More and more, Western churches are opening their eyes to the risks and temptations inherent in so-called “short-term missions,” whether manifested in our basic vocabulary, paternalistic attitudes, or reactionary service.
As films like Poverty, Inc. and the PovertyCure series demonstrate, our cultural priorities and preferred solutions often distract us from the true identities and creative capacities of our neighbors. Paired with a passion to “do good,” and standing atop an abundance of resources, it’s easy to forget and neglect the importance of real relationship, holistic service, and long-term discipleship.
For missionary Nik Ripken, those missing pieces were made clear through a range of interviews with persecuted Christians in over 45 countries, whose opinions about what makes a “good” Western missionary challenged his own approach and priorities.
In a stirring set of reflections, Ripken describes this shift in his thinking. Serving in an unnamed Islamic country, Ripken was interviewing a group of persecuted Christians about their trials and struggles with their families, communities, and government. They were remarkably open and vulnerable in their answers until he changed the topic to Western missionaries.
“What do we do well?” he asked. “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?”
The group fell silent. “Finally, with great hesitation,” Ripken explains, “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.’” Ripken proceeded to try again, asking why they loved this particular missionary. “We don’t know,” they said. “We just love him.”
Ripken traveled for ten more days across the country, stopping in five additional places, each time asking that same question: “What makes a good missionary from the West?” Each time, he was met with the same response about the same local missionary, with no additional details. “We don’t know what makes a good missionary,” they would say, “but we can tell you the man we love.”
Ripken eventually found a hint to identity the root of this widespread admiration. “We love him because he borrows money from us,” one man said.
Initially shocked, Ripken soon learned the answer had little to do with mere financial exchange. The man explained that the local missionary not only invested his own time and energy in their country and its people, but he himself passionately embedded alongside them, vulnerable and open about his own need for them. There was a give-and-take of generosity and charity and grace; it was not one-sided or transactional, either in attitude or example. This missionary yearned for their investment, their participation and creativity, and these communities delighted in the opportunity to engage and exchange.
“Do you want to know why we love him?” the man concluded. “He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”
Ripken was shaken, and concludes with a lesson we’d all do well to absorb:
I was tearfully overwhelmed. And I confessed the arrogance of Western missionaries — and my own arrogance. 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.”
Though our motives are not always suspect, we generally come and tell other people to “sit down and listen” while we stand and speak. We are aggressive, and we expect local people to remain passive. We bring the gospel, Bibles, and hymnbooks. We provide baptisms, discipleship, and places to meet. We choose the leaders. We care for orphans, build orphanages, rescue the broken, and care for the crippled.
And those are all wonderful things.
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 significance? 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. He called those friends by name years later. He never forgot them. When possible, he returned to be with them. When he could not go, he sent them someone else. And he faithfully wrote to them, expressing his love, encouragement, and correction. In a word, he needed them.
There are countless missionaries engaging in this sort of collaborative creativity and exchange, connecting charity with evangelism and discipleship to empower rather than simply filling the gaps or meet short-term needs, material, spiritual, or otherwise.
But it’s a stirring reminder for all of us. Not just for Westerners seeking to assist the developing world and spread the Gospel to foreign nations, but also for those seeking justice and reconciliation in their own backyards. We are not called to be mere piggy banks for short-term poverty alleviation or tract-dispensers for short-term evangelism, striving to satisfy, convert, and tally without room for relationship and struggle and grace.
The missing ingredient of Western missions has to do with the relational and the communal nature of whole-life discipleship. We are not called to pour out and turn away, to be mere transactors of grace. We are called to participate in God’s divine generosity, relishing in the give-and-take of spiritual empowerment, not only leaning into but drawing out of the gifts we see in our neighbors.
We are called to intimate partnership and real relationship with our fellow image bearers, and that means exposing our own individual needs and vulnerabilities to the light of Jesus in others. In our efforts to serve the world, let us never forget it.