“Missionary” needs a facelift

Above is the video of my favorite public speaking gig so far this year – the September 27 University Vespers at my alma mater, Andrews University, for Homecoming, 2013. About 700 students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members attended. I dedicated this speech to giving the idea of missionary work (which so often elicits negative reactions) a facelift.

The speech was actually an extension of one of the biggest goals of our trip around the world this year: to rethink how we can best live lives of international service. For Jammie and I, faith and service are very closely linked so we were also very keen on experimenting with how to live out our faith more tangibly through acts of service.

CultureMutt readers are a diverse bunch so whether or not you come from a Christian background, I would love your comments on how you think faith communities should reinvent the approach they take to sharing their messages around the world.

For now, here’s why I think the term “missionary” needs a facelift:

“Missionary” sounds oppressive.  Historically, missionaries were often backed by the military might of oppressive colonial powers. Religion was often forced on unwilling converts.  Today, centuries later, the bad taste is still in the mouths of many.  In many cases, those that go out as missionaries have more material wealth and education than those they are trying to reach.  This often results in an unhealthy dynamic where people convert to the beliefs of these missionaries more in order to gain access to these resources rather than because they are sincerely convicted of a religious ideology.

“Missionary” sounds kooky.  I grew up as the child of missionaries. We lived with other missionaries, a good portion of which were straight-up weird.  You got the feeling that they were working abroad, less for noble, save-the-world motives and more because their cult-like dress sense, odd social behaviors and blanket rejection of anything in pop culture that brings a smile, simply would not fit in back home.

“Missionary” sounds out-of-touch.  So often missionaries are only effective in distant lands but would be of no effect back home.  Often they are able to leverage their status as expats (typically from more developed countries) to gain a platform abroad and in the process, much of what they transmit ends up being thinly-veiled Western cultural ideas as opposed to any genuinely helpful spiritual insights.

“Missionary” sounds fundamentalist.  I’m not sure why it is true but so often, people that opt to work as missionaries have an extremely narrow definition of faith.  They cling to dogma for dear life and are rarely able to see the big picture.  The faith that gets transmitted is therefore very narrow and close-minded.  It is not a generous, accepting faith but rather an unhealthy VIP list for spiritual gold diggers who think they are the only ones headed for sublime bliss in the afterlife.

Being a missionary need entail none of the above.  Alright, here’s where I’ll get on my soap box:  It’s time for a new generation to redefine what it means to be a missionary.  There is nothing wrong with sharing authentic faith.  It’s actually a good thing. There is nothing wrong with telling your friends about the ideas, stories and truths that have had a life-changing effect on you.  There is a way to be an enthusiastic believer without stooping to the unfortunate depths of many a missionary gone before.

Start the facelift in the comment section!  There are going to be different takes on this one but to me personally, missionary work should be about what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”.  It should not be about forcing ideology but more about an open discussion about how to improve the world around us, fused with practical acts of service that actually help our fellow human beings.  I am convinced that, at the very least, this is where all so-called missionaries should start.

I would love your input and ideas.  Leave a comment below on what you think modern missionaries should be doing.  Be as open or as controversial as you like, this is about conversation, not about one right answer.



25 thoughts on ““Missionary” needs a facelift”

  1. “There is nothing wrong with telling your friends about the ideas, stories and truths that have had a life-changing effect on you”. I like it. Well put.

    1. Thank you! Fun to think of faith as a statement of the positive things you stand for as opposed to a laundry list of things to which you object…

  2. I may not agree with everything missionaries from their religious or political views, but, I agree wholly with the humanitarian work they do, I’ve done some in the past myself. Keep charging!

  3. I think if you want to fundamentally change missionary work you will have to take it out of the hands of the church. It has become a franchise of sorts. It is not primarily about selfless service but more about money and politics. The way we conduct mission work is so backwards. In the best case scenario we can only hope that the missionaries are converted.

    1. Dan, this is an interesting comment! I’ve definitely seen the dark underbelly of mission work and can identify with what you are saying… That is partly why we decided to do things independently of any denomination this year… volunteer work feels a lot more fulfilling when you are not controlled by the red tape of the denominational machine…

  4. Great article Bjorn. You bring up a good point about the word missionary needing a facelift. I too think of highly conservative or fundamentalist groups being the ones who make up the bulk of missionaries out there. I have often wondered: what would happen if more believers spent their time and money here at home in the places where so much is needed, instead of far away places?

    1. EXACTLY!! In fact, you are often likely to be more effective in a place that you actually understand. I enjoy the adventure in foreign travel but I definitely think there are challenges in that model…. Great thoughts!

  5. Growing up I thought “Foreignmissionery” was one word, implying that we “had it all”, we “all” already knew Jesus! : that “we”needed to tell “them” – “those in foreign lands”. And that we could “go” vicariously by putting money in the offering plate, thus fulfilling our obligation. The whole “we/them” mindset has got to go! Jesus did not rely on the offering plate to accomplish His work. Rather, He was a “hands on” “missionary”! He was ” GOD with US”! I ask myself, “What about my neighbors? Do they know Jesus, the GOD with US?” Let’s not forget them! That is our “mission”. Are we not all “called” to this “mission”?

