Rice Christians and Fake Conversions

by Laura Parker on January 28, 2013

I remember our first year on the field literally thinking, “No one is ever, ever going to come to faith in Christ, no matter how many years I spend here.” 

I thought this because for the first time in my life, I was face-to-face with the realities that the story of Jesus was so completely other to the people I was living among. Buddhism and the East had painted such a vastly different framework than the one I was used to that I was at a loss as to how to even begin to communicate the gospel effectively.

And so, the Amy-Carmichael-Wanna-Be that I was, I dug in and started learning the language. I began the long, slow process of building relationships with the nationals, and I ended up spending lots of time talking about the weather and the children in kitchens. And while over time, I became comfortable with helping cook the meal, I saw very little movement of my local friends towards faith.

But, then we started hearing about Western teams that came for short term trips or long-term missionaries who visited the villages around the city where we were living. Sometimes they would do vacation bible schools for the kids, other times they would show a film. Sometimes they would do a sermon or go door-to-door. Other times, they would help build a bathroom or a water well or a new church. (And these efforts were definitely noble, costly, and helpful on many levels.)

But the surprising thing for me was that these teams (both long and short term) seemed to come back with conversion stories. 

These Americans — many of whom didn’t know the language and hadn’t studied the culture– often came back thrilled to have witnessed several locals seemingly convert from Buddhism to Christianity.

After three days of ministry.

Here I was learning from living in the culture, that the leap from following Buddha to following Jesus was seemingly a gigantic one, yet it seemed that every time I turned around Western teams were having wild success in convincing nationals to make it.

And they would tell their stories or I would read them online, and I would immediately begin to shrink a little, or a lot.

What was I doing wrong? I obviously suck at being a missionary.  These were my logical conclusions.


About six months into our time overseas, I first heard the term “Rice Christians.”

The term is used among the missionary community to describe nationals who make a profession of conversion (inauthentically or without true understanding) in order to get the product (clothing, food, rice) that is being delivered by the Western worker.  It seems that if you add the strings attached to the given supplies with the “don’t cause conflict or disagree” cultural value of the Asian country where we lived,  a subtle social game can quickly develop.

It could go a bit like this: uneducated villagers, a little (or a lot) in awe of the white American, are provided with goods they desperately need, entertainment that encourages their kids, and attention by the wealthy Westerner, all of which they gladly accept. And at some point over the course of the event, the Westerners share honestly about their religion and eventually ask for public professions of faith.

And, seriously, what’s an impoverished person, raised in a culture of respect, supposed to do in light of  this turn of events? In many ways, isn’t agreeing with the views of the outsider the most polite and most effective response for the national– the path that both provides for their families while still showing respect for their visitors?

Perhaps, perhaps they become Rice Christians for the day.

And maybe we missionaries don’t really give them many other options. 

Note: I am by no means saying that the gospel can’t move mightily and quickly among a people group. I’m not saying that we should all begin to doubt the faith of those that come forward in evangelistic outreaches, either. I’m also not throwing short term missions under any kind of bus because I’ve seen this in both short and long-termers. I am saying, though, that perhaps we need to consider the position we put people in when we enter their worlds with gifts and programs. And perhaps we need to re-evaluate some of our “numbers.” 


Thoughts on this? What is your opinion/experience with pairing the gospel with humanitarian aid? Can that become manipulative? In your area of the world, are people quick to receive the gospel?

 Laura Parker, Co-Founder/Editor, Former Aid Worker in SE Asia

LauraParkerBog  |   Twitter (@LauraParkerBlog)    |   Work (The Exodus Road)


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About Laura Parker

Living on three continents and moving 15 times in 15 years of marriage, Laura is no stranger to transition. Recently living in SE Asia with her family, Laura now serves as the VP of a counter-trafficking organization which her husband began, The Exodus Road. Laura is the co-founder and editor here at A Life Overseas and writes at her blog, http://www.LauraParkerWrites.com.
  • Well I had a long drawn out comment but disqus hiccuped and list it. So here is the abbreviated one. I believe that if. Christian would stop and ask God where to go and what to say and do, we would have a completely different experience. But to do that we have to believe God actual speaks still. If missionaries, long and short term, did that they might find themselves in some interesting places. Who knows they might be able to be Jesus to people in brothels and scary run down expat pubs where most of God’s people would never be seen ;).

    • John– thanks for your comment– both the abbreviated one AND the lost one!

      I think you are so right on in that so often we stick with the logical “plan” for our work/ministry and we run ahead, neglecting to see where the Spirit is moving and get in line/in step with that. Listening should be the first step of any Christian-anything. Right?

      And, I must say, I smiled at that last sentence. 🙂

    • Gary Ware

      Let me see if I understand your concept. You are thinking if Christians ACTED AND LIVED AS JESUS LIVED… I laughed out loud, although, this isn’t funny, it’s just that – well – the thought that our current, very structured, numbers driven environment would revert to LISTENING and OBEYING the VOICE of GOD!!! Individuals have and continue to experience those events you and Laura refer to. History supports individual freedom of response to God’s guidance while corporate trends toward independence of that.

