It is sometimes claimed that missionaries are imperialistic colonizers who arrogantly try to change other cultures and impose their own. There’s lots of misunderstanding, misinformation, and over-generalizations packed into those claims but the one I ...
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Gleanings from the Field - 5 new articles

Missionaries, Wife Beating, and Culture Change

It is sometimes claimed that missionaries are imperialistic colonizers who arrogantly try to change other cultures and impose their own.  There’s lots of misunderstanding, misinformation, and over-generalizations packed into those claims but the one I want to focus on in this article is the claim that missionaries try to change other cultures. 

The assumption behind this claim is that all cultures, together with their values and norms, are equally valid and that all truth claims are relative. Therefore, Westerners who (supposedly) advocate for the superiority of their own culture(s) in other parts of the world are narrow-minded and arrogant. They have no right to tell other cultures what they should and should not do or value. Of course, this slam against missionaries is disingenuous because Western secularists have no problem promoting their own Western secular values, such as abortion and LGBT “rights”, in parts of the world that traditionally oppose such things. Even if they sometimes call evil good and vice versa, even they know that there are some things that are universally right and universally wrong. They see the value in promoting what they believe is good and right even in other cultural contexts where such values get an icy reception.

This brings us back to the charge that missionaries try to change other cultures.  Undoubtedly, there are some ways in which missionaries have tried to change other cultures when they shouldn’t have. In the past, “Christianizing” and “civilizing” were often intertwined in the minds of many Western missionaries. But on some matters, the Bible is clear about what is right and what is wrong, and missionaries have opposed many wrongs in other cultures even though those practices represented embedded cultural values.

William Carey in early 19th century India opposed widow burning. 

Missionaries in China opposed foot binding.

John Paton opposed wife beating in the South Pacific.

Here’s what Paton had to say about his attempt to change the local culture of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu):

“Leaving all consequences to the disposal of my Lord, l determined to make an unflinching stand against wife beating and widow strangling, feeling confident that even their natural conscience would be on my side, I accordingly pleaded with all who were in power to unite and put down these shocking and disgraceful customs. At length, ten Chiefs entered into an agreement not to allow any more beating of wives or strangling of widows, and to forbid all common labour on the Lord's Day; but alas, except for purposes of war or other wickedness, the influence of the Chiefs on Tanna was comparatively small. One Chief boldly declared, "If we did not beat our women, they would never work; they would not fear and obey us; but when we have beaten, and killed, and feasted on two or three, the rest are all very quiet and good for a long time to come!” I tried to show him how cruel it was, besides that it made them unable for work, and that kindness would have a much better effect; but he promptly assured me that Tannese women 'could not understand kindness.' For the sake of teaching by example, my Aneityumese teachers and I used to go a mile or two inland on the principal pathway, along with the teachers' wives, and there cutting and carrying home a heavy load of firewood for myself and each of the men, while we gave only a small burden to each of the women. Meeting many Tanna men by the way, I used to explain to them that this was how Christians helped and treated their wives and sisters, and then they loved their husbands and were strong to work at home; and that as men were made stronger, they were intended to bear the heavier burdens, and especially in all labours out of doors. Our habits and practices had thus as much to do as, perhaps more than, all our appeals, in leading them to glimpses of the life to which the Lord Jesus was calling them.” (excerpted from James Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides, Christian Focus Publications: Ross-shire, 2009, p.70-71)

Other examples of missionaries trying to change culture could likely be given, including modern anecdotes about ending sex trafficking. But the examples above, including the “confession” by John Paton are sufficient to sustain the charge that missionaries do try to change other cultures. And sometimes that is a good thing.


Missionary Defeatism and the Challenge of Waiting Patiently

There are lots challenges in missionary life and some of them are more tangible and easy to send out as a prayer request.

  • Pray that our visas will be approved.
  • Pray for for us to get over this sickness. 
  • Pray for our language study. 
  • Pray we’ll know what to say at the funeral of a new believer.  
  • Pray God will help us find a place to meet for worship.  
  • Pray for increased financial support.

Then there are less tangible or more sensitive challenges that are less likely to make regular appearances in a prayer letter.  

  • Loneliness
  • Stress
  • Family Issues
  • Tensions with Co-workers
  • Discouragement
  • Doubt

Amidst all of these challenges, I think one of the most difficult to pin down and to overcome is discouragement. When there is little to no progress in your ministry efforts, what should you do? What do you write in a prayer letter to prayer partners and financial supporters?



Anyone who does a job wants to see results. A salesman wants people to buy things.  A carpenter wants to finish building a cabinet. A fisherman wants to catch fish. A missionary wants to see people come to Christ, grow as disciples, and churches established.  But whereas making a sale, building a piece of furniture, or catching a fish have a definite end point and can come to fruition in matter of hours, days, weeks, or months, seeing people come to faith and a church established can take years. In some places in the world today, it is not uncommon for these things to happen quickly.  But in a lot of places, missionaries (and local pastors / evangelists) put in a lot of work to spread the Gospel, build relationships, develop training materials, etc. but the returns come very slowly and there are many setbacks. There are many days (and weeks and months) when the missionary is working but not much seems to be happening.  It is just one day after another of trying to do something for the kingdom of God but the kingdom of God seems to be stuck in idle.  You’re hitting the gas pedal but going nowhere.  Nothing exciting is happening and things are just dragging on and on.  Discouragement and defeatism set in.  Have I missed my calling?  Should I really even be here at all?  Maybe I should have stuck with my secular job back home.

