Is it Possible to Do Missional Work Without Hurting the People?

  • Various religions have sent out missionaries to many areas of the world, but Christian missionaries are the most well-known among them.
  • Sharing the Gospel means to proclaim and demonstrate God’s love toward everybody.
  • The proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel could be done effectively through the promotion and practice of God’s holistic mission.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term “missionary work”? Maybe you would picture in your mind individuals playing with African children in a little village,  distributing food to the poor, or digging wells in a foreign land. While these are the sort of tasks that missionaries undertake, missional work involves a broader range of the types of work.

Missional work revolves around addressing a person’s physical and spiritual needs, with the focus on sharing the teaching of the gospel. It requires the missionaries to put God first, and then people, and in the end, themselves. The knowledge that there is much more to life than just the here and now allows the missionaries to see the “eternal perspective,” and this helps them to fulfill simple tasks while still making a lasting impact and glorifying God.

Missional Work – Friend or Foe?

Various religions have sent out missionaries to many areas of the world, but Christian missionaries are the most well-known among them. The spiritual driving force for the Christian missionaries is a biblical passage known as the Great Commission, which appears in the Book of Matthew. This contains what is considered part of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples before he ascended to heaven: “make disciples of all nations”.

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According to an American missionary John Allen Chau, missionary work is all about promoting Christian values and a transformational model of Gospel. “It isn’t about getting people to believe like we believe, but about making people see for themselves, from the Bible, that God has a plan for mankind in general and everyone in particular,” he says.

Nevertheless, there has been a debate on whether missional work can be done without causing any type of harm to the people. This is because religious people often played a fundamental role in colonialism by being at the vanguard of the colonial efforts. Missionary work to spread religion was considered a way to “civilize” people outside the US and Europe. This has led to the argument that missionary work is a form of imperialism.

After a 26-year old evangelical missionary named John Allen Chau was killed in November 2018 by an isolated tribe that he was trying to convert to Christianity, many former missionaries spoke up on this issue. Caitlin Lowery stated that “I used to be a missionary…I thought I was doing God’s work. But if I’m being honest, I was doing work that made me feel good. This is white supremacy. This is colonization.”

Another former missionary, Mark Plotkin, is a botanist and also the president and co-founder of Amazon Conservation Team, which works for the protection of isolated peoples, in collaboration with the government of Columbia. In an interview with BBC, he reported, “I’ve worked for 30 years in the Amazon and I’ve seen there are two types of missionaries – those who want to “prepare these tribes for the outside world”, and those who want “to save some souls for Jesus”. He notes that while missionaries mean well and believe that they are making the world a better place through their work, sometimes their work can do more harm than good. For example, removing uncontacted people from their original habitats, like the jungle, is sometimes not in the best interests of the people. He mentions that Akuriyo people in Suriname who ere contacted by missionaries in 1969. Sadly, within a short time span of two years, 40% to 50% of the Akuriyo people died because of respiratory diseases, but Mr. Plotkin believes that cultural shock played a significant role in this too.

To understand this debate better, we need to look closely into the issue of poverty and the biblical perspective on it.

Defining Poverty

Poverty is one of the topmost social problems around the world. To put it simply, poverty is a lack of material resources, including food, clothing and shelter. It can be defined as the scarcity of a specific (variant) quantity of money or material possessions. Depending on the context of the situation, poverty may be defined in different ways. For instance, the United Nations defines poverty as the inability to have opportunities and choices and the basic capacity to offer effective participation in society. It includes powerlessness, insecurity, susceptibility to violence, having to live in marginal, unhealthy, dangerous and fragile environments as well as the exclusion of individuals and communities.

The Biblical View of the Issue  

The Bible has multiple descriptions of God’s love for the poor and how we have the responsibility to help them. The Christian view of poverty requires one to understand why Jesus came to earth, and that is to be supreme over the entire cosmos and to bring healing to the universe. This is demonstrated throughout Jesus’s life, in which we see countless examples of how he helped people living in poverty. Jesus came to earth to save souls from sins and to promote strong relationships with God. Poverty is seen as the failure to connect effectively with God, resulting in a lack of meaning in life, and of course, a lack of resources that are required for living a content life. A person who is poor experiences a range of attributes such as depression, unhappiness, powerlessness, shame, dissatisfaction and fear. Those who are living in this state are encouraged to make efforts to better their situation. As for those who are leading better lives, they have a duty towards God to help the poor.

While most people may think of money or material possessions when poverty is discussed, the Christian view of poverty is that poverty is not limited to a lack of money, hunger, or the need for clothing and shelter. It is also being plagued with spiritual or social poverty, which impacts how they view themselves. For this reason, it is imperative that no individual should continue to live in poverty, whether it is emotional, physical or spiritual.

