A mentor of mine, Ptr. Bruce, gave me a
quote… and it was very much on a topic that came up in one of my classes, so I had to share it. Referring to Catholic and Protestant missionaries serving in 19th century China:
“Both Christian groups’ growth was hampered by the missionaries themselves. They could build churches and minister to communities, but they lacked either the language or the cultural credibility actually to win converts. That tended to be the work of Chinese evangelists, who could travel freely, use ties of kinship, and discuss their faith in teahouses or private conversations, rather in the formal, alienating setting of public preaching. Above all, the female evangelists known as Bible women became Protestantism’s spearhead. They were typically poor widows, often scarcely educated, sometimes blind, as likely to memorize sections of the Bible as actually to read it. Initially, they were thought of as companions and translators for women missionaries, but it soon became plain that they could work at least as well unsupervised.”
-From “Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World” by Alec Ryrie (2017)
In a class I was facilitating with four students, from four different countries, the issue of missionaries came up— hardly surprising since the topic was on Evangelism and Missions. It was clear that missionaries were a bit of a mixed bag. They were appreciated for bringing the gospel message to their people. And yet… well… they were also problematic. One student, I won’t say the denomination or country, said that, “Our churches in our denomination really did not start growing until the missionaries left. They tended to mess things up.” Others expressed concern about the tendency of some missionaries to control the agenda of ministry, and the resources. All appreciated the fact that missionaries came and they cared. But often it was intranational and intracultural missionaries/ministers who were most effective in reaching their people and their neighbors.
This is part of the reason I find it strange that some mission agencies and missiologists have established definitions for missionaries that focus on their role as evangelizers or churchplanters. Essentially, they are being defined by the role they are least suited for. While often local peoples appreciate missionaries for their work in Bible translation, and training, and care ministries, some mission agencies and missiologists devalue these, or even see them as not being essentially missional. They may point to some such as Paul and Barnabas. But these two were Hellenistic Jews living in the Roman Empire, who focused their ministry first on Hellenistic Jews in the Roman Empire, and only second on Hellenistic Gentiles in the Roman Empire. In effect, Paul and Barnabas were intracultural or at least intranational churchplanters… rather than intercultural/international.
Regardless of what one may or may not think regarding (cross-cultural, international) missionaries, the greatest successes are likely to be not the direct work of the missionaries, but the work of those they trained. It is rather too bad that mission books commonly don’t recognize the successes of these men and women to their own and neighboring peoples.
Eleazar Wheelock is a revered early Protestant missionary and innovator… but less successful than his Native American trainee (of the Mohegan tribe), Samuel Occom. The latter did not get as much recognition sadly… especially by Wheelock.
Take a wikipedia quote from the article on Samson Occom:
Occom was never paid the same salary as white preachers, although promised that he would be. The “Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge” also gave Occom a stipend, but he lived in deep poverty for much of his life. …
…Wheelock persuaded his former pupil to travel to England to raise money for the school. Occom preached his way across Britain from February 16, 1766, to July 22, 1767, delivering between three and four hundred sermons, drawing large crowds wherever he went, and raising over ₤12,000 (pounds) for Wheelock’s project. King George III donated 200 pounds, and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, subscribed 50 guineas. However, Occom on his return learned that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife and children while he was away. Furthermore, Wheelock moved to New Hampshire and used the funds raised to establish Dartmouth College (named after the generous aristocrat) for the education of Englishmen, rather than Native Americans as originally promised to Occom.
In Burma, foreign missionaries were commonly given higher billing than the Karen tribe evangelists that traveled with them, although the latter were commonly much more effective in sharing the good news to other tribes in the region.