Anachronism and Adventurism: Recent Mission Trends

by Raymond DeHainaut

When this article was written, Raymond K. DeHainaut was a United Methodist missionary on assignment as a peace-with-justice education in Lousianna.

The article appeared in the Christian Century magazine March 1, 1995, pp. 239 – 242. Copyright by The Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


The author examines the implications of the rising number of short-term volunteers engaged in mission, in particular the results of their often inadequate training in cross-cultural understanding.

Since the early 1960's I have served as a missionary in four Latin American countries, and during that time I have become increasingly concerned about burgeoning missionary activity that is reminiscent of 19th century attitudes and borders on adventurism. Some of those involved in the trend among denominations to send more and more full-time missionaries to foreign countries -- in addition to short-term volunteers being sent out directly by local churches -- seem to be ignoring the enlightened approach to missionary presence that the historic mission boards developed after many years of experience.

Much of what I have observed in recent years flies in the face of what my own experience and training have taught me. I recall that as a missionary couple, my wife, Delaine, and I had to undergo a long process of filling out questionnaires, taking psychological and psychiatric exams and sitting through extensive interviews regarding our own understanding of mission before being accepted by the United Methodist mission board. Once accepted, we were required to have more than a year of language and cross-cultural training before being sent to a mission field.

Back in the '60s, we who are now "old timers" thought of ourselves as a new breed of missionaries, well trained in the language and culture of the host country and determined to help its church leaders dismantle the structures of dependency and paternalism. This attitude was encouraged by the mainline mission boards, which had become sensitive to the revolutionary winds that were blowing through the developing countries, especially the countries of Latin America. We were encouraged to read Richard Shaull's The New Revolutionary Mood in Latin America, Ivan Illich's The Seamy Side of Charity, James Michener's novel Hawaii and other works critical of traditional missionary practices.

When Delaine and I took on our first assignment -- in Argentina -- we found an already well-established national church, with a publishing house, a seminary and other educational institutions run by capable administrators. We accepted our board's requirement that we would work in Argentina as willing servants under national leadership and as supporters of the national church's own mission goals. Tensions developed with some older missionaries who insisted on bringing in funds for a project of their own that had not been approved by the national church. Resistance to that traditional approach to mission finally resulted in their leaving the country. The national church leadership in many Latin countries has become stronger over the years, producing such leaders as Argentina's Jose Mignez-Bonino, a prominent theologian and past president of the World Council of Churches, and Methodist Bishop Federico J. Pagura, until recently president of the Latin American Council of Churches.

My wife and I left Argentina in 1968 but returned to serve another term in 1985. We were 'pleased when we discovered that the missionary force of 20 we had known in the '60s had been reduced by three- fourths. When we returned to the U.S. after this term of service, I could not sympathize with the church people who were quite concerned about the significant decrease in the number of UMC missionaries on the field. Mission supporters in local churches should rejoice over the fact that many missionaries have been able to work themselves out of a job and that the ministry in the national churches is in good hands.

About five years ago I asked a group of national church leaders in Rosario, Argentina, to tell me frankly if they still wanted North American missionaries to work in their country. One pastor replied, "We still have a need for the kind of missionary who is knowledgeable about the historical, cultural, political and theological perspectives of Argentina in general and of Argentine Methodists in particular." Another pastor added that part of a missionary's orientation should consist of "many hours reading Argentine political history and some of our basic ecclesiastical documents such as 'The Missionary Strategy of the Argentine Evangelical Methodist Church."' All agreed that any missionaries, whether long-term or short- term, should be able to adapt to the national church's needs as that church understands them, regardless of any preconceived notions of the missionary role.

Still another pastor remarked, "There is always room for a sensitive and enlightened missionary presence here as an alternative to the invasion of North American sects and religious corporations." The pastors told me that, according to the Argentine Registry of Non-Catholic Religions, more than 2,000 free religious movements, including Protestants and other minority religions, are registered in Argentina -- most of them related to ultraconservative or fundamentalist North American groups. One of the pastors characterized Pat Robertson's daily appearances on radio and TV as "giving our people a lopsided interpretation of the gospel and an ultrarightist political ideology."

