Paulo Freire, an Unlikely Advisor for Short-term Missions

by James E. Plueddemann

The author considers if five ethical values presented by a left-wing, Brazilian philosopher can be used to better short-term mission trips.

Some would say that a humanistic, left-wing, Brazilian literacy teacher and almost incomprehensible philosopher would have little to contribute to the ethics of short-term missions. Paulo Freire has some harsh things to say about the Church and Christianity (see Freire 1985, 121). Should we listen to this radical educator? 

Surely it is good and right to send short-term missionaries around the world to build orphanages, conduct Vacation Bible Schools (VBSs), utilize evangelistic drama, teach English, and distribute food, clothing, and medical supplies to the poor. Jesus was sent to “proclaim good news to the poor…and release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18) and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).

Below I will look at some of the key concepts in Freire’s ethical values for helping people; analyze data gathered from the short-term experiences of a sample of seminary students and compare this with some of Freire’s ethical principles; and make suggestions as to how Freire’s ideas might be used to improve short-term missions.

Paulo Freire (1921-1997)
I met Freire at an Association of Professors of Religious Education meeting. He didn’t lecture, but sat at a table dialoguing with two other people and with the audience. At first, he spoke through a translator, but as he became more excited about the discussion, he couldn’t wait for translation and began to speak in a delightful Portuguese accent. After the meeting, I hesitantly made my way to the platform, took his photograph, and asked him for his autograph. He didn’t treat me like a silly autograph hound, but with dignity. I was moved by his presentation and his kindness to me.

Freire was born in Brazil, studied law and philosophy, and taught Portuguese in a secondary school. In 1946, he was appointed director of the Department of Education and Culture. At that time in Brazil, literacy was required in order to vote in presidential elections, so Freire emphasized teaching reading among the poor. After he taught three hundred sugarcane workers to read and write in forty-five days, the government of Brazil set up hundreds of Freire’s “cultural circles” to teach literacy.

As a result of a military coup in 1964, Freire was imprisoned as a traitor and later exiled to Bolivia and Chile. Apparently, the new government was threatened by the voting power of thousands of people living in poverty. He later taught at Harvard University and worked for the World Council of Churches in Switzerland. After Freire returned to Brazil in 1979, he became Secretary of Education for São Paulo. His most famous book is Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). I have found his book Education for Critical Consciousness (1981) an excellent way to stimulate the thinking of students in my classes. Freire died of heart failure in 1997.

I have several problems with Freire. His social gospel downplays the sinful nature of human beings, the necessity of repentance, the importance of faith in Christ for forgiveness of sins, and the objective revelation of God in the Bible. He promotes a theology of liberation without evangelism, and his educational practice doesn’t include Bible teaching and preaching (see Freire 1985, 121-140). The physical world is his only interest and he fails to appreciate time in light of eternity. These are not minor criticisms, but reach to the heart of the gospel. As we seek to apply Freire’s concepts in missionary applications, we must be sure to incorporate our own convictions about the Fall, sin, salvation through Jesus, the Bible, and eternity.

On the other hand, there are many aspects of his educational philosophy that need to be taken to heart. While his philosophy is inadequate, and at times dangerous, he holds to many ethical positions that are biblical and provide valuable insights for missions. While the following is greatly oversimplified, here are five of Freire’s ethical values that need to be taken seriously by short-term missionaries. 

1. All human beings have great value. Freire understands the dignity and inherent worth of persons. Throughout his writings, he challenges those who wish to help the poor to see them not as illiterate, illogical, and irrational, but as cultured human beings with the potential to change their environment (Freire 1981, 20). From a Christian perspective all human beings are created in the image of God, and even though fallen, have unimaginable potential to become all God created them to become. 

2. The poor and oppressed have dignity. During the 1929 Depression, Freire’s family faced serious deprivation and hunger. As Richard Shall writes in the Foreword to Pedagogy of the Oppressed,

This had a profound influence on his life as he came to know the gnawing pangs of hunger and fell behind in school because of the listlessness it produced; it also led him to make a vow, at age eleven, to dedicate his life to the struggle against hunger, so that other children would not have to know the agony he was then experiencing. (1970, 10)

3. All human beings have the potential to influence the world. Dehumanization is the process of preventing people from thinking, reflecting, and acting upon reality. Oppressed people are assumed to be objects. Freire writes,

For men to overcome their state of massification, they must be enabled to reflect about that very condition. But since authentic reflection cannot exist apart from action, men must also act to transform the concrete reality which has determined their massification. (1970, 20)

4. Those seeking to help people must first be concerned about their humanization.
Freire was exiled from Brazil because his success in teaching people to read also taught them how to think and reflect upon their world. Such thinking by thousands of newly educated people is dangerous for politicians who fear change. Too often, those who desire to help the poor contribute to their dehumanization by treating them as objects rather than subjects (human beings). For Freire, the true educator “incarnates the permanent search of people together with others for their becoming more fully human in the world in which they live” (1970, 96).

