Missionary Paternalism: Ultimate Peril of Mission – Paul Sungro Lee FRIDAY, MAY 25, 2012

Missionary Paternalism: Ultimate Peril of Mission – Paul Sungro Lee  FRIDAY, MAY 25, 2012

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This article explores both theological and sociological dimensions of the missionary paternalism epidemic in the world mission. Missionary paternalism is a serious issue that has been tampering the missions effort of church of Jesus Christ for centuries. It deters a sense of indigenous ownership of the very organization a missionary founded on the mission field with years of the sweat of his brows. One of the most devastating symptoms of missionary paternalism is a fact that the missionary himself may not realize that he has the particular problem. Years of serving God on the isolated foreign soil might have left him a distorted self-satisfied person. He may be intoxicated with fruits of the work of his hands and enjoy being the “man” of the organization because most of the locals who work with him are found to be less educated and less experienced than him. As a result, the missionary’s work may not proceed any further, that is into greater maturity and even succession to the coming generation leadership. Eventually, it might as well hinder the fulfillment of missionary’s call.

Considerably, distrust is interpreted to be a root problem of missionary paternalism that underlies its concept. A missionary may say that he does not have trust yet in his national leaders and their capability to carry on the work he started years ago. Time and chance of succession to indigenous leadership can be postponed to a later period of his tenure on the mission field. Certainly, it takes years of preparation for someone of heterogeneous cultural background to catch the missionary’s vision, develop a suitable apprenticeship under his mentoring, and grow to full maturity. It is even likely that not everyone will make it through the process of discipleship as we have seen it in Jesus’ example (Even the Son of God had a probability of 11/12!). Twists and turns are all parts of disciple-making process. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to cross-cultural discipleship is clear, as indicated in Matthew 28:19-20. “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations (emphasis mine), baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” Therefore, a temptation of missionary paternalism becomes an obstacle which every missionaries who wish to bear lasting fruits must overcome. The problem occurs only when the missionary is not willing to take full responsibility of disciple-making endeavor. In order to escape a notion of paternalism, however small local givings of fund, talent, and service may be in proportion to the entire demands of mission, they must be appreciated and encouraged by a missionary. This vulnerability can be discovered even among veteran missionaries who spent lifetime on the mission field; no indigenous disciples would have been produced to take on their work in proper time. A number of the Western missionary-founded organizations face this peril on the mission field. When a missionary has to leave the field for reasons of health, furlough, and ministry calls elsewhere, the organization faces closure and discontinuation of services it used to offer to the community. Good-willed enterprise will only end up leaving regrets to local people who once were beneficiaries of the missionary’s ministry. Any property the organization possessed may fall into greedy individuals who wish to take advantage of the facility for the purpose of personal gain. Often, such a case stirs up a lawsuit between home mission board and the locals, through which the Christian witness can be seriously hampered.

Missionary paternalism apparently shows signs of excessive control of missionary and inadequate training for future leadership. Ironically, should the missionary fail to prepare local disciples and be abruptly forced to leave the field, the premature release of authority may be considered and it can bring risk upon the organization. In many cases, unprepared national successors will not be able to discharge the duties, hence the work may collapse sooner or later. Besides, missionary paternalism has created negative responses over the years from national leaders of the Two-Thirds World mission fields. Lack of faithfulness and poor accountability among indigenous church leaders recently grew more noticeable as counterattack. They are not willing to take responsibility for something that is not theirs nor ever will be, so to speak. In turn, financial dishonesty and conning activities among national leaders increased in the Two-Thirds World. Situation worsened when this factor became extra reason for missionaries to keep distrusting national leaders. The gap of mistrust, therefore, widened on both parties as a consequence.

The problem of distrust in missionary paternalism can be considered rather as lack of trust in God who called him to the mission field and, at the same time, who equally works in the hearts of local people he serves with. Apostle Paul cheerfully commended the Gentile church leaders of Ephesus prior to his departure to Jerusalem in Acts 20:32. “And now I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all them that are sanctified.” Paul demonstrated a complete confidence that he who began a good work in his Philippian disciples would perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). It was possible for him to trust his Gentile coworkers because he believed that Jesus himself would build his church and the gates of Hades should not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Because of his trust in God in this regard, the venerable apostle prepared leaders and successors during the tenure of his missionary service to Gentiles.

A sociological study of the issue of paternalism speaks similarly. The concept of paternalism is loosely linked with the colonialism that has swept the globe through two great wars of modern age. Colonial era has ended with the World War II, however, the spirit of colonialism (neocolonialism) still influences politics, society, and even church world in some degrees. That is, the Westerners who used to be “lording” over other nations may subconsciously consider the foreign nationals of Two-Thirds World as somewhat inferior to them, even in spiritual dimension, and then to treat them from the paternalistic view.