      As a young and naive Christian, would tell veteran saints and ministry of my outreach adventures. The typical response was: we don’t go there/do that, God doesn’t require you, those places are not safe, on and on. God will still lead us when we listen and go.

  • Such an interesting post. We see Jesus helping, building relationship, and doing the fast “follow me’s”. All have a place, but this requires lots of thought. My best comment is, “hmmm, good questions; let me chew on that awhile.”

    • Love your honesty. And I do agree that Jesus dealt with people in a million different ways, to love and show truth. And honestly, perhaps in S. Africa, this is not an issue. In Asia, because of the culture of it being highly disrespectful to disagree publicly with someone, esp. those seen in more “power” (like the Westerner), it goes against their grain to disagree with a missionaries’ presentation of gospel. In some ways– obviously not absolutely. And maybe in other places, where there isn’t that cultural value of being polite, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue . . .

      How does this play out in Africa?

    • Looking forward to your chewed up and spit out thoughts, Chris. I agree that we see Jesus operating in what might be classified as manipulative practices with the masses. We also see Him requiring from different people different things along a wide spectrum. He also gave selectively.

  • That’s so much a part of work and ministry here – and frustrating. And thank you for assuming the best of motivations and intentions of all involved because in previous conversations related to this topic, it seems like usually either (or both) the missos or the locals are “demonized” for manipulative practices or insincere motivations or…

    I do think that culture is all wrapped up and intertwined in these questions – and differences lead to honest misconceptions and misperceptions. I mean, really, how can we come in with all we have to offer and an ability to meet often desperate material needs and not expect the poorest of the poor to try and make a good impression or do whatever they think we require to meet those needs? And as Chris said, we see Jesus engaging in a myriad of “missions strategies and approaches.”

    I don’t think it is manipulative when the motivation is to ease pain and suffering and show love… in the hope and with prayer that those actions will open a door to share Jesus… If/when listening or responding is required to receive, then a line has been crossed and helper has become manipulator. Missos can be unwittingly manipulative if when we think there are no strings attached but those to whom we seek to minister perceive that there are… or we refuse to consider that as a real possibility.

    In our part of the world, people do not easily receive the Gospel and even if they do, because of the cultural/social implications, we often will never know.

    • Richelle,

      Gosh, I just love everything you write. Seriously.

      Loved this esp. and think you make a good point:

      “I don’t think it is manipulative when the motivation is to ease pain and suffering and show love… in the hope and with prayer that those actions will open a door to share Jesus… If/when listening or responding is required to receive, then a line has been crossed and helper has become manipulator. Missos can be unwittingly manipulative if when we think there are no strings attached but those to whom we seek to minister perceive that there are… or we refuse to consider that as a real possibility.”

      Absolutely. I think, too, its a good reminder for people going overseas that in your part of the world, as you said, people rarely “convert” and when they do, it will likely be an unknown to you as the international worker. This is good perspective, b/c so often our media/marketing/facebooking leads us to believe otherwise.

  • Kendal Privette

    i believe that short-term missions work is at least necessary for raising up long-term missionaries. and for maybe more than that, but as i learn about missions (especially through my husband’s work with wycliffe), i have come to believe that short-term and long-term international missionaries should do all they can to empower the local church. because a grass-roots national christian movement is what will change lives. my opinion. for what it’s worth….

    • Kendal,

      YES– missions (short or long!) should seek to empower the local church. Nationals must be the focus. So often, I think there is this idea that long term social/spiritual change can come from brief Western influence, and I think that is a faulty idea that can actually turn pretty hurtful to the community.
      Love that you are in this conversation, Kendal! 🙂

      And, yes– I wasn’t trying to throw short term missions under the bus. In fact, this story/situation happened often with long term missionaries that briefly went into villages only once or twice.

      • Mandira

        Have you encountered with Rice Christians while you’re in Asia doing ministry Laura Parker?

    • Gary Ware

      You are right, Kendal, about the nationals. Our organization snapped to this approximately two decades ago. They reversed their “us only, American only” mentality/leadership and began teaching locals to teach locals. As intuitive as It seems, to do this, it took almost a century for realization to surface. Our foreign churches continue to grow with more stability than before.

    • iounothing

      Dear kendal, people like you should stop propagating false religions such as Christianity by taking advantage of poor people from Asian countries. Do charity anonymously, if you have the heart for it… do not convert local populations with a promise for a days meal… It doesn’t suit you…

  • My wife and I worked in Thailand for 7 1/2 years. We would often cringe at hearing the kind of reports you mention. As co-workers with Christ in making disciples around the world, we must remember that our task is not simply the dissemination of information (i.e. the plan of salvation) but introducing people to Jesus. That will involve both proclamation (i.e. speaking the gospel) and incarnation (living the gospel).

