Cultural or Christian?

by Leland Sawyer

One afternoon I came out of a meeting and saw a large group of men parading down the street. They had completely taken over the road and were blowing whistles, horns and singing all kinds of songs. It was a traditional Bagisu circumcision parade. The last two months of each calendar year is the season for these celebrations, and they mark when a young boy becomes a man in the cultural society. Yes, they do involve circumcision.

They also involve heavy drinking by everyone involved, several elements to pagan worship, and witchcraft. The people celebrating will drink all day and then perform the circumcision (dangerous, right?) in front of everyone. While doing all of this, the elders and leaders of the village are making offerings to and saying spells for the gods and spirits they worship.

These rituals are a part of the culture here; they are ingrained into life. And even as people come to Christ, they struggle to break free from rituals such as this. Many of these practices are steeped in darkness and pagan worship, but people hold onto them long after they have committed to following Jesus because of the strong pull and influence that their upbringing and CULTURE has on their lives. Don’t get me wrong, there are many elements of culture that are not sinful, some even are God-glorifying (such as community and family). But many elements are in direct opposition to our faith in Jesus and a lifestyle of being made into His image.

But let’s not pretend this is an African problem. This is a human problem. It has been this way since the beginning of man. At our last meeting during our National Conference here in Uganda, we focused on the history of culture invading God’s people. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s people adapting to their culture and sacrificing their own holiness. We see in Acts 15 how the early Christians were being invaded by legalistic Jewish culture AND by pagan Gentile culture. And we can see throughout church history similar stories.

So as I watched this parade, my first thought was about how they were letting culture dictate their lives in ways directly disobeying the Word of God. But my second thought was much more personal: How do I do the same thing?

  • How do I let my culture (both my passport culture and my new culture) trump the culture of the cross?
  • Do I allow my American individualistic spirit shape my theology more than the Word?
  • How do I allow consumerism to shape my experience within the body of Christ or how I view other people?
  • Am I concerned more about my nation (America) than God’s Kingdom?
  • Do I let the “rebel spirit of Texas” influence my obedience to God’s call?

As I process these questions, I can’t help but be torn when I know that my call is to serve God and His people, but this call is sometimes clouded by my own desires and wants. While I don’t go after the next best technology, the latest styles or fancy cars (we live in Uganda after all), that doesn’t stop me from wanting to buy things. I let my own wants (time, money, resources) trump others’ needs. I hurt inside because I see so much poverty in the streets, yet I live in a pretty comfortable and protected home.

How am I truly loving my neighbors? How am I living out God’s Kingdom rather than my own kingdom? How are my reactions to people shaped by my personal, American views rather than God’s view of people when I think they shouldn’t be doing something?

I’m hoping you also think a little bit about these questions: How do we try to hang onto our culture in a way that contradicts our Christian faith? What types of things do you need to let go of from your culture so that your faith in Christ shines more brightly? How do we live as an “exile and stranger in this world” (1 Peter 2:11)?

photo credit


Leland Sawyer, his wife and 6-year old daughter have been missionaries in Uganda for 3 years. Leland has a passion for life-on-life relational discipleship and the development of spiritually healthy leaders. He works with pastors and church leaders throughout Uganda, walking alongside men and women to help them learn more about what it means to fully live like Jesus. Before moving to Uganda, he was a youth minister for 11 years in Colorado and Texas. You can follow their family and ministry at Sawyers in Uganda.

In the wake of John Chau’s death, here are some questions to consider

by Arthur Davis

John Chau’s death raises serious questions for Christian missionaries. Multiple narratives have emerged since 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau was killed two weeks ago when interacting with the people of North Sentinel, a remote island between India and South East Asia. He has been lauded as a missionary hero and scorned as a fool and religious zealot. His actions have been portrayed as lovingly purposeful, and also as profoundly unloving because of the existential threat that contact poses to the Sentinelese people.

This is a contested case among Christians because the Sentinelese push the limits of our thinking. We believe that Jesus the Messiah is the “desire of the nations,” that through him every human community, indeed planet Earth itself, can be honoured and enjoy fullness of life. The received wisdom is for missionaries to cross cultures by getting alongside a community, learning its language, appreciating its culture and, somewhere along the way, we hope for encounter with Jesus. But what happens when this scenario gets complicated — when our presence is threatening, for example? If people need to be “reached” but our received wisdom can’t easily be applied, what then?

