Monday, March 18, 2013

Requiem for Missions

He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” —Mark 16:15

I am calling for a moratorium on missions.  That’s simply a fancy way of saying, stop.  It’s time to lay to rest our mission strategies and ideas.  Stop traveling the world in the name of Jesus.  Stop planting churches in foreign mission fields. Stop sending our children on short-term missions trips.  Stop fixing houses.  Stop. I realize this is a strange call for a professor of missions to make.  But I’ve never shied away from being strange.  After all, the Bible calls Christians a “peculiar people.”

To be clear, this call has little to do with being strange and everything to do with the good news, or the gospel.  For too long, Christian missions in North America and coming from North America have either indirectly ushered violence into societies or have been a direct cause of it.  Take Christopher Columbus for example: the Italian explorer for the King and Queen of Spain was sent as a Christian missionary to find a new path for trade in commerce.   Here's a passage from his journal:

"Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith."

I'll save my comments about his Islamophobic speech for another post. Instead of reaching India, Columbus found a people of whom he reported, "would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion."  In 500 years time, Christian missionaries have moved far from physically enslaving the objects of their missionary zeal. Coming from a capitalist culture, US American missionaries too often define a successful missionary trip as one that makes better capitalists of the people they seek to convert.  In other words, our Christian missionaries try to make people in distant lands slaves to the global economy just as we overly indebted US Americans are.

Cultural violence and economic enslavement sound nothing like good news to me.  So until Christian mission activities can really declare that we have good news to share, then we need to stop.

I’m not the first and will not be the last to make this call.  Howard Thurman, the twentieth century African American Christian Mystic, said that Christian missions is “the very heartbeat of the Christian religion.”  And so it is understandable when he complains that the missionary impulse is “an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other.”

Similarly to Thurman, it’s not the concept of missions that I object to.  Rather, it’s that missions have become vessels of self-righteousness, racial superiority, Western expansion, environmental terror, and global capitalism.  Mission means to be sent and Christians follow a God who is a sending God which means that God’s people must be a missionary people.  So the question is, "How then shall we live?"  I propose that we live by the following values for our Christian practice:

1. God is already at work.  God sent Jesus and left the Holy Spirit which is ultimately why we aresent as well.  God sent first and the Holy Spirit is moving throughout the world making a church as Spirit moves.  We are those who partner with the Spirit in declaring the Good News that God is making peace, justice, righteousness, and joy a possibility right here, right now!

2. Local mission is the only mission.  You are in a missionary space in the place you stand.  By valuing foreign mission over local mission, Christians have devalued local regions, place, space, and land.  It’s no coincidence that Christians have trouble valuing the land when Christian missionaries participated in removing the very first nations peoples who believed that the land was sacred.  But if we are to be faithful in missionary practice then we must begin to see that every Christian is sent from God’s commonwealth, not the United States of America, which makes the very local space in which we find ourselves a missionary space.

3. Every moment is a missionary moment.  Likewise, we do not wait to go on a mission.  If we are truly citizens of God’s reality, then while we live between now and the last days every moment is a missionary moment.

4. Good news should really sound like good news.  If the people who hear your good news don’t believe it is good news, then perhaps it is not.  If the people you encounter cannot declare that the news you bring is good, then don’t declare that it is.

5. Not all poverty is degrading.  We have a tendency to define poverty and wealth by capitalist standards that value material wealth over relational wealth.  In other words, we US American Christians imply with our values that we are sent from the United States, rather than the commonwealth of God

6. Promote partnerships not programs.  Paternalism, or the belief that we know better than the people we are in ministry to (and we usually think of ministry to people rather than with them), will rarely if ever meet the mark of loving our neighbor, because love implies a reciprocity in which the object of our affection has the opportunity to declare his or her needs and desires.  Programs are constructed for, rather than with people.

I’m sure we could add more, but we need to start somewhere and these six values are a good place from which to start.  It's time to lay the old values to rest and begin again.


  1. Thanks for this post, David. And I'm very excited to see that you're blogging, too!

    As you are a UMC guy, I'm sure you're aware of how that denomination (within which I am now worshipping and periodically ministering, as a Mennonite-trained Church of the Brethren minister) - can be particularly heavy on the programs. Programs, programs, and more programs. This good word is surely prophetically provocative in Methodist circles (and rightfully so)!

  2. David, excellent comments on both mission and the good news. As an EMS alum (2011) and UM pastor in Winchester, VA, I appreciate your honesty and willingness to take us beyond an Americanized Christianity. I and my congregations will ruminate on these six. proposed values.