    • Dave, love this reminder that discipleship/incarnation (LIVING the gospel) is ultimately way more transformational than the giving of information.
      Thanks for this reminder. I completely agree. 🙂

      And I must say, that ASIA might be unique in this (the polite response), with its culture of “saving face” but I’m not sure . . . .

      • Andrea Kroeze

        We deal with the same issues in Uganda…I would say Africans are generally very concerned with showing respect to the “big man” (or “white man”!) and will do just about anything to “save face”. I had actually always thought it was just an issue we dealt with here!

        • Nicole Gilbertson Wilke

          We lived in Namibia and saw the same thing. I think it is probably true in any shame-based culture. They would feel bad if the speaker/pastor/preacher/evangelist/missionary gave a big, dramatic alter call and no one came forward. So, literally every time we experienced that sort of thing (the handful of times our local friends would bring us to a “tent revival” because it was the only thing going on in town), we were the only people that didn’t go up. In fact, we once had a visiting pastor ask a local pastor what our names were so he could call us by name to the front- super awkward! Then he gave us each a generic “prophecy” and shoved our heads, trying to push us to the ground and “slay us in the Spirit” or something. It was crazy- and I am sure it was super confusing to the nationals that didn’t know what was going on, and just went along with what everyone else was doing because they didn’t want to bring shame to themselves. It was a great lesson to us that we did NOT want to ever act in this way, and that we always wanted to proceed with patience and humility and clarity, always listing for the Holy Spirit.

          • Wow, Nicole– that is quite a story! Wow.

            That felt awkward for me to even read for you!

            It is this picture of this “mob mentality” that so often seeps into religion/faith, isn’t it?

            Thanks for sharing this– love your heart to go with “patience, humility and clarity, always listening to Spirit.” Seems like the right attitude for sure.

          • Gary Ware

            This type of activity also happens in American church revivals. The evangelist needs numbers to maintain a “good resume” and the pastor uses them for status within the district. I have watched certain ministers insult or demean a visitor, as they marched them to the altar, to manipulate the person’s “repentance”. Carnal “Christians” are every where.

        • Isn’t this the beauty of online community that is truly global? We start hearing from workers in Africa and Asia and America and Bolivia and etc– and we get the value that comes from comparing notes.

          Reckon “saving face” is perhaps even more human than we even thought.

        • Isn’t this the deep goodness of community like this– we collaborate and find that we are actually facing some of the same issues from literally alllll over the globe. Thanks, Andrea, and thanks for your work in Uganda!

      • our w african friends are concerned about saving face… their own and ours as well… as we are less culturally adept in their world. is it any wonder they do whatever they think we want them most to do?

      • we serve in a country in SE Europe with deep eastern cultural roots and we see the same thing. I remember how excited I was on our first short-term trip (actually a survey trip) when we did door to door evangelism in a village and saw a big number of “conversions”. The reality was that only 2 of them ever cam to the new church plant in that village. My views have grown significantly now that we have been living and serving in that country for 9+ years. It takes time to see genuine disciples. I am reminded of the parable of the sower – really only a 25% success rate – yet initially it looked like 75%. Our responsibility is to sow – God provides the fruit!

        • Matthew, great story and fantastic thoughts here. I remember the same kind of trip when I was younger, too– the door-to-door to locals. And I shudder a bit, I must admit, b/c I think the reality is what you said– it takes YEARS to “make disciples” and that’s an investment that requires so very much.

          And this? This was brilliant, and so true:

          I am reminded of the parable of the sower – really only a 25% success rate – yet initially it looked like 75%.

      • iounothing

        Dear Laura, you are so wrong wondering people from Asia need saving !!! Do you realize the the cultural heritage and ethos of Asian countries are much higher than your puny western ideals…As a non-Christian I have read through bible…This book has nothing more to offer than being apologetic for the heinous crimes the Christian have supported thoughout the world… The very idea that a person’s sin is covered even if he is involved in crimes against humanity, if he accepts Jesus as a personal saviour, is very frightening to say the least… Please STOP spreading lies !!!

  • Dustin

    I’ve seen this happen all around the world. Where I lived in Mexico, I saw some of my very good local friends ‘come to Christ’ multiple times at these evangelistic ‘rice-giving’ events. And then I’d see the numbers in the newsletters back home and get sick to my stomach. We have to make sure our efforts (whether short-term or long term) are actually serving the community, NOT our short term needs for feeling good, reporting numbers, and raising money.

    • i agree – reporting numbers has limited benefit other than patting ourselves on the back, whether we be the misso or the ones funding the misso. I’ve also heard it said that stats and large numbers actually tend to be numbing and quickly forgotten after that initial shock value, where as individual stories and testimonies make a more profound, much longer impact.