This is a conversation about how we pursue the Great Commission. Jesus entrusted his work to sinful, foolish humans, and is able to glorify his Father even through our faulty efforts. However, this cannot keep us from interrogating our history and our present. Seeking to examine and reform ourselves is an exercise of the Spirit — that is, of growing in love, peacemaking, kindness, gentleness and self-control. We need to be able to talk about actions, about what is wise and appropriate. We need to be able to identify and do away with harmful approaches. This is the work of missiology.



The Gospel of Matthew gives us not just a Great Commission, but a Great Commandment: to love God and neighbour. Jesus’ own definition of love – to treat others as we would hope to be treated – pushes us beyond our good intentions, and calls us to ask what actions are truly in the best interests of the other. So, what are the best interests of the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese are one of four indigenous nations in the Andaman Islands, all of which have been traumatised in different ways by disease, violence, and encroachment, beginning with the British Empire in 1789. One of these nations, the Great Andamanese, once comprised 10 tribes, each with its own language. Their numbers have been reduced from perhaps 5000 to just 50. A fifth nation, the Jangil, was completely wiped out early last century.

As Christians, we see at least two needs that, in regard to the Sentinelese, appear to compete with one another. There is the need to encounter Jesus, and there is the need to promote life. If the gospel comes to the Sentinelese in a way that is likely to cause the destruction of their lives and culture, can it be said to be loving?

The Sentinelese may lack immunity to common illnesses that we are untroubled by. We now know that John Chau had invested time in planning for his visit, and had taken measures he believed would minimise infection. Even if this were known to guarantee their immediate safety, however, the destabilisation of contact is not limited to infectious diseases, nor to one individual. This consideration cannot be sidelined by someone’s desire to serve, feelings of compassion, or personal sense of calling.  Love must be knowledgeable — a love that can deal with the complexity of the world we live in.



Yet many of us experience a sense of urgency in evangelism, as perhaps John Chau did. We are compelled by two beliefs – the eternal vulnerability of those who don’t know Jesus, and his impending return. In this way of thinking, each day the Sentinelese miss the opportunity to know Christ is also a day when one of them could die and potentially face eternity without him.

However, this is not the only factor in evangelism. For example, without a relationship of mutual trust, the message goes awry. Jesus’ command is not simply to preach, but to disciple nations. The point is not so much to get the word out as to get the word across. As far as we know, the Sentinelese still know nothing of Jesus. Perhaps in God’s economy, John Chau’s sacrifice is a “grain of wheat” that will eventually result in Christian commitment. Then again, perhaps it was a setback for his message.

But who gets to determine another community’s needs anyway? We may feel an urgency ourselves, but how does this square with the concerns and desires of others?



This brings us to the question of agency. ‘The natives’ are never passively waiting to absorb what outsiders bring. They are fully responsible persons who choose to interact on their own terms. This cuts two ways: it acknowledges both “conversion” and resistance. After the trauma of British contact in the 19th century, we acknowledge that the Sentinelese have good reason to be hostile to outsiders.

To recognise agency – to attempt to see through the other’s eyes – is to love. It is not our prerogative to decide what is best for others. Our desire to proclaim Christ does not overrule the God-given agency of others. This is part of what is going on when, in the Book of Acts, the apostles depart from communities that are hostile and invest themselves in communities that are receptive, a pattern established by Jesus in Luke 10.

Does this mean the Sentinelese must be put aside when it comes to world mission? The sheer mess of these overlapping questions leaves our heads spinning. But here’s another thought.


A way forward?

When a middle-class Western Christian like me hears the call of the Great Commission, by default I assume that my role is one of leadership or pioneering. We make this assumption also at the level of the mission organisation and the Western church more broadly. We are not in the habit of looking for missionaries among majority world and indigenous believers, because world mission is something we so naturally associate with ourselves.

However, the days when Westerners were the guardians of the gospel are gone, if they ever existed. Majority world churches are now among the top missionary sending countries. This includes nearby India, as well as the island nations of Malta, Samoa and Tonga. Concern for the Sentinelese will mean engaging Christian communities such as these, where there is greater cultural or geographic proximity. It will also mean engaging indigenous Christians — those who have experienced first-hand the intergenerational trauma of colonisation. To learn how isolated tribes might relate to the Great Commission – and what is truly life-giving – may be a journey best led by communities such as these.

