Is Missions a Joke? Answering the Critics

Editorial note: A Life Overseas is a place to share stories and have conversations about cross-cultural missions and international living. In this space we avoid personal attacks. The following piece is a critique of ideas currently being circulated among the missions crowd. It is not a personal attack on anyone whose words are quoted here, and personal attacks of any kind will be deleted from the comment section. Thank you in advance for honoring this request.  ~Elizabeth Trotter, Jonathan Trotter, and Marilyn Gardner

I came off the mission field with a new mission which is to burn down missions. ~Jamie Wright

You come [to the mission field] with the veil of, ‘I’m called, not qualified’ and then when everything falls to s*** and you decide to go back home, it completely negates the authority of the God you said called you in the first place. And it’s just a damaging cycle that just goes on and on. ~Emily Worrall

Missionaries are trying to save themselves. There’s this sense of ‘God is going to come through for me.’ So you have a lot–a lot–of addiction…tons and tons and tons of sexual sin. Deeply wounded people who need help, who need therapy, who need support systems. But we give them permission to leave all that behind and go to a foreign country where it is all exacerbated and everything gets way worse. It’s a rampant problem in long-term missions. ~Jamie Wright

The long-term missionary lifestyle is almost, like, insidious. Because long-term missionaries are the ones really using the manipulative language. They are really misrepresenting their purpose and the necessity for them to live in these other countries. Or they are hiding information about their behavior or the things they are doing. It’s just not good. There are so many people living abroad on the church-dime who have no accountability. It’s really ugly. ~Jamie Wright

Corey Pigg: They [our organization] were sending us out to the 10/40 window.

Jamie Wright: Yes, the 10/40 window. Everybody loves that.

Corey: They felt it was imperative that we went to closed nations to be superheroes. Because those are the last places that need to hear the gospel.

Jamie. Which is hilarious. ……All that matters is that you use the lingo.

Corey: That’s what sells, right?

 

Hi, I’m Amy Medina, and I’m a missionary.

I was a missionary kid in Liberia and Ethiopia for six years of my childhood. I’m now 41 years old and have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for fourteen years as an evangelical Christian missionary. My husband trains pastors and I am the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy. We’ve adopted four Tanzanian kids.

We live off of the financial gifts of churches and friends from the States. We write newsletters every month. We use phrases like “fruit of our ministry” and “unreached people groups” and “discipleship.” I blog. And my blog header has zebras on it. And a rainbow encircling an orphan.

So is my life a joke?

I’ve been mulling over what I read in Jamie Wright’s memoir, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever and what I heard in the “Failed Missionary” podcasts with Corey Pigg, Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior, and Jamie Wright. I’ve known all along that some non-Christians scoff at my life as a misguided, ridiculous attempt to “save the world,” but I must admit I was surprised to find out that there are some of “our own” who feel the same way–and are loudly proclaiming it.

Ironically, I actually agree with a lot of what these critical voices have to say about missions. I believe that “calling” can be misguided and even idolatrous. I believe that missionaries need to be well-vetted, well-trained, and held accountable. I’m confident that there is a temptation among missionaries to hide their struggles and beef up their successes. I believe that the “white savior complex” is real and sinister, and I definitely hold that Americans need to stop shipping stuff overseas for poor people. And I do think that missions in general, but especially short-term missions, can often bring more harm than help.

So I don’t believe we should write off these critical voices. If we stand against them with scowling faces and hands over our ears, angry at their profanity or their bluntness or their criticism of our sacred cows, then we walk right into the realm of the Pharisees. I’m not saying we have to agree with everything they say or how they say it, but we need to listen.

The truth is, it’s not a bad thing to knock missionaries off those pedestals. And it’s not a bad thing for us missionaries to ask ourselves the hard questions, or for those who send us to ask those questions of us.

Why did I really become a missionary?

Was I running away from something? Was I just looking for more meaning in my life? Was I thinking that missions would elevate my life to a higher spiritual level?

Does my dependence on financial support make me cover up the truth or portray myself as something I am not?

Am I afraid of what would happen if people could see bank records or my internet history, or if they saw what a day in my life really looked like?

Am I really the best person at this time and in this place to be doing this job? Am I submitting myself to accountability? Am I humbling myself and my ideas to the local people?