      • Love this, Richelle– yes, STORIES trump numbers. Especially in our current modern society. We as international workers need to commit to telling them more effectively, for sure.

    • “We have to make sure our efforts (whether short-term or long term) are actually serving the community, NOT our short term needs for feeling good, reporting numbers, and raising money.”

      Oh, geez, this is such a good statement, Dustin. A realistic testimony of people “converting” multiple times, out of an effort to behave culturally relevant.

      Yes, numbers can be so deceiving. And can often be self serving in my experience.

  • I’d not heard the term “rice christians” before, and I’ve never been overseas for mission work. But I’m beginning to understand that we westerners get it wrong a lot more than we get it right. I’m eager to dig in to a book called “When Helping Hurts” because I want to help in the right ways. Not by undermining a person’s worth or giving them a temporary solution to a wider problem. Maybe that’s western thinking, too, that it’s up to me to “fix” what’s wrong with the world. Mostly I just want to love people and listen to their stories and discover what faith means to them. Thanks for sharing your experiences and wise words.

    • LOVE that book! It has so many excellent points and is a must read, for sure. I think perhaps KP Yohanan (sp?) from Gospel for Asia may have written about it first? Or at least I read about it first from him.

      Love your heart, Lisa, to listen and love! Glad you are in this conversation.

      • jirelofjory

        “When Helping Hurts” is an excellent book and puts into words much of what I have felt to be true about working with people in poverty. We went though it on our team and it was very helpful, especially for new missionaries who had joined our team directly from the States. I wish all our supporting churches would read it!

        I think there will always be a tension, how to help those God has put before you, be the hands and feet of Jesus, yet not hurt them or yourself with that “help”. There are no easy answers on how to do it as each case is different. One day I feel led to give money to the beggar on the street, one day I don’t depending on a lot of factors etc. I feel that in our case, here in Albania with the Roma, longevity, living life with them as much as you can, (though we will always be outsiders) and truly caring are the only rules you can have in reaching them. (Well, that and the power of God of course.)

        • Great thoughts, here. Glad that your group read When Helping Hurts– rich on many levels!

          I like, too, how you mention the concept that there is no formula here. That sometimes you give and sometimes you don’t and serve instead. Listening to the Spirit and depending on His Love, this is where the buck stops ultimately. I think that when you have an awareness that is based on wisdom (like that in When Helping hurts), it’s easier to move forward and be flexible b/c maybe our natural tendency is the handout . . .

          Thanks for your work and life in Albania!

          • Carol Hudson

            Has anyone read No Graven Image by Elizabeth Elliott? It is powerful and deals with this sort of
            thing. It is actually a novel.

  • In a different context but along the same concept line I wonder how many “rice christians” there are in the U.S. kowtowing to the promises of status or security if only they will _____________ .

    • OOOOOHHHHH . . . like your idea here, Angie. YES, perhaps the prosperity gospel gets some of its roots here? If I say/do this, God will give me that.

      I think, now that I am thinking while I am typing, that the difference bt prosperity gospel and the rice christian idea is that prosperity gospel focuses on what God can do for a person, while the rice christian idea is this bowing to what people can do/have done for the person . . .

      I guess churches/religious orbs could promote this type of thing in the US too, very much so.

      • There is truth in the portrayal of a God who wants to bless us, just as there is truth in the practice of generosity and lending a hand to our fellow humans. The rub comes when we start to validate ourselves by the number game, thereby pressuring performance. I crudely call it notches in the headboard.

        We recently had a discussion with fellow missionaries about the year end reports that some churches ask us to fill out. The questions are at best laughable and at worst ludicrous. So we play pick a number, any number, and then cross our fingers and toes hoping they don’t see fit to discontinue their involvement in the mission.

        Thanks for bringing this up. It’s a hot topic that you treated well.

        • yes… those year end reports… maybe we shouldn’t get started on those, eh? 🙂

          it is hard to balance accountability, in that sense – which is a good thing. we SHOULD be accountable and transparent to a good extent with our partners in ministry, and i think it is unfair and unrealistic to expect anything different. And we’re supposed to be on the same team. why is it that so often we end up feeling pressured because somehow numbers mean more than than the integrity of our stories… it is hard for both missos and their supporters to trust God with the results, isn’t it?

          • Oh, gosh yes:

            “. why is it that so often we end up feeling pressured because somehow numbers mean more than than the integrity of our stories… it is hard for both missos and their supporters to trust God with the results, isn’t it?”

