Dangerous Stories

by Chris Lautsbaugh on January 22, 2015

Sometimes the stories we tell of those we minister to can become dangerous.

I’ve been at this missions thing for 23 years now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

I often reflect on things I did in the past and cringe. Hindsight is always 20/20, but perhaps others can learn from my mistakes.

One mistake centers around how I have reflected the stories of others to my own supporters and sending churches / organizations.

One of the things our organization does is partner with nationals who are also involved in missions. We attempt to raise monthly support for them and use our network to assist financially.

We often highlight one of these nationals in our periodic newsletters. We share what they are involved in and add something like, “your support to Project Grace helps this individual/or family to accomplish this work…”.

This approach seems harmless enough, but there are several dangers involved.

We realized this when years later, one of these people who had since moved on, contacted us and confessed that they had harbored bad feelings to us for how we represented them. He felt we were “using” him to show how great our ministry was. This dear friend carried this hurt for years till he finally was able to express it. We were so grieved and set about attempting to restore the relationship.

There are some lessons here. We can share dangerous stories without even intending to. There is an appropriate sharing of stories which must happen. How can we guard against the danger but still share to the glory of God?

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5 Signs You are Telling Dangerous Stories:

1. Carefully consider your words. If the person were standing next to us, would we reflect our stories in a different way? There is always a temptation to embellish poverty, lostness, or a person’s state of need.

2. Avoid any hint of superiority. This is rarely intended, but so many sharing times promote a “they are so primitive, we must help them see the light” mindset. I’ve sat in far too many testimony times where people ignorantly share how horrible a foreign land was, not thinking that there are nationals from those very places present!

Sometimes, the people we are attempting to show the gospel of grace to, walk in massive grace with us!

3. Ask their permission. This was the biggest mistake I made in the above story. This helps you cut through any misguided motivations in a hurry.

4. Share in the blessings. If you benefit materially from sharing a story, it would be good to extend a blessing to the friend or co-worker you shared about.

Imagine what this scenarios seems like for a national:

  • They know you are sharing their story.
  • Often we as missionaries live a higher lifestyle than those who’s stories we share.
  • Even the most noble of people would have a question or two about the use of funds which was in part gained by their story.

Sharing the resources promotes open communication. We’ve receive donations and when sharing the blessing, told our friends, “We told your story and people were blessed. They ended up blessing us so we wanted to pass some of this on to you.”

5. God must be honored. Are stories shared in a way which is honoring God or us?

Do we become savior, rescuer, and the lifter of people’s heads or is that place reserved for Jesus?

No one sets out to say this, but our words can convey this if we are not careful.

Attention Life Overseas Community!

I am sure we have countless stories and mistakes made in this area among us. Let’s share and learn from each other!

What pieces of advice would you add to the five I have mentioned? How can we avoid Dangerous Stories?

Photo credit: Seyemon via photopin cc

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About Chris Lautsbaugh

In missions for 20+ years currently in South Africa as a teacher and leadership coach. He serves side by side with wife, Lindsey, and two boys, Garett and Thabo. Blogs at NoSuperHeroes.com on grace, leadership, and missions. Wrote Death of the Modern SuperHero:How Grace Breaks our Rules.
  • Casey

    This is such a great post, Chris! Thank you for sharing from your years of experience. We can benefit from your insights so much. We had some friends on the field who encouraged us in this area early on. Because of their advice, we ask before we post. This has become such a blessing to us even though I still find it awkward to ask at times. The asking seems to bring our relationships to a deeper more authentic place which is exactly where we want to be. We’re so thankful this wisdom was shared with us, and we’re glad others can hear it from you!

    • Thank you Casey for lending your voice! I love how you mentioned the awkwardness of asking but then the deeper relationship that comes. That is true in so many areas!

  • FKF

    We as a team have been considering this question seriously of late in light of the mass use of FB. Do we have the right to share a story or picture on FB including a national without their permission? Are we putting them at a security risk? Who all is seeing what we post? Not just our supporters, I’ve been surprised at who is friends with whom and how information meant to garner prayer instead has caused backlash for my dear friends in Christ. Thank you for raising this issue for us.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I work with community health workers in the greater Boston area – recently we finished a class and during the celebration were taking pictures. One of the women I had gotten to know is a Muslim from Senegal and was absolutely adamant that we not post the pictures of her in public – so both sides of the globe I think this matters.