This is a slower path. Paul’s famous definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 refers to both patience and perseverance — of waiting with and for one another. Yet this is also a fruitful path. We ask not only “How do we reach the unreached?” but also, “What part is to be played by each member of the global body of Christ?” Rather than sending anyone who wants to go because God in his sovereignty can use them, our desire is to see the global body of Christ being true to God’s calling, and to locate ourselves within that. This can only result in a more authentic and consistent witness to Christ. This does not bar us from pioneering work, but if we assume such a role without reference to the global church, we dishonour our brothers and sisters, and are ultimately less fruitful.

Perhaps you too have a heart for the Sentinelese. If so, have the humility to consider that you and your community might not be the ones to care for them or encounter them. King David learned that the building of God’s house belonged to a different generation. In our time, the pursuit of authentic global witness – and of best practice in mission – puts our feelings of urgency in perspective. This is uncomfortable for us, especially when we have invested so much in our own pioneer efforts.

No doubt there is still a part for us to play in the Great Commission, but after more than a century of pioneer Protestant work, we now need to discover afresh what our part may be. It is a team effort involving all our brothers and sisters worldwide. It is time to take a step back, and take stock of the global family we now find ourselves in.



What might a positive encounter with the Sentinelese look like? Amazingly, there is already a precedent. In 1991, an Indian woman was acknowledged by the Sentinelese women, her presence defusing the tension among the men. She even had enough cultural background, having already worked with the neighbouring Onge, to recognise the Sentinelese language. The experience was mirrored in a visit to the neighbouring Jarawa people. This was the work of anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay.

Chattopadhyay herself has responded to the John Chau incident (note that she is not speaking as a Christian). Her personal account indicates that:

  • The Sentinelese communicate with various non-verbal cues, and their hostility is not completely unpredictable.
  • It has passed the point at which the other Andamanese tribes may be able to replenish their populations. For them, the desolation of colonial contact has nearly run its course.
  • The gospel was brought to the nearby Nicobar Islands, but has apparently never been given the chance to take root in an indigenised way.
  • The opportunity for a fuller encounter with the Sentinelese may not be recovered for the foreseeable future.

For me, this news is tantalising and heartbreaking in equal measure.


The body of this article was originally published by Eternity News; the postscript has been added for A Life Overseas.



Arthur Davis is coaching and mentoring staff workers in TAFES, a Tanzanian campus ministry. He and his wife Tamie Davis are part of CMS Australia and write at





The Not-So-White Saviour Complex

by Sajidah Hirkento

When I first heard about the white saviour complex as a junior in high school, I was entertained, relieved, and pleasantly satisfied that they [sociologists/anthropologists/whoever articulated these things] had finally come up with a diagnosis for the disease whose effects I had observed and lived in east Africa.

Finally, instead of endless and emotive rambling and gossip in pity and anger, I could logically oppose and [quite bluntly] trash the approaches of some of the expatriate workers whom I observed and interacted with in my home country. I jeered and laughed, mocking the unscientific, inefficient, uneducated, and uncivilised way in which these expats sought to educate, and enlighten the communities they were working in. “Even science says it’s stupid.”

As a black Kenyan girl, growing up in a Kenyan home in the capital city, I occasionally heard stories of non-contextualised foreign [mostly western] interventions, and I was sometimes on the receiving end of it. At best, it was good hearty guffaw with friends and family that lit up evening meals and tea. At worst it was an incredulous and frustrating lament that darkened and aged the night sky. It was the general consensus that white expatriates were dumb — until their approaches were accepted as ingenious.

I could finally judge. And judge I did, until one day, while distributing used clothes and shoes to school children in a rural part of the country, a young girl told me that the jacket I had given her was not her size. “Well, you should be grateful you even got something!”, was the initial response on my tongue as I turned to the small person speaking to me, among the throng of loud, expectant children.

Her dark eyes stopped me dead in my tracks as I realised the full impact of what had just happened, and what the group of city Kenyans I was with were doing out here in the rural country, on a hot and stuffy afternoon. I felt my honey chocolate shades turn pink, and every kink of my African curls straighten out and turn blonde, as guilt washed over me in the realization that I had come into this community with a white-saviour attitude.