          • Thank you for your excellent thoughts on Rice Christians!! This hits me on so many levels. I think Rice Christians can happen even in the US on a “material” level as well! I was a “missions” leader at a church in the USA, and I think there were people who could not understand why I didn’t jump right into all the humanitarian efforts in town…. I care a LOT about people’s physical needs, but their spiritual needs are more important. I actually think that helping the physical CAN be (though not always) a barrier to helping their spiritual needs. (Is not the prodigal son a good example maybe?? At least in some cases??) About prosperity theology–my family & I have been in a very rough time for about 4 years; prosperity theology has been so hurtful to us. I think it is destructive untruth, though I highly respect (in ALL other ways) some friends who believe it. About the silly numbers game: “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14) It is hard for me to see anti-gospel American churches “prospering” and faithful churches struggling, but I think that is the nature of things…. I know God does sometimes bring about amazing conversion rates, revivals, etc., but not always…. Yes, hard to trust God with the results. And sometimes hard to obey what GOD is telling us to do rather than listening to human voices (who may be concerned about numbers, etc….)

          • Thanks, Christa . . .

            I hear you esp in the hurtfulness of prosperity gospel on many levels– esp. to the faithful person who is getting the crap kicked out of them by life.

            Which, honestly, has been more my experience than anything else, anyway. 🙂
            Thanks for your comments and entering the conversation.

  • In Buddhist SE Asia, you are dead on. I remember one village I visited with a team, and everyone in the village converted. If you visited that village today, you will find a few thriving Christian families — who had already been thriving – and the rest of the village fighting, dying of STDs, and gossiping and making ugly remarks about the Christians.

    • Hmmmm . . . . a good example of this reality, Lana.

  • Bekah

    I agree with Andrea… I experienced this a lot in South Africa
    whiling there for two years. The people wanted the “white American’s” to
    love them and would say yes or do anything so that the love was felt.I agree with Kendal too! Empowering the local church is huge and necessary.

    Sometimes while working in SA I would get so frustrated with the “American mentality” that it is ‘easier’ to do missions in third world countries. {I realize there are LOTS of generalizations in that statement, but you get the idea). I don’t necessarily think that is true. In America, you must *live* the Gospel, you must build the relationships, the trust, to share Christ. Overseas, to really build and bring heart-change to a culture, you must build the relationship and earn trust to speak into that culture.It is VERY easy to go into a village.Love on the people, bring some food, or build something, share Christ, see many *saved* than leave. Yes, that is easier than in America…
    but, like you mentioned, seeing real knowledge of what it means to be a disciple of Christ is hard. Just as hard as in America.
    and I love JOhn’s comment. Both the last line and the idea of actually *listening* to the Holy Spirit and than obeying God.

    • Great point, Bekah. The easy thing is the VBS in a foreign village. The HARD (but more transformational) one is living gospel and being in it for the long haul.

      And yes, currently living in America, I can attest to the truth that sharing Jesus in the affluent West is very. difficult.

  • Gary Ware

    This is a provocative read, including the comments. America and Americans are, in general, incredibly naive and self-centered. We are the youngest on the block but have the thinking we are the savior’s of the World. Other people may, in fact, be wrong about certain facts, but they should never be “looked down upon” by us.
    I understood quickly, that the Turkish people had a rich history and are wonderfully friendly and respectful people – and – they will NOT be insulted by any other people. Turkey and Greece are incredible places to both visit and live and they make magnificent Christians.

    • Gary, love your respect and general appreciation of the culture where you are living. This is a deeply good attitude that translates, I am sure, to those around you.

  • Long Termer

    My family and I have lived and worked as missionaries in Eastern Europe for the last 17 years. People here are no different from the perspective of ‘rice christianity’ than those in Africa, Asia, Latin America or any other shame-based society. Perhaps Western Europe, America (and the like) might be slightly different, among other reasons, because of those societies’ comparitive wealth, people are afforded the luxury of not needing to be so inter-dependent upon their networks of relationships. Here, though, I have found those amongst whom we work to be experts at playing the manipulation game to get what they think they need to survive. That very often means: I must agree with whatever the foriegner says to keep them on my good side. Who knows when I will be able to call upon them for a needed favor. I have grown to trust in the test of time: you will know them by their fruits. Frustratingly often I find that a verbal assent to the gospel has been nothing more than that: verbal assent. In the parable of the soils, we see that only 1/4 of the seed sown actually produced lasting fruit. Guess we ought to keep our expectations more Biblical.

    • it seems that wealth leads to more individualism – or at least that impression, where as the less wealthy cultures are clearly more community, collectively based and interdependent. do you think that leads to different denotations, connotations and perceptions of what is, what is not manipulation and its appropriateness?

      • Long Termer

        Richelle, you bring up a very interesting topic – “manipulation’s appropriateness”. Humor me for a moment. Is it bad that these people want to “respect” us as foreigners? It is, after all, an ingrained part of their inter-dependent culture to do so. Would it be more appropriate for them to disrespect us, as people in more Western contexts may feel independent enough to do? I would say that it is most “appropriate” for us, as the missionaries – aware of these realities – to not misrepresent these easily gained “conversions” as the real thing to our constituents until we see fruit.

