I suspect that this blog will be considered controversial by many who read it. I understand that and am not out to hurt the mission enterprise - one I grew up in and one that I have led. Missions is in my blood and I have national friends in every corner of the world. While many western missionaries may disagree with my analysis I know that most of my national leader friends will not. They see the issues described here, feel them acutely but are not in a position to challenge them.

But - in this day of racial conversations I want to reflect a bit on what I call paternalism in missions or what some would call attitudes that are racist. I don't believe that paternalistic practices are intentionally practiced, and how can one call missionaries as having any racist tendencies? They have, after all,  committed to actually going cross culture - leaving their home culture and becoming a part of another culture. I have great regard for missionaries and grew up in a missionary family and know the commitments of my parents and others who were missionaries. But the issue is a real issue.

The paternalism I will address is not always intentional but is a matter of how we see and do missions from the west and often from the rest. The irony is that we can love others enough to give our lives to reach them for Jesus and still do this in a paternalistic way. 

Racism or paternalism can be defined as a group with more influence or power who interact with those with less power or influence and treat them as the junior power: someone whom we see as having less ability (and therefor less intrinsic worth) than us given our education, resources and abilities compared to those we are serving. When missionaries from the west are consistently the leaders in a relationship with nationals, have the last say, drive the strategy, and allow dependencies to develop we are creating paternalism. This spills over into our relationships.

I remember talking to an American missionary who served for years in Africa. He said that as missionaries they were not allowed to invite Africans into their homes, and he never did. If he allowed fellow Americans or other westerners into his home (and he did) but not Africans - what does that say about his view of the very people he came to minister to? 

In more recent times, I presided over an African conference the missionaries from the organization I was leading at the time. I also invited the key African national leaders that we worked with from across Africa. It was the first time that they had been together and the first time they had been with the missionaries from across Africa. It was powerful. We prayed for these African leaders, laid hands on them and asked them to strategize with us for the work of church planting across Africa. It raised a huge stir - among our own missionaries - who felt the balance of "power" shifting and we had to deal with their issues that we were giving too much honor to African leaders.  Was this paternalism? Was this racism? Whatever it was it was not pleasing to God who told us to see others as more important than ourselves. 

In order to combat this Western paternalism we developed some radical commitments. First we made it clear that we did not own anything, control anything or count anything as ours. Mission agencies are notorious for owning, controlling and counting other movements as theirs so they can "sell" their ministry to their constituency. In articulating and living this out something interesting happened. Movements came our way in significant numbers desiring to partner with us. Why? Because they saw what we had to offer, they loved the idea of movements working together and they understood that they would be equal partners in the relationship - as they should be. 

Second, we stopped doing things that they could do far better than we could including almost all church planting. We became partners and trainers and they became the church planters. In the process the church planting numbers for these movements increased exponentially and left our previous efforts looking very tiny in comparison.

Third, we insisted on equal partnerships. Each party involved could bring different pieces to the table but we were at a round table where no one sat at the head. Together we developed strategy and initiatives that were owned by the different movements involved. Rather than controlling we empowered and released. Rather than having the answers (which we didn't have), we came up with the answers together. 

I was asked recently where the major push back came from in this new way of doing missions (for us). I said, "our staff!" They were used to being the major players, being in charge, controlling the relationships and directing the ministry initiatives. It was a hard adjustment to move from the head position to a place of true partnership.

As I continue to talk with indigenous or national leader around the world, I know that paternalism in western missions (and often in missions from non-western countries) continues. The human condition is that of wanting to be number one, to see ourselves as better than others. In our society we actually call this racism and it infects the human condition everywhere. It is certainly an ongoing factor that needs to be discussed when it comes to world missions.

This should be a cautionary tale for those of us in the United States who say "we are not racist." We don't want to be I am sure but paternalism is often so ingrained that we cannot see it. Often it takes an outsider to point out where our words don't live up to our reality. It takes an attitude of real humility to face issues such as this and to modify our systems, behaviors, thinking and strategies. 

  • Jul 07, 2020
  • Category: News
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