The very worst missionaries?

Over the last week we’ve been reading “The Very Worst Missionary” a memoir by Jamie Wright who was a missionary in Costa Rica for 5 years. It’s a really readable book (warning: it uses some colourful language) and raises many questions about the whole way that global missions are done.

There are three things that stick out to me:

  1. Missionaries don’t always help. Sure they get stuff done that wouldn’t otherwise happen, but how much do they really help change people’s lives? If we were not here nearly everything we do would stop; but then people might start to figure out other ways to work and improve their lives, other ways to grow and develop churches. These other ways would be more sustainable, more culturally appropriate and completely owned by the local people. Just because you feel that God has led you to this place to do this particular work doesn’t mean that the local people want or need it.
  2. Short term missionaries (by which I mean those visiting for a couple of weeks) get a false impression. People have learned how to respond (if you run a preaching campaign and do an altar call some folk will respond because they want to honour your presence. These same folk will do it next time someone else comes as well. For some local organisers making your trip a success is their business and how they earn a living so they will work to make it feel worthwhile for you). People are always grateful and thank you, even if they didn’t want what you came to do / share. And if you are not careful your giving, doing, blessing can short circuit the local economy and longer term development.
  3. Most newsletters and mission organisation publicity paints a rose tinted picture. A brief conversation I might have with a neighbour becomes ‘thank God for the opportunity to share the gospel with Ronaldo’ and many missionaries quickly learn that stories of need / missionary response are good for fund raising. Even better if it has a picture of a child with eyes wide open and looking poor and dishevelled.

Beyond the questions raised by the book our work here adds another challenge. In developing a training course how do we work to ensure it is responsive to what the students really want not what well-meaning people from Europe (or Lima) think they should need.  We also want to teach and train in a way that combines good adult learning techniques with culturally appropriate practices. And anyone who thinks that we just need to teach biblical principles needs to take a long look at themselves in the mirror: for while there are principles in Scripture our reading of them is so culturally conditioned that our list of principles is nearly always culturally adapted.

Some might think that questioning every aspect of what we are doing is a bit over the top. Surely, we just need to get on with what God has called us to do and accept that as fallen people it will not be perfect. While there is some truth in this, the reality is that questions make us dig deeper, grow our understanding and appreciation of the situation and context, and push us to develop more appropriate ways of living as followers of Jesus. We owe it to the people we live alongside, those we seek to serve and to God to do the best we can; to seek to be the very best mission workers we can be and not to be among the ‘very worst missionaries’.

Mission isn’t easy but it is not impossible: we can inspire people to move forward, we can help them see what resources they have; we can provide fresh perspectives and new things to try. We can open peoples’ minds to Scripture and help them to read and understand it for themselves (or share it with those who don’t read). Our presence and relationship can encourage people and, even if our work is loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage, bits of it communicate enough to plant useful seeds. God is at work here as in every part of the world and sometimes he even uses gringos with poor Spanish. We have the privilege of joining in with what the Holy Spirit is up to providing we are willing to be humble, listen and serve.

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