A lot of people mistakenly conflate the phrase, “missionary work” with “charity work.” Apologists like to point to religious missionaries and congratulate them on all the wonderful work they’re doing, while missionaries themselves walk around with an inflated ego thinking they’re doing the most selfless, kind work possible. None of this is true. While many individuals who are missionaries have good intentions, missionary work itself is inherently heinous and inexcusable.
Here are ten common misconceptions about missionaries:
1. Missionaries are not there to convert people.
A Christian mission is defined as:
sending individuals and groups, called “missionaries,” across boundaries, most commonly geographical boundaries, for the purpose of proselytism (conversion to Christianity, or from one Christian tradition to another)
The fact is, if missionaries were only on their trip to help people in need, they wouldn’t be called missionaries. We have words for that type of work. It’s called charity. It's called aid. The one thing that makes someone a missionary, rather than just a person travelling for charity, is that it is a missionary’s goal to convert.
Many missionaries, when confronted with this, deny that they want to convert people. This is easily exposed as a lie when you ask the very simple question, “then what about your work makes it missionary work rather than just straight-up charity?”
2. Missionary trips are about charitable giving, teaching and labour.
Missionaries would have you believe that their work is about charity. They say it is about giving, education and helping to build schools and churches in areas affected by poverty and desperate need. Tasks to these ends are often completed – that part is true. However, it often comes with a price.
Here it is explained in the words of a missionary:
After watching a preacher tell the Good News to a group of slum dwellers and seeing them rapidly converted, I realised that this trip was not about helping people overcome poverty, but about doing nice things for them so that they would listen to us when we tried to convert them. I really should have suspected something when I saw that our trip slogan was (something like): “We can’t change the world, but we can show His love.” I was really disappointed that I was not helping change people’s lives.
In their own words, their charitable work is really just a trojan horse, sucking them in with kindness in hopes of turning them into a believer.
3. Missionaries empower their subjects.
From the same blogger,
We handed out meals to people in the slums despite the fact that the food would barely last a day, tomorrow they would be hungry again. I washed head-lice out of kid’s hair, knowing that the process for getting rid of lice is not as simple as one wash. I even gave slum women manicures, cause that’s totally important when you’re scrounging for food in a garbage dump all day.
I had been given some money to spend on helping these people. Our team leader asked me to put it towards a trip to a water park for the slum kids.
The offerings from Christian missionaries are cosmetic… literally. They’re not making any real change. What they’re doing, instead, is exploiting people who are desperately in need, relieving their hunger or illness for just a brief moment so that the missionaries can take advantage when they have their guards down. That's when they introduce their faith and sell them on Jesus.
4. Missionaries respect the culture and traditions of their subjects.
Of course, this is bullshit. As already covered, missionaries give their “charity” for a price: they want converts. Bringing first world wealth to a developing country, offering the indigenous residents cosmetic aid with the express goal of converting them to Christianity, and drawing them away from any belief system they may have already had? It’s interference with the local way of life, it’s disregarding what they may have held dear before they “heard the good news” and it can and has caused dependence on foreign wealth. It’s the very definition of disrespect.
5. Christian missionaries improve the economic situation in third world countries.
This is utterly false. Instead, an influx of products from the first world, donated for free, which would have otherwise been manufactured locally, reduce the price of said product. Factories close, workers are laid off and the country descends into worse poverty.
Long established first world impulse to send their cast-off clothes to struggling countries such as Uganda or Kenya. So widespread is this practice that over the past two decades serious controversy has been generated around the impact this “charity” has had on African industries.
While these campaigns tug at your heartstrings (“I can save a life with little effort”), the campaigns are often devastating to local industries. During the 1980s, the Kenyan textile industry boomed; it employed 30 per cent of the labour force. But the introduction of liberalized trade policies led to mass importation of donated clothing and devastated the textile industry. The imported textile industry has exploded to $1 billion since 1990.
Over the last 50 years, foreign aid to Sub-Saharan Africa totaled a staggering $1 trillion. Nonetheless over the same period of time, growth of GDP per capita in Africa actually registered a marked decline.
Studies have found that what works is not monetary aid or aid in the form of necessities, but rather aid in the form of training, education and helping to build infrastructure, all of which have many longer-lasting effects.
6. Missionaries leave their receiving populations self-sufficient.
It is, in fact, the opposite. From, Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips:
If you regularly do something for someone that they can do themselves, you create unhealthy dependence. Do not misunderstand: we are not talking about emergency relief situations. I am talking about long-term care. Parents who constantly do things for their kids are blamed for enabling and spoiling them. We rarely think in these terms when it comes to charity work. Construction projects are usually the biggest culprit. I will never forget being on a service project to build a house for a family in West Virginia while I was in high school. The men who lived there watched us do the work. And it’s not just construction. A Westerner is targeted by beggars. Kids have hit me when I didn’t give them money. It is heart-wrenching to know their parents force them to not wear clothes, withhold food (when they are usually able to provide), and purposefully injure them so they can make money. That’s not what parents are supposed to do, but what they do works, thereby legitimizing such methods in their eyes. One reason this happens is because we are stuck in providing relief instead of moving toward development work.
According to The Impact of Food Aid In Ethiopia,
The single strongest indicator of the precarious food security situation in Ethiopia is the rising trend of dependence on foreign food aid. Due to insufficient food supply from domestic production, a significant proportion of the Ethiopian population continue to face difficulties in meeting their basic food requirements. According to a USAID report (1998, #1), the amount of food aid as a share of Ethiopia’s foreign exchange earnings grew from about 2% in 1954 to over 40% by the mid-1990s.
7. Mission trips are a noble and selfless solution.
We already know that this form of aid is far more detrimental to the receiving population than it is beneficial. It’s harmful to the economy, it creates a dependence on foreign aid, and can lead to fewer local jobs and layoffs. We know that missionary work is generally surface stuff that changes nothing about poverty itself, such as manicures and building churches. Given we know this, and this information is readily available, there must be some other reason why missionaries bring their “aid” to impoverished countries.
Here are some testimonials from missionaries:
[We were] met with shouts and singing… celebrating because they are hungry and they are about to be fed. … An older woman smiled as she thanked us, ‘We were going to be hungry but God knew.’
We have a daughter who is a junior in college and a son who will soon be a freshman, and I am very thankful for the annual allowance the IMB provides towards our children’s college education.
Missionaries trips are a product of the church’s need for members. For individuals, it’s a way to fool themselves into thinking they’re doing good and helping people. For others, it’s about personal gain (scholarships, employment, etc). One thing is beyond any doubt, though, and that is that missionary trips do far more harm than good.
What do you think of missionaries? Have you ever been on a mission trip? Let me know in the comments.