Decoupling Missionary Advance from Western Culture

by Gene Daniels

A veteran missionary offers three suggestions westerners should reflect upon if they want to participate in the next great advance of the gospel.

I toyed with giving this article the title “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Missionaries to Use Means for Decoupling the Gospel from Western Culture,” but I decided against it as I imagined an editor’s horror at such a long-winded title. Nevertheless, I still wish I could use it as a way of linking this article to William Carey’s famous booklet, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, not because it is on anything close to the same level, but because it intersects Carey’s thought at three important points:

1. The de facto link between the gospel and Western culture has grown so strong that missionaries are now obliged to use what Carey called means—concrete actions—to decouple them. Passivity and wishful thinking are no longer an option.

2. Like the Protestant Church of Carey’s day, we have become complacent about one of the most pressing spiritual issues of the day. In our case it is the distortion of the gospel message caused by Western culture’s long monopoly on world mission.

3. Perhaps most importantly, like those stirred by Carey’s words, I believe we too are on the verge of a new era in world mission, but need a bit of a push to move outside our comfort zone and reach for it.     

However, all this talk about William Carey may be getting ahead of ourselves; none of it makes any sense unless we first agree that something is wrong with the current situation. Some people are likely to ask, “What’s the big deal about missionary advance being closely associated with Western culture? It hasn’t seemed to hurt us too much thus far.” There are many reasons why Western missionaries should carefully consider the kind of cultural baggage they import with the gospel. One that has gained quite a bit of attention lately is Christianity’s shifting center of gravity. Eminent scholars such as Philip Jenkins (2002, 2006) and Lamin Sanneh (2003) have convincingly argued that Christianity is rapidly returning to its roots, becoming a Majority World religion. Their writing points to a not-too-distant future when discussion about the merits of a Westernized approach to mission will be almost irrelevant since the majority of Christians (hence the sending base of future missions) will be Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia.

But this call to seriously begin decoupling mission from Western culture does not come from the perspective of the Church’s future, no matter how rapidly it is approaching. Rather, it is an appeal rooted in an immediate concern of growing anti-Westernism.

Angry at the Western Juggernaut
A few years ago Meic Pearse raised a number of unpleasant questions in his book, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. In it, he accurately identified the driving force behind anti-Westernism:

Very many, especially Third World, people have the sensation that everything they hold dear and sacred is being rolled over by an economic and cultural juggernaut that doesn’t even know it’s doing it…and wouldn’t understand why what it’s destroying is important or of value. (2004, 35)

What bothers me most about this statement is not that it is generally true, but that it is often as true of Christian missionaries as it is of diplomats, generals, and international businesspeople. Of course, the gospel brings social and cultural changes to receptor societies; however, the careless and insensitive way missionaries often treat the things that others “hold dear and sacred” is disturbing. The rapid advance of Western culture, riding globalization as a wave, seems to have caused an epidemic of amnesia among Western missionaries, causing us to forget our roots.

From Paul’s heated arguments at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to Hudson Taylor’s scandalous experiments with Chinese dress and pigtailed hair, Christian missionaries have an honorable and ancient history of cultural adaptation for the sake of advancing the gospel. Yet today, many Western missionaries seem quite unaware that our careless cultural imperialism is causing more resistance to our mission than the facts of the gospel themselves. As the great juggernaut steams ahead, running over whatever gets in its way, Christian mission is perceived as part of the “Western package deal,” and not without reason missionaries are often a bit fuzzy on this matter themselves.

A dear friend and mature Christian leader in Central Asia once asked me, “Evangelism, democracy, and free markets—aren’t they all the same?” He then sarcastically added, “I don’t think most missionaries even know the difference.” Unfortunately, this cute Russian rhyme loses a bit in translation, but the main point still comes through for many Western missionaries: their mission is unthinkingly intertwined with projections of our cultural and political power.