The way people view the scripture is culturally screened and often deteriorated. It is noticeable that the Westerners occasionally fail to differentiate the culture and scripture. Such misunderstanding can cause deterioration of the gospel. It is vividly portrayed among so-called prosperity gospel preachers’ lucrative lifestyle and in their message of God Who is obliged to bless financially those who are spiritually sound. Such teachings are neither universal nor applicable, for instance, in the Muslim world where the spiritual puritans are facing the risks of hunger, arrest and even possible death each day. This also implies that local leaders on the mission field who walk on their feet are not necessarily spiritually inferior to foreign missionaries who may drive a four-wheel drive jeep. William Wilberforce, an English politician who headed the anti-slavery campaign during the Britain’s colonialistic period, once described Christians who confuse the scripture with culture: “The result is that in the Christian world in the West, we settle for a cultural version of Christianity that is far from the real thing (Wilberforce 2006:p.23-24).”

Fates of missionary paternalism can be witnessed today from Africa to Asia. According to Pius Wakatama (1976),

A certain mission built a well-equipped radio studio in Africa. The missionary director of the studio worked with a number of nationals in producing plays which were broadcast through the government operated national network. People responded positively to the programs. Many were finding Christ through them. The director of broadcasting of the government network wrote the studio a letter of commendation and encouragement. He mentioned that he appreciated the high moral tone of the programs. After a year the missionary, who alone could operate the recording console, had to come to America on furlough. Because there was no missionary to take over from him, the studio was closed and the work came to a stop. None of the Africans were trained to operate the console even though they could write scripts and dramatize the plays. Even today no nationals are being trained so as to continue that work. Instead that mission is now advertising in America for a missionary to go and direct the work of that studio. Is it surprising then that nationals are calling for a moratorium on missionaries? As long as more missionaries come they do not see any chance for themselves to be real leaders. They see their future as that of perpetual assistants. (p.63)
Another unfortunate case was reported from Asia. K.P. Yohannan who heads Gospel For Asia mission shares his experience in his book “Revolution in world missions (2004).”

I remember an incident—one of many—that illustrates this sad fact. During my days of preaching in the northwest of India I met a missionary from New Zealand who had been involved in Christian ministry in India for 25 years. During her final term she was assigned to a Christian bookstore. One day as my team and I went to her shop to buy some books, we found the book shop closed. When we went to her missionary quarters—which were in a walled mansion—we asked what was happening. She replied, “I am going back home for good.” I asked what would happen to the ministry of the bookshop. She answered, “I have sold all the books at wholesale price, and I have closed down everything.” With deep hurt, I asked her if she could have handed the store over to someone in order to continue the work. “No, I could not find anyone,” she replied. I wondered why, after 25 years of being in India, she was leaving without one person whom she had won to Christ, no disciple to continue her work. She, along with her missionary colleagues, lived in walled compounds with three or four servants each to look after their lifestyle. She spent a lifetime and untold amounts of God’s precious money, which could have been used to preach the Gospel. I could not help but think Jesus had called us to become servants—not masters. Had she done so, she would have fulfilled the call of God upon her life and fulfilled the Great Commission. Unfortunately, this sad truth is being repeated all over the world of colonial-style foreign missions. Regrettably, seldom are traditional missionaries being held accountable for the current lack of results, nor is their failure being reported at home in the West. (p.164-165)
Overcoming missionary paternalism is not just a simple matter. It may involve more than a determination of missionary himself on the field. The challenge may be tied with the home mission board that controls the mission fund and perhaps wishes to propagate their own denominationalism. An issue of stewardship must be raised at this point. Most donors who give financially to mission do so because they believe that their fund may contribute toward expansion of God’s kingdom. If the local disciples on the mission field mature and take over the work of missionary, it should be considered as an advancement of Great Commission. If untold millions are spent to keep the missionaries on field while their work will never get indigenized and in turn expand the kingdom of God, it is a critical matter of stewardship that needs to be tackled again as the church. Financial delinquency of church leaders has repeatedly increased to be mockery of society in this day and age. The negative effect of missionary paternalism reaches far even to the missionary’s home country. Today, church is being watched by the society everywhere, especially in this area of financial stewardship.

In the end, neocolonialism-minded paternalism can seriously jeopardize missionary’s work according to the biblical definition of mission. It demeans reproduction of Hesselgrave’s Pauline cycle of mission (Hesselgrave 1980:p.136). When the gospel is preached to a group of audience in any nation, David Hesselgrave asserts that they must grow mature to the point that they may commission missionaries out of themselves for other nations, thus this cycle repeats until all nations take parts in world mission. V.S. Azariah, an Indian bishop who served under British rule once described devastated effect of missionary paternalism.

The desire for independence and freedom of expression in political life was finding its counterpart in the religious world, and on this Azariah delivered his own balanced judgment: “Our young theologians want autonomy at one step; sober minds are willing to work more slowly but legitimate aspirations must be met.” These he defined as follows: the curtailment of missionary power; the training of Indian leadership in the government of their own church; the preparation of the whole Christian community for indigenous leadership and self-support. (Anderson et al. 1998:p.326)

Mission is a task given by the Lord Jesus himself to his “universal” church, and this requires participation from the international communities. Missionary paternalism severely tampers this God-given agenda to the church today.


Anderson, G., Coote, R., Horner, N., & Phillips, J. (1998). Mission legacies. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Hesselgrave, D. (1980). Planting churches cross-culturally. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Wakatama, P. (1976). Independence for the Third World church: An African’s perspective on missionary work. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Wilberforce, W. (2006). Real Christianity. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.
Yohannan, K. (2004). Revolution in world missions. Carrollton, TX: GFA Books.


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