The Converted Missionary: Becoming a Westerner Who Is Not Western-centric
by Gene Daniels
It is time Western missionaries are “converted” and this involves at least three action steps we can take as we move toward change.
Conversion is a major reorientation of one’s life, a radical turning. Usually we think of conversion as having to do with turning away from sin and turning toward a new reality that is righteousness and peace with God. However, in the case of cross-cultural missionaries, there are other things we need to turn from, and toward.
Furthermore, I would argue that the time has come for many missionaries to experience a true conversion—turning away from a mentality that says the West is the center of the world, and turning toward new realities of a more global Christianity.
Missionaries coming from Western countries have had the tremendous privilege of living in one of the greatest eras of cultural expansion the world has ever seen. For the past five hundred years our Western culture has experienced unprecedented influence across vast parts of the world. However, there are signs everywhere that this great age of Western expansion is over. The impetus that pushed a flood of Western ideas across the world has stalled. Whether in the sphere of business, politics, or popular music, Majority World peoples are rapidly filling power vacuums created as Western influence fades. This is producing a world that is much less focused on the benefits of being aligned with the West and its ideas.
Some missionaries are oblivious to this growing phenomenon; others choose to ignore it as peripheral to, and a distraction from, their calling. However, it is imperative that we understand that this shift is by no means “peripheral” to our calling. In the long run it will have a profound impact on the way those of us from the West conduct world mission.
The reason for this is that Christian mission has been, for the entire Protestant mission era, deeply wedded to the paradigm that is now ending. The long cultural expansion we have just experienced was, in many ways, the social engine which facilitated much of the work of Western missionaries. Missionaries rode the impulses emanating out of the West in the same way business people, adventurers, and imperial bureaucrats did (Walls 2008, 195-198).
Our “Errand to the World”
This sounds strange to many Christians in the West because they have never thought about what we call the Great Commission in this way. We have always understood mission as our “errand to the world” (to steal the title from William Hutchinson’s 1993 book), something we do sacrificially for the good of others. We have given so much, financially and personally, to try to bring spiritual and practical blessings to other parts of the world that we cannot see mission in any other light. However, while it is true that our faith in Christ and his gospel is the main force which has driven us around the world, it is also true that this powerful mainspring has been held in the watchcase of a Western cultural imperative.
Reaching back to the earliest European missionaries (even before brave pioneers like William Carey), Western Christian mission has often been tied to Euro-American power projections. We could multiply examples of this, ranging from the very early efforts of Portuguese Catholics in South America to the notable work of African Americans in West Africa. Christian mission has ridden the coattails of the political, military, and economic expansion of the West (Sanneh 2008, 94-96).
This movement was as natural and unsurprising as Paul visiting the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora. The apostle was simply allowing his ministry to move with the normal human flow of which he was a part, the circulation of Jews within the Greco-Roman world. In the larger historic view, Western missionaries of the past five hundred years have done the same. There has been a human current pulsing out from the West, carrying adventurous men and women toward their destinies in far-flung parts of the world. Missionaries have naturally joined in this current since it was the most obvious and logical means to the end that God had placed on their heart. This observation applies equally to David Livingstone, who joined an age of explorers; J. Christy Wilson, who exemplified the self-giving Western doctor; and the anonymous thousands who serve in small NGOs across the developing world today.
This powerful cultural stream that has moved from the West to all points East and South has, in retrospect, served the Christian enterprise fairly well. Nevertheless, it is reaching the end of its usefulness, slowing into stagnant eddies and swamps as the Majority World becomes more and more suspicious of our motivations. Although the sun long ago set on the colonial day, and despite our best efforts to repudiate those kinds of power relations, many Western missionaries simply don’t know any other way to relate to the rest of the world. Centuries of habit have deeply conditioned us to unconsciously structure our relations to the rest of the world in a way that reeks of an imperial corpse they have already rejected.
The Need for Missionary Conversion
What is the mission-sensitive heart in the West to do? Hated colonialism is dead, but that was never our real motivation anyway. Today’s missionaries from the West face a new challenge, one that is in some ways greater than the one faced by the early pioneers. Those who would follow their forbearers from the Euro-American world and traverse the ends of their earth for the glory of God will have to find new paths to walk. It is no longer good enough to simply float along, riding the same wave as the U.S. Peace Corps. It is becoming clear that in the twenty-first century the harm such behavior causes far outweighs its meager benefits.
