Are We Being Paternalistic When We Talk about ‘Missions’?

By Michael Sweeney

There are problems with the word, and many are beginning to talk about them. We do well to understand what some hear when we say “missions.” But that doesn’t mean we should curtail cross-cultural evangelism.

11_Sweeney_JN“That’s not ‘PC’!” Have you ever had to deal with that “politically correct” criticism after saying or writing something that inadvertently offended someone because of a set of connotations you did not share? My reaction, when this has happened, has ranged anywhere from frustration to despair to paralysis. How does one even begin to keep up?

As a missionary and teacher of missions, I remember having to make the shift from “Third World” to “Two-Thirds World” to “Developing World” to “Majority World.” The first of these only made sense in the context of the Cold War; “Two-Thirds World” was just plain awkward; and what nation, honestly, can call itself “developed” instead of “developing?” Even with valid reasons behind the changes, there were some intense debates over each of these phrases, and I have no confidence that the matter is settled. Indeed, disagreements about the underlying meanings of words and phrases have pitted well-meaning Christians against one another for most of the history of the church.

The problem is a natural consequence of the messiness of language. Meaning is not so much contained in a word as it is within the experiences and associations of the people who are speaking or hearing that word, and our experiences and associations all differ. If someone is offended by a phrase you have used, it is quite likely they have had a different, and far more negative, experience with that phrase than you have. Thus we spend a great deal of time talking past one another and trying to defend our choice of words instead of actually sharing ideas.

In the paragraphs that follow, I want to assure you that I am a strong proponent of cross-cultural ministry. I served as a missionary for almost 15 years in Papua New Guinea. I’m helping to educate and prepare people to go all around the world as church planters, Bible translators, international campus ministers, pastors, educators, and other representatives of the kingdom of God today.

So when I speak of the problems related to the use of the word missions, it is not because I have given up on the idea behind it. It is because there are problems with the word, and Christian leaders are beginning to talk about them! Regardless of how we choose to allow those problems to affect our vocabulary, it behooves us, as communicators of the gospel, to be aware of what some people may be inferring when they hear us talk about missions.


Not in the Bible

Before anything else, we need to understand that the word missions is not found in the Bible. The closest equivalents to our words mission and missionary can be found in words like apostleship and apostle, where they refer to someone being sent out with a commission from God, Jesus, or the church. The Latin Vulgate Bible uses forms of mitto (Latin for “send,” from which the English word mission is derived) when Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the kingdom, but those are verbs, not nouns such as when we speak of “Christian missions.”

Renowned mission theologian David Bosch noted that for most of church history the church referred to its outreach efforts as “propagation of the faith” or “preaching the gospel” or “expanding the church.” Indeed, we find no support for the term missions within the church until the end of the 16th century, when Jesuits began using it to refer to the Christian enclaves they established. As Spain and Portugal divided the world into their respective colonies, the Roman Catholic Church sent along its own delegates, who were called missionaries, to Christianize the new world as it was being conquered.

So the connotations that were originally attached to the term missions were as much political as spiritual. It was a part of the effort of the conquering nations to subdue and civilize their colonial subjects. And while 21st-century Evangelical Christians may not think of missions in those terms, there are people around the world for whom those colonial associations have not been lost. Oppressed people can have a very long memory! What we think we mean when we say “missions” may not be what they are hearing.


The Baby and the Bathwater

In 1972, shortly before I began thinking about becoming a missionary, the World Council of Churches called for a moratorium on missions. Partly because of negative, colonial associations regarding missions and missionaries, and partly because of some less-than-admirable practices on the part of a minority of people involved in missions, many church groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America connected the notion of Christian missions to ideas of Western superiority, dominance, greed, arrogance, entitlement, and racism, and asked that the church in the West give “missions” a rest for a while.

Some mainline denominations withdrew from the mission field altogether. It was a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, those groups that opted to continue in their missionary work have seen God do marvelous things in the last 40 years. This is not to say, however, that the problems ceased to exist. Withdrawal from cross-cultural ministry was certainly an overreaction—but the call for a moratorium should have, at least, nudged us all to reflect on our attitudes and ways of relating to our non-Western brothers and sisters.

So how prevalent is the problem of connecting the word missions with Western colonialism today? The answer to that question is a bit complicated. If we are thinking of the expansion of political boundaries, as when the nations of Europe competed for territories in Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific—probably not so much. There are old wounds there, to be sure, but the age of colonial expansion is long past. But if we are thinking of cultural expansion and issues of Western control—then we’re starting to touch a real sore spot.

Think for a bit about what goes on in a person’s mind when he talks about “missions.” There’s the idea of a church or agency in one country sending people to a different country to help the people there in some way that they are unable to do for themselves. The person or people being sent are assumed to have expertise, knowledge, or skills that will help the people to whom they minister overcome some major problem. Perhaps these people have not heard the gospel. Perhaps they do not have the Bible in their own language. Maybe the greatest problems are for economic development or medical help. Maybe they are lacking in some of the basic needs, such as potable water or nutritious food. Regardless, the missionary is there to help them. So what is the problem with that?


The Answer is Twofold

First, there is the perception of an inequitable relationship. You have the senders and the receivers, the helpers and the helpless, the skilled and the unskilled, the educated and the ignorant, the (dare I say it?) superior and the inferior. You can see the problem. People, it turns out, do not appreciate always being on the receiving end. They want to be able to contribute something. They want a relationship based on mutual respect and reciprocity. We all do.

This is the very difficulty addressed by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts. They list five kinds of paternalism the church has been guilty of in its efforts to help others: resource paternalism (trying to solve other people’s problems with our money and material resources), spiritual paternalism (we do all the teaching about God and they do all the listening), knowledge paternalism (our knowledge and expertise is always best), labor paternalism (we do the work that others could do just as well for themselves), and managerial paternalism (we take charge and put efficiency first). If people associate the word missions with this kind of lopsided relationship, we should not be surprised when the welcome mat is withdrawn.

Second, people who speak of “missions” often betray an outdated understanding of “sending nations” and “receiving nations.” At one time there was some validity to the concept. Not anymore. Whereas a century ago only one-third of all professing Christians lived outside of Europe and North America, today three-quarters of all Christians are non-Western. Every year the missionary workforce becomes more Asian, African, and Latin American. National boundaries mean very little.

We like to speak of “mission from everywhere to anywhere.” To divide the world into “sending nations” and “receiving nations” is to distort reality. We are now a part of a truly global church with a global workforce.

So what do we do with this? Do we try to eradicate the word missions from our vocabulary? Should all congregations start calling their missions committees “global outreach committees”? Do we go back and change (again!) the name of the International Conference on Missions to something else? Heaven forbid! Without a doubt, whatever we change it to will be questioned by someone, somewhere.


But I Do Have Three Suggestions

• Be gracious and understanding. Once we understand the complexities of the issue, we need to avoid any hint of defensiveness when someone challenges our use of the word. It may be that we will have to adjust our terminology in certain contexts. We need to be willing to do so when necessary.

• Prove them wrong. If people associate missions with paternalistic attitudes, let’s create some healthier associations for them.

• Keep the bigger picture in mind. God continues to reach out to the world through his church. We are a part of something much more important than debates about words, agencies, strategies, or personal opinions.


Michael Sweeney is president of Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He worked as a Bible translator and translation consultant with Pioneer Bible Translators from 1991 to 2005.

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