        • Wow, I really see your point here, Long -Termer:

          “I would say that it is most “appropriate” for us, as the missionaries – aware of these realities – to not misrepresent these easily gained “conversions” as the real thing to our constituents until we see fruit.”

          Yes, perhaps the issue is NOT the local claiming Christ falsely, but it is the Missionary waving the banner of (x-amount) of conversions. Great point.

          • or maybe it is each party entering into the relationship with a different set of underlying assumptions, expectations and goals: the missionary offers the rice or teaches to read or drills the well or facilitates a medical clinic or hands out impregnated mosquito nets to improve the quality of life and to hopefully earn the trust and the right to share the message. an individual from the country of service often sacrifices personal desires in seeking the welfare of his family and community – in societies where often it is expected and normal to have to jump through a whole set of hoops (because that’s what the gods expect) if one is to incur their favor and doesn’t see anything misleading in “converting” because it helps his family/community.

            which to me points out the importance of short-term trips closely aligned with long term onsite ministries and a coordinated effort.

        • what i was trying to say is that what i label manipulation may be called something totally different in a different culture. we run into it all the time here – one of our local friends does something that in their world is meant to honor and communicate the depth/sincerity of their feelings/respect/etc., towards us – but from our cultural viewpoint, we simply end up feeling used or manipulated. even though i now know that the actual intent was so totally not that, that what my local friend did was a normal, accepted part of the local cultural with a totally different outcome in his/her mind, it is hard to shake my cultural baggage and totally feel right about the way things played out. so, what feels like manipulation to me from where i stand culturally might be perceived totally differently from where one of my local friends is standing. and vice versa,..

          personally, i don’t believe God needs me to gift wrap His message or dress it up with bells and whistles or partner it with rice… but i can’t deny that He does work through those methods to change hearts and lives. when statistically experts say that generally it takes a person here 75-100 exposures to the Gospel message before it even starts to penetrate, am i going to assume manipulation for the sake of spectacular numbers on the part of those who offer physical aid. hopefully not – i’d rather be thankful that the recipients had their bellies full for a night and heard that message at least one more time. in my mind, i try to approach ministry from the perspective of inviting each person with whom i interact to take another step towards God, even as i am walking that way myself, if that makes sense.

    • Great point about the seeds and the soils in the Gospel! Thanks for mentioning that. Maybe if we knew that 1/4 is realistic, we would eliminate some of the pressure we put on ourselves to deliver “numbers.”

      I agree that humanitarian aid can become a bit of a business deal– Westerners give stuff, Locals give verbal assent. And honestly, isn’t that a pretty good business deal for the local?

      We saw this in Asia, too, that the “game” was played fairly expertly by some of the nationals who understood what it took to get funding/aid from the expat.

      Its a tricky system . . .. but the hope is in people like you and so many others who have stayed the course of 17 years and in others (short termers) who go with a mindset of the long-term health of a culture.

    • This long-termer fella sure sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. 😉

  • This is exactly the same dilemma we are facing with our work among the Roma in Albania. They are an impoverished people group living in the slums of Tirane. Many groups including Christian missionaries, NGOs, and others come to give free handouts in their community, including: clothing, food, hygiene products, water. Maybe the groups will put on a skit or give a brief message. The Roma will cooperate, act excited, and maybe say YES to Jesus. Anything to receive their tangible reward. Then, the groups leave. Never to be seen again. As a long term missionary these same Roma wonder what we’re here for. They ask why we don’t give them anything. We tell them we will help when we can, but our primary mission is to share and show the love of Christ. Sharing the Gospel, but also doing something that will help long term. This is why I am currently in the process of praying and thinking about what can be a long-term solution to helping them exit from the cycle of poverty. They are both spiritually and physically impoverished. But, I believe if we address the spiritual poverty first, then the physical poverty can also be addressed. Another problem we face is the spread of the prosperity gospel. Some Roma are taught that if they only believe in Jesus, they will no longer be poor, receive a new house, be absolved of their debt, and get a high paying job. I think the prosperity gospel in many ways do more harm than groups coming to give free handouts.

    The bottom line. It takes years to invest in people’s lives, both spiritually and physically. For some, it may mean this is where we spend the rest of our life.

    • Wow, this is a powerful comment on so many levels. I think its sad this is the case in Albania and that the negative results of poorly investing in people’s lives actually has negative effects both on the long-termers work and also on the perception of the people. Especially concerning to me, is the idea of the prosperity gospel being taught. That makes my stomach churn, particularly in a poor country where wealth feels even more like an impossibility.

      I really like what you said here:

      “The bottom line. It takes years to invest in people’s lives, both spiritually and physically.”

      YES. And this is true, regardless of location.

      Thanks, Greg, for chiming in here on this. Your example is one that is an important one to share.

    • David

      Almost all of our teams have livlihood programs that come along side of the church planting. But they can easily take on a life of their own and become the tail wagging the dog. Money can easily kill any movement that begins to form. Hang in there brother!

