The Missionary Position

SarahH has been involved with missionaries before, including her own parents. On the forums, she writes:

When I was a teenager, I took a summer-long trip to Zambia and South Africa with Teen Missions International, a group based in Florida that sends approximately 700 teens around the world every summer. Their mission is much more evangelically centered, in that they’re very very focused on the goal of saving souls rather than saving lives. The teens who work on construction projects are more likely to be helping to, say, work on a mission base than on houses or hospitals or schools, and some groups (like mine) were sent out solely to proselytize to the people and spread the gospel, with no medicine or education or help for them other than ‘salvation.’

She asks a few key questions at the end of her posting:

  • Does motive matter as long as you’re helping people in ways that effect their lives positively? (examples would be helping with getting clean drinking water, providing food sources, donating clothes, building schools, etc.)
  • Is there a clear line between benign missions and more aggressive missions? One example I can think of that crosses the line, IMO, is an inner city mission for drug addicts and alcoholics that only allows people to live there if they’re pursuing a relationship with Jesus Christ. Where is the line, in your opinion?
  • Would you ever donate money to a missionary project? Why or why not?

What do you think?

If you’ve been a part of a mission trip, please share that with us, too. Was it a good or bad experience for you?


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    We were just talking about this on Skepchick. Here’s what I said:

    To me, all missionary work has a negative connotation. By calling it missionary work, the idea that it includes prostelyzation in addition to whatever charity work may be done, is inferred. If it were devoid of the goal of conversion it would be called charity or aid, not missions.

    I can’t give my money or time to an organization who has as a goal the conversion of others. Even if they do some other good things, it gets cancelled out by this ulterior motive in my opinion.

  • sabrina

    I would not give money to missionaries. There are plenty of groups that go to third world countries just to help people; not to advance their agendas. A great one is Doctors Without Borders.

  • http://wisertime.wordpress.com Jake

    It depends on what “crossing the line” means. If you’re talking about whether the group should receive government money, that’s a different question than whether the group should exist in the first place.

    Also, keep in mind that when Christians “proselytize” (the word sounds gross to me, and I’m sure to some people who experience it it seems gross!), from our perspective we are helping them. So for example, helping to build wells and telling people about Jesus aren’t two separate things in our minds; they’re two ways of doing good. We don’t think of it as an ulterior motive. I know most readers will disagree, but please don’t think we’re rubbing our hands and saying, “ha ha… we’ll lure them with clean water and then execute our real plan!”

    Lastly, it’s just true: there are thousands of Christian workers in just about every country of the world trying to alleviate human suffering, and they’re doing it because of their beliefs, not in spite of them. I think it’s unfair to those people to say that the good they’re doing somehow doesn’t count simply because they’re Christians.

  • sabrina

    I think it’s unfair to those people to say that the good they’re doing somehow doesn’t count simply because they’re Christians.

    I don’t think anyone is saying that, if you’re helping. But from this girl’s post, it sounds like the number one thing to do is convert. I think thats gross; how dare you trivialize someone else’s beliefs because you think yours are the right ones. When you go into an economically depressed area, and bring food, water, hospitals, medicine, etc, you are in a position of power. These people need you and what you bring, and you take that opportunity to say their beliefs are wrong, that if they believe in Jesus they will be “saved”. What are these people supposed to think? Of course they are going to believe whatever you tell them, because they need what you have. I have a lot more respect for organizations that help people just to help them. Starving people don’t need churches; they need irrigation and farming methods, roads, hospitals, schools, medicine, etc.
    True humanity comes from helping people because its the right thing to do, not because you need another notch on your soul belt.

  • Aaron

    I went on a missions trip in high school, and in retrospect it’s left me with really mixed feelings. We helped with a free dental clinic and delicing (in an extremely poor neighbourhood in Culiacan). I think that’s great, and what we did had a really positive effect. On the other hand, I’ve grown to realise just how underhanded “missions” can be. It’s essentially saying, “We can help you, and in exchange you’re going to listen to us tell you about Jesus.” It’s as though missionaries find it impossible to help people without an underlying agenda of conversion.

