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“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.

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