Dr. Ille in Romania gives a brutally honest view of how missionaries are sometimes seem through eyes of the very people they come to serve.
Missionaries, Through the Eyes of a Local
Dr. David Ille
Over the course of my life, I’ve had many interactions with all types of different missionaries who have come to my home country of Romania to serve. My thoughts and reflections related to the work that missionaries do, and the effectiveness of their work, come primarily from these personal experiences. If I was to categorize the various missionaries I’ve interacted with, I would place them into two general groups: those whom I admire, and those whose methods and practices I find hard to understand.
Generally speaking, those whom I admire left lasting change in their wake, change that can be seen generations later. This change brought genuine lasting good to the communities that God called them to as missionaries. Apart from the grace of God, I believe their success, or lack thereof, was largely due to their level of “cultural intelligence.” By using the term cultural intelligence, I am referring to the ability of an individual to understand a culture from the inside out. This is in contrast to the approach of trying to understand a culture using only the reference points one already has, and has brought with them from their culture of origin. It’s only through a high level of cultural intelligence that outsiders are usually able to create lasting change. One’s success also has a connection with the level of determination and the level of faithfulness and commitment one feels before God to the mission they’ve been given to do.
Those missionaries who have left lasting imprints in my life and in the lives of many others around me, have been very special people. Often their impact has been very practical in nature.
One example from my own life was a missionary, who over time became a very close friend. He invited me to participate in a Bible Study that would eventually change the entire way I viewed and studied Scripture, thus changing my life forever. Scripture opened to me like never before. No one had ever shown me how to study scripture in a systematic manner. His guidance empowered me to respond to thousands of my own questions; about God, about creation, about myself, and others. From that time forward, the Bible took on a completely different flavor and value in my life.
Another practical example is that of a missionary who gave me a computer. It was not the machine itself that was the gift, but rather the fact that he instructed me how to use it in my life and ministry to be more effective.
Later in life, another missionary would come alongside me, working shoulder to shoulder on a project that would forever change my nation, reaching far beyond myself, and those in my immediate circle of influence. The key here is that he came alongside me. The beautiful part of this story is that he came to Romania with a well-formed vision, which disintegrated for reasons beyond his control. This provided plenty of valid excuses for him to return home. But when God calls us to his work, he causes everything to work for the good of those that love him, and he stayed to join forces with me. My joy in working together with this missionary was that I was able to see not just a missionary, but also a friend, who came alongside of me, adopting my dream and helping to bring that dream to fruition as if it were his own dream. Missionaries often seek others who will adopt their ministry dreams. However, many might find they can be more effective if they begin to consider how they might adopt the dreams of those they seek to help.
What I am trying to communicate through these examples is that I have great appreciation for those missionaries that bring permanent change to the places where they serve. I appreciate those who know how to work with the local people, mobilizing in them and alongside them, the local resources that would otherwise remain latent.
I feel as if missionaries in general are well received in my nation, or at least they were. As time goes on, missionaries seem to be less and less welcome. I could provide many other examples of missionaries whose work and service I appreciate as beautiful before the Lord. My joy in working with these missionaries is related to their spirit of friendliness and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as their determination to produce deep change in their field of ministry.
Perceived Cultural Supremacy
Those missionaries that I find difficult to understand are those who seem to have never worked at trying to understand our culture. Those who did not succeed in learning the language, to say nothing of the culture (for culture is often communicated through nuances of language), were often unable to bring any essential gospel impact to our nation.
I would like to share a few observations regarding missionaries and their approach. Perhaps these observations will help those who desire to be more prepared for the mission field, should God call them to serve overseas in some capacity.
Missionaries need to fight hard against the belief that just because something works (or is effective) in their home culture, that it will be effective in the culture God has sent them to serve in. I recognize that there are some generalities and similarities among people of all nations, however each particular nation or ethnic group carries certain characteristics that are unique to that culture. Being able to dissect those characteristics which are common to all people, and those which are specific to the group God has called a missionary to minister among is a sign of high cultural intelligence. A missionary that desires to be both respected by the local people, and effective in mission, needs to be well prepared to understand and discern those subtle differences, for that makes all the difference.
Even well prepared missionaries are often guilty of believing in the supremacy of their own culture, at the disregard of all other cultures, simply because they are different. We have to bear in mind that each culture develops differently, and many of these differences have very real and understandable connections to the particular geography and history of a region. In the course of all cultural developments, regardless of geography or history, false and idolatrous beliefs develop and exist. Some of these idolatrous beliefs are primitive in nature, while others appear to be modern, refined, and sophisticated. Western missionaries tend to view idolatry in the Eastern and Southern Hemispheres as primitive, while being ignorant regarding the forms of refined idolatry they bring with them from the West. A well-prepared missionary will seek to understand and discern the difference between primitive and refined idolatry, allowing them to recognize idolatry as idolatry, regardless of the culture it has developed in. A missionary prepared to see their own idolatry is better prepared to address the idolatry of others.
Mistakes to Avoid
One of the biggest mistakes a missionary can make is attempting to retain control of a work he/she has begun, even when (or long after) the local leaders are ready to assume responsibility. I’ve seen many examples of missionaries who think they’re the only ones capable of overseeing, or knowing how to oversee, a mission work. Far to often, even after they’ve handed over responsibility, many missionaries remain skeptical regarding the ability of the locals who have taken responsibility. In the worst cases, the attempt to retain control flows from out of a continual need to feel “on mission,” a need to have activity to report back home.
