In a new article, the New York Times quotes a few of them. One source is Corey Pigg, who runs a blog and a podcast called Failed Missionary. When it comes to religion, Pigg is a fence-sitter these days, he explains on the blog. “I’m not sure where I land today in terms of spirituality and I’m fine with that. Five days out of the week I’d say that I’m reverently agnostic, and the other two, I’d like to think I’m a mystic after Jesus’s own heart.”
But for years, he worked as a missionary for Youth With a Mission, and he came to regret that involvement.
Reports the Times:
Mr. Pigg was based in Germany and regularly conducted short-term missions to China, overseeing a group of young people. He said they often entered the country illegally, and he felt that the group was put at risk by an absence of appropriate oversight and the glorification of those who were persecuted for their faith.
“The more martyr-complex tales you can send, the better — because that drives funding,” he said, adding that part of the draw of China for him was that it was a difficult place to be a missionary. “I wanted to go to China because it was closed,” he said, “and I was programmed to think it was very noble.”
The paper also gives some column inches to Scott Moreau, formerly a professor of intercultural studies at the Christian Wheaton College in Illinois, and now the school’s dean:
“I’m appalled by the naïveté of thinking you go on a beach, you throw a fish at some people, you holler at them, and then you come back and spend the night and everything is going to be fine,” Mr. Moreau said. “It doesn’t show much sensitivity, and it doesn’t show much common sense.” Such actions play into a myth of the “missionary hero,” Mr. Moreau said.
I happen to know for a fact that Wheaton College (not to be confused with the liberal arts school of the same name in Massachusetts) has a plaque on its walls honoring missionary Jim Elliot. In the 1950s, Elliot traveled to declare Christ to the Huaorani in Ecuador. It didn’t end well, to say the least. He was killed by tribesmen in 1956, along with four fellow missionaries. It’s no coincidence that John Chau saw Elliot as a hero. Elliot and his colleagues are still revered in some Christian circles today. Admirers have produced books, movies, and a musical about them.
Though Chau hadn’t planned on dying, it sure seems like he wanted to capture some of that sweet glory with his own hazardous excursion to North Sentinel Island. He knew he’d be a Christian rock star if he succeeded in bringing the islanders to Jesus, and that he’d still be a rock star if he failed and died. (No word on whether Moreau thinks Elliot was somehow a more admirable figure than Chau.)
I asked my friend Benjamin Corey, a progressive Christian and former Patheos blogger, what he makes of the Chau debacle. Ben specialized in missiology (the study of missions) at Fuller Theological Seminary, and went on to get his master’s in Intercultural Studies and Theology at Gordon-Conwell. He’s the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith. His take:
The death of Chau epitomizes the rogue and arrogant mindset that many of us who still remain in Christianity are trying to correct. … [I]nconsiderate and reckless actions such as his tarnish the efforts many others have made, and are making. …
[M]ost of the individuals I know and have studied alongside of are thoughtful and committed to making the world a better place in tangible ways. From medical doctors serving in parts of the world where medicine is desperately needed, to poverty relief efforts, and many other legitimate and praiseworthy “missionary” initiatives. …
Chau, on the other hand, represents an over-zealous kid who probably read stories of missionaries from generations past and decided he wanted to emulate all the wrong people. … He was foolish, he represents a horrific lack of education or even accountability to minds older and wiser than his, and he could have killed the very people he claimed to care about.
I told Ben that I think people on the godless side feel that many missionaries could certainly be partly driven by humanitarian concerns. All the same, there probably remains the idea on the Christian’s part that he or she is building up qualifications to get into heaven, or to score points with God. If that’s not true, why not join Doctors Without Borders or another organization where such concerns are simply not on the table? He replied:
It might be helpful to make the distinction between missionary and evangelist. The guy who got killed strikes me as just being some rogue evangelist who wanted to show up and preach, but the world of missions is far more broad and service-oriented. It actually annoys me that they keep referring to him as a missionary, because nothing about that situation represents the world of actual missions — it represents evangelism. And while evangelists may consider themselves missionaries, not all missionaries consider themselves evangelists.
But is it completely possible to divorce your worldview from the things you do in the world? I don’t believe it is, for anyone. What we believe directly drives what we do, whether [you’re] a person of faith or no faith.
Ben allows that some missionaries/evangelists may make their services conditional on proselytizing; or that they provide a heavy dose of religion alongside the meals and the medication. But he adds that he hasn’t personally come across such people.
With the professional missionaries I know and respect, and have visited on location, the topic of “pay to play” always comes up. And when we hear of other individuals or religious groups making humanitarian services conditional on evangelization or religious participation, it is outrageous and offensive even to us.
For those interested in this line of work, I’d like them to first ask questions like ‘What is driving my desire to do this?’ ‘Is there any way my desire to do good could unintentionally cause harm to those I claim to care about?’ ‘Is what I have to offer something that is needed, wanted, and being invited, or am I assuming I have the solution to other people’s problems as if I’m going to be the hero in their story?’
That still left me with questions, especially about Matthew 28:19-20, in which the resurrected Jesus says:
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.
How does that verse square with Ben’s opinion that it’s outrageous for missionaries to trade their services for a chance to preach to their subjects and lure them to Christ? Isn’t it settled Christian doctrine that merely doing good isn’t enough, as the pivotal figure of Christendom demands that His followers spread the faith — insisting that they convert and baptize people inhabiting even the farthest corners of the Earth?
Ben doesn’t quite buy it.
I wouldn’t say that Jesus commanded his followers to spread Christendom, because that didn’t exist and he was a Jew; and I wouldn’t feel entirely confident he was referring to the entire world. In the Greek, he uses the word ethnos, which can mean an entire people group, an entire nation, or a region. It could easily be true that he was referring to all the people groups in the region of the time.
However, what Jesus told his followers to do was to go spread his ideas — and I don’t think any of us object to that. You and I are actively spreading our ideas right now; we’re just doing it in an ethical way where people are free to engage or free to walk away, and where no harm comes to them for not wanting to even listen.
When I critique the practice of “pay to play,” what I mean is the practice of, for example, telling a remote tribe “I’ll keep flying here with vaccinations if you build me a church and come listen to me preach each week.” That’s repulsive. However, I don’t have any issue with people spreading their ideas — we all do it, and some of us make a living off it. The key is how we spread ideas, and how that process impacts others.
I don’t think his explanation will necessarily convince or mollify the regulars at Friendly Atheist, but give my friend props for doing his very best to get his point across to a deeply skeptical audience. And if you engage Ben in the comments, to which I’ve invited him to contribute, let’s try and keep the discussion civil. Thanks!
(Image via Facebook)