Criticism of Missionaries: Just or Unjust?

Missionaries have been criticized for a wide variety of reasons:

Political

In China, they came in with the European gunboats, which forced open the door to trade, including the import of opium. This led to one humiliation after another, and it was hard for Chinese to distinguish missionaries from their governments.

Especially galling for Chinese was the French government’s support for political rights for Catholic converts and their foreign missionary sponsors. Catholic bishops had legal jurisdiction in some cases greater than the local officials.

Missionaries sometimes have worked for foreign governments or companies, like William Carey in India and Robert Morrison in China.

Religious

When missionaries come with a different religion, they provoke the hostility of adherents, and especially “priests” of the indigenous faith, even if it is a “secular” one, like Confucianism.

Conduct

Some missionaries have lived at a level consistent with their position at home, but entirely out of reach of most of the people around them in their host country. They have provoked envy and resentment for this reason.

Others have displayed cultural or national pride, looking down on all aspects of the local culture and not appreciating any elements of it that might come from “natural revelation.”

All too often, missionaries have held on to power within churches far too long, stifling the rise of local leadership. They have also exercised control through their management of finances donated from overseas.

In some countries, missionaries have lived together in “compounds” that isolate them from the local inhabitants.

Cultural

Some anthropologists and champions for indigenous cultures resent any impact from outside, including the introduction of a faith that will challenge, and perhaps displace, much of the local culture.

In fact, Ralph Winter and others have shown the Protestant missionaries (and to a lesser degree, Roman Catholic emissaries as well) have been the most effective in purifying cultures of baneful practices (such as foot binding in China and widow-burning in India) and protecting, or even indirectly reviving, stronger elements within native cultures. In many cases, the coming of Christianity has led to a revival of the original culture (19th – 20th century India, Ming China, etc.).

Sometimes, missionaries have introduced “reforms” in one element of a culture, without realizing that all cultures are complex, coherent systems, with mutually-interdependent components. Thus, to change one practice without replacing it with a functional equivalent can leave a dangerous void or create a destabilizing dis-equilibrium.

Missiological

All too often, and especially in the last twenty years, foreigners have presumed to go to different cultures to “share the Gospel” without taking time to learn the language and acquire even a rudimentary understanding of the culture.

The craze for short-term “missions” trips has led to a short-term mentality, or perhaps it reflects such an approach. At any rate, thousands of zealous but ignorant folk, most of them eager youth, have “led people to Christ” without the slightest idea of what, in fact, the “convert” was thinking as he said the prayer to “receive Christ.”

Especially in China, this has produced some real conversions but many shallow, even spurious “commitments to Christ.”

To compound this error, one large organization – perhaps the largest – has trained its people to use a “one size fits all” evangelistic booklet that leads to quick “decisions for Christ” which may or may not be genuine. To think that a short tract produced in America can be simply translated into another language and used effectively is to deny all that missionaries have learned over the centuries about the need to understand the worldview of the people whom you are trying to evangelize, and to adapt your presentation accordingly.

Perhaps the greatest threat to really effective missionary work today is the demand for numbers – converts and churches – without regard for what these numbers really mean. Quantity, not quality, is the measuring rod.

Closely associated with this fundamentally-flawed approach is what often lurks behind it: A felt need to impress donors and raise money. Indeed, the race to promote one’s own ministry in order to finance its operations seems to infect almost all phases and aspects of modern American missions, especially in some organizations.

The hype that results from, and feeds, this focus on funds has led to some absurd claims about people “won to Christ” in China that any reasonable person would have to question. When Mammon rules missions, deceit cannot be far away.

Nor can competition. Missionaries have also been criticized for giving the impression that theirs is the only work in a given area when, in fact, many others may be plowing the same field.

This often produces a plethora of competing efforts which confuses the locals. Which brand of Christianity is the true one? It certainly misleads the homeside supporters.

Examples:

  • Education for women, without a corresponding instruction in Biblical subordination, can create huge tension in traditional, male-dominated cultures. See “The King and I” as a classic case.
  • Calling everyone by his first name, or treating everyone the same, in a hierarchical society can break down important boundaries delineating power, prestige, and privilege, thus upsetting the norms of conduct and throwing original power relationships off balance. Example: In my seminary teaching one year, I told students not to bow to me at the beginning of each class. The result was chaos, rudeness, and loss of order. The next year, I had them bow. They simply did not know how to eliminate a ritual without also discarding the respect which it was intended to express.
  • Missionaries who are ignorant of the culture and language may put locals at risk by asking dangerous questions (I did this once in class), revealing information that should be kept secret in that society, relating to subordinates or superiors in inappropriate ways, engaging in direct confrontation rather than indirect resolution of conflict (again, “The King and I” gives a graphic illustration).
  • Once, I answered the question, “Should we obey our parents”” with “Of course!” The next question, “What should I do when my parents tell me to marry a Buddhist?” I had to eat my words fast!

On the other hand, lest we label all missionaries, especially those from the West, as total failures, we should remember a few facts:

The church has been planted around the world in the past several hundred years through the faithful, often sacrificial efforts of thousands of Western missionaries, many of whom have learned the language, identified with the people, and shown great humility.

Local believers tend to be very grateful for the sacrifices that missionaries make, and gracious and forgiving towards their many errors. The Gospel enables them to forgive what is bad and accept what is good. In this way, they often surpass their teachers in holiness, to the glory of God.

Missionaries from non-Western nations have been guilty of all the same errors listed above. Koreans, for example, are notorious for cultural blindness. Those who have not tried to relate cross-culturally for several years in a foreign land should be careful in criticizing those who do make that effort. It is not easy!