It’s a cautionary tale for any of us. (Sometimes “good missions” is defined by what not to do.)
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998) is virtually a tale of how to do missions badly, wrecking as many lives as you can along the way (and hey! Don’t forget your family’s).
Kingsolver weaves her tale through the eyes of the wife and four daughters of a zealous evangelical pastor, Nathan Price, who all move from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Price takes with him his lack of understanding, superiority, and white man’s burden.
He concludes sermons by attempting to say in Kikongo, “Tata Jesus is bängala”–what he believes is “Jesus is most precious.” But he mispronounces it, saying “Jesus is poisonwood”. His “demonstration garden” fails in the climate. Nathan attempts to celebrate Easter with baptisms, but baptizes none, since the river is full of crocodiles.
I don’t tell you this to intimidate you. If you’re anywhere near where I was as we headed to Uganda, you harbor enough healthy reservation that you could do more harm than good in the name of Jesus.
How would the Bible confront potential repeats of colonialist missions?
A PAGE FROM PAUL’S PLAYBOOK: THWARTING COLONIALIST MISSIONS
I think of Nathan Price, and the undoing of his family via their mission work, when I contrast the way Paul reached the Thessalonians in his first letter to them.
Check out Paul’s missions model, standing in the face of colonialist missions.
And ask this: In which of these do you naturally hope to excel? Which do you anticipate could undermine the work you hope to accomplish?
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers” (1:2).
Paul’s variety of missions confronts superiority at every turn. Affection and thankfulness stream from him, tumbling into prayer.
Ask this: Do I feel humbly compelled to thank God and pray for the people to which God’s called me? Despite all that drives me crazy about living there, do I feel motivated to Godward delight in them?
“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (2:7). Paul and his companions’ affect is one of tenderness and nurture.
Ask this: If God’s kindness leads to repentance (Romans 2:4) and he draws people with everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3), is God’s kindness a defining trait of my work for him?
Could it be said that my work is tender, like a mom with her baby?
“affectionately desirous…you had become very dear.”
The New Living Translation conveys 1 Thessalonians 2:8 this way: “We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.”
Read: Sharing Jesus poured out of Paul and his companions’ natural affection for the Thessalonians. They cared about them, so of course they shared their hope–Jesus–and their lives with the Thessalonians.
I remember that at an all-staff gathering with my husband’s and my organization before we left for Africa, someone mentioned the Uganda Cranes’ football (soccer) team. One of the missionary women enthusiastically shouted, “Go, Uganda!”
Ask this: Do these people experience God’s affection and desire for them through me?
holy, righteous, and blameless.
Paul writes, “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers” (2:10).
I have witnessed global workers so jaded by their experiences in their host country that it was difficult to perceive their holiness at times–especially when they were in danger of being taken advantage of.
Think of Jesus’ example. Does our conduct remain above reproach, even when we’re exasperated, hurt, or even traumatized by those around us?
Ask this: What’s one way my life doesn’t look like Jesus’ in my host country?
“For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day” (2:9).
No, I am in no way a fan of burned-out missionaries, who are seldom holy, righteous, and blameless. (Don’t miss Restorative Rhythms: Must-Haves Overseas.)
Often it’s much tougher for global workers. In impoverished nations, where life is so much more demanding just to survive, “labor and toil” may be provided for you.
Providing employment in your host country could be a tremendous benefit to your ministry. But in our position as employers, are we coming not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:41-45)?
Is it clear they hold “brother,” not “underling” status?
But ask this: Are you working with all your heart (Colossians 3:23-24)?
“you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you…”
“…to walk in a manner worthy of God” (2:12).
Paul and his companions took time to invest not just in the whole, but in individuals, presumably encouraging them in ways most relevant to them, like a good Dad. Do we express interest in the individual, like Jesus did?
Ask this: What do each of the people I work with need to hear–like a good dad would say?
boldness despite hard past experiences.
“But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (2:2).
Go. Serve. Love has written about the reality of jail, though few reading this post will experience that. But after the trauma of an overseas prison, would you be back at it, talking about Jesus?
Ask this: Trauma may be more likely overseas. What will I do to process that trauma (not ignore it) wisely when it comes, so I can continue in boldness and authenticity for the sake of those who don’t know Jesus?
speaking a pure gospel.
“For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (2:3).
In The Poisonwood Bible, Nathan Price communicates inaccurate cultural interpretations of God’s Word, rendering it irrelevant to his audience. Consider a book like Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible to uncover ways you might be misinterpreting the Bible because of your own culture.
Ask this: Have you sought out appropriate training and approval from your sending church, to make sure you’re speaking a pure gospel? Are there ways your work changes because of what people might say–like those reading your next prayer letter?
not a burden.
Remember, the Thessalonians were persecuted: “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” we read in 1 Thessalonians 1:6.
Ask this: What are the heaviest burdens your host culture bears–particularly those who believe in Jesus?
How can you give life in that area?
How can you help “bear each others’ burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)?
Sharing God’s Word in the Power of the Holy Spirit.
“Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5).
Ask this: Are you seeking to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, who alone produces changed lives?
Paul writes elsewhere, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Are you trusting him–or your gifts–to change people? (See this comparison of proud people vs. broken people.)
Demonstrate a reproducing faith.
“You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1:7-8).
Ask this: Am I utilizing strategies to reach not just one person at a time, but entire people groups? (Don’t miss Indigenous Movements: How To Reach Entire People Groups.)
Am I training up leaders for this group to lead its own people–or will I remain the “star”?
Work not to please other people or for personal gain.
“We speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed–God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others” (2:4-6).
The superhero Christian myth can be hard to shake. Ask God to reveal inside of you impure motivations for the work at hand.
Ask this: What are some wrong reasons I might be tempted to serve? See 7 Reasons not to Go Overseas.
By God’s kindness–no, your work overseas won’t be a cautionary tale; it won’t come near colonialist missions.
In fact, in the lives of, say, Ruth, or a boy with five loaves and two fish, we serve a God famous for multiplying efforts into results far beyond what we can see.
But keep asking the right questions about your work overseas. And keep your heart close to God’s.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to missionary women through Thrive Ministry.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
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