According to this perspective, poverty alleviation comes from the Bible. It revolves around provide necessary help while bringing people to Jesus. This is why missionaries, and individuals and organizations whose work is based on Christianity attempt to do more than just provide the basic necessities. They also attempt to mend broken relationships through the power of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

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This helps put things in perspective with regard to missionary work and poverty alleviation. Of course, to eliminate poverty, one has to provide material things and money. However, often, just these two things don’t solve the problem. For example, if a family member has been killed, people would also require emotional support. If a government is collapsing, people may need a reliable, smart person to lead them in the right direction. What this implies is that poverty alleviation is not the result of just giving material things. To be able to alleviate poverty properly, one has to take care of the whole human being – including the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual and social aspects of an individual. The right mindset is key in this case. If you believe that poverty can be diminished only through material things or money, it will actually get elevated instead of getting alleviated.

This is the reason why the first step in poverty alleviation should be to change the mindsets of those being helped and those providing help, no matter if the helpers are spiritually based or not. It is not enough to just consider what is on the surface as looks can be deceiving. Unless you consider every aspect of a person, you will end up doing more harm than good. Missionaries should apply this mindset that poverty is not just the lack of material possessions but also of what makes a person human – things which money can’t buy like courage, self-esteem, happiness, and pride. This should be part of a missionary’s mission.

Understanding God’s Mission

To be able to comprehend the biblical-theological framework for understanding God’s mission, as well as the church’s mission, it is helpful to understand the unified biblical narrative that includes the four main plot movements – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This knowledge of the “big picture” of Scripture is fundamental to missional work. Here’s a brief summary of the four major plots:

1. Creation

The Earth was filled with God’s shalom (peace), in which everything was aligned with God’s intention. The world was designed to promote human flourishing, where we could reside joyfully in the presence of our Creator. Here we would worship God by worshiping Him and love each other forever.

2. Fall

This refers to when Adam and Eve erred by disobeying God’s commands. The term “fall” indicates that this was an action that affected us all, the whole of humanity, because the rebellious choice, along with our actions and attitudes, declared us to be the enemies of God. This rebellion causes us physical as well as spiritual death.

3. Redemption

Thankfully, our loving Creator is adamant about converting evil and suffering that we have caused into good that will work towards His ultimate glory. He does this despite being angry at our sinning. God implements a master plan to redeem His world and to rescue fallen sinners. God comes down on earth Himself, as Jesus Christ, to renew it and to restore His people. Scripture’s grand narrative includes the climax of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

4. Restoration

The story continues after redemption. God promises that He will renew the whole world and a peek into the glorious future is given in the Bible. There are two ways in which everything will be restored: Christ will come back to judge evil and sin, and He will welcome back peace and righteousness. God will get rid of this world of evil in the end.

Poverty Alleviation According to the Biblical View

Many experts have discussed how the biblical view can be put into practice when it comes to poverty alleviation. Some have suggested that a bottom-up approach will work best. Missiologists and theologians such as Bryan Myers, Samuel Escobar, and Orlando Costas have commented that the right way to go is to participate first with regards to the poor. Escobar calls for the integration of the Jesus service model, and poverty alleviation needs the development agencies to show two qualities: love and service. This leads us to serve and love as a friend, neighbor and the hands, feet and the body of Jesus. This view also incorporates the aiding of the mission of poverty alleviation with the help of dialogue with the poor with regards to the context of the margins.

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Costas believes that poverty alleviation and evangelism are linked, and it is imperative to start with effective social transformation. The mission should always connect people to Christ via several diverse channels. The connection must target the whole person – material, spiritual, social, emotional, political and cultural aspects of people and communities. As a result, the transformation can be holistic, be focused on individuals and communities to bring them together on Jesus’ table to physically share bread and get spiritually healed as well. This is how the Bible guides us to practice Christian poverty alleviation.

On the other hand, thinkers like Corbett and Fikkert also talk about a bottom-up approach to poverty alleviation in which the churches walk with the poor to comprehend their resources, context and assets before they provide help. This is in contrast to the traditional top-down approach in which the churches decide themselves how the resources should be invested for the poor.

Holistic Community Development Approach in Relation to Poverty Mitigation

Building upon this narrative, holistic community development seems to the perfect solution to achieve poverty mitigation. To ensure that missionary work is purely beneficial, as it is supposed to be, it could be based on this approach. In the holistic approach, authentic development takes place at each level of society to create a social, economic and political environment that paves the way for people to grow. This enables them to reach their full spiritual, physical, emotional and mental potential. Policies should be based on the idea of human dignity, and this means the ability of a person to contribute to society should be recognized regardless of sex, race, ability or wealth.

The Application of The Issue

Myers, Corbett, and Fikkert analyze that if one keeps abreast with the evangelical perspective in pursuit of poverty alleviation, the process could be much more productive and fruitful. This applies to missional work as well. They offer a fresh view on this matter by saying that the church can successfully act as the primary agent for the promotion of God’s holistic mission. This application can be very useful for individuals, churches and organizations, such as Developing Our World, in the mission work today. Of course, this will also help those living in poverty, as successful poverty alleviation through missional work will result in better physical and spiritual conditions for them. Consequently, missional work will be completely advantageous, the way it should be.

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Miguel Torneire

Is the founder and the Executive Director of Developing Our World, an organization that seeks to put holistic community development into action. He loves Jesus! And, he is a husband, a father, a Lutheran Pastor, a Missionary, an Author, a flamenguista (a supporter of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo soccer team), and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.

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