Jan. 12 Flashback: Cross-cultural missionaries

Jan. 12 Flashback: Cross-cultural missionaries January 12, 2022

And in the 20th year of the blog, the Slacktivist looked upon all that he had posted, and saw that some of it was, you know, pretty OK.

This is from January 12, 2018, “White evangelicalism vs. missionaries“:

Evangelical missiology has come a long way. It might have taken evangelicals a century or so to learn what people like Hudson Taylor figured out about decolonizing “cross-cultural ministry,” but even some of the most established and well-respected evangelical mission agencies now have a fairly sophisticated understanding of their role as non-colonial, culturally appropriate supporters of indigenous Christianity in any given “mission field.” They tend to be judiciously careful in describing this when back home on furlough, sometimes wincing a bit as they participate in the Mission Conference circuit, but many of them genuinely get it. (Not all, alas — it’s not hard to find examples of 19th-century colonial missiology still being practiced by white-saviors based in “mission compounds” throughout the developing world that still look like some kind of cross between Kingsolver and Kipling.)

There’s a culture gap and a knowledge gap between actual missionaries and the white evangelical congregations that support them. It’s similar to the “faculty lounge” problem I’ve discussed before and to a story I’ve previously mentioned involving a massive American evangelical relief and development agency. Like most relief groups, that agency wants to keep overhead and administrative costs as low as possible. They want the overwhelming share of their budget to support actual aid and development, rather than to support the fundraising that supports that work. They want their fundraising to be as efficient and cost-effective as it can be.

So this group brought in some consultants to study the various components of their fundraising letters to figure out what kind of appeals worked and what didn’t. Those consultants, depressingly, found that the most effective photographs — the ones most likely to inspire white evangelical Americans to respond by writing large checks — involved benevolent looking middle-aged white male executive types surrounded by smiling black and brown children. This was unwelcome information. The agency was theologically committed to a non-colonial, non-evil missiology that meant photos like that were something they were compelled to avoid. They knew that using such photos communicated a host of anti-gospel, anti-Pentecost messages that did real harm to the very people they were striving to serve and that ultimately undermined the work they were doing and their future prospects for continuing and expanding it. But avoiding such pictures would also make it harder to raise funds efficiently.

The culture gap and knowledge gap between the actual missionaries and the congregations supporting them raises a lot of uncomfortable, difficult challenges like that.

I’m not sure “culture gap” or “knowledge gap” adequately describes the gulf here. A more direct and more accurate way of putting it might be to say that the missionaries being supported by white evangelicals are no longer, themselves, white evangelicals. They of course retain the whiteness of their ethnicity, but that whiteness no longer shapes and determines their theology. Taking “cross-cultural ministry” seriously has forced them to interrogate the cultural trappings of their prior understanding of the gospel, of ministry, of hermeneutics. They’ve started following a Jesus who isn’t the White Jesus of white evangelicalism. This runs far deeper than Hudson Taylor’s ponytail. Missionaries have, in a very real sense, converted to a different religion from that of the churches supporting their work.

Read the whole thing here.


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