Other Cultures Can Perpetuate Racism with Cultural Voyeurism.

3. Photo Credit: ©Bestdesigns from Getty Images via Canva.com

12 Comments

  1. This is so interesting to me. We were part of a church-planting team in eastern Europe with singles and other families. Husband was team leader and often made the case that our family (with young kids) was one of the greatest testimonies to the unbelieving locals. Meanwhile, I knew how dysfunctional our marriage was and how very unhappy I was, sickened that our marriage would set an example to anyone. We returned home after several years after I witnessed the extent of narcissism and destructive patterns in my husband, which is now finally breaking up our marriage. Our missions agency never expressed interest in my (life-sucking) experience on the mission field and only held my husband up on a pedestal. I lived in his shadow and they seemed quite content with that. Recently I offered to give the upper leadership my perspective on being a ‘surviving not thriving’ spouse and team member on the field, and they have yet to pursue it with me. My perspective on families going cross-culturally to the mission field changed completely and I no longer support it. Perhaps singles or maaaybbbeeee couples without children who are equally enthused and ministering together can have a healthy effect. But sending couples with children has created a missions field MACHINE that requires all sorts of support systems: team-relations support, schooling needs (MK schools, boarding schools, international schools, homeschooling), missionary therapy/counselling (in English), extra/ specific/English healthcare,Third Culture Kid issues including grief/loss, loss of relations with extended family back home, outrageous financial support (our family required $1.2 million over 8 years overseas) – and all for what? In our case, a fledging house church that gradually lost it’s members as and after the North American missionaries left. I have no doubt the lack of spiritual success had much to do with the lack of spiritual, emotional, and relational maturity in our team – even though we were considered unified and an example for other teams! Did I become cynical? Yes. Did my marriage thrive? Absolutely not. Did I? No – and as we’ve been in therapy for the last year, no one from leadership has reached out to me to seek understanding or give support. There is so much perspective I want for them to hear from a missionary woman/wife.

  2. I am sorry you personally had a bad experience but you are speaking like you are well informed on global missions. You are not. You had a bad experience. I have had bad experiences with “nationals”. That does not make it the norm. People are people. You move to another country and you immerse yourself in that culture because Jesus shows up in that culture. The gospel is greater than culture. I have not know more than a handful of missionaries who did not have very national friends who like all friends, were normal friends, who hung out together, cried and laughed together, and cared for each other, like any US group of friends would. People who did not have normal friendships with local people didn’t tend to last or we all avoided them. You meet felt needs, you don’t create them to meet them. Everyone in their right mind knows this is about Jesus. I recall one woman, the day after someone held a machete to my throat because I intervened to save her husband’s life. It was not really a fulfilling fun experience but she was thankful. The. We sat together in in the way of that place she said, “You are not from here”. I agreed. “Mama Fukeka is old. She is from here”. I agreed. “Yanga is a man. He is from a far village. He is not like you women either”. I agreed, unsure where she was going.. She then said, “You are from different places but you all talk about the same Jesus. I think I can believe in Him”. That is how it should and does work in many places. I am sorry you have not had a balanced view of missionaries but being born in Africa does not make you an expert on global work. It makes you a Kenyan who had some bad experiences. You make valuable points that any of us who have done this for any length of time know, but you paint with a broad brush and in that, you are wrong and harming decent people. I am sorry you use your platform to speak badly of others serving the Lord. “Go into all the world” remains a command. Please present a balanced and gracious view. You did not do it last time you wrote, and have you have just falsely suggested we are idolized. Unfortunately you are unaware of the reality on the other end.

    1. Katia, your comment is exactly why we nationals will not stop advocating for ourselves. And it’s the reason I’ll continue speaking up because the missionaries conversations have been filled with voices like yours. Voices which attack nationals, minimize and equalize blame, deny, justify and minimize harm done.

      1. My purpose is not to create a public argument but your response is the new mentality of”Agree with me or you are attacking me”. I didn’t attack you, I just made an obvious statement: you are not an expert on global missions. Neither am I. And I am sorry you had bad experiences cause there are some real fruitcakes out there. Having been robbed, threatened, shot at, assaulted and more by “nationals” I would not generalize to say, “Most people are dangerous here”. I would say the people who robbed, attacked,, shot and assaulted us and others of their own country are desperately in need of God do things like that. I think smart people, even the lady in the village who saw three people quite different from one another, saw Jesus because we were so different (at least in physical appearance). You seem to think that because you did not see whatever your need was for a sufficient number of humble people trying to blend in (which is what effective people do anyway) that you can write like you are some how ‘in the know’ about ministry around the globe. Pointing out the reality that you are talking authoritatively about places I am quite sure you have never been does not mean I am attacking any one or justifying harm. That’s false, untrue and insulting. We’ve all been victimized by people not living as Jesus would have us. “Voices like mine?” That is personal. Thankfully there’s a lot of ‘we nationals’ who see people as individuals, and fellow valuable members of Christ’s body.Stick to marriage which you can talk about with some experience and balance. You do not present a balanced view of missionaries. I have no problem speaking up and saying you are damaging the reputation of decent people because while you acknowledge they exist (and have made clear I am not one of them) you spent more time criticizing and can’t see a view that differs from yours as a realistic option. Disagreeing with you means I’m justifying abuse? That is unhealthy and slanderous. So I will advocate for the thousands of Jesus drive people who are serving unseen and falsely stereotyped by those who simply like to paint with broad brushes. It’s easier than doing the hard work of presenting a balanced view.

