Despite the hard realities and desperate needs of the mission fields, we are increasingly seeing the amateurization of missions. More and more Christians are pouring into the mission fields — but for very short periods of time and for very superficial goals. I have been astounded to come across large tour groups (calling themselves "missionaries") traveling across the world just to spend four or five days "in the field"! The high costs of international air travel would seem to make such short visits cost-ineffective. Even more incredible is how most of these short-termers have undergone no selection procedure and received no training, and thus are ill equipped to benefit the local believers. In most cases, these religious tourists have a lower grasp of Scripture than, and a spiritual maturity that is dwarfed by, the local believers to whom they presume to come to minister. Most people understand that doctors, engineers, and, in fact, every other profession, need proper training to be able to do their work. Yet for some obscure reason, many Christians seem to think that any churchgoer can be a missionary! The flood of untrained, ill-disciplined, and unaccountable, lone-ranger, supposed "missionaries" into Third World countries is disastrous. Many don’t even know enough of the local culture to realize how much damage they are doing to the Christian cause.
I have seen many female missionaries in trousers, or even shorts, ministering in rural Africa. They seem oblivious to the fact that all the local Christian women wear only dresses. Nor could they possibly realize how offensive their dress (or lack of it) is to their hosts. Once a team of six American medical missionaries flew out to work with us in Mozambique. As they arrived in Malawi, police detained the two women for wearing trousers! The women didn’t even have a single skirt between them in their luggage. We had to go into town to buy some dresses for the ladies before the police would release them! African cultures value politeness and hospitality highly. So unless you probe and ask lots of penetrating questions, you will never know that you have offended your hosts. They will continue to smile and be friendly even as the door slams firmly shut to further ministry. For example, in Africa, it is generally considered a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This is not only cultural, but Biblical: "Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him" (1 Cor. 11:14). Yet, you will see many longhaired and ponytailed men heading out "to evangelize the pagans in Africa," oblivious to what a "stumbling block" they are. The present fad of body-piercing seems to have invaded the church as well. I have met Christians heading out to the mission field with nose rings, belly rings, tongue studs, and who knows what other body mutilations. It’s not that these piercings are unknown in Africa or Asia. In fact every pagan culture practices it. The Hindus and animists in particular practice body piercings and tattooing extensively. However, once converted, they repent and turn away from such abominations. It is generally quite easy to tell the difference between a Christian and a pagan in Africa: by how they dress and by how they treat (or mistreat) their body. The Scriptures are clear: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh…nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:28). Earrings on men in the Bible were a mark of slavery (Ex. 21:6; Dt. 15:17). The pagans (1 Kin. 18:28) saw cutting of one’s own flesh as an act of worship to demon idols. For a Christian who recognizes that his body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17) to defile himself with the pagan practice of body piercing is not only tragic but blatant rebellion against God. How then can you expect African Christians to respect longhaired men with ponytails and earrings — who presume to come and teach them?
Helping or Hindering?
Often our appearance or actions undermine the message we bring. One "mission team" that came to assist some good friends of ours started arguing with the established missionaries over divisive doctrines, then they asserted "a woman’s right" to have an abortion! Finally, they complained about being given physical work. "We came here to minister," protested the ponytailed team leader. "Physical work is part of our ministry," answered the mission leader. The young team leader stood up on Sunday morning before the whole congregation and protested the way his team of volunteers had been forced to help with the building extension of the mission station. "We came here to preach the gospel, not to lay bricks. Look at my hands," he pleaded. "My hands are like those of a little girl. God didn’t make my hands to handle bricks!" The incredible thing is that every year thousands of such undisciplined and unteachable selfish individuals jet into mission fields around the world…to help!
