by Steve Hafler Editor’s note: Steve Hafler served as a missionary in Kenya and Zambia for 11 years. He now pastors Highlands Baptist Church in Centennial, Colorado. Steve provides valuable insight into missions today and a strong dose of caution to keep the focus on Christ and Christ alone.
Near the end of his extraordinary life, William Carey was becoming a household name in England. Biographies were being turned out to an eager public. Even mementos of Carey’s life were prized as almost sacred objects. One day a friend of Carey’s was going on and on about the fame of the “Father of Modern Missions.” Carey interrupted him sharply saying, “When I am gone, speak no more of Mr. Carey. Speak of Mr. Carey’s Saviour.” Carey wasn’t the last missionary to become a celebrity, and his rejection of such misplaced attention, his “He must increase; I must decrease” attitude is refreshing. But the whole story underscores a dangerous tendency in ministry.
When missions becomes man-centered, a deviation has occurred from its Christ-centered and Gospel-focused purpose. This deviation often stems from an outdated biographical ideal from the 1800s coupled with the masterfully prepared updates of “Mr. Missionary.” The pictures and stories may present a warped view of reality on the field, but who needs facts when people are spellbound? Close the deal and sign the contract while people wipe tears from their eyes and feel guilty for living in America. Pass the plate now! How can you not give when the photo collage of children’s dirty faces, recent burial mounds, and abject poverty glare at you during the closing song? Anyone untouched by the show must have a hardened heart, it is assumed.
Thankfully, there are a few refreshing exceptions on the missionary horizon, and they are easily identified. First, they do not sound like the two daughters of Proverbs 30:15 whose names are “Give” and “Give.” Secondly, they refuse to praise themselves, even inadvertently (Proverbs 27:2).
We have become desensitized to selfish ambition, empire building, and poor strategy because, well, it’s missions. I am not simply giving vent to cynicism, though at times I am disillusioned with traditional western missions and its celebrity status. But I do blush to think how national believers would respond if they saw the average missionary update. Would we present it the same way if they were watching? Would they feel exploited? Are they aware that their child is the poster boy for poverty and that their story is the closing illustration of our sermon? Would local believers validate all of our achievements? Have the local works been accurately and fairly represented? Would they agree with the impression given that “Mr. Missionary” is the only one doing valid Gospel work in sub-Saharan Africa since David Livingstone, even though there are more than 20 nationally pastored Gospel-preaching churches in the city in which he lives? Maybe we should ask the nationals.
The perspective of national believers is revealing, perhaps disturbing, and, if we humble ourselves, helpful. This may bring the accountability and integrity for which they have been pleading! In Gospel-saturated areas, the best thing we can do is extract ourselves completely from long-term occupation and let the nationals lead. Brace yourself: this will be debated by missionaries who own property and feel “at home” on the field and resisted by mission boards who boast about having “their” presence in as many countries as possible. Hudson Taylor’s words temper this pop culture view. He said, “I look on foreign missionaries as the scaffolding round a rising building; the sooner it can be dispensed with the better.”
Glenn Schwartz, veteran missionary to Central Africa who saw this danger, wrote in his article “Missionary Demeanor and the Dependency Syndrome”:
“Westerners often create projects, programs and institutions, which cannot be carried on or reproduced by those they are trying to help. Sometimes those who create this outside-induced dependency carve out a future for themselves from which they cannot seem to be extricated, if indeed they want to be extricated. If they really don’t want to be extricated, a conspiracy develops which thrives on the need to be needed by outsiders. The need to be needed is a very powerful force.”
We must not be content with long-term occupation in foreign lands when the extraction of our missionary-hero is necessary for a healthy indigenous work. The large presence of Americans is often the undoing of effective local ministry, since we continually set ourselves up as the “professionals.” If African men and women can manage Barclays Bank, international airlines, department stores, and internet providers, can they not also lead a church, a training institute, a college, a camping ministry, or a mission outreach to bordering countries?
I am becoming more righteously indignant as God’s people believe the propaganda fed by missionaries who continue to prop themselves up as irreplaceable. The real problem may not be a lack of local leadership but a lust for control, praise, or simply an unwillingness to transition away from what has become a comfortable “ministerial paradise” in a foreign land. This is what national believers are beginning to say, although nationals receiving large salaries connected to stateside donors are conspicuously quiet.
This “celebrity status” that we allow reveals a myopic view of what God is really doing in the world. The Christian leaders needed in Africa are brown, not white. They speak Bantu and Nilotic languages from the heart, not just English or French or Portuguese. The best person to pastor a Zambian is a Bemba-speaking Zambian, not an American with a Zambian translator. The best person to pastor in Cameroon is a Cameroonian who speaks one of the Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, or Nilo-Saharan languages. The best person to pastor people from Madagascar is a native Malagasy speaker called to preach who hasn’t just learned the culture but breathes, thinks, and is the culture. There are few exceptions to this rule. Missionaries from Cairo to the Cape are ruling little white kingdoms—their own designer label of Colonial Christianity. These empires are built on foreign support, handouts, job creation, and dominance over those in their charge. If our goal is to set up a long-term base of operation, then the work is doomed to float along, to give only the appearance of life as we pump in the helium of U.S. dollars.
This parade must stop. We must hold tenaciously to the conviction that the nationals themselves are “able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2). It does not glorify God when celebrity status is abused to create fund-raising machines that create destructive dependency. This ministerial manipulation is rarely exposed, because it is often glossed over by glowing prayer updates with a few well-staged photos. National believers begin to feel insecure without a direct connection to “Mr. Missionary.” What caused this thinking? Poor strategy has taught them, indirectly, to believe that they are unable to do the work of the ministry if unconnected to the umbilical cord of large dollar donations. Since the clearing agent for the influx of currency is the missionary, how can the national really offer any meaningful input? How can he disagree with the CEO invested with complete power? It would be an exceptional man to disagree with the Big Bwana when his meal ticket is at risk of being confiscated.
There must be a distinction between God’s Kingdom and a man’s empire. It is always dangerous to elevate men, giftedness, results, or any other good thing if in doing so we trample God’s glory. We not only hinder missions, but we grieve God’s Spirit by glorifying a man, a church, a project, an institution, or any other thing above God. We have for too long tolerated a silly fixation on the tool and a reverent gaze on those who should be servants. The clay pot is not the treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). We must evaluate whether it is God’s glory we are jealously guarding or the coddling of our own agenda, personal preferences, or the importance of large gifts given to construct buildings. Are we passionate about our institutional label or do we possess a radical unbiased zeal for the glory of God alone?
As we let our dear African brothers take up the work in saturated areas, may God give us and them wisdom to know how to effectively penetrate frontline, difficult-access regions for His glory. As the ministry landscape changes in Africa, may God grant men and women, New Testament evangelists, the accompanying wisdom, boldness, and "ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20).