5. Teachers foster human development by compelling critical reflection on problems in the world around them. Freire is harshly critical of the common notion that education is the process of filling empty heads with information. Such teachers turn learners into mere “containers or receptacles to be filled by the teacher. The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better the teacher he is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are” (1970, 59). He calls this the banking metaphor of teaching and learning: “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world” (1970, 60).

Instead of the teacher as banker and the student as the bank, Freire calls for the teacher and student to come together in dialogue. The distinction between teacher and student is blurred: “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teaches” (1970, 67). Before Freire began literacy classes, he asked people why they wanted to learn to read, then created “generative words”—words that had phonemic richness and that related to the problems of the people. Next, he developed “codifications”—pictures that represented both critical literacy syllables and the problem situation. These were then used in discussion groups—or “culture circles”—to teach how the syllables built the words that encouraged them to reflect upon the problems of their situation.

In spite of significant theological weaknesses, Freire provides a partial framework for evaluating the ethics of short-term missions. Human beings have great value, the poor and oppressed have dignity, and all humans have the potential to influence the world. Those who would help the poor must first be concerned about their humanization and foster human development through compelling critical reflection on problems in the world around them.

Methodology and Sample
Are Freire’s ethical principles evident in short-term missions? In order to investigate the question, I surveyed 104 M.Div. students in a mission course. The surveys were conducted in Fall 2008 and Spring 2009. The students were asked to fill out a short questionnaire about their mission experience. Since the two groups represented a required course for all M.Div. students, it is likely that the sample represented the student body. Students were asked, “Have you ever served short or long term as a cross-cultural missionary?” If the student answered “yes,” then I asked, “Where did you serve, for how long, and what did you do?” Since most with short-term mission experience had multiple experiences, I analyzed the latest trip.

I also asked, “What were your goals?” The majority simply recorded what they did as their goal. For example, if the student reported that his or her activity was to conduct a VBS, usually the stated goal would also be “to conduct a VBS.” Perhaps I should have phrased the question, “What were the intended outcomes of your activities?” It might be an interesting way to further study the ends-means dilemma in ministry. Here are more observations of the sample:

• The average age was 28.4 years old (standard deviation 7.9), with the oldest student 62 years and the youngest 21.

• 87% of the students were male, which likely represents the gender balance of M.Div. students.

• 73% of the students (n=73) had at least one cross-cultural mission experience. Seven students had one year or more of long-term service and 63 students had three months or less.

• The average length of the trip for short-term students was 20.7 days, with the shortest being three days and the longest being 90 days.

I recorded the “what did you do” question on a spreadsheet and later made a judgment as to a category. Since many students did several things on the trip, the answer could be scored under as many categories as fit. 

The top category was evangelism, with twenty-eight students including it in the description of what they did. This included street evangelism, drama evangelism, basketball evangelism, distribution of tracts, and witness to students.

The second most recorded activity was construction, with twenty references. Examples included assembling a playground for children, making furniture for handicapped children, building houses for the poor, and constructing a church.

The third category was teaching and discipleship, with thirteen responses. Examples included teaching English or discipling students or women in the church.

The fourth category was children’s ministry and Vacation Bible School. I was surprised at how often VBS was specifically mentioned in the survey.

It is difficult to evaluate ethical qualities from quantitative data. Descriptive statistical quantities describe what is happening, while ethical statements prescribe what is good and best. If a student reports that he or she went to Mexico to evangelize children in a VBS, we don’t know if the student treated the Mexican orphan as a subject (a human being) or an object (a thing). Freire would want to know more. From his perspective, it would be quite likely that love for a poor child could be paternalistic and eventually become oppressive. Is love for the orphan primarily meeting the need of the short-term missionary, or does it humanize the child? Let us look at Freire’s ethical values in more detail.

All human beings have great value. From what I know about students in my classes, I have no reason to doubt that they realize both theologically and existentially that the people to whom they went to minister have dignity and worth. I’m sure most truly loved those whom they served. Unfortunately, there is only slight evidence in responses from the questionnaire that the students thought of the people to whom they went to minister as subjects rather than objects, in Freire’s terms. I suspect Freire would be highly critical of the common response of doing something for or to other people.

