Reshaping the Self-Distorted Foreign Missionary

What happens when the western missionary finds his body abroad

Mark preaching outside at Emanuel in 2003 "What's Wrong with Western Missionaries?" The title of Nik Ripken's article grabbed me by the eyeballs and gave my nose a good yank. Of course I clicked the link posted on Facebook by my cousin.

Of course, because I lived in Mexico most of the first fifteen years of my life. (That's a bit more than one fourth of my life.) I've been a member of our congregation's Mexico mission board the last twenty years of my life. (That's over a third of my life.) Between those two chunks, I lived another six years or so in Mexico, five them as a married missionary. (That's slightly over another tenth of my life.) Oh, I should clarify that I wasn't born in Mexico. But "pretty close," so to speak. My parents entered missionary service when I was less than two months old.

I decided to use excerpts from Nik Ripken's article as indented jump-off points for some of my own thoughts.

If you prefer to read this article offline, please scroll to the end for my link to the pdf version of it.)

As darkness settled in...I asked these believers about Western missionaries.

"What do we do well? What things do we not do well? What should we start doing? What should we stop doing? What should we pick up? What should we lay down? What makes a good missionary?"

These believers looked at each other in horror. For hours, they had related their most personal stories.

They had shared accounts of rejection by parents and siblings. They had unpacked events where they had been shamed and beaten. They had told of other believers who were forced to marry nonbelievers. They had even recalled brothers and sisters who had been brutalized before being killed for their faith. They had not held back the most intimate stories surrounding their families, faith, and persecution.

But when I ask this final question about Western missionaries, they froze.

I pushed harder. I sincerely needed to hear what they would say.

Finally, with great hesitation, one of the believers looked at me and said, "I don't know what makes a good missionary, but I can tell you the name of the man we love."

If the people don't love the missionary, how can he be a good missionary?

If the missionary doesn't love the people, how can he be a good missionary? Sure, he can declare the Good News. In their own tongue. Fluently. Even with the local accent. But if he doesn't truly love the recipient of his message, why should that person respond to the Message of Divine Love?

If the missionary doesn't love the people, how shall they love him? And if the people don't love the missionary, how can he be a good missionary?

Well, back to the article...

I journeyed to five different places in that country. For ten long days, I interviewed believers. Each time, as I reached the end of the interview, I asked the same question: "What makes a good missionary?"

The response was identical each time: "We don't know what makes a good missionary, but we can tell you the name of the man we love."

Amazingly, I heard the same name in every place!

When I asked why they loved him, the answer was always the same: "We don't know. We just love him."

I have taught, preached to, and held Bible studies with many people in Mexico. If I ever do it again, I think one of my top-most priorities in my presentation will be seeing an audience of individuals, each of whom I love.

That was the way Christ saw His audiences. And since He now lives His life in me, He would love them through my love. And I would love them because of His love living out through me. The people would know it.

"Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20).

Well, why do you suppose Nik's missionary friend was so loved by "his" people? Brace yourself for the answer!

Finally, one of the men leaned across the table toward me and said forcefully, "You want to know why we love him? We love him because he borrows money from us!"


"He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us."

Except the other missionaries did need the "natives." They just lived as though they didn't, unaware of their own need. After all, missionaries are supposed to be need-fillers, you know, not need-havers who "have" to rely on the "natives" for help.

Mark and Javier eating together at a 2003 Emanuel fellowship meal

If I ever serve Mexico again, I want to live out such an awareness of need. I want to esteem my fellow believers there as essential to my own spiritual well-being and development. Not in a contrived, artificial sort of way. Not in a theoretical, conceptual way. I want to live in the reality of being part of a local body of believers called together by God for their mutual benefit. I don't want to be a warped member, disconnected from the local body as though I had no need of it.

I want to be a beneficiary of God's work in them. Just like God tells us so plainly in 1 Corinthians 12:14,18,21 and Ephesians 4:15,16...

For the body is not one member, but many.

But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.

And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.

But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:

From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.

