STM: Between Colonialism and Paternalism

One of the wonderful things about studying Missions is that no one really knows what they are doing. Whenever one messes up… one is in good company. This is all too evident in Short-Term Missions.

Unbridled Enthusiasm: Some churches now see the future as the demise of the long-term, cross-cultural missionary. Some of those in this category are the “Just Send Money” folks… where resources flow to local ministers, while keeping foreigners away. (Curiously, they don’t mind local ministers coming to “Christian countries” to be trained… maintaining a toxic inequity… but that is for another day.)  Others see the demise of long-term missionaries with its replacement by Short-termers. The inherent limitations of STM for long-term program partnerships and outreaches is actually pretty obvious. The need for bi-cultural individuals to serve as liaison between STMers and local hosts should be evident to most. Add to that the challenges of ethnocentric clashes, “religious tourists,” and economic inefficiencies, and it becomes clear that a strategy built solely around short-term mission is doomed. Even other religions that build much of their missions strategy around STM (or at least MTM) such as LDS still have long term site coordinators.

Unbridled Antipathy.  Some go the other way. Some cite the cost. Some cite the lack of training of participants and the ultimate inability of STMers to do long-term work. Additionally, there is the thought of some that feel that STMers do more damage than good. Some see the tendency of Christians using STM as more of a vacation than a mission as a problem.

For the unbridled antipathy, perhaps a a testimony would help.

1. Back in 2003, I joined a team of ten that went to Londrina, Brazil (a beautiful place). We helped build a church there. It was part of a partnership between the Parana Convention of Southern Baptist Churches, and the Baptist General Assembly of Virginia. The partnership was long-term, each helping each other in different ways. The trip helped to inspire me to be involved in missions and eventually led to my family and I going to the Philippines.

2.  In 2009/2010, in response to typhoon damage in the Philippines, our mission board sent over Chaplain Charlie Benton. He provided training for our team to do crisis stress defusing. This was a big help, and has moved us forward allowing us to help out with a number of crises in the Philippines. This particular STM mission has made us far more effective in the following years.

These two stories I believe attack the antagonism of those who do not value STM. The first story points out that STM can be of value to the STMer. This cannot be ignored. I grew from the experience and that provides some genuine justification for STM. The second story shows that short-term missions can genuinely help long-term. Additionally, both point out that STM can be a strong aspect of a longer term relationship between Christians in different countries. STM has its value.

But there there are two implied concerns that need to be addressed as well.

A.  Fear of Colonialism. A colony is a region that is ruled/owned by outsiders. These outsiders utilize the colony primarily for its own benefit. Related to missions, there is the fear that STMers go to a foreign country and gain from it… with loss for those in the mission field. (Seems to be a bit of Christian “Marxism” here… the presumption that if one group of people gain in an exchange, then the other group must lose.) There can be an aspect of reality to this. However, the fear is a bit misguided. When we have short-termers coming to the Philippines, I have told people in our local church in Baguio that those coming are likely to learn/gain from us more than we will learn/gain from them. I ask the people whether they will embrace their role as trainers of those that come? With at most (perhaps) one exception, the alleged recipients were happy to help those who came to help. Short-term missions should not be parasitic… STMers should not be there to selfishly hurt. But one should not be afraid that the short-term missionaries gain from the experience more than the recipients of the mission.

B.  Fear of Paternalism. A more recent fear is that when the “haves” (whoever or whatever they are) help the “have nots” (or “have less”) it could be for the wrong reason and create a toxic relationship. In a sense this is the opposite of the first. One is fear of the “haves” gaining from the “have nots,” while the other is fear of unequal relationships that may demean the recipient.

But if you think about it, the two kind of negate each other. Paternalism creates the presumption that missions recipients have less, while the colonial presumption is that they have more. Bringing the two together shows that it is NOT about haves and have nots, but “HAVE DIFFERENTS.”

However, related to both colonialism and paternalism is the presumption of inequity of power. This is a more realistic concern. However, if we embrace the idea of each having different resources, the inequity of power only really exists is we support such a belief (through stereoptypes, prejudices, and policies).