This all points to the need of what I am calling “missionary conversion.” By this I mean that many Western missionaries need to make a deep turning from our “errand to the world” mentality, and a turn toward a new way to frame the gospel, and ourselves as its messengers, in the Majority World.
However, even if we can come to a consensus that such conversion is needed, the suggestion is daunting. Many will ask, “Is there anything we can do, short of being unreasonably radical, that will make a difference?”
I have come to believe there are ways Western missionaries can realign themselves with these changes, and that many of these are both practical and reasonable. Therefore, I would like to suggest three ways that missionaries from the West, like myself, can change in order to be more relevant in the twenty-first century.
1. Rethink our “entitlement mentality.” Not long ago I was talking with a dear friend who is a doctor. He has given the peak earning years of his professional career to serving as a volunteer at an NGO in a small Muslim country. The government of that country is now cracking down on the residence of Western volunteers and experts of various kinds, citing too much Christian influence. In an unguarded moment my friend commented, “I have given so much to the people here; I really deserve a visa extension.”
The main reason this deeply compassionate man wants to stay on his field of service is for the good of the people he serves—there’s nothing selfish about that. But his words illustrate an area of our thinking that needs to experience conversion. Many Western missionaries have an entitlement mentality that tells us we deserve acceptance and respect for what we do.
During the era of Western cultural expansion, experts such as doctors and teachers went to the field knowing they were going to be warmly welcomed, even loved, because of the skills they offered. And if we are honest, many also saw themselves as superior to the ones they went to serve. In the past, the majority of nationals were willing to acquiesce to a relationship shaped this way. Even in many Muslim countries, the positive effect of what missionaries offered professionally outweighed, even obscured, their negative image as agents of Christian teaching.
This almost automatic acceptance and respect in many parts of the world has given the Western mission movement a sense of entitlement. Many missionaries are genuinely puzzled by the suspicion with which they are increasingly being viewed. Many take it personally, but we must realize that it is simply part of a much larger process as the West slowly loses its luster to many people.
For a myriad of reasons, people are casting a more critical eye on Western benevolence, particularly government bureaucrats and social influence-shapers, people who usually have little or no personal contact with foreign Christians. This should tell us that much of the respect and acceptance which once influenced government policies and social opinion was not personal, but part of a general admiration for the Western world. Hence, the favorable reception we previously received was actually respect for the Western system of thought; the automatic honor they gave to missionary doctors was mainly an extension of their opinion of Western medicine.
Therefore, whether working openly as missionaries or quietly as Christian professionals, we must learn to graciously decline the automatic social standing that used to come along with our passport, and focus instead on the kind of personal respect which is earned by character.
I once taught at a foreign university which was heavily supported by American government grants.
Despite the fact that the majority of staff and students were nominal Muslims, I spoke openly about my personal Christian faith—although I was careful to avoid anything that might be considered proselytism in my classroom. Eventually, someone went to the administration and complained about having an evangelical Christian on the faculty.
Through the course of events I learned that almost everyone with whom I had regular contact, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, respected my teaching ability and my open faith. In fact, many Muslims were shocked at the way I was being treated since the university was American-funded, and as an American citizen I deserved to be treated with greater respect by the administration.
In the end, being an evangelical Christian was enough to cost me my teaching position and to get my family abruptly kicked out of the country. Although it was a difficult lesson, my wife and I learned to be content with the warm respect of students and colleagues, but ignore the cold contempt of officialdom. We saw that several million U.S. dollars annually may not secure either respect or professional courtesy, but personal behavior will earn even a devoutly Christian scholar acceptance in the Muslim world.
2. Connect better to the wider Christian world. Virtually all missionaries today would acknowledge that Christianity is a vast, multicultural phenomenon. The problem is that many are not always good at presenting our faith in that light. Often, the missionary’s personal Christian background obscures the larger picture, distorting it along the way.
