Missionaries all over the world operate with low-level fear and anxiety. I’m not talking about the worry of losing visas or of being expelled from their country of service. Not necessarily the fear of persecution. Not the unease of health issues or the potential of disease in a location with poor medical care. Of course, many missionaries do live with such concerns, with fear of an unknown future. But what I’ve noticed over the years is that missionaries in all sorts of contexts live with a different kind of anxiety: the fear of our known past.
We’ve all heard about the abuses of colonialism and imperialism. We’re aware of missionary movements that have gone awry, converting people to a culture rather than to Christ. And we’re wary of making our own missteps, imposing faulty views or distorted practices that could outlive our ministries.
However, these legitimate concerns have sometimes led us to overcompensate. Missionaries from the West are now often self-effacing and self-deprecating to a fault. In our effort to develop ministries in other cultures that are self-sustaining and self-governing, we've somehow felt the need to reject our own selves and diminish God's purpose for us in that place. In such cases, we’re confronting a new hazard in global missions. It’s the danger of false humility, and I’ve found it represented in some common missionary aphorisms.
“In our effort to develop ministries in other cultures that are self-sustaining and self-governing, we've somehow felt the need to reject our own selves and diminish God's purpose for us in that place.”
“We’re no better than anyone else.”
Of course, there’s a significant amount of truth in this statement. Christians from the West are no better than believers (or unbelievers) from other parts of the world. Our large churches with large budgets are not greater than theirs. We’re of no more value to Christ. Inherited status, race, history, economics, and culture don’t make one superior or another inferior; we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).
However, that doesn’t rule out the complementary biblical truth that some are more mature in Christ. Some are set apart for service by virtue of their wisdom, godly character, and ability to teach. God has gifted his church with pastors and teachers and evangelists for the building up of the body (Eph. 4:11–13). Those leaders are not more significant than others—every member is crucial. Yet they are worthy of special honor (1 Tim. 5:17). So there is a kind of false humility when we talk as if there is no difference among us, when we fail to recognize the value of others with evident godliness and doctrinal acumen.
To be a disciple-maker is not simply to be a beggar showing others where to find bread. It’s to be a baker, showing others how to make bread. The apostles didn’t merely call their hearers to follow Jesus. They said, “Be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16). “Follow my example, as I follow the example Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). But you can’t make that call if you’re constantly telling yourself and others that your character is indistinguishable from theirs. Furthermore, if our lives are not worth imitating, then we may not qualify as missionaries in the first place.
“We don’t presume to be experts on theology.”
There is a real danger in going overseas to relieve “theological famine.” We can easily slip into paternalistic thinking and practice, belittling local believers in the way we communicate truth. We might even subtly assume that they are somehow incapable of sound theology. We can operate with smug confidence in Western thought and reasoning, while assuming their approaches are intellectually inferior. After all, one of the reasons why we go is widespread false teaching. But if we go with such an attitude, it’s a real problem, not least because Western theology is fraught with its own blunders and blind spots.
However, in response to this, some have swung the pendulum too far. Western missionaries are now tempted to downplay their biblical knowledge or theological training. Some also minimize the wonderful Christian heritage in the West and act as if there is nothing to learn from millennia of faithful witness and theological reflection. Now, instead of being smug, we're riddled with self-doubt. Not wanting to come across as authoritative, we might fail to teach with necessary doctrinal conviction. Some would also emphasize learning from the locals without challenging aberrant teaching or practice. And while those of us with significant training are not technically “experts” in theology, we do have something to offer. Actually, if there’s one thing we should have learned from church history and historical theology it’s that believers from all over the world can benefit from studying history and theology, in the very least so they won’t repeat our mistakes.
“We want to empower locals without imposing our views.”
One of the greatest errors in missionary history has been the tendency to create unnecessary dependence. Missionaries supplied too many financial, intellectual, or ministerial resources. They stayed too long. From the outset, they neglected or even ignored input from locals who were often willing to do whatever the foreigner asked. The result was sometimes mindless, heartless followership. Other times, locals acquiesced to foreign ministry practices which they knew were wrong or unhelpful.
Consequently, missionaries today shy from imparting resources or imposing views. The buzzword in missions is “empowerment.” We want to equip and enable indigenous ministry without leaving a Western cultural footprint. But, again, such a perspective fails to recognize our stewardship of the gospel, of material or financial resources, or even of positions in authority. Not only that, but it’s impossible to equip others without communicating ideas, without imposing some specific viewpoint. In fact, to empower by “leading from behind” is extremely Western.
“The locals can do it better; we just need to work ourselves out of a job.”
The dominant missionary mantra today is that we’re in this for the short-term. Locals know the language and culture better than we do. They have access to places we don’t. They can minister with greater effectiveness and do so on a much smaller budget. So our primary goal is to work ourselves out of a job. And, I would say, there’s much to commend in such a perspective.
However, I’m concerned that we’re in danger of false humility here as well, by diminishing our gifting and our long-term responsibility to the Great Commission. This happens when we support national missionaries but refuse to send our own. Or when we pull out too early because we prioritize rapid multiplication and local leadership. Though Paul instructs that novices and new believers should not lead churches (1 Tim. 3:6), we have often passed the baton before the locals laced their shoes. In many sad cases, we’ve evacuated before they were ready.
The lesson in all of this is that we must not allow our cultural and historical baggage to drag us into unhealthy missionary practice. To be an ambassador for Christ is to be a steward of his gospel. This involves accurately knowing and obeying the truth, faithfully communicating his word, and then entrusting it to other faithful leaders who will do the same (2 Tim. 2:2). Until then, our job is not complete.