      • Isn’t this the truth in so many circumstances?

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  • David

    Great topic and much needed discussion–short-term missions and then money! After 26 years on the field and counting, we have a few stories! Attended a training a few weeks ago that treats seriously short-term as short-term as missional mentoring or discipleship which requires the team leaders to both meet with the folks before they go and make a 6 month committment to disciple them afterwards. If folks viewed short-term in this way, it would not solve the problem the article presented but we might reduce some of the claims to fame.

    Thinking about money, this article just stimulated me to put together a list of books on money and missions. I have read several of them–two basic camps–err on the side of generosity on one side and on the other, avoid creating dependency. Perhaps some will find the list useful.

    Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem…Revisited by Jonathan J. Bonk originally printed in
    1991, reprinted and expanded edition 2006 Available in kindle

    African Friends and Money Matters by David Marantz 2001 (available in Mays book notes) No kindle edition

    To Give or Not To Give? Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, & Redefining Sustainability by John
    Rowell 2006 (summary available in Mays book notes) Available in kindle

    When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement by
    Glenn Schwartz 2006 Available in kindle ($3.03 as of Jan 29 2012)

    Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner and Duane Elmer 2010 Available in kindle

    When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert 2012 Available in kindle

    Dowloadable article on dependency discussion, which summarizes several books and is
    asking the following question in relationship to health care missions, “How does one avoid a relationship of
    dependency with a mission partner?”

    • Love this list of resources! Can’t wait to peruse some of these. Thanks for taking the time to give it to us here. Love the idea “missional mentoring”– a powerful phrase.

    • we’ve read several of these – when charity destroys dignity was a perspective changer for my husband, even though it was a bit more difficult to wade through.

      • David

        Well if you read Schwartz (I have not), then you need to read Rowell. He will also open your eyes and challenge your heart. With the cheap price on Schwartz, I plan to read his next although the page length will be more difficult compared to Rowell. Although we serve in the Philippines, I was amazed when reading African Friends at how similar their stories were to the Philippines. Kind of pricey though so best to check out somewhere.

  • Gasp! Laura, are you insinuating that deep spiritual conversions are rare/unlikely in a three day period?

    I have many, many critiques I could add to this for events in America including: youth rallies where the same teenagers “get saved” every year, revivals where the focus is “soul winning” and not relationship building, famous Christian performers/speakers who have thousands respond to their altar calls every night only to wonder if 80% of them will still be a Christian next week, etc.

    While the Eastern Orthodox Church could take a few notes on evangelism from the evangelicals, I like their approach overall: build a small church (if they have some money, otherwise they start in the priest’s home), build relationships in the community, and slowly grow your church.

    Anyway Laura, I think what you and Matt did and continue to do in Asia was awesome. It takes a lot of devotion to keep working at something even though you can’t see any results.

  • David

    I have been thinking about this post since I read it yesterday. I think one of the challenges is that if we are not involved in short-term as an organization or a field, we will be left behind in the recruiing game and in the resource department. That sounds a bit crude perhaps but I hope I am not misunderstood. So, we want short-termers in order to mobilize for missions so that God gets the glory (he always does when his people pursue what is on his heart). But if we (and the churches that send them out) fail to provide missional mentoring to those going on short-term teams, the chances are high that people will NOT be mobilized for missions–either because of a bad experience or because they check out of the local church here which is perceived to be materialistic or because no one understands them (failure to debrief). As a long-term missionary, I think we also need short-termers because they do challenge our thinking and keep us fresh and on the edge even though they can be a pain and a potential resource drain. Ok, my five cents worth

  • AmandaVargas

    I just can’t tell you how much of a blessing this site has been in my life and for our journey. It just solidifies even more in my mind that when people ask what we will be doing Ethiopia, building relationships is a totally acceptable answer. It’s like they are looking for some drawn out plan of how to get from A to B but we believe building relationships is how we will do that. Thanks for the wealth of info!

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  • just read this today and thought it relevant to the conversation – figured i’d share the link for anyone browsing back through the comments:


    • I LOVED this article! What a while term “the rented African crowd”. Think I may need to contact him for a guest post!
      Thanks for posting, Richelle!

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  • I’d never heard the term “rice Christian” before, but I have heard about the phenomenon from a non-Christian Indian friend. She told me about it in a show of disgust toward evangelicals and missionaries in particular, feeling that they lacked basic awareness about what was going on. I can’t tell you how sad that made me. But since then, after going on mission trips and taking a class called “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” and listening to the stories of missionaries, I’ve concluded that support of the local church (if it exists) is the way to go, rather than coming in from the outside to evangelize. I think that’s counter-intuitive to an American frame of mind since we’re so obsessed with numbers and achievement.

    • Leslie, great point about empowering the local church. These are the people that will be here long term and that understand culture and people far beyond a foreigner. A foreigner’s work can be a spark that encourages or equips locals, but ultimately, I agree, its the locals that will have the most impact.
      Counter-intuitive for our “white savior” mentalities so often.