        1. It sounds like you are someone in the mission field. I am not someone in the mission field. I will tell you as someone “back home” that there are people who send money because of the “glowing stories” and other communications from the mission field who actually DO need people like Ngina to tell us what they are seeing. How are we “back home” supposed to find out about those “fruitcakes” you are talking about unless someone warns us about them? If you see “fruitcakes” out there you should be warning people back home about them, especially if they are doing abusive things. Who have you warned? If no warning have been sent, why?

          1. So, yes, I am many many years on the field and much in a remote rainforest area, and now in an urban non-Christian area but a nation where I am a ‘national’ (part of what makes this all so wrong to me). No, I am not in the US. My personal rule of thumb is I give to people I know personally. I do not give to projects or Christmas boxes or things that create hassles and confuse the message. I also know a person who has daily selfies is doing an advertising campaign to support their lifestyle. Normally people do not spend all their time taking pics of themselves. The other question is do you have local friends. Like when you hang out, do you hang out with local folks or only from your home country? If you are not living, loving, crying and sharing the ups and downs of life with local people as peers, you are not being a good friend or witness. So while I think Ngina was offended because I risked having my throat cut (it is not more pleasant, nor glorious due to my confusing skin color), that act was safer for me than for Funkeka the woman to whom I referred. Later Funkeka said she regretted not going with me but I said, “They would have killed you, and I’m tall and white and so of the two of us I had a better chance,” Plus we had a deal that she was going to grab my son and take him to safety and find his father (who was away). I fail to see the condemning, blaming and denial in that unless it is all you want to see. It’s just the Body of Christ working together. (I am also 7 inches taller than Funkeka, whcih mattered that day).
            So you have the right to ask questions and know who you give to. If they can’t give good answers, don’t support them. But don’t jump on the “we worship missionaries” bandwagon because in 2022 I assure you that is not the came. Fifty years ago, maybe. Even 40 years ago there was respect but today people are so self focused they don’t care that they have more than the rest of the world, they just want to keep what they have for themselves, even Jesus.

      2. Thank you for this post my husband and I have done missionary work while our marriage was decaying and declining and yes been part of a team that believed and even stated that my husband was the leader on that mission trip I basically was just to support that also this post has helped me see more clearly how we have so much just discarded the hurting people in general in our own lives and towns “families”our neighbors and have taken an easy way out of our own problems and calling it missionary work when we have so much work to do in our very own homes.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this! I am a white woman from the U.S. So my viewpoint is limited. I was raised in fundamentalist churches where missionaries are worshipped (for lack of better words). They would straight off tell the congregation how they “changed” the nationals. Talking about them as if they were stupid and couldn’t function without American influence. They never said anything about actually helping anyone. The gospel was brought up, but not as much as taking away culture was. The short story is that I couldn’t understand why culture was bad unless it was American and also why people would travel so far when there are neighbors that have never been helped here. I believe some missionaries have a good heart and love the way Jesus does. I just saw way more not doing that. Only judging and setting themselves up on pedestals. Honestly, they were unkind to the people in the churches that they visited here as well. Very stuck up. This was a great article from the viewpoint of a national. Please share more of your experiences and viewpoints if you are comfortable with it.

  4. “The idea that people/organizations, who spend $$$ to assess, plan, and execute trips and programs across the oceans, need to be spoonfed on how not to harm (and by those they are going to “help,” no less) doesn’t sit well with me.” Why did this resonate so clearly inside of me? I don’t know. Because it’s a cycle I’ve heard so often. The person being done harm cries out for the harm to stop and the person who does the harm says ‘don’t bring me a problem without a solution.’ You’re right, it doesn’t sit well. It’s completely obnoxious and abusive. You’re asking people to stop the harm and go back and humble themselves and get their heart in the right place first. I appreciate this so much. And also is so painful to know that this is truth.

    1. “The person being done harm cries out for the harm to stop and the person who does the harm says ‘don’t bring me a problem without a solution.’” <—THIS 🎯 It IS heartbreaking. Thank you for bearing witness.

  5. As someone who was raised in the white evangelical American church the best piece of advice I could give to others is: LISTEN to the people who are seeing what is really going in international missions and believe them! Let it change the way you spend your time and money. They are literally telling you things that you can’t see. Thank you Ngina for being one of the people telling us!

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