    Of course, as Jake pointed out, most people involved with missions view this as “two ways of doing good”, and I think most would agree that the good stuff they’ve done isn’t nullified because they opened their mouths. I’m really proud of the work done in Culiacan. I just wish it didn’t so often feel like Christian aid is somehow claused.

  • http://www.mundori.com Brascal

    I can see what you mean, Jake, But even if you do -not- see it as a transaction, it’s still a loaded deal.

    Consider this: if after hurricane Katrina a muslim (or zoroastrian, or mormon) charity arrived to hand out ater and food and medicine, after a voluntary (ahem) attendance of a few lectures and seminar about what a nifty guy Mohhamed is or how magic underwear can improve your life, would you consider it unfair or exploitation?

    I agree that charity is charity and when you are drowning, you often don’t care about the intentions of who may be able to throw you a floater. Many religious people are to be commended for the work they do. But if you ask me if it’s a honest deal, I’ll have to say it’s not. Real charity is selfless and often anonymous. Otherwise, it’s called personal marketing.

  • Maria

    it depends on far they go. I’ve heard of missions that really do help people, and they only mention religion in passing (example: “oh, over there we’ve got some literature on our faith if you are interested”. and then they let it drop, and they help the person regardless of whether or not the person takes it). that to me is okay, but anything beyond that is touchy, especially when they are like “oh, you can only have this if you join our church, or take this class, or read this bible, blah blah”. that to me is pretty sick. I’m hesitant to support any of them b/c I don’t know which ones are “gentle” and which ones are “aggressive”. if they didn’t try to convert and just helped, I’d be fine with it. I don’t see why the need to convert. if their building has a big cross on it, everyone will know it’s christians anyway, and they will tell others “the christians are helping us”. it should be about helping your fellow human, and if they happen to notice your religion and get interested in it, fine. if not, fine too. helping should be it’s own reward. period.

  • Cindy

    but please don’t think we’re rubbing our hands and saying, “ha ha… we’ll lure them with clean water and then execute our real plan!”

    But that is what you are doing, even if it’s subconsciously.

  • Karen

    I financially supported many missionaries over the years and did a couple of short-term mission trips myself. While there was always a practical component (building houses, primarily) the number one goal was making converts. No question that’s the most important thing for evangelical missions because it is the “great commandment” of Jesus to “go unto all the world and make disciples of every nation.” The way missionaries get funded is through donations from people interested in evangelism.

    Looking back now, it seems our purposes were very disrespectful and in some cases even coercive. We were never taking the gospel to atheists – any culture our missionaries went into had its own religious tradition, whether it was Catholicism, Islam or animist or pagan practices.

    As Sabrina says, when Westerners with all kinds of money and material gifts show up and tell the natives that their religion is wrong and they need to “come to Jesus” it’s tough for them to make an objective decision. Particularly in undeveloped countries, there’s a feeling that if you want what the rich white people have, you should follow their god and he’ll bless you materially too.

    Of course we never encouraged that line of thinking, but it was there and I think subtly it was exploited nonetheless.

  • http://wisertime.wordpress.com Jake

    Cindy– How do you know what’s going on in our subconscious? Isn’t it possible that we want to help them get clean water (to use my example) because they’re humans who need clean water? If you’re capable of that motivation, what makes you think we aren’t?

  • Jen

    Also, keep in mind that when Christians “proselytize” (the word sounds gross to me, and I’m sure to some people who experience it it seems gross!), from our perspective we are helping them.

    How do you feel about destroying the native culture? It seems to me that missionaries do good things (bring clean water, build schools, etc) but at the same time, it seems that contact with Westernern eventually destroys the native culture (of which their native religion is a part). You simply cannot turn a people Christian without somehow implying their religion is lesser, but since religion can be such a huge part of culture, it destroys their history.

