Neal Cushman, CGO Projects Coordinator
My dad, Walton Webber Cushman, was an inventor. In his lifetime, he produced more creative concepts than could be understood, not to mention be assimilated by his contemporaries. With hundreds of U.S. and international patents to his credit, Dad knew what it meant to truly innovate in the world of industry. He invented guidable parachutes, engines, transmissions, ice breakers, all-terrain vehicles, residential furnaces, and even a type of eyeglasses.
One of the lessons that I learned from my dad was the value of recognizing good ideas. He felt that if someone had a good idea, it would not get off the ground until another person recognized its merits and supported the idea. Dad famously spoke about inventions like the ball point pen, invented by László Bíró in the 1930’s. This revolutionary writing tool changed the way that people communicated in print material, yet it was not until the mid or late 1940’s until Milton Reynolds, a businessman from Chicago, supported the idea, putting it into production for the American public. So a really good idea—some say the most successful invention of all time—sat dormant for a number of years until another person recognized it as a good idea.
However, some ideas are not winners. Thomas Edison created a concrete piano early in the twentieth century, much due to his desire to get a piano in every American household. They would be cheap and virtually indestructible, but they sounded terrible. Thankfully, knowledgeable musicians pushed back against this bad idea.
My point here is directly related to missions in the twenty-first century. There are many ideas about how to complete the Great Commission that are being circulated and tested by missionaries, seminaries, and mission agencies. Churches may or may not be aware of these approaches, but I think that it would be safe to say that they often do not have a leading role in deciding which ideas are good and which ones are bad.
For instance, some voices in the world of missiology are saying that since it is so expensive to send American missionaries to the fields of the world, we should rather seek out local believers in each culture and pay them instead to do the work. By this approach we could support half a dozen or so local workers for what it would take to support one American missionary.
Good idea or bad? If the church has not educated itself regarding this topic, how would it know? Since there is a significant volume of literature that has been written on this subject in the last twenty years, the church is culpable for not knowing about the issue. It is not my intent to answer this question that I just raised, but rather to challenge believers to engage in missions education.
What was the title of the last missions book that you read? Are you aware of what missiological trends are being discussed today? What are children hearing about missions in Sunday School? Do we have a strategic plan for our missions program in our church?
All of these questions point to the need for the church to educate itself in how to fulfill its role in completing the Great Commission. Of course, since you are reading this blog, you have already demonstrated that you are doing this—evidently I am “preaching to the choir!”
If you believe that the church owns the responsibility for accomplishing the Great Commission, then I think that you would agree that it should take the lead in missions. It follows, then, that it must educate itself. Good idea or bad?
Mark Vowels, CGO Director
This week, we will consider the second missions mistake – ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the assumption that my culture is better than the culture of others. A connected idea is paternalism, which is treating others like children in need of guidance and care in all aspects of life because they do not share my culture, technology, or education.
Yet the glory of the Gospel is that it is transcultural. Following Jesus is not about where you were born – it is about where you are going. The goal of missions is not to reproduce ourselves – it is to reproduce Christ. When the Apostle Paul traveled to Corinth or Ephesus or Thessalonica, he did not endeavor to reproduce in local converts the patterns of Jerusalem Christianity. He taught them to follow Christ in their own environment, not to merely reproduce what was familiar to himself.
In order to follow Christ, new believers in any locale do not need to experience Christianity in the same way I did in my Christian journey. That is, they do not necessarily need to engage with the same worship style, the same music, the same summer camp adventures, the same Christian activities, and the same style of preaching. Our goal must never be to reproduce our own experience with the idea that it is superior to theirs. Our goal must be to authentically represent Christ and permit the Gospel to produce genuine, New Testament Christianity arising from the soil of their culture and reflecting their application of the Scripture to their situation.
Far too often, even today, we assume that our expression of Christianity is the standard which should be applied to all people everywhere. So we send missionaries who teach people how to be American Christians in Africa, or China, or South America, all the while forgetting that the body of Christ is intended to be a beautiful mosaic of peoples from every tribe, tongue and nation who are becoming Christ-like within the fabric of their own culture. Christianity in places like Timbuktu should not be a replica of Christianity in places like Greenville, South Carolina. Both should be authentic expressions of Christianity developed within their respective cultural settings which effectively reach into their respective societies.
