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What in the world is happening to missions? Cultural imperialism, tribalism, pragmatism and resources

July 2019 | by Will Niven

This is the fourth and final article in a series written by experienced missionary, Will Niven, which asks some searching and important questions about the current evangelical approach to missions.

In my previous three articles, I highlighted what I perceive to be some of the problems within the current evangelical approach to missions. I have discussed matters relating to volunteerism, finances, training, parachurch organisations, evaluation, accountability and priorities. This month, I conclude my series of articles with some more areas of concern.

Cultural imperialism: has the day of tin hats really passed?

The caricatured image that I had as a child of missionaries was of a stern-faced man with a moustache dressed in khaki fatigues and a tin hat! Historically, missionaries have brought not only the gospel of Jesus Christ to nations but also their culture. In some cases, this has been a genuinely Christian culture. When Hudson Taylor worked against the binding of women’s feet and when William Carey fought against the abominable practice of the burning of widows, Christian culture brought great blessing to a culture.

Indeed, in reality all missions are imperialistic in nature; we have a King, the Lord Jesus, who has a kingdom and we are seeking to spread that kingdom all over the world. That kingdom has its own values, behaviour and priorities that will change whatever culture that it comes into contact with. Where people bow the knee to Jesus, their culture and worldview will change. This kind of imperialism can only be considered to be good!

However, the bitter reality is that missions have also brought Western problems and Western arrogance with them as well. The role of a missionary as ‘the great white hope’ has been destructive in places like Africa where mission work has been too closely associated in the past with colonialism.

Sadly, the problem of colonialism has not gone away with the passing of the British Empire or other colonial powers! It is alive and kicking today. We have assumed that Western civilization, education and norms are part of what we need to bring to a nation.

A great problem facing mission is the assumption of missionaries that our Western way of life is right! It is the confusion of what we hold dear at home with what is genuine Christian culture. Whilst missionaries look in disdain at the culture, the behaviour and even the architecture of the people that they serve, they remain colonial. Whilst we assume that the people we serve need a liberal democracy we are mixing up politics with the Bible.

While missionaries spend time with one another and with those nationals who speak their language we can hardly say that we have learned from the mistakes of our colonial past. While we do not make it our priority to speak the local language but expect others to speak ours, we are showing a terrible lack of respect. Missionaries do not speak the local language with any proficiency even after ten or more years of ministry and expect translators when they preach.

When missionaries look down on the people they are trying to evangelise how much fruit can they expect? When they look down on local believers and leaders what sort of legacy can they leave other than a bitter one? One must be careful not to be uncritical of a culture or national church. Missionaries will deeply struggle with cultural differences but until they abandon their colonialist mentality and humble themselves before God they will do nothing but create great resentment.

What is also concerning is not just the attitude that we are conveying to local believers, and to non-believers also, but the change that we see happening in some believers. When you see national believers who have lost their national identity and have become American or British it is a terrible thing. When you see leaders who are so far removed from their culture that they cannot relate to their own people any more it is simply tragic.

One instance I heard of was of a local preacher who turned up at a church to preach with an iPad, iPhone and various other technological gadgets when the congregation had no hope of possessing such things. Another thing that I have observed is national workers dressed in Western clothes looking utterly out of place among their peers. Imagine a national worker rebuking a waiter in another town for not having decaffeinated coffee on offer! What example is this to the waiter?

Not only so, but missionaries are introducing practices which are not biblically based but culturally driven. Take the times of our meetings. The times of our meetings are often just a reflection of when we have meetings in our churches at home rather than a reflection of when people can actually come to church. We can insist on a Sunday school for children when Sunday might be the worst possible day for children to come to such a meeting.

Implications: we must examine ourselves as missionaries, churches and agencies to see what attitudes, values and principles are derived from Western culture and what comes from the Word of God.

We must genuinely understand that whilst God has blessed many Western nations, we have many sinful cultural traits.

We must beware that we do not make Westerners of the national churches and workers that we serve and so make them irrelevant to their own people.

We must be careful not to be a stumbling block to believers and unbelievers alike in our dress, our eating habits, our living standards and so on.

