Ducking Missionary Conflict in Africa and Beyond

by Jim Harries

Interpersonal conflicts frequently trouble missionary endeavors.

Interpersonal conflicts frequently trouble missionary endeavors. Solutions advocated often emphasize the importance of missionary relationships. Without discrediting those “solutions,” I want to ask whether Western mission strategies in “poor” areas of the world themselves result in a high likelihood of conflict.

I suggest that much conflict peculiar to the mission field can be traced back to wealth and power imbalances between Euro-Americans and the citizens of poor countries. Classically, new personnel condemn old hands for their failure to share closely with the poor. Pressure from the West increasingly encourages wealth-sharing as a part of evangelism. Wealth-sharing is nowadays written into most Western missionary endeavors to the Majority World (e.g., subsidized medical provision, scholarships for theological education, financial support for church buildings, provision of free literature, instruction in computing, etc). The patron-client relationships created by such activities significantly impact our interaction with one another. Recipients can be embarrassed by their increasing dependence. At the same time they are wary not to communicate that which might undermine the charity that makes them prosper.

Linguistic Usage and Inter-missionary Conflict
Linguistic usages tend to follow the contours of economic domination. That is, European languages become strong where there is material dependence upon European peoples. Recipients soon learn that knowledge of the foreign language is lucrative. In much of Africa this trend has become deeply ingrained. Many African countries’ formal operations are carried out in foreign (to them) languages. It has become “normal” for missionaries to operate in their language (especially English-speakers), even when in “foreign parts.” What implications does this have for inter-missionary conflict?

Neither the material dependency nor the linguistic-harmonization described above are new to the history of humanity. But recent technological advances of many kinds are new. State-funded near-universal education in Western languages and the availability of books, television, and radio allow “poor” citizens around the world to learn European languages without contact with Europeans. European languages are increasingly being used by non-Western people as native tongues, meaning that English words are given meanings rooted in very un-English contexts. As a result, the cultural content of the European language used in communication between missionary and foreign national is less and less familiar to the missionary. Language barriers, the crossing of which requires cultural learning, are no longer there. However, use of the same language that is underpinned by vastly different cultures may not be achieving mutual understanding.

Major sources of conflict arise as missionaries acquire different depths of cultural understanding. Upon hearing familiar “sounds” (words), uninformed Western personnel will attach familiar meanings from their source cultures. More knowledgeable missionaries will have learned the “actual” meaning of what is being said. (A classic example of this is time. For example, what does it mean to say that a meeting in rural Africa will begin at 10:00 am?) Yet in most cases, there is no provision for translation from one English to another—or even formal recognition of this problem. Instead, assumed meanings clash and missionaries are at odds.

The economic dependence that underlies the universalizing of Western languages further aggravates the above problems. Foreign nationals may be as ignorant as missionaries of the presence of “two Englishes.” A missionary’s home culture is usually less visible to the foreign national than is their culture to the missionary (i.e., a missionary can meet people in their community context, but the missionary’s own people are far away). At the same time, conceding that they do not “understand” as well can be an economic and social disaster (not to mention, embarrassing) for non-westerners.

In certain countries, conceding that one does not understand what an English-speaking foreigner is talking about is admitting to being a fool in one’s own society. Should foreigners realize that they are not being understood, that could threaten future donor funding. This is even truer during a time when short-term visitors expect to accurately assess the advisability of a donor-funded project through dealing entirely with local people. As a result, pretentiousness, concealing of truth, and corruption to cover one’s tracks are often encouraged.

Missionaries acquiring their understanding from local people in these sorts of traps will hear different things. Conflicts will easily arise between those who are conscientiously defending their varying notions of appropriate action. The determination of many mission groups to work in “partnership” adds to overt attempts at ignoring linguistic and cultural differences. Short-termers rarely have sufficiently deep exposure to foreign languages and cultures to enable them to perceive these issues. Their ignorance is underpinned by the lack of awareness of sending churches in the West.

Avoiding inter-missionary conflict requires clear communication. However, for a non-westerner to speak a Western language is to conceal their culture from view. Perhaps it should be recognized that there is more than one English. Probably more helpful is for a missionary to learn to use the local language fluently. Ministry is then best conducted in that local language. To avoid closing the mouths of local believers, a missionary should not personally invest in or be accountable for foreign finance into their project or ministry. Following these guidelines could cut out much inter-missionary conflict.


Dr. Jim Harries served in Kaondeland, Zambia. More recently, he has served in Louland, Kenya, where he teaches Bible and theology using various East African languages to reach out to indigenous churches. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission.

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