If Christians around the world edify each other through missions, rather than viewing certain groups has having and others as needing, one does not have to have such fears.

Baptist Movement. Reflections on Flexible Distinctions. Part II

When I was young, the classic description of Baptist Distinctives was based on the acronym BAPTISTS. While it in no way sums up all of the disctinctive features of the Baptists, it is a good start. (Note: distinctives does not mean that no other group has some of these characteristics. It is a positive terms of what Baptists hold to not what other groups don’t hold to.)

Charles Spurgeon


B –  Biblical Authority for faith and practice
A – Autonomy or self-government of each Baptist  church
P – Priesthood of All Believers in Jesus Christ as a personal Saviour
T – Two Ordinances: Believer’s  Baptism The Lord’s Table
I –  Individual Soul Liberty of the believer
S – Saved, Baptized Church Membership
T – Two Offices of the local church: Pastor and Deacon
S – Separation of Church and State

Biblical Authority for Faith and Practice. Baptists do not focus much on church history or historical practice, or new “revelations/prophecies”, or on authority/special knowledge of religious leaders, or on philosophies or intellectualism of the moment. The Bible is the primary source of knowledge for Christian faith and practice of Baptists.

Flexibility. One might think that Baptists really shouldn’t change very much if the Bible (an unchanging revelation) is the guide. However, there have been a lot of changes over the years. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the defocus on church history and the words of historical Baptist leaders means that there is less excess baggage of rules and traditions to deal with. So, for example, Baptists can have a great deal of respect for the Charles Spurgeon (a great Baptist religious leader of the 1800s) without the feeling that one must agree with him in doctrine or in practice. Second, while Baptists have always sought to mimic the primitive New Testament church (especially 1st century Ephesus), there is the recognition that many practices of the primitive church were contextually or culturally driven. So Greek does not have to be the language of the Baptist church, and music doesn’t have to mimic the music of the ancient church.

Risk. The inattention to history of the church can lead to a certain “making it up as we go.” While various other denominations/sects/cults bring in their own revelations and interpretations, Baptists are often prone to fall prey to these because they lose the wisdom of centuries of godly wisdom. While Baptists focus (I believe correctly) on the Bible, that does not mean that Clement, Policarp, Irenaeus, Timothy of Seleucus, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and so forth are without wisdom and value. Showing more respect for church history and recognition that God has worked with the church throughout the ages should minimize the the drifting into religious fads of the moment.

Autonomy or Self-government of each local Baptist church. Baptist churches may join together into conventions, fellowships, associations, and denominations. However, each local Baptist church is independent. As such, each church can act independently from any hierarchy that it exists in. A church that drifts too far in belief or practice can be removed from the association of other Baptist churches, but they can not be closed down or forced to comply.

Flexibility. The autonomy of the local church has been a big source for innovation and ministerial flexibility. However, the interpretation has also been held flexibly. Despite autonomy, most Baptist churches have chosen to fellowship with others of like faith. Additionally, most have found it useful to join together for activities that the local church is ill-equipped to handle. Cross-cultural missions is one of these.

Risk. While hierarchical church structures can be a hindrance, they can also help at times. Getting Baptist churches to work together collaboratively is often like herding cats. The challenge is to harness the innovation and freedom inherent in autonomy while still gaining the benefit of collaboration. In some cultures this balance seems to be easier to achieve than in others. Additionally, it is often difficult to even say what a Baptist believes because any group can call themselves Baptist (no trademark on the name and no formal creed).

Priesthood of all believers in Jesus Christ as Personal Savior. Each person can go to God without going through an intermediary such as a religious professional. As such, there is no priests in Baptist churches. Likewise, the pastors or churches are not needed as an umbrella of grace.

Flexibility. The removal of the necessity of religious professionals is useful missionally especially where church multiplication is moving faster than there are professionals to lead. However, Baptist churches do not reject the value of trained religious professionals. As such, Baptists are able to move fairly easily between structures that are guided by religious professionals and those that are layleader driven. Also lessening the uniqueness of religious leaders increases the uniqueness and importance of each individual member.

