An Open Letter to Missionaries

Dear Missionaries,

I like to tell people I’m a missionary convert, because I wear this genesis of my faith journey proudly like a badge of honor. I heard the story of Jesus from your lips, sang the songs of worship in your language, and prayed for the concerns in your heart. You taught me how to be Christian.

I learned from you lavish generosity and boundless love and affection. I also learned how to do Christmas. One day in my freshman year of high school, I asked my Chinese parents if we can find a Christmas tree – this was before Christmas became commercialized in Taiwan, so all I could find was a tacky, tiny, plastic tree, which I set up delightfully in the corner of our living room. I arranged neatly wrapped fake presents under my wannabe tree, and meticulously set up some lights. I longed for that warm feeling I felt in your homes, the atmosphere I saw in American movies like Home Alone. I wanted to be like you; if only I could have convinced my parents to do Christmas like you did, with gifts, candles, and prayers.

Little did I know, your celebrations were crippled by your overseas living, because like me, you also, could only find dinky little plastic trees. When I visited your home country, I saw the full potential of CHRISTMAS unleashed, with real trees as tall as houses and white lights, icicle lights, flashing lights, lights shaped like reindeer, elaborate nativity sets and ridiculous amount of presents and candy. I thought, wow, is this how the Christians do Christmas? I didn’t know then, what I know now, that there was an overlap of how you do faith and how you do American – with lavish generosity, boundless love and affection, and always going for bigger and better.

I learned you don’t practice your faith in a vacuum, but that it is couched in the context of your unique American culture and history. Inevitably, your transferred some of your culture when you communicated your faith to me. I understand this now, but sometimes I don’t think you do.

Sometimes I feel you take for granted the immense power and influence your country and culture has on the rest of the world. Your military presence holds a solid threat in international conflict, your economic policies reverberate throughout the world, your pop culture is consumed in our theaters, on our computers, and in our earbuds. When you speak, we listen, because your voice is strong, your resources are abundant, your presence is loud. Perhaps this is why you sometimes miss the softer cries of our hearts.

And this is the cry of our heart: to tell the story of Jesus from our own lips, to worship God in our own language, and to pray the concerns of our own heart. 

Sometimes the way you tell the story of Jesus is decidedly American. You tell us we must own individual faith and to live this faith as autonomous nuclear family units when most of us struggle to grasp the concept of such radical individualism. You say we must express our love to each other in your language, and yet you miss the many other ways we express love to our own people. Sometimes the things you say God cares the most about are a result of your own culture wars: climate change, freedom of speech, abortion.

I know it is terribly arduous work to work cross culturally. I live that tension in my own marriage and life. I know it is much easier to retreat into the worldview that makes the most sense to us. But the stakes are high when you are proclaiming a gospel that transcends culture and yet can only be delivered via culture.

You humble me so much with your sacrificial love. You leave behind your family, your support system, your familiar ways of life, in order to enter into our lives. You care for our poor, sick, and needy like very few other groups of people are willing to do. I am thankful and inspired. But the highest cost you pay is not giving up the creaturely comforts of a higher standard of lifestyle. The highest cost you pay will be holding the value system that carries your faith loosely. This is hard, because your faith is why you came. Yet the best hope for this transfer of faith to take root in our own culture is if you’re willing to let us do the slow labor of cultivating our own faith. This means you will need to allow us to make mistakes without judgment. Please remember the history of your own faith is not without blemish. Let us make our own mistakes and learn without the anxieties you bring from your context.

In return, we hope we can bless you with our own stories. Let us show you how to be Christian in ways you have never imagined before. Let us show you how big is God’s grace that covers all of our multitude of mistakes. Let us grow together as equal brothers and sisters in Christ, and spur each other on towards greater love and good deeds.

Perhaps you are right, bigger is better. But let’s grow the family of Christ, not by expanding the presence of one expression of Christianity, but by adding on a diversity of  stories in which we speak of God. The people you reach are like butterflies emerging from their cocoon; you don’t always know the colors of her wings but rest assured she is beautiful, and she is ready to fly.

Central-America-Monarchs-Photo-2-butterfly

Source

Sincerely,

A Grateful Missionary Convert

 

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  • Kim Smith

    Can I completely agree, AND point out that this is not just an American missionary problem? We Christians, whether crossing country lines or not, tend to present the gospel, disciple believers, encourage conversion, etc…through our own cultural filters which distort, embellish, distract from, or dilute the message. This open letter is not only for missionaries, and not only for Americans… It is for churches, small groups, neighborhoods, schools–*wherever* you find Christians living in community! We all (whether American, Chinese, a missionary, or a homebody) need to let each other spread our God given wings, right!?

    • Yes, we all view our faith through our own distinct cultural lenses. I spoke from my own experience, but I also believe this is a message particularly poignant to Americans – considered the most powerful nation in the world – to be mindful of the power dynamics in play when bringing the gospel overseas. Thanks for chiming in, Kim, always happy to see you here!

  • William

    I love your posts. I disagree with 80% which is why I love them even more. If everyone felt the way I felt and saw things the way I saw them, there would be no point to reading anything (for me).

    I agree that American missionary efforts are decidedly American. Stateside, we face cultural divides across generations. (And in Southern California, we face cultural divides across cultures!)

    When I was overseas, I was influenced far more by the host culture than I ever imagined would be possible. The most beneficial thing to come out of it was to learn about that culture.

    • Thanks for engaging when you disagree.

  • Tanya

    Thanks, I love the gentle tone and important message you bring out in this post! Something to think about.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tanya. I hope the piece sparks some conversation.

  • CrystalDawn0603

    Amen, sister. Well written and timely. And it hit me square in the chest. I am guilty of living an American Christianity instead of a Biblical one. Thank you.

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  • ERSchindler

    This is a great piece that highlights some key shortfalls of Western missions. For me it’s a prescient reminder of the need for a) deep contextualization, and b) Taiwanese church leadership.

    • Hey, great to see you here! 🙂 Yes, this piece was contextualization 101. Really respect you and other missionaries who do the hard work of cross-cultural ministry.

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