Nowhere is the missionary invasion more evident than on the island of Hispanola, where I recently served as a pastor in the Dominican Evangelical Church in the city of Barahona in the Dominican Republic. I didn't have to leave my front porch to witness the almost daily advent of new mission groups that came to canvass the neighborhood. Sometimes I would note at the Barahona dock the arrival of one of the two evangelical "mercy" ships, that frequently showed up there. Once, out of curiosity, I accepted the invitation extended to local pastors to go aboard. While we were there a Bible teacher, with a translator at his side, lectured us on how to evangelize. I was the only non-Dominican in the audience of 30-some pastors. Two of the Dominicans told me that they had come not to hear a gringo lecture in English, but to see if the ship was going to hand out any building materials or foodstuffs as it and its sister ship had done in the past

Within a few days a luxury yacht from England, loaded with both evangelists and state-of-the-art navigational equipment, put in at Barahona long enough for the evangelists to make a three-day canvass and witness. The evangelists told me that they planned to sail through the Panama Canal to carry their message to various islands in the Pacific.

Granted, the situation in Hispanola -- with Haiti occupying one-third of the island and the Dominican Republic the other two-thirds -- is different from that of Argentina. Protestant missionaries first arrived in Argentina in the middle of the 19th century, whereas none reached the Dominican Republic until the late 1920s. Presbyterians, Methodists and Moravians united to form the Dominican Evangelical Church; this church and the Episcopal Church were the dominant non-Catholic denominations in the country until a variety of Pentecostal and other missionary groups arrived on the scene -- and grew at a phenomenal rate. Haiti was the target of the largest influx of missionary groups and voluntary work teams until social unrest escalated sharply in the late '80s and early '90s. Then hundreds of missionaries who no longer felt safe in Haiti began to view the Dominican Republic as a more fertile field.

Three years ago Domingo de la Cruz, pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God in Barahona, invited me to a meeting of the local ministerial association, which was attended by 47 evangelical pastors. De la Cruz told me that there are now more than 100 evangelical churches and church agencies operating in this city of 80,000 and in outlying areas. The evangelical groups include Pentecostals, Nazarenes, the Bible Temple, the Triumphant Church of Jesus Christ, Defenders of the Faith, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Free Methodists, Youth for Christ and Youth with a Mission. Other non-Catholic groups such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses exclude themselves from the association.  By contrast there are only eight local Catholic priests.  Though most of these non-Catholic groups have national leadership, they are highly dependent on parent organizations in North America.

The problems resulting from dependency have been the concern of mainline denominational mission boards for some time. These boards are also aware of the dependency that still confronts national church leaders as well as congregations. I have attended several meetings at which national leaders and mission board executives tried to find ways to make the national churches less dependent on their parent churches abroad. This effort has been extremely difficult due to the great disparity between the affluence of the parent churches and the relative poverty of the churches on the receiving end. However, much of the funding that used to be channeled to national churches through mission boards is now being spent by local churches and judicatories on their own hands-on mission projects. The dependency-creating resources which left the foreign field through one are now coming back through another. Whether or not the organizers of the volunteer projects will be able to help their workers manage their resources in such a way as to minimize dependency and paternalism remains to be seen.

Representatives of still other North American and European religious groups were continually arriving and seeking converts during our time in Barahona. On one occasion a parishioner informed me that "the Four Square people [Los Quadrados] arrived in town today looking for a mission project." The poverty of the people in this part of the Dominican Republic, though perhaps not as acute as in nearby Haiti, is dire enough to make them susceptible to the enticements of the dependency trap. Many of the representatives of mission agencies and volunteers in mission start handing out free items as soon as they arrive -- no doubt with the best of intentions. Some of the local people have been so conditioned toward dependency that they automatically extend a palm up to any foreigner they happen to see. Barahona's many street children often greet foreigners with the one English sentence they know well: "Give me a dollar, mister."

I once attempted to dissuade a man who was standing on a street corner passing out U.S. dollars. He told me that he wanted to help the Dominican people and had decided to come to Barahona to give away his excess wealth. I commended him for wanting to help but suggested that the way he was doing it was only adding to the problem of dependency. Delaine advised him to purchase picks, shovels and wheelbarrows for a group of citizens who wanted to improve their community's dirt road. He decided to do just that -- and the people he wanted to help were able to do something for themselves.

