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Missionaries: What’s Wrong with Them?

January 24, 2011

This is an article written by my brother-in-law David Griffiths and you can find it in its original context here. His blog site with more of his articles can be found here or on the links section to the right.

Missionaries: What’s Wrong with Them?


Photo: Marcus Perkins

Mention the word ‘missionary’ to an assortment of people around the world, and you are sure to see quite a range of reactions.  For some, it may evoke a 19th-century colonialist with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet hacking through a jungle.  For others, it will bring to mind a white-suited televangelist hollering calls to repentance on a “crusade.”  For others still, it will simply be those who proclaim the gospel in a slum or the inner city.

While some see missionaries as obedient followers of God’s calling, others see them as a corrosive force bringing only division and intolerance.  In India, for example, a radical Hindu leader named Swami Dayananda Saraswati has described religious conversions as violence.  Now, an increasing number of governments around the world are barring foreign missionaries and restricting evangelism by local Christians.

If we forget all the prejudices attached to the missionary label, what is really at the heart of this aversion to Christian missionaries?  Why is the spread of faith singled out as particularly dangerous, more so than the spread of intellectual arguments, or women’s rights, or cell phones?

It often has to do with preserving a status quo, whether the dominance of a different religion, or a political system with no room for alternative allegiances, or even secular humanism.  In much of the world, religion is an important marker of community identity.  If a person’s identity has more to do with where they belong, rather than what they believe or what they do, then switching affiliation to a new religion can be seen as subversive, dangerous, and destructive.

I see some truth in the charge that missionary activity can damage communities where missionary methods are culturally insensitive, patronizing, or disrespectful.  This fits with the Catholic document, Dignitatis Humanae, which argues that each person should be allowed to seek religious truth freely and coercive methods by missionaries should always be avoided, “especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people.”

There are plenty of examples of poor missionary practice, both historical and contemporary, and this isIndian Christians meeting in a group something which must be guarded against. Western-based agencies also should take care to avoid careless, insensitive, or disrespectful reporting of religion in countries where missionaries are viewed with distrust.

However, it is dangerous and oppressive for governments or dominant religious majorities to resist the conversion of “vulnerable” groups on their behalf and to cocoon them from new religious faiths.  It dehumanizes those people and puts the status quo first.  This is a recipe for real trouble.  Ask one of the many apostates from Islam, with horrific testimonies on account of changing their faith.  And in the arena of international law, a series of resolutions passed by certain countries seek to protect religions from defamation, which reverses the whole logic of human rights protecting individuals from tyranny and oppression.

Missionaries of one shape or another will not simply melt away, whatever governments try to do.  If the method is respectful and fair, there should be no shying away from the right to spread faith.

David Griffiths is the South Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs, and promotes religious liberty for all.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. onetips permalink
    February 7, 2011 9:42 pm

    nice post….n thanks for useful sharing…..

  2. April 3, 2011 2:09 pm

    upon reading this, i immediately thought of bishop kenneth cragg, ““The first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off your shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we will find ourselves treading on people’s dreams. Worse we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”

    i was a missionary for several years in a muslim country… proselytism is strictly prohibited… but even if it weren’t, it would be inappropriate to convert people into our religion…

    in the movie, “the mission,”… the jesuits lived with the people and learned their culture… it was by their way of life, that the people got to know who Christ is…

    so more than the name we bear is our life lived in Christ… preaching with our lives… this is more important…

    • April 3, 2011 2:21 pm

      Thanks Melissa. I agree that we should separate out our culture from the gospel which I think is what you’re driving out. When going to other cultures and communities we must ensure we allow them to work out their own culturally relevant ways of say Sunday worship. However, we also must remember that the gospel isn’t something invented by one culture but something given to us by God and the only way for salvation for all people. So we must pass on the gospel, people must be converted to following Jesus as crucified God, but can happily leave our culture baggage at the door whilst we do this!

  3. April 4, 2011 11:39 am

    I have, on numerous occasions, been asked to donate to this or that mission only to find out that they aren’t legitimate. How unfortunate for society, that some have found and used this as a way to scam. I do believe that their are great missions/missionaries out there that really do great deeds and most times, their work goes unrecognized by many. Unfortunately, way too many do not fall into that category.

    • April 4, 2011 11:46 am

      Thanks Mary, we should certainly be careful about who we give money to. Its usually helpful to chat to your church leaders and hopefully they can point you in the direction of valid and gospel-centered missionaries.

  4. April 4, 2011 2:03 pm

    I enjoyed this article, it brought up some good points. I think missionaries have their purpose and that it is an insult to people to be barred from hearing from others of different faiths. It’s basically saying that they can’t make up their own minds regarding what they believe.

    You bring up a good point-many missionaries have not just sought to spread the gospel to others but also change the culture of those who they are attempting to convert to mirror the culture where they are coming from. I think it’s really important to preach the good news but not impose our culture on others. When we simply enter a new community and bring light and love to the people there they will naturally ask us questions and be drawn to our source of hope, which is God. I think converting others should be natural and not forced…we just have to present the love and compassion of Christ to others and let the Spirit do its work to awaken the faith within those who hear and see acted out our message.

    Great, thought-provoking post!

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