Raising Awareness
But that is enough. West-bashing a little goes a long way. I am not trying to prove that the West has culturally mistreated the rest of the world; rather, I am arguing that since this is how much of the world already perceives it, we in the mission community need to take the matter seriously. One of the ways we can do this is to start disconnecting our presentation of the gospel from the Western package of democracy, individualism, and free-market capitalism. I realize this is a tall order, something akin to asking the leopard to change its spots; however, that does not change the fact that this is one of the most pressing issues facing Western missionaries today.

But assuming we actually want to do this, how can we begin to decouple the presentation of our faith from the culture that shaped our worldview? As with many social problems (and the presentation of the gospel as a servant of Western culture truly is a social problem for the mission community), the first step is to raise awareness. Perhaps this would be a good time to offer an example.

I know a hard-working missionary who had some success in winning young college men to Christ in a small Muslim city. He is well aware of the need to apply biblical insight and sound theology to his goal of developing local leadership for the church he is planting. However, he seems completely unaware of the strange spectacle he makes of himself as he bicycles around this same town in a helmet and bright-colored spandex bike-wear. Furthermore, the sight of his mountain bike and culturally inappropriate clothing is just one facet of his lifestyle that screams of contemporary Western culture. Despite several years on the field, he seems completely unaware that his behavior is providing his Muslim neighbors with irrefutable evidence that the gospel and “offensive Western culture” are one and the same. The real problem is not his choice of attire, but that he is unintentionally confirming the warning repeated in mosques across Central Asia that Christianity represents a horrible clash of cultures and must be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, this unholy union between the gospel and Western culture seems to come as second nature for many of us. As a result, the gospel becomes tainted with all the negative aspects of Western culture because missionaries are unwilling to sort through their personal baggage to determine what is cultural and what is biblical. It is clear that the first step toward decoupling the advance of the gospel from Western culture is for the mission community to become more aware of the issue.

A Return to Bi-culturalness
Besides wearing a pith hat for a halo, the stereotypical missionary is completely bi-cultural enjoying a plate of boiled sheep lung as much as a cheeseburger. While some missionaries do come close to this, I fear the basic idea is driven by a serious misnomer. Often people at home, and even missionaries themselves, believe that bi-culturalism is a fait accompli just because a person lives overseas for several years. But this is simply not the case.

Adapting oneself to a new culture and worldview is never easy, and it does not happen automatically. Due to globalization, in many large cities of the world missionaries have the option of living in a quasi-Western bubble. They shop in Western-styled grocery stores, wear up-to-date Western fashions, maybe even take their kids to McDonalds on a regular basis. The unpleasant truth is missionaries who uncritically follow this kind of lifestyle are unlikely to become bi-cultural.

However, rather than picking on the obvious extreme cases, this should serve as a reminder to all of us that we need to stop letting transnational corporations dictate our behavior. A missionary’s choice of lifestyle is just that—a choice—and one that we should be much more deliberate about since it sets the tone for much of what goes on in the rest of our ministry. I am not asserting it is morally wrong for missionaries to live a thoroughly Western lifestyle in the Majority World—this is not my call to make. But I am saying that such a choice can be massively harmful to the cause of Christ because it distorts the meaning of the gospel. Therefore, we must reclaim bi-culturalism as a goal worth working toward as we negotiate the meaning of incarnational ministry in a globalized world.

Practical Steps
This discussion about raising cultural awareness and returning to bi-culturalism in mission is an important starting place, but we must go much further. We need to use what Carey called means, the taking of practical steps, to release the progress of world missions from its bondage to Western culture. Since we are talking about reversing a major trend, any changes we suggest will go against some of the prevailing logic that led us to this point. Therefore, with great trepidation I will now offer three suggestions that westerners in particular should reflect upon if we want to participate in the next great advance of the gospel, especially into resistant areas such as Buddhist and Muslim lands.