The danger of promulgating ethnocentric attitudes is that it results in a local form of Christianity which is culturally foreign and therefore difficult to reproduce. If a missionary believes that in order for Christianity on the mission field to be authentic it must be a replica of his church back home then he will be consigned to remain in place until he can sufficiently “Americanize” converts who will continue to practice their faith “correctly.” This explains in part why it is so common for missionaries to plant a church and remain there as the pastor for decades. Further, if becoming a Jesus follower is perceived as embracing foreignness, an obstacle to the Gospel is established which has nothing to do with its core message.
Hudson Taylor, who was a prototype of contextualized missions, ate and dressed like the Chinese because so many there viewed Christianity as a foreign religion. He wanted to demonstrate that one could be fully Chinese and also fully Christian. So when a ethnocentric mindset missionary today seeks to replicate on the field the forms of Christian expression that were familiar to him at home because he
believes they are “better” or “more biblical” or “more godly”, he is in reality working against the essence of the Gospel itself because the Gospel is not perfected by any particular culture.
The days of carrying organs into the jungle so that people could “properly” worship Jesus are gone. We don’t expect missionaries to build red brick buildings with white columns and steeples so that people can fellowship “properly.”
Yet far too frequently, missionaries today continue to harbor the notion that the only proper way to follow Jesus is to recreate the experiences of their homeland by importing as much of their culturally conditioned Christianity as possible. They believe they are doing right. They believe that everyone should experience Jesus just as they did. But they fail to recognize that the goal is not to make Timbuktu like Greenville or Christians there like Christians here.
The goal is for Christians everywhere to be like Jesus.
Mark Vowels, CGO director
This month we are considering missions mistakes that should not be repeated. Our first area of focus is on colonialism. To say that colonialism represents a missions mistake requires some explanation.
Colonialism is the political and cultural domination of one nation by another, generally accomplished for the sake of exploiting the resources of the subjugated country. Not all colonialism should be viewed with absolute negativity. As an American, I am glad that England colonized “the New World,” though I would not excuse the historically shameful treatment of America’s indigenous population.
Let’s be clear about the relationship between missionary expansion and political colonization in the 15th through 19th centuries. Geographically, the Gospel spread throughout the world more during that period than in the fourteen previous centuries combined. Although political colonization had many negative aspects, it was clearly used by God to take the message of salvation to the peoples of the world in an unprecedented way. For that, we should rejoice.
Many of the heroes of our favorite missionary biographies operated in their respective fields as a result of political colonization. I’m thinking of William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Mary Slessor, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, David Livingstone, and a host of others. All were able to go as missionaries to their destinations because of the advance of the colonial powers into Asia and Africa. So this post is not intended to decry the many evils of the colonial era without celebrating the advancements made for the Cross during that epoch. Almost every missionary today stands on the shoulders of his colonialist predecessors.
The mistake of the colonial era missionaries was not that they went forth as part of a colonialist expansion, nor may we criticize them unfairly for their colonialist attitudes since every person in every era is essentially a product of his or her own time. Nonetheless, their mistake was in presuming that the dominant, or sending, country’s culture was superior to the exploited, or receiving, country’s culture.
The nearly universal assumption during this period was that since the target people were not Christians they would need to embrace both the Gospel’s message (received from the colonial powers) and the Gospel’s culture (which was presumably that of the colonial powers). Surely, it was reasoned, since the Gospel had already affected the culture in the missionary’s homeland, it would be beneficial to the recipients of the Gospel to adopt the missionary’s home culture as part of being a disciple of Jesus.
The missionaries of that generation risked a great deal and sacrificed enormously to travel to regions infested with diseases and dangers. But they were almost always guilty of ethnocentrism and paternalism. We will discuss those more next week in our second post on missions mistakes.
The problem with colonialist missionaries was their thought that in order to follow Christ a convert needed to become British, or German, or Dutch, or American, or something other than what he was born. The presumption was that it was not enough to accept the missionaries’ Jesus, the natives must also accept the missionaries’ lifestyle. To be a true Jesus follower, the new converts needed to learn to dress, eat, play, read, worship and serve according to the model provided by the missionaries from the superior land.
We are past the period in history when political colonialism was wedded with missionary expansion. Nonetheless, colonialist attitudes often persist. And this is where mistakes are made, and where we need to be ever wary.
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.