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