Every missionary serving within the context of a national church needs to have this as one of his life realities: "These members and I are part of the same body." He belongs to that local body every bit as much (and even more, in practical terms) as he belongs to his "home congregation" back in the "homeland." Pity the missionary who doesn't understand this truth! Blessed the foreign missionary who truly finds his "body" when he's abroad!

OK, let's grab another paragraph from Nik's article...

So much of what we do is about us and about what we can provide. We travel around the world to meet needs, not to be honest about our own, nor to become part of their body of Christ. We are the "haves," and they are the "have-nots."

"The rest of you have never needed us."

As long as I see myself primarily as the contributor and them as the recipients, I'll deprive myself of essential spiritual nutrients and strength God puts in them by His Spirit. I wonder how much more mature I would be now had I not seen myself as mostly a "have" with a lot to give. How much did I miss of what God would have done in my life through them had I done far better at recognizing them as "haves" with something to give to me?

Nik confronts us with a series of questions:

But here's the challenge: What's left for local people to do? What's left for the Holy Spirit to provide? Where do we model how to trust God and his provision through the local body of believers? Where do local believers find their worth, their sanctified sense of signficance? What gifts and sacrifice can they bring to this enterprise of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth?

Rarely did the apostle Paul create dependency upon himself. Often in his letters, Paul expressed how desperately he needed his brothers and sisters in Christ.

I want God to develop in me (and I want to cultivate) such a sense of need. And appreciation. And dependence. And respect. And...

I would take to heart the lesson of John the Baptist, saying about a local believer what John said about Jesus: I must decrease so that he can increase (John 3:30). I would invite local believers to lead in the light while I served in the shadows. I would have pressed into what it meant to really need them.

For the last while, I've thought on and off of being a decreaser so that others can increase. I've long thought of being back in Mexico among the people of my childhood and youth -- "my people," yes. As a Bible teacher and Gospel preacher, yes. But also as an encourager and builder of national preachers and teachers. Now I can add to those thoughts this one: as an intentionally dependent learner from national believers.

But these are not heights of perspective and experience to which I can hoist myself by tugging more mightily at my sandal straps. To "achieve" these things I must ask God for them (Matthew 7:7). This is His work (Philippians 2:13). This isn't about me thinking better thoughts on my own; it's about my having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-8). As with all Christian living, this begins and continues and ends with Christ living His life in me (Galatians 2:20). This is all about abiding in Jesus and bearing His fruit (John 15:4-8). Our sufficiency is of Him (2 Corinthians 3:5)!

The American missionary makes no better vessel than the national Christian. We are all made of the same dust of the earth!

Christ in me does not ever underestimate, minimize, or dismiss His Spirit's work in the lives of believers just because they are of a different culture than I am. The treasure of Light and Truth abides in any earthen vessel yielded to the Lordship of Jesus. This is true regardless of the nationality or ethnicity of the clay He used to build the vessel. The American missionary makes no better vessel than the national Christian -- we are all made of the same temporal, imperfect dust of the earth! We must bear that truth in mind when we read verses such as 2 Corinthians 4:6 and 7:

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

Nik Ripken so well expressed some of the truths that have slowly and firmly grown into my ideas of being a foreign missionary serving in the context of an established national church. It also adds new dimensions I hadn't thought of before. Thank you, Nik!

What makes a good missionary? Certainly not the self-sufficient one!

Well, whether you are interested in evangelism generally or in missions specifically, I urge you to read Nik's full article. And if your interest goes no deeper than "just" praying for missionaries you know, that's deep enough to warrant reading the whole article -- it will give you a new way to pray for them.

Here you go: What's Wrong with Western Missionaries?

If you would like to contribute your thoughts on this subject, please do so at my Ain't Complicated blog post announcing my article: How to Improve the Needy American Missionary

Free pdf version of this article for offline reading and nicely formatted printing: Reshaping the Self-Distorted Foreign Missionary (231 kb)

© Copyright 2016, Mark Roth

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