    See: oh, I don’t know, any Native American reservation. A friend of mine teaches on one. She told me about how back in the day the children got to go to school (good) but were punished if they referred to anything non-white and Christian- their language, their beliefs, and all that. These days, the majority of them are Christian. She runs a youth group, and it makes me very uncomfortable, much more so than my Chicago friend who runs a youth group.

  • http://mytensmakt.blogspot.com/ BryanJ

    Does anyone here know something about what the Christian missionary groups are doing in China? I’m not inclined to believe the Chinese government or the claims from the groups themselves.

  • Sudo

    It’s a bit ironic that we have a post questioning the benefits of Christian missions right over an article about penis snatching in Africa. How do you feel about destroying those native cultures, eh? Or the native cultures that espouse raping infants and virgins as a means of curing AIDS? Let’s not forget clitorectomies!

    On the scale of the benign, I think I’d say Christianity is the lesser of evils in these cases.

  • Jen
    Or the native cultures that espouse raping infants and virgins as a means of curing AIDS?

    They aren’t evil, just uneducated. You know what brings up any culture? Empowering women to work and have education and use birth control.

    Let’s not forget clitorectomies!

    Which were medically valid treatment in America up until the 70s. The 1970s. Do you get now that the brown people are not all that different from us?

  • Siamang

    On the scale of the benign, I think I’d say Christianity is the lesser of evils in these cases.

    You’re presuming American style Christianity, with American Christian morals, attitudes, levels of education and American levels of domestic tranquility. I will submit to you that the level of domestic tranquility in a society may not change just because people own a cross or a bible. Witness the Christian priests and nuns who were Rwandan butchers.

    What good does it do to replace one violent mythology with another?

    The Bible says “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Let’s go back to Christian Salem Massachusetts circa 1692… how well did Christianity do in stopping witch hysteria there and then?

    The way out is education and economic development, not trading one set of magical incantations for another.

  • http://www.ineedtothink.com Seavee

    Sabrina hit the nail on the head when she said that bringing aid puts people in a “position of power.” I think that it is disrespectful to use authority to manipulate a change in beliefs.

    Mission groups can bring aid and then simply make their religious beliefs available. This lessens their coercive power but it does not eliminate it. Even when handled gently there is still the unspoken knowledge that the missionaries are the providers of life sustaining and/or improving goods and services. The people will always have cause to worry that lack of acceptance of missionary beliefs will result in a withholding of those goods and services.

    I understand and sympathize with Jakes belief that Christians often feel they are helping people by proselytizing. I genuinely believe it helps people to let go of Christianity and become atheists. However, just because we think people will be better often does not authorize us to use manipulation or coercion to change their beliefs.

    I suspect that the same Christians who think it is ok to use the power of goods and services to manipulate the poor and the weak would not like to see the tables turned. They would greatly resent having people in positions of authority try and take away their faith.

  • Sudo

    Jen said:

    Do you get now that the brown people are not all that different from us?

    Who is this us to whom you refer? You are making assumptions about my race based on a post. Do you think blacks or Asians or Latinos or any other non-white race would not find such practices abhorrent?

    Jen said:

    Which were medically valid treatment in America up until the 70s. The 1970s.

    I did not know that! I would ask what conditions it was supposed to treat and whether they were effective or not, but I’ll Google it so as not to go into detail on the blog. Even so, clitorectomies these days are done for religious or cultural reasons, not medical. In fact, being subjected to or threatened with a clitorectomy is enough to get you asylum in the U.S.

    Siamang said:

    You’re presuming American style Christianity, with American Christian morals, attitudes, levels of education and American levels of domestic tranquility.

    Where are the missionaries from that were the point of the article? I’m not sure but I believe the Catholic clergy involved in the Rwandan massacres were locals, not missionaries. Not that this excuses their behavior of course, just that they’re not American style missionaries, who are still continuing to proselytize the Rwandan people despite the presence of other Christians.

    The way out is education and economic development, not trading one set of magical incantations for another.

