Missions Pastor: Five Ways You Can Abandon Colonialism

Dear Missions Pastor, it’s time we stop colonizing.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is one of unity, not one of colonization; one of justice, not one of charity. If you think the term ‘colonize’ is outdated and has nothing to do with short-term missions, you may be more like a conquistador than you know. The damage done through short-term missions is visibly one-sided, and it’s time we’re frank about the danger of charitable paternalism and confess our role in spreading it. The gospel of Jesus Christ is one of unity, not colonization; one of justice, not charity. Click To Tweet

Bad Planning and Good Intentions

Our good intentions, our altruism, our desire to help ‘the least of these’ get a ticket into heaven, our desire for our home churches to see their current lives through another lens, our need to feed our number lust, and our width that lacks depth are all ingredients of our short-term colonization trips.

Our bad planning cannot be justified by the label of “good intentions.” This invisible harm is cancerous to the Gospel and to the global brotherhood. Our altruism is perpetuating god-complexes and has us saving those who don’t need saving and spreading a gospel perpendicular to the Bible. When we use a misconstrued concept of ‘the least of these’ we unintentionally build ourselves a pedestal to step up on further dichotomizing us—those who have, and them—the have-nots. Missions Pastors: Our bad planning cannot be justified by the label of good intentions. Click To Tweet

Stop Flirting

Poverty tourism does a lot of dignity degradation, and number lust allows us to follow the wide path of the world with a fake label of the ‘straight-and-narrow’. We must stop what Kent Annan calls ‘flirting’ in short-term missions and begin the tough process of committed, faithful love between sending and receiving churches. The global church doesn’t need more Don Juans, it needs more faithful spouses.

These ingredients—that superficially feel good—weigh us down, and automatically and unconsciously end up building walls between those ‘sending’ and those ‘receiving’.

Here’s why: We’re doing charity when we need to be doing justice.

Charity is a top-down, colonialist framework. It is handouts. Its formula goes something like this: those who have give to those who don’t have. But we are defining the word “have” through tangibility; and the framework it provides is that stuff equals power. So the powerful with their stuff tell the weak with their lack of stuff how to live, ‘mercifully’ giving them crumbs from the table. And if they get enough crumbs one day they may be able to sit at the table too.

Biblical justice, on the other hand, is about relationship, partnership, and unity. Justice says that everyone is on the same plane and everyone has a seat at the table. In the kingdom of God no one human has more power than another. Charity justifies the use of pedestals; justice says only God belongs on a throne.

Five Moves for Abandoning Colonialism

Here are five essential moves for those of us committed to abandoning colonialist models of short-term mission in favor of aligning with biblical justice:

  1. We recognize that we are economically rich as Western Christians, but that we are also poor. We are poor in community, often poor in emotional health; maybe we are poor in spiritual health or poor in our awareness of global issues. We understand that we have so much to learn from our international brothers and sisters, and so much to gain from a friendship with them.
  2. We recognize that we are biased. We become aware of our own biases and our own cultural frameworks that may not explain issues in another context. We recognize we have two ears and one mouth for a reason and learn to listen at least 2x more than we talk. We personally and corporately bring awareness to our rose-colored glasses and learn to define what exactly makes us see the rosiness we do.
  3. We recognize that we are ignorant. We do not know what we do not know and we are willing to acknowledge that. We research where we are traveling to and recognize that even our Google search will come up dry for explaining why things are the way they are when we are on the ground.
  4. We recognize that we are not superior. We become aware of all the ways in which we think we are because of our education, economic status, our reputation in our own community, our knowledge of the Bible, our ability to speak in front of large groups, our social media following.
  5. We recognize we are not the savior. We reject the formula that says God saved us, now we go and save others. We are on guard against our god complexes that want to save and want to be glorified, and we reject the world-like power that exalts self and further marginalizes the economic poor. We understand that the Great Commission does not beckon us to save others, but to make disciples that understand the teachings of Christ.

If the Great Commission is our focus of why we do international missions, we must see it for what it is and lament our misinterpretation of it. In it, Jesus gives us four verbs to follow: go, make, baptize, and teach. The problem is, most mission trips do one, maybe two, of those verbs. In order for the Great Commission to be fulfilled, the local church must be a part of the process, because while the verbs go and baptize might be one-time actions, making disciples and teaching those disciples takes an ingredient no short-term mission trip has—time.

If time is against the STM, there must be parameters through which we work, recognizing that we serve the local church, so that the local church can fulfill the Great Commission. Then we can begin the practical steps of igniting our missions work with sustainability by investing in listening and encouraging trips, evaluating our partnerships through partnership analyses, implementing project cycles, identifying participation typology, researching and implementing the best tools and/or approaches for development work, and most importantly, by involving our international brothers and sisters in every process of our project planning so that these projects take root in the community, for the community, by the community—and last long after our feet leave community soil.

Gena Thomas is the author of A Smoldering Wick: Igniting Missions Work with Sustainable Practices and consults with churches on effective short-term missions. For more information about her, visit genathomas.com