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

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After my last two posts on missionaries white savior complex, I got emails from people defending missionary work.

And I want to start by saying that it’s okay to have a different take on issues. However, I don’t believe we have any such privilege when our work and mindsets negatively affect people.

But to be clear, my discussion is not a campaign against missionary work. Some people and organizations are doing good in the world.

My thoughts are an invitation to reflect on how some missionary work has fallen short of its intended goal, which I assume is, reflecting the heart of Christ to fellow Image bearers.

Missionaries white savior complex image

It’s important to accept that hard work and sacrifice don’t mean there’ll never be room for improvement. (Also, you can work hard, sacrifice, and be thoroughly mistaken; see colonialism.)

As we keep saying, it’s not about the intent of your heart or the hard work you put in. It’s about the fruit—the effect of your mindset and approach on people. That’s what’s up for discussion.

I don’t have to know you personally to be able to discuss your public work. It’s not personal in that sense; it is not an attack on your dignity as a human being.

Someone said critiquing others is wrong because everyone sins, “and where would we be if we all pointed out each other’s sin.”

To that, I say exaggeration and generalization are a form of deflection and are indicative of our inability to take feedback. My two blog posts were specific to how missionaries can improve based on how their work has affected local people.

Missionaries White Savior Complex: Critique

Finally, the idea that we should not have public conversations about harmful people/systems/organizations is just mistaken.

Where there’s harm, there must be a conversation. Harmful practices require public dialogue.

And while many Christians don’t seem to realize it, the “stop pointing out people’s sins,” phrase often comes out when the sin pointed out is that of the sacred cows. Pastors, leaders, missionaries, and individuals in authority. These words come out when we expect truth, accountability, and justice.

The expression is rarely used to defend the marginalized and those needing protection. Nobody says these words TO those in power and privilege. Nobody tells the powerful to stop pointing out the sin of those buckling under the weight of oppression, neglect or coping mechanisms.

Nope, it’s always the tyrannized and wounded being told to sympathize with the tyrants.

We need to change that. Jesus didn’t think holding the Pharisees and teachers of the law accountable was wrong. He called them out. Publicly. Paul did too.

Doing Good

I get it. I do. Some faith-based organizations are doing good work in the world. Some have done the hard work of reflection and change. Others have abandoned the traditional “missionary” concepts altogether in favor of a more robust and modern approach to meeting people’s spiritual, economic, and practical needs.

So it can be done. And if you’re part of the good, I salute you. I suspect that those whose desires are pure and honest have no problem with leaning in and learning new things.

Certainly, new observations sting. They can be uncomfortable. They might stir up a defensiveness. That’s normal and human. But in the end, those with deep sincerity in the work they are involved in keep those doors open. They keep learning and keep making changes.

If you feel called into the world, read a post like mine, and believe there’s absolutely nothing to reflect on, you proved my point. You’re the very reason a discussion like this exists.

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

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

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

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One Comment

  1. I agree with this wholeheartedly. My parents were involved with missions on Native American reservations when I was growing up. While my parents were not perfect, my father did feel it was important to set up local people to lead, and he both trained and implemented local leadership. However, we observed the tendency of most “missions” to Native Americans to be perpetual. The church my father was in for 13 years had been established in 1917, but had been run by one missionary family after another every since (this was in the 1990s.) When my father left, he had helped set up a church constitution, vote on elders, and deacons, and encouraged them to call a pastor on their own. However, they ended up calling in another missionary, who is still there. I am not blaming the church for this; this is what they knew. But it points to the learned helplessness encouraged by missionaries over the years, like harsh, authoritarian parents teaching their children that they are nothing without their parents.
    I had a really informative experience in this when I lived overseas. Of course, Americans are accused of imperialism all the time, but I understood what that meant when I was attending a church run by South Korean missionaries. They were good people. They were kind in some ways. But they taught us (everyone in the church) to eat Korean food, and gave Korean language lessons to the youth group, and insisted on Korean etiquette (you can’t cross your legs in church, it’s a sexual invitation.) At the same time, the pastor and his wife did not learn to speak the local language, they used an interpreter. One day I was invited to dinner so they could pick my brain because they had realized (after 8 years) they didn’t know much about local culture or why people were responding to their ministry the way they were. (Obviously, I wasn’t local either, but I was much more integrated in society, and I suppose they saw me as third party.)
    Imperialism/colonialism is really hard to avoid in missions, I think. But my children and I listen to audiobooks of missionary biographies (I am aware that these can also be problematic, but I do think the historicity of faith is important, even if we also need to point out the mistakes made along with achievements.) One thing we have observed is the huge difference in the methods of men vs women missionaries. The women tend to work directly with people, with a heavy emphasis on improving lives (think Mary Slessor rescuing twins, Gladys Aylward, Amy Carmichael, Lillian Trasher rescuing orphans, Ida Scudder becoming a doctor to serve Muslim/Hindu women who could not be seen by a male doctor.) The women also tend to adapt to local dress, foods, and externals. The men tend to have goals. David Livingstone wanted to open up territories. Hudson Taylor wanted to evangelize China. William Carey started schools, newspapers, and translation. But the bigger difference is that the women pray and wait for God, and the men make plans and do things, and ask God to bless them. It’s been really interesting for us to note that. (Full disclosure, I am raising three daughters; this is significant to us.)

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