    Sure, and I agree with you. It’d definitely be preferable if they’d adopt a scientific mindset and drop superstition altogether. My point was that given the nature of the current superstition, substituting a less dangerous one is the lesser of two evils.

  • Karen

    My point was that given the nature of the current superstition, substituting a less dangerous one is the lesser of two evils.

    Good thing we don’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils. We can support, and encourage others to support, NGOs that help people in sustainable ways and promote education without pushing any particular religion on them.

  • Siamang

    I’m not sure but I believe the Catholic clergy involved in the Rwandan massacres were locals, not missionaries.

    Exactly my point.

    You can bring Christianity to the people, but that doesn’t mean they stop doing violence in the name of God.

    My point was that given the nature of the current superstition, substituting a less dangerous one is the lesser of two evils.

    You are assuming that the same evil cannot be done under the Cross that it was under whatever superstitious beliefs these people had. As Rwanda shows, it absolutely can.

    You aren’t substituting anything less dangerous. The violence still happens.

  • Sudo

    I think my response to Karen and Siamung would have been labeled a ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy, so I’ll let it go. ;-)

  • http://journals.aol.ca/plittle/AuroraWalkingVacation/ Paul

    I can remember many years ago my mother convinced me to go to a church function, because it was going to be a display of photography, and I was a young camera enthusiast. Unfortunately, every photograph presented was accompanied by a caption glorifying God in some way. I distinctly remember a picture of a group of Muslims bowing down in prayer. As a photograph goes, it was well done. The caption that was attached to it, however, made reference to the many third world countries that were ripe for the spreading of Jesus’ word. It was at that moment that I fully realised the true evil that is religion. Here were a group of people, perfectly content in the worship of their own God, and the Christian missionaries who sponsored the show were advocating going to their country, ripping from them their own faiths, and force feeding them Christianity. I never entered that church again.

  • Zachary B.

    I’ll actually be going on a mission trip this summer, before I leave for Iraq. I’ve got two weeks of leave before I deploy and one week I’ll be spending a few states away repairing houses.

    I went on three mission trips when I was in high school to the Bahamas. I still believed at that time, but mainly what we did there was humanitarian work. Natives in the Bahamas have a hard time repairing hurricane damage and termite damage due to the high costs of labor because there are many rich people paying premiums there. We provided valuable supplied and manpower. The house I worked on the first year belonged to an old couple. The husband was wheelchair-bound and, amongst other problems, the living room floor was being held up almost completely by the carpet due to termites. The husband could barely cross this to get to his bedroom.

    At the time we thought of ourselves as symbolizing the hand of god helping these people. It was a good experience and I’ll never forget it. Like I said, this was humanitarian in nature almost completely, we were not trying to recruit for god, which I feel good that we didn’t do at the time.

    I’m sure I will enjoy the coming trip, although no one will know that I’m an atheist, help is help. In the end if the major goal is to help people rather than to recruit, then I think mission trips are okay and often to more good than harm.

  • elyse

    My issue is that all the money being spent sending people on these trips and on the supplies needed to convert the “heathens”. Instead of building a church, buy more vaccines. For each Bible they hand out, they could instead be giving out a mosquito net. How many doctors and nurses could be sent to Africa for the cost of sending 30 teens? The time spent preaching about Jesus could be spent discussing how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

    And don’t get me started on abstinence-only education in Africa!

    The problem with third world countries is not that they need more Jesus. Every dollar being spent to “spread the good word” is a dollar wasted on resources that could save lives. Or maybe that just doesn’t matter if they’re only going to hell when they die anyway.

  • Sudo

    I see there are a few people here who have been on mission trips before, and one at least who continues to go on missions as an atheist. But there are plenty of suggestions and instructions here for Christian missionaries on what they should spend their money on, instead of Bibles, etc. I’m curious as to what’s keeping those of you who would like to see the missionaries doing things differently from undertaking or participating in some sort of missionary work yourself, and running it the right way, i.e. without Bibles and more mosquito netting.