I first came across the term "religious tourists" in Romania. A pastor was relating to me the bizarre story of 89 Californian Christians who had flown in to "minister" in Romania! Naturally, none of them spoke Romanian. Neither did they have transportation. They were totally dependent upon their local hosts, whom they presumed they were coming to help. On Sunday morning they all wanted to speak at the main service. Each was given two minutes to bring greetings! So began a seemingly never-ending procession of 89 religious tourists delivering their greetings through an interpreter — with successive camera flashes accompanying. These visitors never seemed to consider just how much their large tour group had imposed upon their Romanian hosts for transportation, accommodation, food, and interpreters. "We never saw these people in the dark days of persecution," declared one pastor. "They’re not missionaries — they’re religious tourists!" There have recently been groups of up to 29 Americans and Europeans flying in on a single aircraft to one location in Sudan. When I asked how long they were going in for, they proudly announced, "Two or three days — maybe even four!" I could only stand in amazement at their superficial understanding of what is needed in missions. "What do you plan to accomplish?" I asked. "Oh!" one man answered, "We plan to hand over some relief aid and buy some slaves!" So this is now what missions are coming to: large groups of people flying halfway across the world to hand over some relief aid, say a few nice words, and set some slaves free! And in just a few days they fly back home thinking that they are now missionaries! They have no real grasp of the people to whom they are going, they have no understanding of the religious worldview of the people they are evangelizing, and they have never bothered to study the history of the nation they say they are sent to. They are untrained, unprepared, unaccountable, and even unaware of the way the local people perceive them. Without knowing the local language or staying long enough to know what is really going on, how can they be sure that those people sitting under the tree really are slaves? Do they know what the correct price and exchange rates are? Once they set the slaves free, how can they be sure that they will not be re-enslaved again? Would they even know if they were being deceived in an elaborate plot to enrich certain slave traders? Those who fly in only for the day cannot be certain of the answers to any of these questions. The mission fields are too complex for amateurs.
What Makes a Missionary?
Of course, a mission worker’s training should not stop when he reaches the field — in fact, it must never stop. It takes an average of 2 years or more for a trainee field worker in Frontline Fellowship to qualify as a Field Worker. This training will include many courses such as the Great Commission Course, Discipleship Training Course, Biblical Worldview Seminar, Muslim Evangelism Workshop, First Aid courses, and participation in many outreaches, including street evangelism, Muslim evangelism, and Bible smuggling into restricted-access countries. There are required reading lists, written assignments, and practical tests. All of these are important components of a comprehensive program to prepare effective missionaries for ministry in war-torn Muslim or Communist countries. Frontline’s selection and training procedure is fairly unique in its blend of intensive Biblical instruction and practical outreach within an apprenticeship program. Those who are easily upset by irritations, loss of sleep, or unfair treatment and those who are moody, easily discouraged, and depressed are not suitable for missions. Missionaries must be emotionally stable and self-disciplined. In the mission field, high levels of stress, heat, and cross-cultural frustration often aggravate relationship difficulties. The closeness of living, traveling, and working conditions intensifies interpersonal conflicts. Missionaries tend to be strong-willed people, so potential clashes can undermine the mission team and projects. There are two major problems here: dependent people who need constant support and direction and sap the energy from a team; and independent people who divert the team’s energy as they pull one way and another to pursue their own agendas. Missionaries need to be interdependent (team players), relinquishing their own interests for the good of the team. They need to be self-starters, self-reliant, and self-sacrificing. The harsh terrains, hot climates, and primitive conditions of most mission fields require healthy and fit missionaries who can endure and be effective in adverse conditions, and who can cope with and recover from debilitating sicknesses. It is amazing how many people volunteer for missions who have never done any ministry at home! It is essential for all missionaries to have extensive ministry experience at the home front before venturing into cross-cultural missions overseas. Obstacles abound. Frustrations, disappointments, and discouragements are occupational hazards and part of our job description. Missionaries need endurance — a willingness and capacity to suffer hardships, discomfort, opposition and worse. Sacrificial service is more eloquent than many sermons.
Rev. Peter Hammond is a missionary who has pioneered evangelistic outreaches in the war zones of Angola, Mozambique, and Sudan. He is the Founder and Director of Frontline Fellowship and the Director of United Christian Action. He has authored numerous publications, in particular he has written Holocaust in Rwanda, Faith Under Fire in Sudan, In the Killing Fields of Mozambique and Putting Feet to Your Faith. He is the editor of both Frontline Fellowship News and UCANEWS. He can be reached at:
PO Box 74
Tel: (011-27-21) 689-4480
Fax: (011-27-21) 685-5884
E-mail: [email protected].