As I reflected on this incident, and our time outside of the city, I saw truly how our intervention had not been tailored to understand the community, but rather was geared towards giving them what we thought they needed. We may have had the best intentions, carefully cleaning out our closets, fundraising for a week of living in underdeveloped conditions with no water or electricity, thin floor mattresses and makeshift toilets and bathrooms, and even adapted our clothing to fit into the community. However, our point of engagement had not been primarily to listen or learn; we were there to give.

This was the first of many other aha moments that brought out my white-saviour tendencies, convincing me that it wasn’t white at all; it was just human and selfish. Giving is a great thing that can be soured easily if I don’t need what you give, or worse, if it is harmful to you. Any intervention in any community that doesn’t take into account the perceived needs of the community, and contextualise the approach is a one-size-fits-all saviour approach.

Likewise, an attitude that characterizes the community as a target, as opposed to a partnership, is a saviour attitude. In pointing fingers and ridiculing white expat interventions in my country, I actually just ended up pointing more fingers at myself. We, as human beings, are not here to save people, or communities, or the world. We are here to work together with individuals and communities to grow them to their full potential, as they grow us to our full capacity. It is not just an intervention, or mission, it’s a commitment and a partnership.



Sajidah Hirkento (a pseudonym) is a 25-year-old artist and health systems researcher. She scripts the silent conversations in her mind stemming from various life experiences in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, The United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

Check out this collection of our most-read articles

Consider this the Table of Contents for a book on missions, cross-cultural living, grief, TCKs, MKs, missiology, common pitfalls, transition, short-term missions, relating to senders, and a whole lot more.

I figured it was time to compile our most-read posts and present them to you, organized by topic. So here they are, 85 of our most-read posts ever.

My hope is that this article, this Table of Contents, if you will, would serve as one massive resource for those of you who are new to our community, those of you who’ve been hanging out here all along, and even for you, our future reader, who just found our little corner of the internet. Welcome!

Many thanks to the authors who’ve poured into our community, aiming to build and help (and sometimes challenge) the missionary world and the churches that send. If this site has been helpful to you, would you consider sharing this post with your friends and colleagues and missions leaders?

A Life Overseas is loosely led, with a tiny overhead (that covers the costs of the website), and a bunch of volunteer writers and tech folk. Why do we do it? We’re doing this for you! We’re doing this because we like you and we want to see cross-cultural workers (and their families!) thriving and succeeding and belonging. We’re doing this because we believe the Lamb is worthy. We’re doing this because we believe that God’s love reaches beyond our country’s borders, extending to all the places, embracing all the peoples.

I hope you are encouraged. I hope you are challenged. I hope you are reminded that you are not alone. This can be a hard gig, for sure, but you are not alone.

If this is your first time here or your thousandth, stick around, browse around, let us know what you think, how you’ve been helped, and what you’d love to see in the future. We’d absolutely love to hear from you!


With much love from Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
Jonathan Trotter


Third Culture Kids / Missionary Kids
10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked
10 Questions Missionary Kids Dread
To the Parents of Third Culture Kids
Funny Things Third Culture Kids Say
8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas
6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need
An Open Letter to Parents of Missionary Kids
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids
Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid
My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries


Rest / Burnout / Self-Care
margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please Stop Running
Ask A Counselor: How in the world can we do self-care when . . . ?
Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider
8 Ways for Expats Who Stay to Stay Well

Top 10 Digital Photography Tips

Family / Marriage
Missionary Mommy Wars
A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any
Nine Ways to Save a Marriage
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy
Why “Did You Have Fun?” is the Wrong Question
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage
Dear Single Missionary
Homescapes MOD
I’m a missionary. Can I be a mom too?


Cross-cultural living & ministry
3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take
Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?
Introverts for Jesus: Surviving the Extrovert Mission Field
To My Expat Friends
What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!
The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping
A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)
The Introverted Expat
5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)
The Aim of Language Learning


Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”
Let Me Make Your Kid a Buddhist
How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up
Rice Christians and Fake Conversions
Responding to Beggars
10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary
There’s no such thing as the “deserving poor”


Theology in Missions
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
Rethinking the Christmas Story
But Are You Safe?
When Missionaries Starve
Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrifice”
The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}
Is Jesus a Liar?


