Missionary Thought of the Day: Subverting Culture

If context was absolutely king, then missionaries would never have started orphanages, hospitals, schools. They would not have educated women or provided universal education of any kind. They would not have preached the gospel publicly, certainly not to the poor peasantry.They would not have planted gardens or built any structure.  They would not have treated cholera, tuberculosis, or improved traditional medicine one bit. Anything they did that would have benefited the masses would have been subversive to the worldview and culture among which they were guests. While it is important to note the dangers of colonialism and ethnocentrism, there are certain things that grow out of a Christian concern for the prosperity of others, especially of strangers, fueled by love, that de facto attack the root metaphors and other structures of every worldview.



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  1. Absolutely! I wonder what authors, philosophers, etc. influenced you toward this conclusion.

    There’s a reason that missionaries “go”. It is not only to “say”, but also to “be”. The life of Christ in his disciples is evident by the love they show to others manifested in the forms you mention. A destination for missions has obviously been determined to be lacking something.

    Wes, do you think ‘missions philosophy’ has been too heavily influenced by the world’s relativistic insistence that all cultures are equally valid and commendable?

  2. Mark,

    Brother, I’m sorry it has taken me over a week to respond. You make a good observation and ask two great questions.

    To answer your first question: I have just been reflecting on the century-old missionary correspondence I’ve been reading as part of my dissertation research. The tendency when studying the history of Christian missions from this time period is to reduce missionary motives and actions to anything from patent imperialism to conversionist civilizationism (I think I made up that word!), meaning that they felt creating a “Christian” (read: Western) civilization in foreign lands was necessary for the spread of the gospel. I think these critiques have some validity, perhaps more than some. However, i think it is like most things overplayed. Even with some ethnocentristic tendencies (or even greater-than-tendencies), many missionaries sought to do their best to live Christ honoring lives among peoples radically different from themselves. This type of life led them to compassion. They themselves shared in the physical, cultural, even religious sufferings of the people they ministered among. Just count the missionary wives, the vast amount of children, and many times men, who died of cataclysmic disease or just otherwise preventable diseases.

    On the second question: it depends. In many ways, the West would have far lesser respect for other cultures if it were not for missionaries. They were the first cultural anthropologists and linguists. Perhaps not absolutely first, but the first in influence. The philosophical and theological relativism was fueled by many of the findings of well-meaning missionaries later. At the same time, many missionaries struggled to deal with other cultures, some of which seemed less backward than the image of the heathen they had been sold by missionary propaganda. They started out conservative, and lost their faith in the exclusivity of Christianity from their on the field experience. Many missionaries of that age, and probably still today, were converted once over seas to a more relativistic outlook. Dealing with the vast lostness of the world is a difficult reality to deal with. I would argue that there are probably a certain percentage of missionaries who begin with philosophical cultural relativism, but there are probably many more that shift this way once on the field. And it must be said that there are various degrees to which a missions philosophy exhibits this relativism. Some can be very mild and some very extreme.

    Are these answers helpful?

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