by Jim Reapsome
Problems of adjustment overseas are not going to get any easier. Most missionaries know the trials of language and culture, of red tape and revolution.
Problems of adjustment overseas are not going to get any easier. Most missionaries know the trials of language and culture, of red tape and revolution. But a new trial is coming from an unsuspected source, and it’s one that’s very hard to get ready in advance to meet. In fact, in our moments of euphoria we don’t look at the growing wave of missionaries from other countries as a trial at all. We like to think that they will play a major role in world evangelization in coming decades.
But now we’re beginning to see the missionaries from Korea, the Philippines, India, Nigeria, and Brazil, for example, as something more than an unmixed blessing. They are testing us in a way we never thought we would be tested. The trial they bring to us cuts right to the heart of our missionary attitude. In the end, these missionaries will be a blessing, not only because they add to the total missionary force for evangelization and nurture, but because they will force us to look deeply inside ourselves and examine our motives.
Until now, our Western agencies have thought about the nuts and bolts of working together with missionaries and mission agencies from the traditional receiving countries. We have argued long and loudly, with great heat and passion, about our methods and plans of cooperation.
We have wondered, Shall we aim for a set-up like the United Nations? Shall we aim for something much more modest, like an annual conference?
It is important and valuable, of course, to devise grand strategies for amalgamation, union, integration, internationalization, or whatever. Every Western agency must face up to some kind of multinational arrangement. The days of unilateral mission are finished. Peter Hamm’s article in this issue gives ample reasons for that fact.
But beyond the organizational charts out on the front lines are wounded, pouting, confused, disillusioned missionaries, trying to cope with the trial of working side-by-side with and under missionaries who don’t get their orders from America or England. We have always muttered to ourselves that one of the sorest spots in missionary life is getting along with one’s fellow missionaries. Now we find we have to get along with fellow missionaries who come from a different country than our own. Listen to the conversation with Eun Moo Lee in this issue and see what it’s like from a Kerean missionary’s perspective.
Similar comments to Lee’s about the superiority complex of Western missionaries can be found in articles, reports and surveys from other sources. We need to take them seriously, most of all because that kind of attitude goes largely undetected by those who have it-and we all have it to some degree at least. It’s part of our upbringing to think of American ways as better.
In missionary work, we’ve been at it a lot longer than the Koreans and Nigerians, for example, so obviously we have a lot to teach them about how to do it. We’ve gone around the world starting churches and institutions galore. Many of them we have relinquished to local leaders. But still we struggle with how to be servants and how to accept and work with missionaries from churches that in many cases owe their own existence to previous generations of American missionaries.
It’s American to be doing bigger and better things more effectively than anyone else. It’s also American to be giving and giving and giving, without receiving. Part of our missionary motivation is to give, first the gospel itself, and then literature, medicine, education, technology, and so on, to say nothing of vast amounts of cash. Much of our giving is sacrificial. But along the way we have never learned the grace of receiving.
By and large, missionaries of other countries are not going to confront us about our superiority complex. For one thing, they want and need our continued help and cooperation. For another, some of them are still beholden to us in ways that would not make it smart to bite the hand that feeds them. To keep getting assistance requires continuing to take a low road and accepting a low profile. That in itself is a miserable condition, but one that flourishes for many complicated reasons.
We must learn to get along with missionaries from other countries, not simply to do the job of world evangelization, but because Christian character demands it. Dominating spiritual imperialism is just plain wrong. We can’t assume we aren’t afflicted by it just because our missionary brothers from another culture don’t tell us we have it. This insidious infection requires daily detection and treatment. We all need to visit the Upper Room quite frequently, to take up the towel, as it were, and wash the feet of our fellow workers from other countries.
While we are doing that, we will not only be cleansed of the sin of superiority ourselves, but who knows, we may also learn a few things from them about how to do missionary work in a more fruitful way. We have no corner on methods and strategies.
If we take the role of humble servants at the feet of our Korean, Nigerian and Brazilian brothers and sisters, we can share as equals, learn different points of view, gain mutual stimulation, and get answers to roadblocks that have stymied us for years, in spite of our Western know-how. By doing this, the trial of the new wave of missionaries from other countries will turn to our greater blessing and to the advancement of the gospel and the church.
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