  3. You make some great points, Dr. Evans, but I’d have to push back a little. Despite the possibility of problems, I don’t think we should cut out all non-local missions trips. A short-term, international missions trip dramatically changed my life. I doubt that visit had much effect on my host community, but it left a real impression on me. This experience is the reason I spent ten years overseas teaching school and working with various peace and justice groups. It’s basically the reason I’m in seminary now. My time living abroad totally changed my perspectives, my politics, my theology and my thoughts about justice. I realize the point of your post was the negative influence that the missionary visitor has on the host; however I believe there’s a very positive influence that the host has on the missionary visitor. Perhaps it would be better to call these activities something other than “missions” trips that suggest that there is a one-way (mission) exchange where only the visitor has something to offer the host. I do not doubt that I have contributed to a self-righteous, racial superior, Western expansion attitude of environmental terror and global capitalism, nevertheless my hosts have usually pointed this out – and graciously forgiven me.

    1. Bob, I always appreciate your "push backs" however great or little.

  4. The following comment was sent to me via email:

    I'm really surprised that you would call for a moratorium on foreign missions, however, and I believe your thinking stems from the fact that you haven't engaged in long-term foreign mission.

    My main concern with the post, though, is that 2/3 of all Christians are in Asia (70 million Chinese Christians!!) or the Global South. Their theology might be somewhat different from ours, and their Christianity have a different "flavor." But we need to be in relationship with them, or risk marginalizing ourselves in our Northern bubble. They are reaching out to us, and evangelizing us in great numbers now. We need to be in partnership with our global brothers and sisters, helping them to spread the gospel.

    1. Thanks for responding and I hope we get to interact more in the future.

      The heart of the blogpost is this:

      "Similarly to Thurman, it’s not the concept of missions that I object to. Rather, it’s that missions have become vessels of self-righteousness, racial superiority, Western expansion, environmental terror, and global capitalism."

      That is to say, my thinking stems from being a person of color in a white Christian movement. I have been a long-term project of Christian missionaries for my entire life. My desire, then, is not to cut-off connection with people around the world, but to rethink how we engage our brothers and sisters around the world. Long-term foreign missions, have the potential to cease being "foreign" when the people "missionaries" become locals and see "their" problems as "our" problems. I agree with you that US American Christians are in danger of growing sterile in their "bubble." Missions may not be the best way to burst that bubble. Rather, building relationships and partnerships may be a better way. In that sense we'd not necessarily identify our work as missions, but partnerships. The global South and East have more Christians than in North America, which implies that they don't need missionaries to teach them how to be Christians, since they already are Christians. And I laud the indigenization of Christian messages in other parts of the world.

      Perhaps my use of "moratorium" language communicated more than my message, but I mostly agree with your final comments. "My main concern with the post, though, is that 2/3 of all Christians are in Asia (70 million Chinese Christians!!) or the Global South. Their theology might be somewhat different from ours, and their Christianity have a different "flavor." But we need to be in relationship with them, or risk marginalizing ourselves in our Northern bubble. They are reaching out to us, and evangelizing us in great numbers now. We need to be in partnership with our global brothers and sisters, helping them to spread the gospel." I would only want to emphasize that I don't believe that many of us in the West know what the Gospel is apart from the Imperial American context in which we find ourselves. I think we may need them in different ways than they need us.

  5. David,

    How would you rate the work being done through our Mennonite mission agencies - using the six values you recommend starting with?


    1. Hi Dave, I fear that assessments and evaluations are too valuable to articulate on a blog comment board. Also, I would not like to suggest that the 6 values I have recommended are exhaustive. What I hope to do, and seem to have done, is to start a conversation that will lead us ALL into deeper reflection and more loving action. And I emphasize ALL for two reasons. First, all of us who claim the Christian story are claiming a sending, or a missionary, narrative. Second, as I noted above, the objects of our missionary endeavors have a lot to teach us about "the good news." Any assessment that does not include their voices would be lacking important insights.

    2. Hello David,

      Thanks for responding. I find myself able to affirm most of the values that you have shared as a starting point. Some would provide opportunity for invigorating conversation in trying to determine what living them out looks like.

      You state that your hope is to start a conversation (does that mean you aren't really calling for a moratorium?) I took your blog to be a critique of current mission efforts - was that incorrect? According to what you wrote in your blog I can only surmise that you believe current mission efforts are contrary to your values or you wouldn't call for a halt. (since you are a professor at a Mennonite Seminary, I also assumed that the critique was more specifically of Mennonite mission efforts).

      My suggestion is that by using a call for "a moratorium on missions" you are being quite unfair to many of my friends in missions (local for them) who I believe would actually agree with and endeavor to live in accordance with most of your stated values.

      Are you aware of the work that has been done by some of our mission sending groups in listening to those who have been on the receiving end of missions?


    3. Thanks for your comments Dave,

      You asked, "I took your blog to be a critique of current mission efforts - was that incorrect?"

