Dear Missionaries, Let’s Skip the Savior Complex and Address Your Issues (Part 2)

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I wrote about the need for change in how missionaries and missionary-sending organizations operate abroad.

While most people agreed there was room for improvement, I got a sense some didn’t quite understand why change was needed. (The conversation first took place on Facebook before I shared my thoughts on the blog.)

And so I thought it was important to go back to the beginning.

Missionaries and colonialism

Before you continue, make sure to also read Part 1 of this short series here so you have context for the rest of this article. Update: Just published a Part 3!

Missionaries and Colonization

Missionaries were also colonizers. At least to most indigenous people groups, the visitors who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ also worked hand in hand with colonizers. 

Let that sit with you for a moment.

The white people had Jesus on one hand and death on the other. The “good news” came with the erasure and demonization of local customs, culture, way of life, foods, medicine, dressing, language, identity, e.t.c.

So we can talk about the good things present missionaries have done, but we can’t avoid how it all began. As we reflect, I hope we see how some of the formative mindsets and behaviors are still present to date. 

A lot of missionary work is still wrapped up in a savior-ism. Some individuals and organizations do good “because God sent us,” or “God wants US to do this,” or “they definitely need help.” 

It’s all about “doing God’s work.” As if, God could not do His work without abusing, disrespecting, degrading, colonizing, pseudo saving.

Very few missionaries will stop consider the shifts that take place when they move into indigenous territories. Few will reflect on whether their presence makes locals feel like projects, a testing ground for ideas, or an education point for outsiders. Very few will change their approach so they actually help people, not harm them.

Missionaries and Colonization: Let Locals Lead

Recently I watched a video of a missionary sending organization about their work in an African country. 

Everyone speaking in that video (about four people in total) was white and American. They talked about training locals and reaching the people. 

But the only local people in that video were several adult men and women, sitting in school-type rows holding Bibles and some childlike artwork. 

And because I’m African (born and raised), I could discern the mixture of amusement and discomfort on their faces as they smiled for the camera and waved the paper. These were not five-year-olds. These were older adults in a local community. I know our local cultures, and whatever that was didn’t fit.

There’s a lot I don’t know about that video, but my actual question is this. You’ve been in a foreign country for how long, and your fundraising video is still filled with white people? Not a single local person who can speak of your work and address funders back home? Not a single indigenous person highlighted in the video in a position of influence or leadership? No dignity and honor?

The Reflective Work of Rethinking Strategies and Agendas

I’m asking missionaries and kind-hearted people to listen, reflect, ask questions and rethink strategies.

Help is appreciated across the oceans—no denying that. But there are deep scars. Ongoing scars. And we have to step off our “doing God’s work” horses and let God change us too.

It feels scandalous to have to spell this out, but I’ll say it anyway. Indigenous people are human beings. They are not targets for conversations or channels for instructive growth or projects or a means to assuage guilt. They are Image-bearers. 

missionaries and colonialism  image

Also, please please. Think local. Right here in North America (or whichever economically advanced continent/nation you’re in.) There are so many under-resourced communities right where you are. 

If your church isn’t involved locally with that neighborhood down the street but wants to buy a boat for a people group in a different part of the world, can you just ask questions? Can you care for your next-door neighbor before/as you rush across the oceans?

Finally, something to chew on: Local people see through the glosses. Sometimes they’ll speak up and resist. Many times they won’t. 

But I can tell you that I’ve asked myself questions when interacting with missionaries. “So why are you here, exactly?” I wondered. Because intents ooze out eventually, you can’t hide them forever. 

So when missionaries don’t check themselves, their “mission field,” will have vivid moments of clarity. “This is really about you and your vision and how to get that vision done, isn’t it. We just happened to be the people to be used for that.” 

Health or unhealth, they both leak out.

Read Part 1 of the series Dear Missionaries, Let’s Skip the Savior Complex and Address Your Issues (Part 1)

Read Part 3 of the series Dear Missionaries, Let’s Skip the Savior Complex and Address Your Issues (Part 3)

Read More Thoughts here Christianity, Colonialism and The Disempowerment of Women By the Church

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