Risk. Priesthood of all believers can lead to an unhealthy over-emphasis on individualism. This does not work as well where communalism is key, or where there are group conversions. Even where individualism is appreciated, problems can still occur because the value of the church as a community or family of faith is deemphasized or even ignored. Also, deemphasis on religious professionals can remove a useful stabilizing influence in the church.

Two Ordinances: Lord’s Supper and Believer’s Baptism. Baptists consider Lord’s Supper and Baptism as symbols not purveyors of grace. As such they are valued for their symbolism and as a reminder of Christ’s work in our lives and our coming together as a community. Other traditional activities may be valuable but are not considered to be essential or commanded by God. of these Ordinances are for believers. As such, for example, they are not for infants.

Flexibility. Since there are only two rites that are commanded, and the exact method of carrying them out is not absolutely dictated, there is a lot of room for flexibility of worship and rite in the church from one culture to another.

Risk. While the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are considered the only two religious rites commanded by God, there is a tendency of Baptists to interpret that as meaning that other potential religious rites are bad. Baptists tend to reject much symbolism. They also, in a related manner, tend towards open worship rather than liturgy. This can hurt in many cultures where literacy is low, or where symbols and rites are more highly valued.

Baptist Movement. Reflections on Flexible Distinctions. Part I

Andrew Fuller
Andrew Fuller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1700s in England, Baptist churches were generally “Particular.” “Particular” meant Calvinist… focusing great import on the doctrine of divine sovereignty, and minimizing or even denying human freedom of will. There were “General” (Freewill) Baptists since the beginning of the Baptist Movement in the early 1600s but during the late 1700s they had basically disappeared, only to reappear in the next century.

A man named William Carey, 1761-1834, a simple preacher/pastor in London, became convinced of the need to share the Gospel of Christ with the heathen. Heathen in this case is simply the generic term for non-Christians (neither Christian by faith or Christian by culture). He was influenced by Andrew Fuller who wrote “The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation in 1781. That pamphlet did not argue against the doctrines of Particular Baptists fundamentally, but rather the implications of those doctrines. That is, if God chooses whom to save from the beginning of time, completely outside of human activity, then mission work is unnecessary… perhaps even an attempt to play God. Carey took on the same argument in his work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” The term “use Means” in this long title is critical. The term means to utilize human effort to join God in his mission to reach all people with the Gospel of Christ. The argument, again, was not so much to fundamentally attack the actual doctrines of the Particular Baptists, but to challenge the implications. Carey argued that Christ commanded all Christians to share the Gospel and one should not use one’s doctrinal stance to negate such a commandment.

This was a pivotal point in Baptist mission history. Baptists adjusted themselves, altered their stance, while still holding on to certain key distinctions. Two centuries later, with a few bumps in the road in between, Baptists as a group have remained firmly committed to Missions. There have been other changes, of course. One is no longer required to be “Particular” or Calvinist to be a Baptist. I am not a Calvinist. I have friends who tell me that if I truly understood Calvinism I would be one. But their attempts to explain it only confirm to me that it is a good interpretation of filtered Scripture… but not all Scripture. That is not the point. The Baptist movement has distinctives that separate itself from other groups… and yet within those distinctives there has always been a need for flexibility to ensure the ability to adapt to changing situations and locations. Therefore, I would like to look at some of the Baptist distinctives with special emphasis on the issues of flexibility for cultural adaptation in the next two or three posts.

I would again like to add the note that although I am a Baptist, I think of myself as a Christian first, Missionary second, and Baptist third. As Christians, we are part of a family that transcends denominational differences. This “transcending” must be to a unity acknowledged and practiced or it is just theoretical or even non-existent. So my focus on Baptist distinctives is primarily for the reflection of Baptists, although all are welcome to read. It is not intended to seek to pull other Christians into the Baptist fold. I find it offensive when other Christian groups try to lure me to other affiliations and I would not seek to act in a way I find offensive.