1. Raise the bar on short-term missions. An important first step in dispelling some of the Western odor from our presentation of the gospel would be curbing the explosive growth of short-term missions. In the past twenty years, for instance, the sending of short-terms missionaries from North America has increased by 290%, as compared to a 9.8% gain of long-term workers in the same time frame (Jaffarian 2008). I am not anti-short-term missions; in fact, it can be an authentic expression of the gospel mandate and a significant help to the goals of long-term missionaries. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not. More to the point, the amount of cultural baggage most short-term missionaries carry to the field is so cumbersome that the balance of their presence is negative.    

I remember a colleague from Singapore who was living in a small Muslim village. Early one morning she was rudely awakened by her neighbors complaining that “some of your people” were causing a scene in town. She had no idea what they were talking about, but they insisted she go and take care of the problem. At the bazaar she found a large short-term mission team acting and looking like visitors at a zoo. A large group of local people looked quite annoyed by the group’s inappropriate clothes and non-stop clicking of their cameras. My colleague had never met these people, nor were they from Singapore. But since they were from a similar East Asian culture (thus sharing general physical characteristics), it was assumed they were somehow connected to her presence in the village.

Unknowingly, this short-term team caused a serious setback to a long-term worker’s efforts to be accepted by her Muslim neighbors. While it may be too much to expect the short-term team to have been aware of her presence in the city, it is not too much to have expected more culturally appropriate behavior. Perhaps the real problem is not so much the personnel on short-term missions, but the kinds of teams we in the field are willing to facilitate. I was recently reading a secular internet site moderated by someone who has spent as much time in Central Asia as I have. On it was a blog about Christian missionary activity in the region. Overall, the comments were fair and positive; however, one author pointedly noted: “I have my own annoyances with Christian missionary activities (especially the way they often are little more than adventure Bible camps for pampered children), but missionaries themselves are not necessarily bad people.”

The reality is short-term missions often do look something like an “adventure Bible camp,” and whether we like it or not, people are watching. But these kinds of short-term trips would simply not happen if we would learn to say “no” to groups that will not clearly advance the cause of the gospel. The resulting decrease in spurious short-term teams would go a long way toward reducing the negative cultural impact caused by the short-term mission phenomena. I should say that I am well aware of the role short-term missions plays in recruiting long-term workers, and that some have claimed that up to twenty-five percent of the long-term mission force comes from short-term missions. Rather than being unaware of this, it effectively brings us to my next point.

2. Send fewer long-term workers. I know this sounds almost heretical, but could it be that our efforts to maintain recruiting levels for new missionaries is counterproductive to the spread of the gospel? Several years ago, I had a chance conversation with the president of a large North American mission organization while he was visiting Central Asia. Over the course of dinner, he and his wife candidly shared some of their concerns; they wondered aloud about the quality of recruits they were drawing into their programs.

What I did not see then is clear to me now: the root of their problem was not so much the quality of their mission recruits; rather, it was the quantity. Stop and consider their problem from this angle: I have no doubt that a large, well-endowed mission agency can easily secure ten or twenty top-quality recruits each year—people who would willingly adapt to new cultures and sacrifice their own cherished ways of life for the sake of the gospel. But if their organizational ethos requires that they find fifty or one hundred such recruits each year, then the real problem is quantity, not quality. Multiply this by dozens of mission agencies and we quickly realize the problem may have much more to do with quantity than it does quality.

What do I mean by “quality” missionary recruits? I am talking about people with the ability and the willingness to cross cultures (not simply distances) for the sake of the gospel. As we have already explored, more and more missionaries are finding it easy to retain their own culture even after moving great geographic distances. And when missionaries make this lifestyle choice, they inadvertently give the impression that the gospel is no more than an extension of Western culture. Therefore, as harsh as it may sound, unless a person is willing to sacrifice a deep part of his or her cultural identity, the world mission movement might be better off if he or she stayed home.

This is not to reinforce the false stereotype discussed earlier about missionaries as bi-cultural saints in pith hats. Even the best of missionaries have limits as to how far they can go along the difficult road of cultural adaptation. But I fear that in the push to keep the recruiting pipelines full, we have accepted too many people who are quite limited in the ability, or even willingness, to shed the cultural package they grew up with. This is a huge obstacle to the growth of the gospel, particularly in places where people are chafing against misguided Western-culture imperialism.