Almost my entire life has been devoted to missions, in one way or another. And I’ve seen what these critics are talking about. I’ve seen terrible short-term teams who offend the local people or steal jobs in a struggling economy. In rare instances, I’ve known of missionaries who preach the gospel on Sunday and have affairs during the week. More commonly, I’ve seen ignorance and arrogance and racism among missionaries–including myself.

But my conclusion is different. I don’t believe missions needs “gasoline and a match,” as Jamie writes in her memoir.

Really what it comes down to is this: Do we have a message worth sharing?

The data suggests we do. Robert Woodberry has done extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of historical data that demonstrates that the impact of the gospel is overwhelmingly positive. In “The Truth About Missionaries,” Hugh Whelchel writes, “[Woodberry’s] research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.”

In fact, Woodberry’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, protestant missionaries often stood in direct opposition to white colonialism. He writes, “[M]issionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anti-colonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.” Andrea Palpant Dilley, referring to Woodberry, concludes, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

These missionaries weren’t just do-gooders who were looking to make the world a better place. They were “conversionary Protestants” who, frankly, were trying to convert people to Christianity. Christian missions, when done correctly, is “both/and” when it comes to sharing the gospel and helping to effect social change.

Why is that? Because a person who has truly been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just trying to earn gold stars for converts. That person has had an entire shift in worldview–a worldview that values all human life as sacred, understands that sin has broken the relationships that mankind has with himself, others, and creation, and that redemption in all of that brokenness starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. So despite how missionaries over the centuries have royally messed up a lot of the time, their success was based on how well they embraced a biblical worldview, and how well they shared it with others. History shows us they have been surprisingly successful.

Nancy Pearcey writes, “That’s why C. S. Lewis calls Christianity ‘a fighting religion.’ He means that disciples of Jesus are not meant to passively allow evil to flourish on earth, while looking forward to escaping someday to a higher realm. Instead they are called to actively fight evil here and now. The doctrine of the resurrection means that the physical world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to God’s people.”  

According to the critical voices, our message should be–and only be–one of love. Jamie writes, “Let’s agree to write an epic of love to the benefit of others.” She wants us to make missions not about ourselves and how it makes us feel, but about what’s best for others.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure we would agree on what “love” actually looks like. Emily Worrall says, “Basically what the [Great Commission] boils down to is ‘kindness.’ That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in the mission field. Period.”

Point taken. Missionaries–or Christians in general–often should be reminded to get in touch with their kind side. The gospel is not about forcing rules upon others. It’s not about molding others into our image. But does ‘love’ start and end with only kindness? What makes the gospel so transformative is by recognizing the depth of our sin, the rampant effects of that sin, and how surrender and faith in Jesus is the means of redemption–and our only hope of heaven.

That means that loving others isn’t just standing by and allowing people to self-destruct in the name of acceptance. It doesn’t mean being okay with others’ futile attempts to work their way to heaven. There are times when love needs to confront sin–whether that be the sin of an individual or the sin of a culture. That doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or unkind, but it does mean that we say, “Look! This is why we all need Jesus!”

As an American, I’m certainly not insinuating that American Christians have this all figured out and are the only ones who should be going out to “save the world.” This notion is there and it’s sinister, and it’s not okay. But as God’s Church becomes more global, I think that all of us, from all nations, can take a posture of humility in learning from each other–including and perhaps especially the people who we may be evangelizing. And therefore, the Global Church, under the authority of Scripture, should be working together to bring the gospel to those parts of the world where it’s never been heard. And that’s exactly what’s happening! I see this right here in my corner of East Africa. A cross-cultural global group of Americans, Europeans, South Africans, and South Koreans are working alongside Tanzanians to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is an amazing, beautiful thing.

Are missionaries a joke? Sometimes. People are sinners, including missionaries. Please, by all means, let’s topple missionaries off of our pedestals. Let’s remember that missionaries are just as much in need of the redemption they preach to others. Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s redefine “calling” to include gifting and training. Let’s be wise and sacrificial about how we steward God’s people and God’s resources. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure the mission isn’t all about us.

But is missions a joke? God forbid. Missions exists to elevate Jesus Christ above all, to bring glory to him in places and among people where he is not known. If he really is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the First and the Last, the Redeemer of Mankind, and the Light of the World, then let’s go out….and make his name Glorious.

 

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About Amy Medina

Amy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001. Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality. Amy is the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy, and her husband works in pastoral training. They've also adopted four amazing Tanzanian kids. Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.