  • Adeline Oh

    This is what I have observed here in Peru as well. What I have also noticed is that some missions groups will withhold the aid (free medical exam, medications) while making the hearing of the gospel a condition to receiving the aid. Many nationals will raise their hands when the call of salvation comes but most of them do so just to be able to receive the aid. Later, the number of people “saved” is announced to the great delight of the sending church. It made me realize that numbers are what short term missionaries are really after, so that the sending church will fund more short term missions. The long term repercussions are that the nationals equate foreigners with money and start to look to them for handouts, while still not knowing the true transformation power of the gospel.

    • Yes, this is such subtle and dangerous manipulation on many levels isn’t it?
      Thanks for stopping in Adeline . . . glad you are here. 🙂

  • Tara

    this cynical girl living in the land of 200,000 one week visitors a year loved this post – all three times I read it.

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  • Christina

    I have definite experience with this as a young missionary (and MK). I have had a lot of personal struggle relating to how much support I can give to the local church, as the legalities involved in the country I was in caused it to put my brothers and sisters in Christ in danger. I participated and led weeknight Bible studies and did not attend local Sunday services. Another missionary serving with me did attend Sunday services– although she was not fluent in the local language and I was (often translating for her), her skin colour was passable as host country national (if she kept her mouth closed— she had emigrated to States at age five and had a Southern US accent). I wantto be supporting the local church and not creating a “cat and mouse” situation where the locals only participated in order to get what they needed at that moment. I ended up relying on the Holy Spirit’s discernment in most situations as to whether to be on one side of this issue or another…. and had the added blessing of serving in several ways the international expat community church group — a group that also needed just as much evangelism as locals.

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  • kindergartenmommy

    I work in Zambia and I heard a story of a school who was given money to build a teacher’s house (most schools provide housing for teachers). The head teacher at a nearby school was asked to come and cut the ribbon and he brought a teacher from his school with him. The teacher played the role that this was going to be his new house and how happy he was. A couple photos later and they travelled back home. It’s not accepting the gospel but it was putting on a show for the donors. (Who will probably donate more as they were successful). The house will probably, eventually, when they can get a teacher willing to come to such a rural area, be used for a teacher but I found it interesting that there needed to be a “show” for the donor’s sake.

  • Paul Senior

    Dear Laura,
    Let me start off by saying that am thank full that you care about the poor people of other countries.
    South east Asia has many religions/philosophy’s, that all have merit.
    But why do people persist in going to these country’s, generally with a lack of knowledge of culture and language to try and change their life.
    Buddhism is 500 years older than Christianity.
    As far as “rice Christians” go, they will always be around.
    I did not know that the church used bribery – how un-Christian that is!
    Vietnam and China are your better options. The French have tried in Thailand and Cambodia with little success.
    What is the difference between a poor Buddhist and a poor Christian?
    Nothing at all.
    As Cambodia was going thru the Pol Pot (genocide) era then civil war, you had your “food for faith” missionary’s at the Thai border. You need food, clothing, medicine and shelter? You can, once you convert,… until then STARVE.
    Would change your faith to get food, or rely on God to help you?
    Your life, your love does not fit everybody.
    I have been and lived in the poorest parts of S/E asia, they are who they are for good or bad. They are NOT a western culture.
    I am a western white male.
    Before I entered their country’s, I learnt their culture, customs and philosophy.

    • Adrian Agapie

      – “Buddhism is 500 years older than Christianity” — I’m sure there were some other religions before that too (in Egypt, for example). Age of religion is not a criteria for truth.
      – What is the difference between a poor Buddhist and a poor Christian? It depends: short term? Long term? Morals? Relationships?
      – It seems to me that everyone in this discussion (and outside of it) is agreeing that Food for Faith is not desirable. What is your point?

      Have you ever considered that you might be moralizing everyone else with what you think is your “superior” morality! Maybe you should practice what you preach and learn what people are talking about before commenting on a page (the equivalent of visiting a country)?

  • Maria

    It’s kind of what is to be expected, though, isn’t it? I mean, so many missionaries are basically trying to bribe people into believing in Jesus. Here! Have a soccer ball! Here! Have some snacks! Here! Have some stickers!

    It’s why things like Operation Christmas Child make me cringe so badly. As long as the cool stuff you’re sending or giving to those in need are wrapped in Jesus, you will have insincere conversions. It’s that simple.

  • ColdFusion8

    Rice Christians… love that term. But, aren’t you all Rice Christians in a way? Taking the goodie bag Jesus offers, picking through the stuff you like and leaving the things you don’t behind and then going about your merry way.

  • ScreamFilm Movies

    I hate proselytization…I think its Evil…Teach people to love themselves as they are…Bring out the good in them instead of imposing your idea of goodness…

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