A minimal amount of cross-cultural briefing could help benevolent visitors avoid contributing to the problem of dependency and also avoid getting into the kind of intercultural misunderstandings that often cause a mission project to go sour. One particular example of this kind of misunderstanding comes to mind. One day a volunteer-in-mission group arrived to lay the foundation for a new church in Mella, one of the poorest towns in the Dominican Republic. The foundation they began to install was the size of a skating rink -- for a congregation consisting of fewer than 15 people. The group had brought with them 200 pairs of sunglasses and proceeded to dispense these at the town's main plaza. Sunglasses are a sought-after commodity in this tropical town, and the volunteers were suddenly surrounded by a mob of more than 500 people. The 300 who didn't receive sunglasses became very angry - which, in turn, angered and bewildered the well-meaning volunteers. The volunteer decided to leave town, even though their building project was just getting under way.

Most of the volunteers I have observed in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere have arrived on the field with the desire to work with, not for, the nationals. However, many volunteers lack even minimal cross- cultural sensitivity or knowledge of their own denomination's understanding of mission. Such people are apt to repeat the mistakes of the past. On one occasion a group of American evangelical volunteers traveled to Barahona to spend two weeks "working with the youth." After they returned to the U.S. I asked the president of our youth group what he thought of the volunteers' work. He replied: "They said that they had come to us with a mission, but they took no time to understand our mission. They should have come to share with us. It's as though they felt we had nothing to give them. They spent a lot of time on the beach handing out tracts and lying in the sun. Evidently this made them feel good."

Another group came supplied with their own food and water and worked hard laying blocks for a building, but they kept to themselves and couldn't be persuaded to attend church services or Bible study with the people for whom they were erecting the building. The local congregation wanted the volunteers to be present at some of their meetings, but the group felt that their inability to speak Spanish would make them uncomfortable, so they spent their free time sightseeing. However, some other groups with even less cross-cultural experience developed a close relation with the local people and managed to communicate through sign language.

Of course, one should not overlook the positive contributions of the volunteer-in-mission movement. Many volunteers have helped supply national churches with badly needed physical resources and have been effective witnesses to their faith. Nonetheless, the fear of mission board executives that growing numbers of enthusiastic but poorly prepared volunteers would undo some of the self-sufficiency that had been developed in national churches over the years is not completely unfounded.

In his article "Amateurs Abroad" in the Christian Herald (July-August, 1988) Horace J. Fenton points out that between 1978 and 1988 the number of short-term volunteers in mission zoomed from 6,000 to more than 60,000 serving in 130 countries. In 1988 there were 350 agencies sending out short-term volunteers; one of them, Youth with a Mission, sent out more than 20,000 that year. Fenton says one World Vision volunteer summed up the historical significance of the volunteer movement when he declared that "we're in a transition period between missionary ages.

Whether or not church historians will look back on the present outpouring of missionaries and volunteers in mission as a new missionary age remains to be seen. But mission board executives are beginning to reassess this movement that has been sweeping through both mainline and evangelical denominations and agencies. They can no longer afford to ignore the fact that local churches and regional bodies are upstaging them by sending teams to build churches in the former Soviet Union and volunteers to teach English and evangelize in China and Cuba. Whether those being sent to such countries have sufficient missionary experience and cross-cultural skills is, of course, another question.

The value of the volunteer-in-mission movement may lie not so much in what its volunteers are able to do for the poor as in what this kind of hands-on experience does for the volunteers. In debriefing sessions I have noted some of the statements made by recently returned volunteers. Said one: "I went down there to do something for those people, and their testimony changed my life. I will never be the same because of this experience." Another: "Once you go out with one of these teams, you want to keep going back because you felt God at work over there." One of the hymns that has become a favorite with United Methodists who have gone to Latin America is "Cuando el Pobre." A part of the first verse goes: "When the poor ones who have nothing share with strangers... Then we know that God still goes that road with us."

Some of us "old timers" surely have an obligation to make an appraisal of new trends in mission in terms of our mission experience and the theological and philosophical perspective of the mission board that first sent us to the field. I dealt with 15 or so volunteer-in-mission teams while serving in the Dominican Republic, and I know from this experience that career missionaries should try to prepare the way for such teams and help them become oriented to the situation in which they will be working. Of course, career missionaries probably will no longer be on hand in most of the places where short-term volunteers go to serve. In such cases the volunteers themselves should take on the responsibility of soliciting orientation materials, reading articles on cross-cultural adaptation, and getting in touch with consultants from national or regional mission agencies, missionaries on home assignment or in retirement, and experienced volunteers.

The new trends in mission will probably be on the scene for some time. One observer may be correct in saying that through these trends "God is raising up a new army." If such is the case, criticism such as this cannot do 'any harm. But we old-timers might be able to help the new soldiers in their training.