by J. Michael Kuiper
Does prolonged missionary presence foster dependency in national churches?
Mention "missionary work" and many people immediately envision a scene from a book such as Peace Child or Through Gates of Splendor. The missionary who travels to a primitive culture to teach the gospel to previously unreached people certainly performs an important type of missionary work, replete with unique challenges and dangers. But those of us in the "old fields" — where a young missionary may visit a church twice as old as he is — rarely face problems as dramatic as those of the frontier missionary.
However, the pioneers have left us a task as difficult and as crucial as their own: We must help the established churches to grow without allowing them to become dependent on us. It is vital that we recognize and confront the problems inherent in that work before they produce doubts that erode our joy and undermine our effectiveness.
While the frontier missionary may tremble before savages, at least he has no doubts that they need to hear his message. The "old field" missionary, on the other hand, faces a debate that questions the very validity of his work.
Numerous signals indicate that unchecked missionary sending to established churches may actually inhibit their growth and maturity. Awareness of this negative possibility has spawned much mission dialogue in the last several decades. Younger church bodies have complained of paternalistic patterns. Tired of watching the missionary call all the shots, they wanted to be able to stand on their own. During the ’70s, the idea of a "moratorium on missionaries" became popular, and many missionaries went home. During our first year in the Philippines, I discovered a quote from a Filipino to the effect that the best contribution a missionary could make at that time was to go home. Needless to say, I was disheartened.
However, the discussion forced me to confront difficult issues. Does prolonged missionary presence foster dependency in national churches? Can it inhibit the development of indigenous forms of worship and ministry? I came to see that these things not only could happen—they do happen. Yet I was—and am—certain that I could make a valuable contribution to an established church. I am convinced that the solution lies not in the elimination of our ministry, but in the revision of our ministry.
It’s axiomatic that the goal of a discipling missionary is to produce strong indigenous churches. The corollary truth is perhaps less obvious: One does not produce strong churches by doing their work for them. The missionary comes to strengthen and to build. These are action verbs. Yet the dire need of the national church is to strengthen itself.
When an athlete works out in the weight room, his own muscles gain bulk. Each time he competes in a game, he sharpens his own skills. So, too, when the missionary preaches and organizes and inspires and leads, his own skills are honed. His own reputation is advanced. Beyond the first phase of church planting and nurturing, it’s a simple contradiction in terms to speak of the missionary working to build an indigenous church. As long as he builds it, it’s not indigenous.
The missionary, then, must relinquish his leadership role. Failure to step aside leads to dependency. By-products of this dependency include inferiority and resentment, which reinforce passivity, cripple initiative, and prevent new adventures in faith. Unfortunately, missionaries may inadvertently feed the self-doubt of nationals. As long as he stays in a given field, a career missionary will, almost by definition, transmit to the people of that field the clear, if unspoken, implication that they need continual help.
Imagine that your own denomination or seminary regularly imported West German church experts and theologians. As soon as one arrived or could handle English, he would go right to work at the top level of teaching and management – even if he were considerably younger than your own leaders. Sound a little unreasonable? If I argued that German theologians are more advanced than Americans, would it seem less unreasonable? Probably not.
Now consider the countries where a similar situation actually exists. That situation is the source of frustration and resentment. Often, however, we may be unaware of this. Local believers may be unaware of it themselves. Or perhaps they may have learned to label such feelings as unchristian and simply repress them. Furthermore, they are unlikely to express their resentment directly for fear of appearing ungrateful, or of alienating a benefactor. The large difference in financial resources compounds this problem.
THE CULTURE BARRIER
The problem of financial difference is basically one of culture difference. No matter how pure his motives or diligent his efforts, the missionary can never fully rid himself of the liabilities of his original culture.
When I first boarded a plane bound for the Philippines, I thought of myself primarily as a member of God’s kingdom. I repudiated much of my American culture. I hoped not only to become familiar with the Filipinos, but to be accepted eventually as "one of them."