    • You raise a point which perhaps should have been #1 on my list. Security. I think about it in certain settings but you are correct that online access changes everything and as Marilyn adds below, so does globalization.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Excellent article Chris – I’ve been working through this for the past couple of years. Specifically when it comes to talking/writing about refugees. In my case, I want to tell the story, because I want to raise awareness, but how I tell it is critical. Have you read any of Katherine Boo’s work? She is an amazing writer and here is what she says – all be it not from a faith perspective: “We take stories and purvey them to people with money … I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.” “But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world.”…”What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced.” The whole article is here and shows her working through this whole story telling dilemma. https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/reporting-poverty/

    • Wow Marilyn, that is a really interesting perspective. This is where the whole community shaping this discussion makes it so much richer! Thank you.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Chris, these questions that you raise, it’s such a hard thing for the community at large, because of the way overseas missions is funded. How can a missionary be funded enough to stay on the field and continue the work they believe is so important, unless they tell stories of transformation? This is a really tricky dilemma, which is, of course, the whole point of your post! (And #2 really made me cringe! Ouch.)

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Marilyn, I think all these issues are part of the reason our own personal blog became just that — personal. After awhile, it just became simpler (on such a public forum) to talk about our own journeys. It’s also why we privatized our email newsletters. I’m glad Katherine Boo has devoted her life to telling these stories, because they need telling, but it’s not something I am equipped to do and do well.

  • Erin

    Thank you for this. When I started in missions we did a training called 3D communication and it talked about how to share in a way that honored the people we shared about, honored our audience, and would give critics no where to go. This is exactly it!

    • Erin, do you have any web links to 3D training you could post to give the readers another resource?

  • This is something that didn’t dawn on me until years after coming to the field. I so regret some of the blog posts that I wrote in innocence but ignorance, and have considered taking down my years of journaling for fear that someone someday may recognize themselves in my words and think they were my project rather than my friend. One of the things we have changed since realizing the danger is not making our newsletters public (i.e. publishing them on the internet, “click here to read the latest”), making a private prayer group on Facebook so we can post requests and victories without them being read by the whole world, and not giving too many details when we tell stories. I’m still not sure I’m totally doing it right, but I’m at least aware that I should be careful, something that never entered my mind in the beginning. I’m glad you brought this up.

    • Awareness is always the first step. Perfection is not obtainable. We will mess up, we will be criticized, and we will hurt people. But the goal is less hurt, not ignorant hurt!

  • Ellen Hargrave

    The first time this really came to my attention was when we were on Home Assignment and spoke at our sending church which is in a university community and has many international students attending. After the service, a couple from our host country came up to chat with us. They had come to the US during our previous term of service and so we didn’t know that someone from “our” country was in the congregation. It really gave us pause in thinking, “Did we represent our host country in way that was respectful considering there were citizens of that country listening?” – That helped me to consider that whenever I speak or write anywhere. Twenty years have passed since that incident.
    Of course now – I am Facebook friends with many nationals – particularly of the next generation. That really gives me prayerfully pause, both from the perspective of security and respect.

  • Nomad

    You know, often when missionaries speak at churches, etc, they tend (I’m guilty of this too) make life on the field more exciting then sometimes it really is. I am saying this in the sense, sometimes missioneries can make it seem like Were always busy, or doing something, or can make it seem like the locals are always getting saved, or theres some new work always happening when sometimes it’s just being faithful. There is no harm in showing the reality as much as possible of the field, there’s also never a need to exaggerate the truth as often we see. When we share, our goal should be to reflect Jesus and the work he is doing, not what we are doing. Good Article by the way.

    • My wife and I have made a point to talk about some of the normalness of our lives. We must drive the family “taxi” to school and sports events, etc. This has not hurt us, but may have in fact made us real people that others can identify with.

  • Yes! This is so important. Thank you for sharing.

  • Thanks for the post! Having also been on the mission field for a number of years I can agree with many of your conclusions. However, in my own experience, I have come to see that monthly financial support of national workers can often be counterproductive. Depending on the kind of work that we are involved in, but especially in the area of church-planting, I believe that we should strive toward the goal of self-supporting, self-governing, and self-replicating churches and leaders. Yes, the work can go faster with outside funding, but with that also comes the possibility of an unhealthy dependence, a misunderstanding of motives (as you alluded to in your post), and a delegitimizing of the worker before his/her own people, among other things. In thinking that we are actually accelerating the replication of the model, we may actually be prolonging the myth that nothing good can happen without us–“the white man’s burden.”

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