I’ve rubbed my boney shoulders with lots of former and current missionaries, been through 2.5 years of cross-cultural training through New Tribes Mission, and have heard of some of the most beautiful examples of the Body of Christ in an indigenous context among people who, just a generation ago, were afraid of the spirits.
Unfortunately, in Papua New Guinea and even among the people group where I work, I’ve witnessed the destruction that untrained, undisciplined missionary-efforts cause on cultures and lives.
Here’s a quick example:
Around our village years ago, 6-8 different denominational “churches” were planted at different times in hopes of saving the nationals from their sins. Without learning the heart language and culture, and hoping to work faster rather than building a solid foundation, they quickly marked national pastors, gave them some Bibles in a trade language, and claimed to get people “saved.” I’m sure there were wonderful photo opportunities, and the message sent back to their home church was “Mission Accomplished!”
Not so fast, Jack.
They didn’t do the work of evangelists, because the message the nationals heard was completely different than what the missionaries intended to communicate. Interview any one of these church leaders and 100% will tell you that salvation comes through participating in church activities and following each denomination’s pet Laws.
In one church, as long as you avoid smoking and come on Sunday, you’re saved. In another it’s firmly believed that white people killed Jesus on the cross and got all of his power and the key to material possessions. You’ll find some “church” leaders called upon to remove evil spirits from land that will accomodate a new home in the near future. Some of these men will participate in sorcery killings.
These were well-meaning missionary efforts, but the damage that was done has lasted much longer than the good fruit produced. “We’re good people,” one man told me. “We follow God’s Laws and have all heard God’s talk.” This, coming from a man who just the month prior to our conversation beat his wife to a pulp.
If a missionary isn’t willing to slow things down just because he wants some quick, shoddy results and cool Facebook pictures, the dude needs to reevaluate why he’s even going overseas. Truthfully, between you and me, it would’ve been better if he hadn’t gone at all.
If I were thinking about supporting a missionary, here are 5 things I’d be asking first:
1. Have they been trained for cross-cultural ministry?
Individualistic Societies vs. Community, Time-Oriented vs. Event-Oriented, Modern vs. Animistic — if a missionary hasn’t done the work to deconstruct the way he’s sees the world versus a man in a hut in a 3rd world country, he will make all kinds of false assumptions. How do you learn culture to appear more natural? How do you learn a new language to sound less foreign? How do you introduce and teach an entirely new Biblical worldview in order to replace the old, faulty one? Does he know how to translate the Bible in a way that communicates truth?
Every missionary will make mistakes, but to avoid the long-term, destructive ones, they need to be trained well, and meet some people along the way who have done it. I expand on the “yuuuuuuuge” -ness of training here.
2. Have they received a Biblical education?
This one is obvious. Your missionaries should be comfortable and able to defend their theological bend, and should have been taught the full counsels of God. Not only that, an accurate understanding of suffering, marriage, ecclesiology, and Satanology is absolutely necessary for your missionary’s long-term prospects.
3. Will they learn the culture and the language first?
Imagine if we hadn’t learned that our people believe that whites killed Jesus on the cross. The implications and horrific misunderstandings we’d see later would be astounding.
Language and Culture are inextricably-bound, so if your missionaries insist on teaching in English, miscommunications will happen all over the place, and when they least expect it. Teaching and ministering in the heart language should always be preferred over secondary languages, for communication’s sake!
4. Do they teach the Bible chronologically?
God revealed Himself progressively to mankind, laying the foundations of His character, sin, Satan, and substitutionary atonement way back in Genesis, gradually adding more revelation over time to provide a clearer picture of the reality of the world.
This method takes time, but we want our missionaries to be master-builders rather than slapping together a few pieces of sheet-rock and cardboard, don’t we? This is key.
The vast majority of the world is animistic, that is, they believe the world is controlled by spirits that must be manipulated to achieve material wealth and harmony. To jump into the middle of the story of Jesus is to assume they already know what sin, death, and an all-powerful God is. Rather than uprooting the old worldview, your missionaries would be tacking on a Christian vocabulary to an animistic one, causing an innoculation to the truth.
People that seek to manipulate “God” for material wealth and harmony through power words and witch craft are not actually functioning as church. Yeah, we want to avoid that.
Are they teaching with translated Scripture so that the authority is God’s Word and not the missionaries? That’s a big one.
5. Are they making disciples or making dependents?
Do the people love the missionaries more than the Word of God? Would the church completely fall apart if the missionaries gave over the teaching to national, capable, believers? Are the missionaries ministering in a way that is replicatable, or do they use forms that, if the missionaries left, would be lost?
How do the people in the church identify themselves? Do they see themselves as the Body of Christ or members of the rich American’s church?
Finally, will your missionaries work hard to see their people reach their own people with the truth of God’s Word?
Well, these five questions are a pretty good start, and any missionary who’s done his homework won’t be bothered by these questions — he’ll be encouraged, and excited to inform and educate you.