In the Philippines, however, I discovered it was impossible to go for even a day without consciousness of my American identity. My color and size alone automatically triggered images of the Western world. When people in the Philippines see a Westerner, they immediately conjure up stereotypes of money, status, and freedom, or, perhaps, of bigotry and imperialism.
For the most part, though, Filipinos like Americans and tend to look to America as a source of succor and expertise. Some call this the "colonial mentality." As representatives of an "advanced culture," leadership and dominance fall all too easily on us. In our eagerness to contribute, we may supplant another, who was too self-deprecating to assert himself.
We have already noted that our wealth, which can be used as a powerful tool in the Lord’s work, can sometimes be a liability. Difficulties can also arise from another unexpected area-education. The excellent education of most missionaries can further the development of a top dog/underdog dependency. Advanced degrees elevate the status of the missionary, while correspondingly lowering that of nationals, who are less likely to have them. Self-consciousness and feelings of inferiority follow.
Probably the worst possible by-product of local comparison to highly educated missionaries is that educational attainment may come to supplant spiritual gifts as the prerequisite of leadership. When foreign experts are present, the potential national leader sits back. He is reluctant to take over unless he feels he can match the missionaries’ experience and education.
Furthermore, except in the unlikely event that he has more such qualifications than the missionaries, he will feel obligated to carry on the worship service in the same style as his foreign predecessor. The accent is on "doing it right"-living up to the foreign standard-rather than on responding creatively to grassroots need.
THE EXAMPLE OF PAUL
The desire of the nationals to control their own church ministry is valid. Few missionaries would deliberately inhibit the progress toward that goal. Yet such inhibition occurs. The missionary-sending system itself may be partly to blame.
In Roland Allen’s classic Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, he argues that Paul deliberately stayed only a short while with young churches and never sent his experienced co-workers to take leadership positions among them. He did not want to cripple their own initiative or sense of responsibility.
If all the work-evangelistic, educational, social-is concentrated in his hands, the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they first learned the gospel… A tradition very rapidly grows that nothing can be done without the authority and guidance of the missionary. The people wait for him to move and, the longer they do so, the more incapable they become of any independent action…
Paul did not send career workers to established churches- neither to pastor them, nor to visit their sick, nor to evangelize their rural people. According to Allen, the work of the church in any area is the responsibility of the Christians belonging to that area. Paul avoided many of today’s missions problems from the beginning by making the local converts responsible for the growth and discipline of their own people.
Bruce Olson’s work with the Motilone Indians of South America provides us with a good illustration of Paul’s missionary principles in action. Olson has been the only missionary to the Motilones since he began working with them in the mid-60s.
The Motilones at that time were a people straight out of the Stone Age. Although they were known to kill all approaching outsiders, Olson was obsessed with reaching them. He went to the Motilones representing no special power, abilities, or financial resources. When the Motilones first found him, in fact, he was half starved and very sick. He spent the first few months flat on his back; having nothing, he lived off the people for a long time. Indeed, for most of his career, he seems not to have provided for himself in food or lodging.
Olson made only one convert-a close friend with leadership potential. This young man in turn led an old wise man to Jesus during a 14-hour-story-telling and singing ritual. Together, these two then converted the other Motilone villagers.
Olson taught his friend Scripture and he, in turn, taught the others. Olson never offered any format for worship, nor any advice on Christian ethics; privately, though, he worried over the Motilone’s callous disregard for one another’s suffering. Eventually, their attitudes changed as the Holy Spirit worked in their lives. Although Olson translated the Bible, he was never thought of as a spiritual leader. When on occasion a Motilone asked his advice, he told him to ask the elders.
Though knowledgeable in both agriculture and medicine, Olson again managed to avoid an "expert" role. One time, half the tribe had become desperately ill. Olson had the appropriate medicine. But rather than distribute it, he tried to convince the witch doctor to dispense the medicine along with the other rituals.