10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling
Want to see what a porn-addicted missionary looks like?
Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
When Missionaries Think They Know Everything
Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed
Misogyny in Missions
The Proverbs 32 Man
Stop Waiting for It All to Make Sense


Grief & Loss
Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised
When Friends Do the Next Right Thing
Ask a counselor: how do we process loss and grief?


What If I Fall Apart on the Mission Field?
Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping
Dear New Missionary
5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field
Why I Quit My Job as a Missionary to Scrub Toilets
Jet Lag and Heart Lag
When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…
You Remember You’re a Repat When . . .
Going Home


Short Term Missions
What to Do About Short Term Missions
Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.
Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Mission
The Mess of Short Term Missions


Relationships with those who send
A Letter to Christians Living in America from a Christian Living Abroad
Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You
Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas
How to Encourage Your Overseas Worker
When Your Missionary Stories Aren’t Sexy
Facebook lies and other truths
Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions


If your favorite article didn’t make the list, put the title and link in the comments section and let us know why you love it. Thanks again for joining us here. Peace to you.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When Christians Think Like Elijah

By Tamie Davis

Recently a church from another state in Australia decided to do a church plant into my home city of Adelaide. In their fundraising video, they described the church situation in Adelaide as rough, desperate, and crying for help from outside, because there was no church in Adelaide that could viably look outside of itself enough to plant another church. They, on the other hand, had a ‘bold new plan’, and under their leadership the church in Adelaide had started to realise that it has a future.

Watching the video I felt quite taken aback: Christianity in the Adelaide I know may be small, but it is vibrant, and has seen the establishment of several thriving church planting movements in the last 10 years!

Now, at one level when they speak of the weakness of the church in Adelaide, they were just talking about their own denomination, but it felt like they were overlooking the gospel efforts of so many in my home city who have been faithfully serving Jesus and proclaiming him there.

I get that they need to raise money, and to do so they need to make the need clear. I’ve been there; no doubt all missionaries have. But I wondered, ‘If they can’t raise the money, is that it for gospel-centred churches in Adelaide? Is all lost?’

And then I read 1 Kings 19. It’s the famous ‘still small voice’ passage, where God appeals to Elijah who has fled into the desert in fear for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah says:

“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (v.14)

Sounds desperate, right? Rough. In need of a bold new leader who can re-direct people from their apostasy and their apathy.

Except Elijah is not actually the only one left. There’s Elisha who will be come his successor, and 7000 other Israelites “who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (v.18) Whether this is a literal 7000, or symbolic of a body of Israelites is beside the point. It tells us that there has been resistance and faithfulness, and Elijah in his fear and his self-importance has missed it. Though it was not apparent to Elijah, God had been at work in Israel. After all, he was the one who has preserved these faithful ones (v.18).

Whether from self-importance or lack of research, Elijah overlooked this. Watching the video I wanted to say, “We are the 7000 Elijah ignores!”

I think it’s very healthy for me as a missionary to have this kind of experience. I have been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but possibly misguided people coming from outside to help and do God’s work. Yet, I am normally the outsider, and we are here in Tanzania because we have answered a need. So how will this experience shape my own mission practice?

First, I must assume that God is already at work in my context. This is particularly true in contexts with churches that are already established. But even in places without, if we believe in a missionary and creator God, we will be looking for how he has preceded us, and where the people of peace are. Where there is an established church, it is often easy to see its shortcomings, and be tempted to ‘fix’ them. Yet, whatever work is still to be done, it is the Holy Spirit’s work, in his time and in his ways, not ours. And so we must seek to slow down and delay judgement, to ask whether there’s another angle on the thing that seems so corrupt or superfluous or shallow or wizened.

Second, I choose to communicate God’s work apart from me to my supporters even when fundraising. I don’t want our co-workers or other Christians in Tanzania to be invisible when we speak to our Australian partners. There’s more money in sounding like we’re the answer to the Tanzanian church’s problems. And I don’t want to give the impression that we’re wasting people’s money by being here. But I want to communicate that we are one part of a puzzle. If we are to honour God’s people here – to honour God, really – we must acknowledge the whole body, not just the foot or the lips or the elbow that we happen to be.

Elijah ends up looking ignorant or naive at best, and foolish and self-important at worst. None of those seem like good options to me. But I’m not only concerned for my own integrity or reputation. And I’m not only concerned about being fair to those who have come before me and continue to strive in faithfulness. I’m concerned for the glory of God. Let me not be the one who obscures his work, or fails to report on it!



Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at

In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries

Imagine what it would look like if western churches hired their staff with the same priorities that they choose overseas missionaries to financially support.

First of all, a Children’s Pastor would definitely be out.  Not strategic enough; he’s only supporting the children of believers.  Youth Pastor?  Also out, unless he targets neighborhood kids.

How about a Music Pastor?  Or Pastoral Counselor?  Nope.  Those are just support roles.  Not enough front-line ministry.

Administrative Pastor?  Receptionist?  Good heavens.  We could never dream of paying someone for those kind of inconsequential jobs.

How about a Preaching Pastor?  Well…..that’s if-y, but he probably doesn’t make the cut either.  After all, he’s only feeding the Body.  Most of the time, he’s not actually reaching the lost.

So that pretty much leaves only the positions of Community Outreach Pastor or Evangelist.  Yet how many churches even have those paid positions?

I’m not suggesting that churches go about firing two-thirds of their staff.  I just want to talk about a double-standard I often see.

Let me introduce you to the class system among missionaries. 

Who is on the A-List?  Well, that would be the Church Planters.  Among unreached people groups gives you A+ status.  Pastoral Trainers and Bible Translators might be able to squeak by with an A.

The B-List?  Doctors and other health workers, community development and poverty alleviation workers, ESL teachers.

The C-List?  Administrators, missionary member care, MK teachers, or anyone else considered “support.”

Whatever tends to be the current trend in “justice ministry” also often ends up on the A-List.  These days, that’s fighting human trafficking.  It used to be orphan ministry, but that’s pretty much been relegated to B-status now.  It’s cool, but not that cool.

Granted, this class system doesn’t usually originate with the missionaries themselves, but it’s come out of the culture of missions in their home countries.  How many missionaries have sat before missions committees back home who examined if they fit into their “grid” of priorities?  And often that grid looks exactly like the hierarchy I just outlined.

My husband and I worked for eight years in TCK ministry at a missionary school.  When trying to raise support, we called and sent information packets to over 200 churches in California.  We heard back from two.  Churches told us, over and over again, Sorry, but that ministry doesn’t fit into our strategy.  

That all changed when we transitioned to theological training of East African pastors.  Finally, we had churches calling us.  It was nice.  But frankly, kind of frustrating.  We didn’t change ministries so that we would become more popular with churches.  We switched because that’s where God was leading us.  But the truth is, we don’t consider theological training to be any more strategic, or any more exciting, than what we were doing at that MK school. 

Unfortunately, the missionaries themselves are often acutely aware of this hierarchy, and it makes many feel like they are second-class.  Over and over again, I hear things like this from missionaries:

Yes, I love my job as an MK teacher and I know it’s really important, but I fill my newsletters with pictures of the slum I visit once a week.  After all, that’s what my supporters are interested in.

Yeah, I’m a missionary, but not a ‘real’ missionary.  I live in a city and spend a lot of my time at a computer.

My visiting short-term team was supposed to help me out with my ministry to TCK’s, but they only want to spend their time with orphans.  

Why do these missionaries feel this way?  Maybe because when Christians stand up and say, I’m called to missionary care!  I’m called to teach MK’s!  I’m called to missions administration!, the churches say, Well, sorry, you don’t fit in our strategy.  We’d rather get behind the exciting church planters and the pastoral trainers and the child-trafficking rescuers.  Except, we expect them to do it without all the other people they need to be successful.

And so what happens?  The talented church planter gets bogged down by administrative tasks.  The mom who is gifted and called to women’s ministry has no choice but to homeschool.  The child-trafficking rescuer has a nervous breakdown because he has no one to help him work through the trauma of what he is facing.  Missionaries are particularly prone to burn-out.  Could this be partially because they are trying to do too many jobs themselves? 

I’m all about strategy in missions, and it’s important for churches to be careful in their vetting process of potential missionaries.  But can we expand our idea of what strategy means?  Missionaries, as an extension of the Church, must function as the Body of Christ.  Could the Western Church function by only hiring evangelists?  I realize that mission work can have different goals than churches back at home: Missionaries are working ourselves out of a job; they are doing everything they can to replace themselves with national believers.  But to get there, they need the Body of Christ. 