The reason for this is that everyone tends to make reference to those things that are most familiar. Therefore, evangelical missionaries commonly quote people like D.L. Moody or Oswald Chambers and draw illustrations from the Great Awakening or some other modern American revival movement. Although we know that the Church is much richer than only recent Protestant history, this is the cultural milieu with which we are most comfortable, and so this is the direction to which we orient ourselves. Unfortunately, this is a very unbalanced picture and only strengthens the perception of the gospel as a Western religion promoted by cultural imperialists.
Counteracting this tendency will require hard work on our part because our traditions and training only reinforce the human predisposition toward self-reference. Therefore, we must intentionally strive to place the gospel, and thus ourselves, in the wider global Christian context.
Once I was talking with some Muslim college students and I quoted one of my favorite Christian authors, Lamin Sanneh. They were intrigued by his name and I explained that he is a former Muslim from Gambia. “Are there really Christian scholars who did not grow up in the West? Muslims who have become well-known Christians?” they asked with astonishment. With great joy, I was able to use this as a springboard to talk about the growing, vibrant Christianity of the Majority World. Briefly referring to Sanneh opened a much friendlier door to my faith than if I had referred to an American or European scholar.
3. Become conversant with a wider range of theologies. Growing up in middle-class, American Christianity and then going to a fairly typical Bible school, I have been well indoctrinated with the classical views of Protestantism. I know the doctrinal positions of various evangelical denominations and something of the debates that framed them. However, what I didn’t know anything about, until recently, was the vast amount of theological debate and formation that has taken place outside my little corner of the Christian world.
Although I am most grateful for my Protestant heritage, I have learned the value of having a wider range of theologies to draw from—from John Calvin to John Mbiti, from Southern Baptist to South American.
As an example, for many years I assumed that anything carrying the label “liberation theology” was an evil scourge, an unholy wedding of my faith with communism. It was not until I was forced to read from certain South American theologians while in graduate school that I realized there was a spectrum of thought under that umbrella, and some had something important to say.
Furthermore, since I was doing this reading while living in a part of the world which was deeply impacted by socialism, I began to appreciate their exegesis of scripture as a valuable corrective to certain attitudes I carried which were little more than extensions of my capitalist upbringing.
We must remember that to be meaningful, theology must speak to the people who receive it. Unfortunately, missionaries’ theological frameworks are often out of alignment with the basic worldview of those they serve. Consequently, their exegesis of scripture is less than meaningful at best. Without a doubt, the God whom Christian theology is about does not change culture to culture, but just as certainly, the perspective from which he is viewed does—and that is why theology that grew up in the West often does not speak to the heart of those who did not.
Many Majority World people think of the Christian missionary movement as little more than one aspect of a much larger phenomenon—the Western cultural expansion that has dominated international affairs for the past five hundred years. This, of course, has huge negative connotations and causes great harm to the cause of Christ. In order to change this misperception, many Western missionaries need to be converted—that is, turned away from a view of mission that is centered on our sending countries and culture. They must instead deliberately turn toward a broader, more global presentation of our faith.
A good place to start would be for us to remember that since Western cultural expansion is no longer viewed positively by most of the world, we need to be much more careful about giving the impression that we are in some way connected to that. We, as a movement, would also be well served to jettison our “entitlement mentality” and stop thinking that Majority World countries owe us residence visas and respect because we have come to serve them.
Furthermore, many missionaries need to do a better job of connecting their message and themselves to the wider Christian world. If we don’t, we will continue to project our faith as nothing more than an appendage of our culture. Finally, missionaries from the West should strive to develop a wider theological foundation. Insights from other Church traditions are often closer to the worldview of the people we are trying to reach; therefore, they will speak to them in ways our theological framework cannot.
I must admit I have been trying for many years to retrain my mind to think this way. Unfortunately, the ingrained mental habits of a good Protestant still occasionally spoil the good fruit that could come from my own missionary conversion. However, I can only hope that the God who, by his grace, turned me from a life of sin, will also fully convert me into a Western missionary who is not Western-centric.
Hutchinson, William R. 1993. Errand to the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sanneh, Lamin. 2008. Disciples of All Nations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walls, Andrew. 2008. "Christian Mission in a Five-Hundred Year Context." In Mission in the 21st Century. Eds. Andrew F. Walls and Cathy Ross, 193-204. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family served in Central Asia for twelve years. He is now a senior research associate with Fruitful Practice Research, studying how God is working in the Muslim world.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 16-22. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.