In many unfortunate occasions, missionaries are guilty of selecting their local partners based only on the basis of who does or does not speak their language of origin. Of course, every missionary who wants to have a significant and lasting impact must have high quality local individual partners. Unfortunately, the ability to speak the missionary’s native language is not a helpful measurement when selecting a partner. When they do so, many missionaries find themselves aligned with unhelpful associations because of their dependency on translation.
Many missionaries are under the illusion that partnerships with the government will always result in greater impact. While in some cases this can be both necessary and/or helpful, I’ve observed too many missionaries trying to work with the local or national government, without considering the fact that foreign missionaries are often used to build political capital or to create personal financial advantages. I’ve seen medical equipment stolen by local leaders, and given to friends, or used as gifts to help make money. This happens in many cases, and often unawares to the missionary. This can have the same effect for the missionary as getting involved in business deals does. It can erode the trust between missionary and locals, who often view government as an adversary – and for good reasons in many cases.
Unity of Purpose, not Pride and Individualism
I’ve observed that a significant amount of both human and financial resources are frequently wasted when missionaries refuse to work together. This is true despite the fact that they often have very similar visions and callings. This problem is related to pride and individualism, both of which are typically considered strong virtues in Western nations. They often demonstrate a lack of wisdom by their unwillingness to recognize that collaboration can bring better results than duplicated work performed in isolation.
Part of this problem could be resolved through the creation of communication networks, linking the efforts of missionary organizations. On the same token, sending churches need to recognize that by partnering together they can have a greater and much longer lasting impact than could possible by working in isolation. This is not an easy solution to implement, but the failure to address it will continue to produce a lack of cohesion. Together they can accomplish more than many independent missionaries all trying to be fruitful apart from each other can.
I’ve observed one other thing that’s left a negative lasting impression upon me. There are cases when missionaries, over time, get too implicated in outside business opportunities, leaving a strong negative note on the ministry work they came to do. This is because locals assume they are profiting largely by their ministry. Paul warned us against leaving this impression. This can be a serious temptation for some missionaries because of the early investment opportunities that often exist in many developing nations. Those who have even a little excess capital to invest, and who get in on the ground floor can often make good amounts of money. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that it’s wrong from an economic perspective to have foreign entrepreneurial people in our midst, but when people shift from missions work to business activities, this has a negative impact on the ministry and how the local people perceive and/or receive them.
Religiously Motivated Visitors
Another thing that’s difficult to me to comprehend at times is what the local advantage is to bringing large groups of short-term missionaries for short periods of time. Often the teams bring small supplies of food, medicine, or other goods for children or the poor, going in villages and distributing them, often pretending to be on mission, yet doing things that other local Christians should be doing for those in their midst.
The problem here is related to the fact that because they do not understand the language, they are 100% dependent on translators, who in turn have their own limitations in understanding. Those who are helped, are helped for a very limited time period, while at the same time, the time and financial investment required to bring large groups of people to a nation are extreme, and the investment is rarely seen as worthwhile by local leaders – those who understand the real needs of the people. I prefer not to refer to those who come on such visits as missionaries, but rather as religiously motivated visitors.
I recognize that there is a positive side to some short-term visits by those from the West. The largest benefit of such trips is not for the locals they suppose they’ve come to help. The largest benefit is for the visitor from the West; learning about the people, about the culture, and being able to sense whether or not this is a place they might be able to serve in as a long-term missionary. There are some urgent and disastrous needs in some nations, when those who come to help do not have the time to learn a culture and a language, yet because of the desperate need, they can make some positive impact. These, however, are the exception, not the rule.
When its Time to Go
I’ve also observed missionaries who have essentially completed the work they were sent to do, yet never return home. In many of these cases it was easier for those missionaries to remain on the mission field, even though they had little clear direction and vision remaining. They choose to stay, yet do practically little ministry. It’s difficult to understand why a missionary would be reluctant to return home. Perhaps it’s the fear of returning home to a nation and friends that have changed, the fear of the unknown, or the convenience of living on support so far away from any real accountability. Perhaps the reluctance is related to issues entirely different than those I am supposing. It’s difficult to say what the real causes may be. I hesitate to judge them, but I do recognize that many missionaries overstay their usefulness. The effects of this tendency are not good for the locals or the missionary and his family.
To summarize, I would say that the largest impact made by foreign missionaries is made by those who dedicate themselves for the long or medium term. They learn not just the language, but the culture as well, coming alongside the indigenous people. In this process they pass on their mission and the responsibility of continuing the mission, both the human and financial resources related to the mission. A lot is wasted when missionaries leave nothing in their wake but a building or an institution which will continue to rust, or even worse, just a few memories of a foreign person who came in their midst many years ago.
Impactful missions work, requires dedication, cultural intelligence, and thoughtful planning. Those are the efforts the Holy Spirit will bless. The Holy Spirit’s role is to help, and bless those who serve with all they have. His role is not to make up for negligence, laziness, or willful ignorance by those who refuse to learn. Missionaries will usually leave a lasting impression. The question is what sort of impression are they planning to leave behind.
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