The Great Commission
Growing up, I couldn’t get enough of books about missionaries. My mom must have read us Nyla and the White Crocodile half a dozen times, and each time I was glued to the edge of my seat, gaping at the strange practices of Nyla’s people and wondering whether this time the people would choose the witch doctor instead of the Christian teacher Poojee and his God.
When I was a bit older, I read the Trailblazer series – books by Dave and Neta Jackson that told the stories of famous Christian missionaries and leaders through the eyes of fictional children. My favorite was unquestionably The Hidden Jewel, which tells the story of a missionary named Amy Carmichael who saved hundreds of girls from being child brides or slaves. Today I only remember two details about the book – the beautiful multicolored saris the characters wore, and the scene where they cover the floors of the mission buildings with animal dung!
When I studied postcolonial literature in college, however, my feelings about missionary work became much more complicated. I learned about how missionaries have often been part of larger invasions by imperial powers, forcing colonized people to accept the religion of their oppressors along with their culture. Oftentimes colonizers were very clear about what they were doing: in this excerpt from Christopher Columbus’s journal, for example, he writes that “the people are ingenious, and would be good servants, and I am of opinion that they would readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion.” Columbus directly links making the indigenous people he encounters into Christians and making them into his slaves. Over the next several decades, he and his soldiers would devastate entire cultures, forcing them to conform to European standards of religion and culture while simultaneously exploiting them for their wealth and livelihoods.
Even today, many people question the efficacy and ethics of missionary work. Take, for example, this recent NPR report, which suggests that modern missionaries to Africa are doing more harm than good.
Short term mission trips are sometimes even more suspect: teenagers and young adults raise thousands of dollars to briefly visit a beautiful tropical country, where they split their time between small scale building projects or running evangelistic series, and relaxing on the beach, sightseeing, and shopping for souvenirs. I’m not denying that these trips can often wake up Western youth to how enormously privileged they are, and inspire them to lifetimes of service. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether it is naïve, or even arrogant, to assume that a handful of Western kids can truly change people’s lives in a meaningful way in a week or two. Too often people from less privileged countries become props; they appear smiling in profile pictures or wide-eyed with outstretched arms in church fundraising Power Points to make us feel virtuous and generous, or just grateful that we’re not in their circumstances. The words of the treacly 80s Christmas song “Do They Know It’s Christmas [in Africa]” come to mind – “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
On the other hand, I can’t deny the enormous good that missionaries have done in the lives of individuals. There was Mary Slessor, who fought to save twins in Nigeria from being killed. By the time she died, she was known as Eka kpukpru, “everybody’s mother,” and modern hospitals and cultural celebrations in Nigeria still honor her. The Adventist church is especially mission-centered; our relief organization ADRA is often quick on the scene to help in disaster situations, and our first missionary, J. N. Andrews, famously wrote “I know of but one way: find a field of labor, ask God to help, take off your coat, and pitch into the work.”
As Jesus departed Earth at the end of his ministry, he left his disciples with a simple and direct charge to accomplish before his return, which you can find in Matthew 28:16-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (NIV).
This charge was carried by Spanish conquistadors, French priests, and British sailors as they pillaged and settled in the New World. It was also written on the hearts of Amy Carmichael, Mary Slessor, and J. N. Andrews as they tirelessly worked to make the lives of those around them better. Their wildly different stories beg the question: how should we view missionary work today? How do we live out the Great Commision, stained with blood yet filled with glory?
- There are horrible stories about missionaries and the damage they have done all over the world - hurting people, destroying cultures, mistreating the innocent. Does this damn Christianity as a whole? Does it taint the Great Commission? Why or why not?
- Read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for a depiction of the effect of colonialism and Methodist missionary presence in Nigeria. (Or, read a plot summary.) What do you think Achebe wanted to communicate?
- Research the Canadian Residential Schools and how they treated aboriginal people groups in Canada. The last residential school of this nature was closed in 1996. How do you think this shapes the views of aboriginal Canadians towards Christians and missionaries in general?
- A famous 19th century missionary named J. Hudson Taylor was one of the pioneering Evangelical Protestant missionaries into China, and started the China Inland Mission (CIM) - today known as Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). One of Hudson Taylor’s main principles for missionary work in China was that his CIM missionaries would have to adopt and accept the culture of the people they were attempting to reach. In his view, they were only trying to promote the ideas of Jesus, not to de-nationalize or de-culturize the Chinese. This meant learning the local language(s), dressing according to traditional norms, learning to like the local food, and respecting local customs.
- How does this method come across to you? Does it seem like a good or bad thing? How does it compare to other stories about missionaries that you have heard?
- Acts 17:16-34 contains a story about Paul on his missionary journeys through Europe and the Roman Empire. In this particular instance he is in Athens, debating and dialoguing with the philosophers and thinkers of the day - which was a welcome thing because “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” (Acts 17:21 NIV) In this story, Paul quotes pagan philosophers and even pagan Greek worship hymns about other gods to make a point about Jesus and the God of Israel. He even points to a blank altar erected to “The Unknown God” and declares that the LORD is that one.
- What do you think of Paul’s method? Was that a clever method to connect to a foreign culture and show respect to it, or did he go too far? What would it mean for us to replicate this kind of method today?
- What are some ways Christians can speak in the cultural language of the context they find themselves in?
- Do you think churches overemphasize missionary work? Do we limit ourselves to a certain definition of what it means to be a missionary?
What does “being a missionary” mean as far as you understand it?
How do you feel about short-term mission trips, especially those taken by high schools and youth groups? Are they more vacations or service projects? How much good can they really accomplish in such a short time? Have you ever been on a short term mission trip? What was the result?
- Is it disrespectful to other religions to try to convert people to your own religion?
- Do you know anyone who has served as a student missionary? Have you gone? Do you plan to go? Why? If you’ve already gone, what did you learn?
- Do some research into a famous missionary, Adventist or otherwise, and Tweet about who you chose. What kind of work did they do? Did they conform more to the culture around them or work to change it to match theirs? Did they do more work on the spiritual or physical side of things? Did they do anything that you find particularly problematic? Particularly inspiring?