      Your take was correct. And yes, I have met many Mennonite missionaries who would tend to agree with much of what I have said here. I did not name any specific agency or denomination, because the problems, as I see them, are inter-denominational. Too much of what is referred to as US American Christian missions is rooted in harmful practices that support self-righteousness and racial superiority. The understanding of Christian mission that drives such practices must be put to rest, fully.

    4. David,

      I wonder if a more helpful way to move this conversation forward would be by distinguishing between missions done poorly and missions done well - missions done from a helpful understanding and missions done from an unhelpful foundation. So far you seem to be painting missions with a broad brush of all being the same (something about baby and bathwater comes to mind). I believe there are positive examples out there to contrast with the ones that you and I both find objectionable.

      This will be my last comment on the blog - any additional ones will be by email.


  6. Thank you Lord!... finally I found someone who articulates with clarity and wise boldness not only the reason of the discomfort that causes to me watching a misdirected missionary effort, but also a kind of strategy or clues to follow to correct “the heartbeat” of the church ! ...
    In my imagination I think that there is a fear in one part of the generational collective conscience of our societies for losing the control of a paramount wealth, gained within the last 500 years…they fear that one of these days all this archaic structure and empty missionary vision would fall down... it's time to invest all possible resources today and here for the sake of our closest neighbors, what is wrong with that?
    I believe that there is hope in naming the wrongness of all the madness of centuries of slavery and manipulation before our societies continue undermined by the ignorance and the arrogance of those that we ----the truly Christian- empowered because of our blindness and cowardice to speak intelligently !

    I totally agree with you

  7. I'm beginning my 7th year as a Catholic lay missionary in a poor diocese in western Honduras, with much of my work in a poor rural parish (47 towns and villages). Much of my ministry is helping the many pastoral workers develop further their knowledge and skills, so they can better serve God's people here.
    I found your suggestions helpful.
    There are a number of points I could share but the most important is that here there already is a missionary sense among the people in the villages.
    One part of my ministry is helping make connections between the rural parish here and the parish where I worked in Iowa before coming here. There are aspects of this that are good. The visits are immersions, meant to offer opportunities for people to meet others. There are two or three days of work in a village, with the people, on a project that the people are working on. The main purpose of these work days, though, is to provide a space where people can get to know each other.
    The Iowa parish wants connections but sometimes I think they reflect a "need" of theirs, not of our people here. How then do I be a bridge?
    Those are questions I am struggling with now. Perhaps they will help others think about how US people arrive here, ow they are received and perceived, and how they really need a lot of humility.
    Sorry if this sounds like a them versus "us" - but even though I am more US than Honduran, I am beginning to identify with them. However, I realize that my frustrations are probably more because I'm a US white male (with the security of Social Security)than because I am really identifying with the people here.

    1. "The Iowa parish wants connections but sometimes I think they reflect a "need" of theirs, not of our people here. How then do I be a bridge?"

      Hi John, you have identified one motivating factor for this blog. Our wealth and cosmopolitan capabilities allow us to engage with people all over the world in ways that at one time were inconceivable. Today a church can, with the purest of intentions, seek to be helpful for and connected to a rural parish, such as yours, for a few weeks a year and have their lives changed by the experience. Herein lies the difficulty, as you have named it: sometimes the receiving community does not need the eager mission group as much as the group believes that they are needed. Is this practice really developing relationships? Will these relationships enable Christians to grow in their capacity to love their neighbor as themselves? Lots of evidence shows that these trips reinforce preconceived ideas that the sent folks always had. Unfortunately, for all of the possibilities created by modern technology, very few folks will return home and build relationships with local people of different racial or economic experiences than their own.

      That's where you come in. You are one of them. Hopefully, they'll stay connected to you. At the same time, you've become something of a Ruth, a third culture person, and become a part of a new community. It sounds like you already are a bridge. It seems to me that one of the best things the people of Iowa can do is support you and listen to you. As you have come to identify with your Honduran neighbors, their problems have become your problems, their hopes your hopes. Perhaps your Iowan church can learn how to engage more fully in their local setting by observing your life in Honduras... I'd love to hear more about your experiences along the way. Thanks for your response.

  8. David,
    Thanks for your insights. I do feel part of the people here, at one point recently identifying my frustration with the Iowa parish with what I think must be their frustration with helping groups from abroad. It really helped me to connect with them as I felt isolated and not listened to.
    If you want to read more about what I do, and my reflections, I have a blog .

    1. My blog is named hermanojuancito and it's at blogspot. For some reason, it didn't show up in my comments.

  9. Thanks! great piece David! I can use this in my teaching. How are you and life at EMS? good seeing you in VA in Jan, and for a minute in Philly at the justice conf. Calenthia Dowdy