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4 Suggestions to Avoid Paternalistic Missions

When the author of the Gospel of Matthew gathered up the implications of the resurrection of Jesus, he created a multimedia mosaic of sight and sound (see Matthew 28:16-20).
The implied panoramic view from an unnamed mountain in Galilee challenges the depth-of-field capacity of careful readers. Horizons from mountaintops recede to a vanishing point, but the failure of the eye to see “the beyond” does not keep the brain from knowing that there is more beyond the beyond.

The rhythmic mandate that follows is as expansive as the visuals of the panorama. “Go … make … baptizing … teaching.” In four beats, the future of missions is prefigured.

Missions and Christianity are inseparable. Unfortunately, the mandate too often has been trimmed down to a license to dominate (that is, overpower) people and make converts, rather than being held up as a commandment to make disciples (that is, to empower) “all nations” with the transforming liberty of the gospel.

A quick survey of the history of Christian missions is a study in integrity, followed by increasing, but not thoroughgoing, attempts to dominate and convert, rather than empower and make disciples.

The work of Paul, as found in the New Testament, is a paradigm for missions, which seeks to make disciples through empowerment.

One of the places where Paul’s letters and the early history of the church (Acts) cohere is the way Paul sought out the locals and taught them and nurtured them toward maturity. The Corinthian church is “Exhibit A.”

Paul first encountered them as immature, strife-ridden, control-seeking converts. In the end, he congratulated them for having grown up, for having become disciples (note the “we” tone of 2 Corinthians 4, for example).

As long as the church itself was deprived of secular power, it seems the work of missions was a work of making disciples who, through the gospel, found the courage to cultivate an alternative life and an alternative community to the dominate culture.

The story of St. Patrick is an early model of a missionary who embraced the culture of his mission as a way to promote discipleship.

Once the church gained secular power, however, the gospel was co-opted by political and economic concerns. Colonialism was an effort to force the gospel upon indigenous peoples; they were called “savages” or “natives” as a way to dehumanize them.

The 1986 film “The Mission” is a compelling and accurate portrayal of colonial Christian missions. Unfortunately, the dominant (pun intended) tone of mission activity, from Constantine’s day to ours, has been the expansion of the values and privileges of the missionary’s home context, rather than the simple beat of “Go … make … baptizing … teaching” as found in the gospel.

Amid nascent and full-blown colonialism, there were prophets who challenged the popular practice of domination with a more nearly biblical model of empowerment. 

Bartolomé de las Casas was a champion of the indigenous in the West Indies in the 16th century. He wanted to empower them against the wave of colonization.

We also could elaborate upon the work of the 19th century Father Damien, the so-called “Leper Priest,” who contracted leprosy while a missionary on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Damien lived and worked with lepers and empowered them to embrace and live the gospel amid their dire circumstances.

In the 20th century, the story of Mother Theresa is well known. Her identification with the poor and dying in Calcutta, her adoption of the dress and language of Indians and her advocacy for the people with whom she worked challenged – and challenges – the usual practice of missionaries.

Postcolonial missions need a new tone and a new beat – one that is consistent with the gospel’s “Go … make … baptizing … teaching.”

I offer the following suggestions:

1. Go as a partner, not as a powerbroker. Partnership demands listening, listening, listening as a point of beginning.

Liberians, for example, already know what they need. When missionaries show up with plans that have not been jointly crafted with Liberians, it is not possible to work together. The only way to learn the context of Liberia is to listen to Liberians tell their stories, confess their hopes and share their dreams.

2. Make friends who may become disciples of Christ, rather than setting yourself up as the one to follow. Partnership rises and falls on friendship.

It is true that partners may become friends, but it is certain that friends are partners. Making friends in Liberia, for example, means that the one who goes also is transformed by the gospel that is shared between partners.

3. Baptizing is more than immersing in water; it is becoming vulnerable to being immersed in a culture and context where the gospel is shared.

Missionaries to Liberia, for example, should participate in, not merely observe, daily life. Struggling with Liberians regarding the scarcity of clean water, the unreliability of electricity and a diet unlike the U.S. is a baptism of a different kind.

4. Teaching is not a one-way avenue. Good teachers learn from their students, especially the contexts in which the students live, hope and dream.

The teacher – formal and informal – who ceases to learn about her context ceases to be effective. By looking back, rather than looking forward, the teacher become irrelevant; he has lost his voice in the winds of yesterday rather than finding a new voice in tomorrow’s breezes.

“Go … make … baptizing … teaching” is the tone of the gospel. It also should be the structure of a missions-bridge that carries us from paternalism to partnership.

Richard Wilson is the Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of The Roberts Department of Christianity in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He blogs at Revisiting Liberia. A version of this column first appeared in the June 2013 Baptist Studies Bulletin of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and is used with permission.