  • Karen

    I think my response to Karen and Siamung would have been labeled a ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy, so I’ll let it go. ;-)

    Hey, preemptive fallacy recognition! I love it. :-) Maybe we need to form a fallacy suppression team (not to be confused, of course, with the phallus suppression teams in Africa!).

    I’m curious as to what’s keeping those of you who would like to see the missionaries doing things differently from undertaking or participating in some sort of missionary work yourself, and running it the right way, i.e. without Bibles and more mosquito netting.

    Well, aside from jobs, kids and lack of discretionary funds – not a thing. ;-) Seriously, it’s something I would like to do at some point in future, but with two kids on the verge of college, the money’s not there right now.

    Missionary work is supported primarily by individuals who are interested in evangelism – at least in my experience. While I did have to pay something for the short-term mission trips I took, they were subsidized by fundraising.

    Individuals can join secular groups that undertake humanitarian missions, but they are less common than missions trips organized by churches or missions agencies and the individuals typically have to pay their own way and use their own vacation time.

    It’s a great experience personally to see humanitarian work being done around the world, but I think in the long run it’s more cost effective to contribute to groups who are sending professionals overseas or supporting aid work being done in country. I worked for a Christian NGO for a couple of years, and oftentimes guests basically got a dog-and-pony show out in the field and ended up being a drag on the operation rather than a help. We did it because people who saw the work up close wound up becoming better donors.

    Instead of building a church, buy more vaccines. For each Bible they hand out, they could instead be giving out a mosquito net. How many doctors and nurses could be sent to Africa for the cost of sending 30 teens?

    I understand your point, but it’s not a straight equivalent like that.

    Most of the money going into missions comes from individuals who are passionate about spreading the gospel. They might or might not be as passionate about health care, clean water and poverty alleviation. In fact, I used to fight this battle with many Christians who objected to community outreach work because we were helping people in the short term (this life) but if we weren’t saving souls, we weren’t doing them any good in the long term (getting them into heaven), which was supposed to be our primary focus. sigh…

    The bigger task is educating wealthy/comfortable people about the need around the world and making them passionate about THAT, not just about pushing their own religion.

  • Jen

    I’m curious as to what’s keeping those of you who would like to see the missionaries doing things differently from undertaking or participating in some sort of missionary work yourself, and running it the right way, i.e. without Bibles and more mosquito netting.

    Well, I for one am not backed by a church full of people.

  • SarahH

    I’m late to this conversation, but I think Karen is completely correct about the funding issue. My dad works for IVCF staff and is completely funded by donations from individuals and churches. The Big Money behind these trips and missions comes from people who (for the most part) care primarily about spreading the gospel. If they cared primarily about feeding the hungry or helping prevent diseases, they would give money to charities that focus on that.

    There aren’t really equivalents of ‘mission trips’ for atheists, outside of a few organizations. I give money, when I can, to foundations that provide education and food, etc. to people who need it – I don’t need to be there personally to hand out the nets to know that I’m making a difference. It would be nice if more people could go help with projects in Africa, for instance, without being party to any religious agenda, but the money’s just not there. The secular organizations that collect money pretty much use as much of it as possible to buy food and nets and medicine, etc. which I think is good.

  • Eric Mix

    The main point here is not if Christian missionairies do some good work when overseas in impoverished nations, it is that the good things they do, such as building shelters, building clean water systems, etc, are completely secular and the prosyletizing is not necessary for these good things to be done. The Peace Corps and Doctor’s Without Borders, are just two great examples of this. Would Christians in the United States be greatful if Muslims came to assist some of our poor in return for their conversion to Islam? Not likely. Doing good things for other people whether at home or overseas should be done simply for the sake of doing them, not for attempting to convert people through some strange sense of superiority in a belief system, based on no evidence to support its so called “superiority,” other then we were brought up Christian mainly because of our Geographic location and it makes us feel good and secure, so it must be the right religion. Please!


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