Tribalism: are we simply planting our flag?

Evangelical believers hold their convictions very dearly. Whatever end of the spectrum of evangelical thought you might belong to, one thing is certain; you have convictions and practices that you hold to with great feeling. It is right that we insist on sound doctrine and promote it in the churches that we serve in (1 Timothy 6:2-5, 20).

However, there is a difference between separating from false doctrine and sectarianism. There is a difference between seeking to teach the Bible and bring the benefits of the church heritage that we have in the West and being tribalist.

We are guilty of importing theological debates and divisions that would simply never have existed in national churches had we not done so. We are guilty as missionaries of factionalism and tribalism. We have imported denominationalism and sectarianism regardless of where we stand in the evangelical world.

One example stands out to illustrate the point. A national pastor was challenged not long ago as to whether or not he believed that the King James Version of the Bible was the inspired version. He replied to the effect that as he would be preaching to people in his own language the whole issue of Bible translations did not interest him…much to the disgust of the questioner!

One of the strangest experiences of missionary life has been being checked out for soundness of doctrine! On one occasion I was invited to lunch with a missionary leader with great influence in the country where I serve. He and his wife exuded joy and warmth towards me until the moment that I confessed that I did not share their view on the millennium! At that point they turned to the people next to them and never spoke to me again. I have felt as uncomfortable as you would if you had been caught in public in just your underwear as time and again people have probed and tested me as to what I believe.

It is good to be discerning and to seek to work with those of sound doctrine but have we taken this to such an extreme that church unity and simple Christian charity cannot exist? The greatest insult that one believer could muster against me one day was, ‘What do you know about the Holy Spirit? You’re a Baptist!’ Where had he learned to speak like that?

We are also guilty of planting our flag for a mission or denomination. On the surface this looks good to supporters. Our mission is working in x number of countries, our denomination has y number of churches in a given field and so on. Where is the glory really going for these churches; to God or to our group? Would these groups really exist if missionaries had not insisted on them?

Indeed, I was shocked not long ago when the group of churches that I serve amongst was classified as a denomination when in reality they are all independent churches linked by a common history and doctrine. Do we have to import the disunity of the Western church to other places? These churches have enough challenges themselves with divisiveness, competitiveness and arguments without us adding to them! Does the organisation that we serve with really have to be in every country or can we simply serve those who are already there in ways that they ask us to do?

Implications: as churches and organisations we need to define properly which doctrines are of absolute importance and which we might differ on without major harm.

We need to ask ourselves are we cutting ourselves off from people with whom we should be co-operating because of our insistence that they have exactly the same doctrines and practices as us? We may not plant a church with certain people, but could we find other ways of working together?

Are we importing the theological debates of the last four or five centuries or simply seeking to teach the Scriptures? Whilst we have to be honest in saying that our interpretation of Scripture will be influenced by the background that we come from do we have to bring labels, denominations and small-mindedness with us?

Agencies and sending churches must ask the question, can a field do without us? Can we support the efforts of national churches without establishing a physical presence in the land?

Pragmatism: the new standard of truth

One of the greatest features of evangelical life all over the world is biblical illiteracy. In the country in which I serve, there is an absolute dearth of biblical knowledge and practice. There is a crisis in orthodoxy (what we believe) and orthopraxy (how we live).

Not only is the church subject to every wind of doctrine but often the lives of believers are so scandalous that others will not come near the church. Whilst the church falls prey to ecumenism (sitting at the same table as other faiths and churches that do not preach the biblical gospel) and to heresies like the prosperity gospel, it continues to fail to make a significant spiritual impact on the land. Preaching is at a low ebb, teaching is shallow, and as a result the majority of believers neither know what they should believe nor how they should live.

Yet these are but symptoms of a deeper malaise. Both missionaries and national leaders are driven by a principle which is producing these deep problems; namely pragmatism. What works, what produces results, what looks good and makes us successful has now replaced what the Bible teaches.

How has this happened? First, our paradigm of mission encourages it. Missions on the whole and indeed supporting churches are interested in one thing alone; results. Therefore, there is a pursuit of what will produce results rather than what God has commanded.