I’m sure most of the students understand that in God’s eyes, the poor have dignity. For example, one student reported, “I worked in an orphanage and shared love with children.” Another wrote, “I went to get to know a family and share the love of Christ.” Yet a substancial number of responses seemed to treat the poor as things or objects. For example, “I went to share the gospel and provide food for the natives” or “I built houses for the poor.”

All human beings have the potential to influence the world. While it is possible that the questionnaire did not provide opportunity for students to reflect upon this question, there were no indications that the students saw people as having significant potential. It would have been heartening if a student had written, “I went to help orphans understand their ability to change their situation.” I couldn’t find hints that short-term missionaries went to enhance the development of others. Freire would be most disturbed by this glaring shortcoming.

Those seeking to help the poor must first be concerned about their humanization. Freire proposes that all development is at heart the development of human beings. The agronomist should not primarily be concerned with soil erosion, but with helping farmers to understand how to become reflective practitioners about all of life (Freire 1981, 94). According to Freire, economic development is first of all the development of human beings. There is no indication in this questionnaire that M.Div. students understand helping the poor from a Freirian perspective.

Teachers foster human development by compelling critical reflection on problems in the world around them. In some ways, this principle is at the heart of Freire’s philosophy. No short-term missionary in the sample gave any indication that his or her ministry included such critical reflection.  The common response of the sample described things they did to others: “I taught missionary kids,” “I discipled students,” or “I witnessed to people on the street.” At no time did students respond that they encouraged those to whom they ministered to reflect upon their problems in light of scripture or other source of knowledge. Ministry seemed to be something missionaries did to or for others.

While there are a few implicit indicators that show that seminary students are committed to the dignity of all human beings, there was little explicit information in their responses regarding short-term mission activity to demonstrate Freirian values. In regard to Freire’s last two values, there was no response from any student about fostering development through critical reflection on problems. The overall conclusion is that these short-term missionaries did not reflect Freire’s ethical values. We might ask, “Does it matter?” I think it does.

Even though Freire’s philosophy is lacking a comprehensive biblical worldview, his ethical values concerning the dignity of human beings reflect that all people are created in the image of God and are not to be treated as mere objects. The biblical principle that God created humans to grow and develop into all he intended is also compatible with Freirian values. We are created to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13, 15).

Although the sample of students limits generalization, it is quite possible that these findings are applicable to most short-term missions. One would think seminary students would be the most likely to appreciate the dignity and potential of individuals made in God’s image and the need to promote development. Freire would most likely evaluate the vast majority of short-term missions as being oppressive and dehumanizing.
First, it would be helpful to do further reflection on how to enlarge Freire’s thinking to fit a Christian worldview of missions. Some of my previous writing on the rail fence model of teaching might help to integrate Freire’s values with a more biblical educational philosophy (see Plueddemann and Plueddemann 1990, 54-55). The top rail represents the word of God; the bottom rail represents the cultural context of the people to whom we minister. The connecting “fence posts” between the rails are constructed by the learner with the aid of the teacher and the Holy Spirit. The model places the Bible in fruitful tension with problem situations of life.

As we in the Body of Christ connect the top rail of objective scripture with the bottom rail of our subjective existential contexts, we grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Such a model doesn’t negate Freire’s emphasis on the “bottom rail” of our life situation, but complements his values by adding the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Bible. The model takes seriously the dignity of persons in ministry, as well as the authority of scripture.

Second, the task of preparing missionaries must go beyond the mechanics of how to obtain a passport, airline tickets, or a yellow fever shot. Missionaries need more than an awareness of exotic cross-cultural behavior and fascinating cultural values. Missionary preparation must include a paradigm shift regarding the dignity of persons.

These are exciting days in world missions. Christians from every country in the world are heeding the command of Christ to go into all the world and make disciples. Yet throughout the history of the expansion of the Church, missionaries have often taken ethnocentric attitudes that hindered the development of believers. We must move beyond these dangers. Even with his inadequate theology, Freire can remind us that good intentions are not enough. Ethnocentrism, dehumanization, and the pedagogy of the oppressed will hinder the global cause of Christ.
Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Seabury Press.

_______. 1981. Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Continuum.

_______. 1985. “Education, Liberation and the Church.” In The Politics of Education: Culture Power and Liberation. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.

Plueddemann, Jim and Carol Plueddemann. 1990. Pilgrims in Progress: Growing through Groups. Wheaton, Ill.: Shaw Publishers


For thirteen years, Jim Plueddemann served in Nigeria with SIM (now called Serving in Mission). He then taught at Wheaton College and later served as international director of SIM. Since 2004, Jim has been professor of missions and evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 406-412. Copyright  © 2010 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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