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.
*If RSS feed is not working for you, please add it to your app or software manually by adding this url:
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.