When he could not do this, he deliberately contracted the disease himself and asked the witch doctor to give him the medicine. When he got well, Olson at once gave his gratitude to the witch doctor, who now eagerly dispensed the cure to the others. Since then, medical stations have been set up throughout the hundreds of miles of Motilone territory-all staffed by Motilones.
After Olson put the language into written form, schools were established-all with Motilone teachers. Education was accepted because Olson at first refused to teach the children, even though they were eager and fast learners. Rather, he taught the old men. In this way, he did not disrupt the leadership system, or threaten the elders’ position of wisdom and status. After the elders had learned a bit and identified with the process, they endorsed and promoted the educational system.
Although Olson’s experiences were unique, we can learn a lot from his methods. Olson established no institutions that were dependent on him or on any outside worker for maintenance. Not only were North American standards not applied, but the tribe was largely protected from awareness of those standards. The people lost neither their sense of dignity nor independence by comparison to a dominant, superior culture.
Our "old field" missions, of course, cannot change their beginnings or erase their mistakes. But we can take several practical steps toward making those fields what they ought to be.
1. Leadership training. If a missionary is not to rob the nationals of the chance to develop their own spiritual muscles, he must confine his work to sharing and training. A Korean writer has said that the training of nationals should be the only task of today’s missionaries.
As the missionary focuses on leadership training, he must eschew leadership roles. By doing so he escapes many of the conflicts we’ve discussed. He can unabashedly exhibit a paternalistic style, because only his students are affected. He can pour himself into his work, because it directly builds the skills of those who will continue to lead and minister when he is gone. Confining himself to the role of teacher, he reinforces his students’ ability to serve their own people. If someone wants the benefits of whatever skills the missionary possesses, he must wait for the students to provide it.
I have tried to follow these principles in counseling training. I’ve resisted opportunities to establish a counseling ministry myself, or to give workshops and seminars on marriage, depression, or other topics in which people have shown interest. Instead, I’ve been investing the majority of my time in training 15 pastoral counseling students. At this point, the advanced students have already gained their own clientele, established two small counseling centers, and given many talks and seminars.
2. Affirmation. Paul’s style was to affirm repeatedly the strength, value, and responsibility of the indigenous churches (e.g., Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 1:5-7; Phil. 1:3-6). In affirming national strengths, we must avoid comparing them to a North American model of competence.
3. Giving and receiving. Mutuality, partnership, and mature relations do not develop when one entity only receives or only gives. Reciprocity is essential. Let us beware, lest our financial independence makes us insensitive to the nationals’ need to give to us-and our own need to receive from them.
A relationship in which we are continually giving and never receiving is unnatural. It leaves us open to a distorted image of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, and robs us of the blessing of receiving. Let us be willing to receive. Furthermore, let us be humbly willing to share our emotional and physical needs with our national hosts. This will build reciprocity and safeguard their dignity, as well.
4. Flexibility. Recently, the people of a national denomination decided they did not want a certain missionary to continue to serve in their churches. The appropriate leaders asked that he not return to the field. The mission refused the request. Convinced that they knew what was best for themselves, the nationals insisted. The mission simply replied that "when we hire a missionary, we hire him for life." Not about to bend their will or their policy, they then confiscated all the buildings, vehicles, and equipment that still legally belonged to the mission. What a tragedy!
Missionary sending should not be haphazard. Missions and national bodies should discuss first the precise nature of a need. We should not send people indiscriminately, as if there were so much work to do that they can fit in anywhere. Possibly, fewer career workers and more short-term people will best meet the needs.
Also, it should not be assumed that funding will come with the missionary. The local body is probably not ready for a new project or missionary until they have raised at least a percentage of the cost. This financial commitment will ensure the people’s active participation and investment in the work.
Finally, it must be said that these are not iron-clad rules that fit the unique needs of every situation. Faith, flexibility, and patience must supersede our rules and policies.
Above all, let us not forget the greatest ministry paradox of all: "Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit" (John 12:24). This is the call of the missionary to an "old field." It is a call to die to reputation, goals, and expectations, so that the national worker might live and thrive.
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