I drove out to a Sunrise Baptist Church on Sunday to do an interview for a piece I was working on about the presidential election and the violence in Haiti. It was missions night and my guess — accurate, it turned out — was that the founder of Starfish Ministries would be there. Money was being raised to go to ministries in Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Niger, and Haiti. The speaker was an undercover missionary in a few Muslim countries, where strict Islamic law frowns on that sort of thing.
An idea for a story smacked me right upside the head, so here’s the setup. Conservative Christians — particularly Free Church Protestants — often complain that the press misrepresents them as ignorant hicks: rural, poor, isolated from the world. The comment that will live in infamy came from a Washington Post story by Michael Weisskopf. The reporter called politically active conservative Christians “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” Furious evangelicals responded in a number of ways, including burning up the Post‘s fax machine with copies of postgraduate degrees that they had earned.
I thought it was highly amusing at the time but I didn’t fully understand the outrage. As I waited through the recent missions presentation for my interviewee to become available, I finally got why they would bristle so much at the stereotype.
Here they were dispatching their own foreign aid to poor countries, hearing reports from points all over the globe, volunteering to fly thousands of miles — if not tens of thousands of miles — to build houses and dig wells while they tell people about this rabbi from Israel, and then a friend forwards them an article on the crimped and narrow experiences of believers by some writer in the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Reporters know about missionaries and they occasionally write about them, but what I have never seen is a good write-up of the whole phenomenon of missionary work and globalization.
1) What kind of a picture do the supporters get from missionaries? Obviously the message is shaped to address the audience, but how accurate are snapshots of foreign countries that missionaries give them?
2) How much of it sinks in? If you were to test the knowledge of people from missions-oriented churches against your average Joe Taxpayer knows about Haiti, or India, or Bosnia, what would you find?
3) How much money do American Christians spend on missions work and how does that stack up to the foreign aid of the government?
4) The stereotype is that secular cosmopolitans travel while evangelicals stay home. How true is that? I’ve heard trips to Mexico and parts foreign referred to as “Baptist vacations,” so I’m skeptical.
5) How does interaction with the rest of the world change these Christians? Does it alter their views on politics, poverty, etc. or what?
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it…
[A postscript: The porn-averse might want to avoid typing "missionary" into the Google images search.]