Do Missions Destroy Culture?

Finding the difference between colonialism and Christ-following.

Missions. There was a time when that word brought up glamorous images of adventure and calling. In today's culture, though, it's become something of a dirty word. Even for Christians—especially for young Christians—there's a nagging unease when it comes to sending missionaries overseas, a whispering objection that reigns in secular culture and has bled into churches.

Missions is against culture—it's merely colonialism disguised as good will and religion.

When I was a wide-eyed freshman in college, ready to change the world, I told a non-Christian friend I was interested in mission work. He challenged me with an objection to the idea of missions. It was the first argument I’d ever heard against mission work.

It wouldn’t be the last.

He said missionaries destroy cultures. They go in with legalism and try to convert the locals away from their cultural practices to obey the missionaries’ practices. Missionaries westernize the indigenous peoples—change their dress, dance, diet and other cultural preferences.

Was that true? I didn’t want to do that. Is that really the face of missions? Is it just a narcissistic propagation of Western Christianity? I wanted to get to the bottom of the issue. Do missionaries really destroy cultures?

Well, like any real-life issue, the answer is not that simple. I’ll begin with the psychologist’s answer: It depends.

My friend based his opinion on what he had been taught about Victorian-era missionaries and their atrocious practices. Add to that a little conquistador history from Golden Age Spain and the barbarism with which they “Christianized” the indigenous Latin Americans, and you’ve got yourself one potent recipe against the idea of missions.

But what about all the great things I’d heard about missionaries? What about William Carey, who brought an end to the Indian practice of burning a recently widowed woman at the stake so she wouldn’t live on without her husband? What about the end of cannibalism in so many tribes in Papua New Guinea? What about the end of child sacrifices among the Aztec and Mayan peoples and many other pagan cultures? What about countless orphanages and drug rehabilitation centers and hospitals started by missionaries? Surely they have done some good.

Missionaries today have learned a lot from their previous failures. Ideally, they have learned no culture is inherently better than another, that each culture has some things that naturally align more closely with biblical principles. They’ve learned Western society is not the end goal. They’ve learned Westernizing and Christianizing are not one in the same, as the Victorians thought, but introducing the people to Jesus is the purpose.

In modern times, missionaries are arguably doing more to preserve certain parts of culture than any secular organization. For example, in the face of the expansion of the global economy and the shift toward population centers being urban rather than rural, many of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages are suffering the risk of extinction. Many language groups have less than 10,000 native speakers, and as cities exert more influence on villages, the local languages are dying to the trade language of the region. With the death of the language comes the death of the oral traditions, stories, mythologies and depths of linguistic riches.

Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International—along with their partners—are doing more than any organization on earth to remedy this problem. Many of these minority language groups do not have a system of writing in their language, enter a team of linguists and translation specialists. With their training, they are able to write a phonetic alphabet for these groups and then teach literacy, giving them the tools to write their history and culturally rich tales so they will never be lost.

Is introducing an alphabet and teaching literacy, in fact, Westernizing? Yes. It is. Western people do not have a problem with this, though, because literacy is to us a supreme good—a basic human right. However, those missionaries do not see literacy as an end in itself. At their best, the reason they (sometimes) give up their comfort and higher earning possibilities and go to the ends of the earth is that they love Jesus and His words so much, they refuse to withhold their skills from sharing their greatest joy with all peoples.For Christians, whether this is acceptable or not to a given group’s worldview shouldn’t matter. This is a practice Jesus commands in His final words to His followers. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus tells believers, “... All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (ESV).

Missions is commanded. Teaching others to know Jesus and read His words and follow Him is at the foundation of the faith. You couldn’t change this unless you made Christianity something it’s not.

Christians—and missionaries—can be at times the best and at other times the worst representatives of Christ. They’re not perfect. They will make mistakes, and they will take some cultural presuppositions with them no matter how much they are trained not to.

Missionaries will unapologetically keep campaigning against female mutilation, deceivingly referred to as female circumcision; they will fight against cannibalism, witchcraft and human sacrifice. But they will also miss the mark sometimes and carry their Western values too far. Missionaries are still sinners, but when they follow Christ and make His glory their chief end, they elevate culture and follow the call of Jesus.

Jordan Monson is a missionary and church planter in Pamplona, Spain. He is passionate about encouraging other Christians toward the mission field and writes more at Missions Untold.

82 Comments

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Miss Biz commented…

Thanks for this article, Jordan. I'm a young "laborer" and I, too, have seen the wall go up when I've told friends about my work or that I'm with Wycliffe. It's troubling (if Biblical) to be misunderstood or maligned, or to have the work I consider so important to cultural preservation and spiritual health misunderstood or maligned, or to see Jesus misunderstood or maligned, but all I can do is pray that we will continue to listen to God's heart for people and not bend to the pressure of our own cultural norms.

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Rowan Searson commented…

"In modern times, missionaries are arguably doing more to preserve certain parts of culture than any secular organization."

Arguably?!? Maybe if you have no understanding of logic or a disdain for the truth. I would like some evidence please to back up such a ridiculous statement.

Oh that's right you don't have any do you? That's because secular organisations by definition DO NOT HAVE an agenda other than to help, unlike missionaries who are there to peddle their own belief systems AS WELL AS helping.

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Yonathan Moya commented…

This is a great article about missions!

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stephanie commented…

I spent last year in Ethiopia where atheist anthropologists are fighting to keep healthcare and education out of the tribes. They are actively attacking missionary efforts in basic human right and humanitarian efforts--regardless of the name they come in--all to protect a culture that embraces child sacrifice and a people dying from malnutrition.

This article has a great balance of respecting and cherishing cultural expression while helping peoples exist more healthfully and wholly. Let us not forget, though, that there is a real spiritual battle raging for the souls of men.

A cherished teaching in our Western culture is that we should not offend or affect anyone in order to live peaceably and respectfully. That is one element of our culture that I wouldn't mind seeing changed.

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Lauren commented…

Great conversation! I agree with what the commenter Joel said. What if missionaries from a non-western country came to America to share The Gospel? As quiet as its kept America needs Jesus as much as any nation. We should not stop going out to spread The Gospel but lets consider our own families, neighborhoods, and communities.

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