I have seen a handful of social media posts online recently from mostly non-Christians calling out mission work as being akin to imperialism and colonialism: We are told that white Westerners go into a predominantly non-Christian culture with the mindset, not only of converting them to Christianity, but of assimilating them into forms of Christianity which force them to adapt to Western ways of doing life and church. Often, missionaries are unhappy, judgmental, and/or violent if they receive anything less.
Actions like these often leave people feeling skeptical about Christianity, scoffing at its hypocritical followers, and dismissing any opportunity to learn more. And I don’t blame them! Who would want to put their life’s faith into a system that encouraged such practices?
It’s true that Christianity has had a rough history with colonialism and crusading. Whether against the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the fifteenth century and beyond, the Japanese in exchange for foreign protection, many nations in Africa to prevent standing up against foreign abuse, or thousands of others exploited in the name of God throughout history, the twisting of the Scriptures has been used as a weapon, especially by the European state and the “Global North.”
And it’s not even history from long ago; my dad has told me about a US minister he knew growing up who prided himself on teaching people in rural parts of Africa that a tie was the only acceptable attire during worship. Even today, we don’t have to look far to see people imposing their own practices and traditions on others in the name of Christianity. It’s disgusting, misrepresentative, and absolutely not what the Bible teaches.
Throughout Scripture, God has spoken against twisting God’s instructions in ways that place unnecessary obstacles between people and God.
Romans 16:17-20 says people looking to cause division and create extra obstacles are not serving Jesus but themselves and that they look to deceive the unknowing through smooth talk. 2 Peter 3:16 talks about ignorant and unstable people who twist the Scriptures, causing their own destruction.
Of course, the Pharisees, scribes, and teachers of the Law are clear examples of people who knew the Scriptures to a degree and misdirected people; in Matthew 23, Jesus tells the people not to do what they do because they have unbearable burdens they try to lay on others. Along with these cautionary examples, there are many Scriptures warning followers to not be swayed by false teachers but only by the pure gospel (Acts 20:28-32, 2 Peter 3:17, Galatians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Revelation 22:18-19, Romans 16:17-20, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, and more).
The “Great Commission” is the text on mission work most people turn to, where Jesus’ final command to His followers was to go throughout the world, teaching and baptizing people in His name, with His guidance until the end of this age. I’ve heard many teach on this passage and say the Greek word for “go” should probably be better translated in English as “while you’re going” or “on your way.”
The implication is that, instead of feeling like you must go into a foreign country to teach, you can do so right where you are. And absolutely that is true! We see tons of examples of that throughout Scripture; listing those examples would pretty much be just quoting the whole Bible, really. It’s also helpful to note that whenever Jesus or Paul went into a city to teach, they first went to the synagogue to address and teach their own people, who already were familiar with the Old Testament (Matthew 9:35; Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16; John 6:59; and Acts 9:19-20, 17:2, and 19:8).
This is not, however, to minimize the importance of foreign missions. Yes, they can be done incorrectly, forcing one’s culture onto another or establishing a sort of holy hierarchy. But if done correctly–with humility, openness, gentleness, and truth–foreign mission work can be beautiful and strengthening to the kingdom.
Part of the beauty of the New Testament is that salvation was not just for the Jews but for foreigners.
Jesus and His followers taught those foreigners in their midst (Phillip and the Ethiopian, Acts 8:26-40), but there are multiple examples of people also going into a different culture in order to simply spread the gospel. Jesus went to Jerusalem intentionally through Samaria and influenced the woman at the well (and therefore her entire social circle), and many of the apostles traveled throughout the corners of the known world, including Paul’s trip to Spain and Thomas’s trip to India.
For us today in the age of globalization, we can still follow these three models of missions.
- First, we can teach people in our own culture right where we are; even those who know about the Bible and the gospel may not have absorbed the life-changing impact these things entail.
- Second, we can also reach out to foreigners among us whose cultures may or may not be familiar with biblical ideas.
- Finally, we can go out into other non-Christian cultures to share Jesus.
All of these have a precedent in Scripture.
A couple crucial questions Christians need to be aware of is this:
How can we reach out to people who have a different background than ours without patronizing and pushing our personal systems onto them? Where are the connections between God’s truth and the thousands of diverse cultures around the world?
One answer is with another question: Who made those diverse cultures? If the Scriptures are indeed God-breathed and if God’s heart is to save all people, then wouldn’t it make sense that His Scriptures would somehow encapsulate and address practices of peoples that God created from around the world? Of course it makes sense! That’s the beauty of it; the Scriptures don’t need Western commentary. God’s Word is powerful enough as it is. The parable of the sower and the seed is basic teaching of this: you plant on fertile soil, and God delivers the increase.
Most of the foreign Christians I now know were influenced at least in part by a foreign missionary.
I think of my friend Ming from the Philippines who encountered a missionary from the US and was at first stubbornly uninterested. He believed Christianity was just another mythology. But after a while, he started to realize this was not a Western ideology–this was a divine truth. He began to follow Christ, attended a Bible college to learn more, and now goes throughout Southeast Asia to teach others and support other Christians.
Or I think of my dear friend Shelly who was originally taught by a foreign missionary who came to China. She and her husband now host and manage one of the underground churches in Hangzhou, and they are some of the strongest Christians I know in China.
Even my husband was taught by his college English teacher from the US, and while we are currently living in the US for my husband to gain some work experience, our plan has always been to return to China so that we can continue to share with people there. My husband especially has a passion to go back to his hometown to teach his friends and family.