    1. I like this! I definitely think that distance traveled has nothing to do with real mission. As you so wisely point out, if we think of mission as something that happens elsewhere it is very easy to keep from doing anything to personally help…

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. My previous comment just disappeared so I try again. My response is from the book Ministry of Healing p.143 by EGW
    “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then he bade them, ‘Follow Me’.”
    Jesus is the example for us to follow and your modern ideas of mission actually go in line with the above. The principles may be used anywhere in the world and are good ways of reaching our next door neighbours as well as people far away.

  7. Dear Bjorn and Jammie,
    Thank you for making the video of your speech at Andrews University available to us. Your talk was excellent in content and delivery. Your fellow Toastmasters are proud of you! I agree with you that the word “missionary” has too many negative connotations to be effective now. I hope you can find another word, such as “disciple”, perhaps. Also, you need to find a substitute for “do-gooding”–maybe “acts of compassionate service”. I send much love to both of you.

    1. Linda! Thank you so much for the TM stamp of approval!! I am so fortunate to have had all those early-morning meetings:) Thanks for the thoughts on new terminology… there will be much to discuss when we see each other next!

  8. Hi Bjorn and Jamie

    We miss you here in Berlin.

    The word missionary to me has negative and positive conotations. Negative in the sense that I always have a picture of a white dude in a white suit trying to convert a far-off distant land dweller with leaves as clothes. This picture mostly always turns violent as the two parties, through lack of understanding each other, start quarreling about something that either one does not agree on.

    Positive in the sense that the word ‘mission’ is in the term Missionary. I like the idea of people on a ‘mission’ in sharing the Word of Jesus Christ.

    Nevertheless, in this world, at this time, there is still a need for a metamorphosis of our missionary style. We tend to always create new ways of getting the Word out, which is fine, but if we do not align ourselves with Jesus and learn to peacefully project the passion of the Pentateuch we will get nowhere.

    This Urban rutt that we live in is for me personally draining and here, in the ‘Urban realm’ is were missionaries are needed the most.

    Whatever word or term we use for a person who ‘ spreads Gods love’, whether it be Missionary or Disciple, I want to be a part of it.

    May God bless you and your reader richly.

    1. Wesley! Thanks so much for your comment. Please send me a white suit from Berlin so I can finally look the part!

      I agree with your thoughts and am definitely passionate about authentic urban missions. God bless with the work. Sending vegan thoughts:)

  9. I don’t know anything about missionaries being backed by oppressive military powers, but I do know that many have given up everything to spread the love of Jesus around the world. I too spent many years on a missionary compound, but have no recollection of straight-up weird, kooky dressing, better than thou attitudes. I remember normal fun loving folks who mingled with the local people, inviting them into their homes and sharing food and yes, laughter. It was the purpose of the institution to teach and train the people to be leaders in their own countries. Hey! What a remarkable insight. Isn’t that what each of us should be doing?

    1. Sounds like you and I should catch up some time in person. I like your perspective (especially as we spent a few years on the same campuses) and would like to hear about how you processed your experiences. I am sure I could learn a lot.

      I definitely saw what I personally felt were major cultural imperialism issues as missionaries lived within brick and barbed wire walls in living conditions that were far above local standards. The isolation and division inherent in that kind of a situation sent a skewed message to the outside world and resulted in a kind of warped spirituality for the privileged few that could experience the perks of what essentially was an upper middle-class enclave, completely separated from the rest of the community. I remember going back to live in that same area (outside the compound this time) and I realized even more strongly how the rest of the town perceived the compound. It seemed to be associated a lot more with wealth than with spirituality.

  10. When we arrived, we lived in what was provided by the institution. We experienced within the first few few days the reverse of what you are saying. We were told how surprising it was for us to be living at the bottom of the hill. People with more prestige lived at the top of the hill as were the folks sharing that bit of information. If you remember, but you were just a small boy at the time, our duplex was broken into while we were at church just a few months after our arrival. It was afterwards that guards were placed around campus to protect “everyone,” not just missionaries. We shopped at the same markets, went to the same clinic, and attended church together. Another example of the reverse, while shopping at the on-campus market, I asked a local how to use a certain product. Instead of giving a short explanation on how to use it, I was promptly told that “We —– just know how to use it.”

    When the two institutions separated, every effort was made to ensure that everyone had the same housing accommodations, etc. Had there not been brick walls and barbed wire, who knows what would have walked off that campus. We experienced that on the other campus. Yes,there were many locals who lived in squalor, but there were also those who lived as good or better than anyone within the compound walls. As for others perception, maybe that’s all it was, perception. Maybe they made no effort to acquaint themselves with what was going on within those walls. If I knew for a fact that there was no interaction between the people, then indeed it would be sad.

    1. Thanks for the reply. I see where you are coming from and I definitely admire what you and your family gave through your service. I will always be inspired by your stories and those of many other missionaries that I have worked with over the years since growing up as a missionary kid. My critique of the model for missions is not a critique of the work of individual missionaries many of which I think were, like you and your family, doing amazing work.

  11. Very inspired by the way God has directed your life as a young missionary , amazing talk, something like that is what we´re trying to do here in berlin, and God is working! God bless, Harry

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