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?
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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