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Missions: Poisoned or Pure?

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At its worst, missions deserves the kind of negative critique that author Barbara Kingsolver delivers in The Poisonwood Bible through the character of Nathan Price. Culturally insensitive and theologically narrow-minded, Price heads deep into the African jungle to convert the Congolese heathen. Taking no time to understand the culture, he plows ahead with his immediate goals: to get the women properly dressed (by his standards) and to baptize as many of the Congolese as possible, as quickly as possible (in a crocodile-infested river).

On the other end of the spectrum is Rachel Lane in John Grisham’s The Testament. Rachel disappears deep into Brazil’s rain forest to live sacrificially among a small isolated tribe. She makes their village her home and their people her people. She lovingly proclaims and demonstrates the love of Jesus. When she is made aware of her wealthy father’s death back in the US and his $11 billion bequest to her, she is hesitant to receive it. Rachel is content where she is, and she fears that money of that quantity will only bring her trouble. Year after year, she selflessly pours her life into the work she knows her Master has called her to.

"Ouch!! I don’t want any of my friends or neighbors to think that I or the people I work with at RMM are approaching other cultures and religions in that kind of spirit."

The fictional Nathan Price has had many real-life counterparts. Price is the kind of missionary that makes me feel embarrassed sometimes to say that I work for a mission agency. One of my wife’s colleagues recently described Poisonwood Bible as a book that “gives a good picture of what Christians are like.” Ouch!! I don’t want any of my friends or neighbors to think that I or the people I work with at RMM are approaching other cultures and religions in that kind of spirit. Sometimes it seems like Price has had the privilege of defining our work in the minds of most North Americans.

But I know too many “Rachel Lanes” to accept that definition. Rachel’s spirit inspires me and draws me deeper into this task of inviting the nations to worship Jesus. I’ve walked alongside too many real-life people like her to let Nathan Price define the missionary endeavor.

Recently Christianity Today magazine published a cover story (“The World the Missionaries Made,” Jan/Feb 2014) on this perception. The article details the work of Robert Woodberry, whose research has been showing that there is a direct correlation between the work of privately funded (i.e. not state church funded) missionaries and the success of democracy. Though there is of course a range of opinions across the global church regarding the extent to which Scripture points to democracy as a preferred model for government, it seems to me it is at least fair to say that for democracy to work well, a foundation of integrity and trust like that inherent in genuine Christianity is essential.

Woodberry demonstrates through his research that in those parts of the world where missionaries saw the gospel of Jesus take root in a culture and eventually bring transformation of the hearts of a substantial number of individuals within that culture, there has statistically been greater societal health. Educational opportunities are more available. Health care is more accessible. Governments are more stable. And democracy is more likely to succeed.

If you are like me and you frequently rub shoulders with those who have come to hold a negative view of the work of missionaries, you might find it helpful to explore the novels I’ve mentioned as well as Robert Woodberry’s research. The novels help us understand why it’s possible to feel both disgust and admiration regarding the work of missions. And Woodberry’s research will fill us with courage to forge ahead with inviting the nations to worship Jesus – while always emulating his love and humility.