Second, missionaries have imported it. As pragmatism reigns in Western churches and believers lose their sense of discernment and theological moorings it is inevitable that they will bring these problems to the field that they are serving in.

The tragic reality is that workers have little doctrinal understanding, little ability to discern between truth and error and do not see the ministry of the Word as a great priority. Pragmatism is now at the steering wheel of the church and while it steers our course, we will head towards disaster and, ironically, irrelevance. When the church neither knows, nor proclaims, nor practices the truth of the Word but pursues relevance it will not only lose its spiritual health but the very relevance that it craves.

Implications: as supporting churches and donors we must prioritise what kind of work we support. Church planting must be given our fullest support and other ministries, however useful they might be, must come after that.

Mission workers must be thoroughly grounded in the great doctrines of the faith before ever undertaking such work.

Churches, both in the West and in the countries that we send missionaries to, must be catechised; by that I mean that there must be intentional, orderly and comprehensive teaching of God’s Word so that believers know what to believe and how to behave. This must take precedence over projects and the mass of activities that threaten to drown us.

Resources for churches: is the tail wagging the dog?

A dog needs a tail. Without a tail dogs will lose their sense of balance. The tail is a vital thing but if the tail begins to direct the dog there is trouble. The work of God needs resources. Younger churches need finance and the wisdom, experience and knowledge of churches that have existed for centuries. Older churches have a breadth of knowledge and experience that can be vital in advising younger churches as to what they really need. The problem comes when older churches begin to direct younger ones to the extent that they begin to control them and begin to impose resources upon them that they neither need nor can relate to culturally.

One thing that is never lacking in mission fields is a plethora of seminars, workshops and conferences. Each denomination, organisation and church grouping seems to be pushing its own particular leaders and methods. Indeed, one could be so busy going to these events that one never actually does any work! One can see the same faces at all the seminars that are put on and at each seminar they faithfully support the ministry being promoted and then…go on to the next seminar!

We have conferences from international ministries for leadership, discipleship, counselling, and no end of other areas of church life that spend vast amounts of money in given fields. First a seminar is organised at great expense. Then books or materials from this ministry are translated and then their ministry is shared in churches on a wider basis. Often the resources brought to the field are so full of illustrations, concepts and realities that are relevant to the West that they fail to communicate to other cultures!

In every field there are countless resources being printed that basically say the same thing and have to do with the same thing. Not only that but well-meaning donors plough resources into books, courses and other materials that have been of personal benefit to them, but which have no real value for the field. I value deeply the spirituality and wisdom of the Puritans. However, to print the works of Jeremiah Burroughs and John Owen in a young church with new Christians seems foolish to say the least!

Instead of national leaders and churches telling the West what they need, we tell them what we think they need. We tell them that unless they are trained in this method, these skills or with these materials they are simply not going to be good enough. In essence the tail wags the dog!

Implications: publishing projects should be driven and overseen by local churches, guided by the wisdom and experience of overseas friends, rather than well-meaning donors.

Ministries should be careful to ask whether they are reproducing what others are already doing.

Instead of spending large amounts of money on large conferences, select groups of local leaders can be trained in specific areas and then teach those principles in their local church or group of churches in a way that will be culturally appropriate.


After surveying missionary work and its paradigms, the question still remains; do we have the courage to change? It may mean reforming or even abandoning centuries old practices or organisations. It may risk offending those who are sincere in their desire to serve but are not doing so according to biblical principles. It will mean more work! It will entail more work for churches and their leaders in particular. It will mean more preparation for those who go out as missionaries also. It will mean sacrifice for many people who will have to change the whole nature of their lives and ministries.

However, I would invite you to think about this, if huge swathes of Asia and Europe were evangelised and covered with churches by Paul and his team why should we not imitate them and expect similar results? If the church of the first century could overcome Greco- Roman philosophy, pagan religions, immorality, the cult of Caesar and the sheer military might of Rome can the same not happen today? Now is the time for the church to take back its responsibility for the Great Commission. There is simply no other way to see that Commission fulfilled and there is no time to waste; the world’s billions have such need of the gospel!

Will Niven is a cross-cultural missionary engaged in church planting in Albania.

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