We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.  (Romans 12)

The legs can’t do anything without the arms and fingers and neck.  So go out today and find your nearest missionary accountant or counselor or MK teacher.  Join their support team.  Encourage them in their pursuit of their calling.  Affirm their value to your church or your team.  And remind them they are never second-class.


White Privilege in Western Missions


“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

– Arundhati Roy

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I am an Asian American, born and raised in the States, a child of immigrants. Growing up, my faith was deeply influenced by Western Christian thought, but always experienced in the context of immigrant churches. Ethnic identity, far from being ignored and irrelevant to my faith, was recognized and celebrated.

Then I became a missionary.

And my ethnicity that was once recognized and celebrated within the minority church now frequently left me feeling ignored and irrelevant within the predominantly white missions community.

Something is rotten in the state of Western missions when the very communities that are meant to proclaim God’s inclusiveness seem to make people of color feel other and less than.

I’m not talking about outright prejudice. God willing, we have moved beyond mistreatment that is conscious, deliberate, or blatant. But I am talking about subtle ways that people of color are disenfranchised.

There was that time I heard about an all-expense paid retreat for women on the field. Excited about the possibility of a fun and relaxing trip away, I found the promotional video online and eagerly watched it. But my heart sank as the video only featured frame after frame of white women. I knew immediately that this retreat was not designed with me in mind. I was not even on their radar, much less on their screen.

Then there was the time that our missions agency was considering mobilization of internationals. Leaders from around the region gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of such an endeavor. I and other minority members expressed our apprehension of recruiting locals into a primarily white organization, citing concerns about expansionism and assimilation.  I was thankful that we were given a voice in this decision. But I was mistaken. Instead of hearing our reservations and taking time to reflect on the alternatives that we suggested, a task force was immediately formed at the end of that meeting to move ahead with the plan.

And just earlier this year, I discovered that a missions blogger writing under an Asian pseudonym was actually white. Honestly, I felt betrayed. I had been encouraged by the recognition of this Asian blogger, seeing it as a sign of the strides taken within Western missions to listen to the perspectives of people of color; only to have the rug pulled out from underneath me when I learned that the blogger was not a person of color at all.

I think of my father, who has written countless books about missions, is a sought-after speaker for conferences, and has five decades of ministry experience as a missionary, pastor, professor, and mobilizer. Go anywhere in the world and ask any believer with my ethnic background, and they probably know of him. Yet very few white missionaries have ever heard of his name.

It’s experiences like these that have taught me …

We are invisible.

Our perspectives are ignored.

Our voices are unheard.

Instead, we are replaced by those with power and privilege.

Even (and perhaps especially) in missions work, the resources that are used, the ideas that are disseminated, and the methods that are implemented are most likely created, introduced, or advanced by white men.

While their intentions are undoubtedly benevolent, this comes at a cost. When those with white privilege are the only people with influence, people of color inevitability feel stripped of power. When theirs are the only voices we hear, people of color feel unheard.  When there is a lack of representation and diversity within the missions community, people of color feel dismissed.

These seemingly benign acts of commission and omission seem trivial taken on their own, but when experienced day after day, what we hear is “I don’t need you.”  The message we receive is that we are weaker, less honorable, and unpresentable.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).

As a member of this body, my responsibility is not only to honor others, but to call out dishonor when I see it. I am not only to care for others, but to bring awareness when there is division. I’m not simply to rejoice, but to invite others in when I suffer.

So I write this to bring awareness to the marginalization that many people of color experience within the sphere of Western missions. I write this as an unveiling of tender wounds. I write this, not to point fingers, but to ask you to suffer with us.

Resist the desire to defend. Reject any shame you may feel. Refrain from problem-solving prematurely.

These will only prevent you from truly suffering together with us.

Instead, listen to our stories and our pain. Step into our shoes. Grieve with us.

By acknowledging the disparity, empathizing with our feelings, and understanding the injustices we have to endure, you begin to replace the damaging messages we’ve received.

Instead of invisible, we begin to feel seen.

Instead of ignored, we begin to feel known.

Instead of being silenced, we begin to feel heard.

Perhaps this simple act of com-passion — “suffering with” — will be the very thing that sets us on the path toward greater unity and healing.


Grace Lee (a pseudonym) is a California native who is church planting in Asia with her husband and two kids.