3. Stop recruiting Majority World personnel into Western-based mission agencies. Since I have already attempted to slaughter a couple of sacred cows, I will raise my knife against another for the sake of the unreached world. A disturbing habit that has become quite common in world mission is the practice of recruiting talented local personnel into our Western-based mission agencies. Although many organizations who do this talk of being “international” organizations, it has been my observation that they are usually very Western in organizational culture, patterns of ministry, and models for sending their missionaries. I wonder in what way they are “international” except in the nationalities of their staff? Yet based upon supposedly international values, these agencies draw the cream of the crop from local churches into their training schools and discipleship programs. This is rationalized as a means of encouraging “local mission,” but in reality it is nothing of the sort. In actuality, they end up functioning as recruiting mechanisms for these agencies, harming the development of local mission more than helping. Consider the following scenario, which I have seen repeated many times in Central Asia:

A young Muslim background believer is recruited into a certain “international” (read: “culturally Western”) mission organization. Almost immediately, her manner of dress changes as she attempts to model her new teammates. Her lifestyle changes as she starts eating their foods and attending their regional conferences. Soon, she is fully extracted from her culture and marginalized in her society. Now, her social circle has as many westerners, if not more, than her own people. Thus she loses many of the connections that previously marked her as a potentially great missionary evangelist. In short, she ends up becoming a “Muslim background believer” with little of her “background” left to draw upon.

This sad scenario has long been a problem in the Muslim World—something that used to be called “extractionism.” In years past, the scope of this error was confined to Westernized local churches; now, we have extended it into mission! I have long wondered what would happen if, rather than recruiting these fine national leaders into our mission organizations, we encouraged them to start their own. It would be far better for us to help young mission-field churches develop their own patterns of sending missionaries that are well-suited to their socio-economic situation, thus keeping their missionaries embedded in their own culture.

Around the world, people seethe as they watch Western culture run roughshod over many of the things they hold dear; unfortunately, the world mission community is often complicit in this assault. All too often, Christian mission is seen as serving the interests of Western cultural imperialism. For most missionaries, this link is unintentional; therefore, I have urged that the way to start addressing the issue is to simply raise awareness. This would also remind us that being truly bi-cultural is a worthy goal, despite the easier options offered in a globalized world. Beyond that, I have suggested that we seriously consider taking some painful steps to de-Westernize the face of world mission by:

• A tough re-evaluation of the short-term mission movement.

• Focusing on quality, not quantity, in the recruitment of long-term missionaries.

• Encouraging the development of Majority World sending agencies instead of skimming the cream of the local crop into our own organizations.

I find it ironic that these issues are coming to a head at the same time the Western Church is rapidly losing numerical superiority and global Christianity is looking more and more like the Majority World religion it was in the beginning. Concerning this shift back to its roots, Jenkins contends, “The task for modern theologians is to strip away the Western accretions, to recover a gospel, that, in the modern world, is returning to its natural social setting” (2006, 48).

Although he is writing of theologians, his comment is just as relevant to missiologists. The time has come for us to “strip away the Western accretions” from our mission practice. As we attempt to do this, there is much we can learn from the rapidly expanding Majority World Church Jenkins describes. Their models and methods might even be the keys that unlock dynamic church growth in the places that need it the most—among Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. Even the possibility of such a glorious moment should be enough to urge us, in the words of Carey, to inquire into our obligation to use means to decouple mission from Western culture.

Jaffarian, Michael. 2008. “The Statistical State of the North American Protestant Missions Movement, from the Mission Handbook, 20th Edition.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 32(1):35-38.

Jenkins, Philip. 2002. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_______. 2006. The New Faces of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pearse, Meic. 2004. Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2003. Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.


Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family have been serving among unreached Muslim people groups in Central Asia since 1997.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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