But missionaries aren’t the only ones who’ve ever had to wait on God to work. Pastors have similar experiences, which is part of the reason many leave the ministry every year.  In Scripture too, the calling of God’s people was to stay the course day in and day out, waiting for God to work.  Abraham, for example, had to wait patiently for 25 years for God to fulfill his promise of a son. At one point, he and Sarah weren’t so patient so he and Sarah tried to fulfill God’s promise for Him. They sought success through an innovative method of their own design. Sarah gave her maidservant to Abraham as a wife to produce a son (see Genesis 12-21, Hebrews 6 & 11). But seeking success in something other than waiting for God to produce an heir in His time and in His way turned out to be a disaster. They got results but not the ones that God had in mind. The same thing happens when we try to force fruit in missionary work instead to working faithfully and waiting for God’s fruit in God’s time.  Sure, we may be busy and have lots of activity to report in our prayer letters, but is it what God would have us doing?  Sometimes, it may not be. It may be just us filling time in order to feel like we are accomplishing something since nobody is professing faith in Christ or the church we are working with isn’t going anywhere fast.

During the course of my doctoral research on the impact of theological modernism on the American Presbyterian Mission in Thailand, I ran into a fascinating example of discouragement leading missionaries to get involved in work that was less evangelistic and church-focused than they had originally intended to do. In the decades preceding World War II, conflict between so-called fundamentalism and modernism was producing a widening gulf between those who advocated evangelistic ministries and those who focused on educational and medical work.  Among the American Presbyterians in Thailand, the focus was shifting heavily towards mission schools and hospitals such that by the 1930s, there were few full time missionary evangelists. Into the middle of this situation came Donald Grey Barnhouse, a fundamentalist-minded American Presbyterian preacher and radio show host. In 1934-35, Barnhouse made a world tour of American Presbyterian mission stations to find out if the social gospel and modernism were displacing evangelism and conservative theology among American Presbyterian missionaries, as had been rumored. In a conversation with Lucy Starling, head teacher of the girls school in Lampang province, Barnhouse noted Starling’s perspective on the real problem affecting the Siam (Thailand) Mission. According to Starling, It wasn’t conflict over theology but rather defeatism.  As she saw it, discouragement over lack of evangelistic results was the main reason that the missionaries in Siam focused on schools and hospitals, not because of liberal theology or social gospel per se.  Though there are surely more factors at play than mere discouragement in the decision of missionaries to shift their ministry focus, Starling’s answer helpfully illustrates one of the persistent challenges for missionaries in places where spiritual conversion and growth is slow to materialize. Barnhouse wrote,

The primary trouble in Siam, said Miss Starling, except in one or two cases, is not a difficulty of theology but a sort of defeatism. The missionaries come out with a desire to spread Christianity. There is the first barrier of the language, the difference in the modes of living. Most of the missionaries came out to preach Christ, but there was so little response that the first fervor was soon spent. The missionaries then turned to something they could see, tangible school building, hospital bricks, etc. I thought this rather a keen observation of the situation. In other words, the missionaries did not have the sufficient knowledge of vital regeneration and full surrender to the plan of God to stand in the place of loneliness and witness. They therefore turned to Christianizing the social order instead of keeping at the evangelization of the individual. 


Excerpt from Donald Grey Barnhouse “Travel Notes", January 11, 1935, RG480, Box 9, Folder 18, Barnhouse Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Penn.


As highlighted in Lucy Starling’s observations (and Barnhouse's comments on them), one of the most challenging aspects of missionary work is keeping going when nothing much seems to be happening.  Obviously missionaries shouldn’t be sitting around and doing nothing, but the methodologically-driven, results oriented nature of modern Western evangelicalism tempts missionaries to excessive introspection, often wondering if they are doing something wrong when they don’t see the results that they want in the timeframe they want. They hear about the great results that the same methods have produced elsewhere and wonder why they don’t see the same results.

There are surely many joys in missionary work, but sometimes the everyday ordinary of the missionary life can seem like drudgery. Certainly there is a place for reflection on whether or not we should be doing something differently, or re-evaluating an approach that doesn’t seem to be working.  But sometimes, the answer to a lack of results in evangelism or discipleship isn’t changing anything we are doing, but turning (once again) in faith to God and asking Him to act.  Like the Psalmist, we cry out, “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 13). As Barnhouse indicated, missionaries need to understand God’s plan as revealed in Scripture and continually throw themselves upon Christ as their only hope personally and their only hope for the establishment of the kingdom of God. Sometimes innovation is good.  But sometimes, as in the case of Abraham, innovation is bad and the right answer is to wait patiently and to keep doing what the Bible says God wants us to do, day in and day out. To borrow from Eugene Peterson, the missionary life is a long obedience in the same direction. 

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

    and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

    it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

~ Isaiah 55:10-11


Fishing Image by anncapictures from Pixabay


Book Review "Songs of the Lisu Hills: Practicing Christianity in Southwest China" by Aminta Arrington

Aminta Arrington, Songs of the Lisu Hills: Practicing Christianity in Southwest China  (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvannia State University Press, 2020).

reviewed by Karl Dahlfred


Readers familiar with mission history in East Asia may have heard of J.O. Fraser, the early twentieth century C.I.M. missionary who did pioneer evangelism among the Lisu people of southwest China. His story has been the subject of multiple biographies but many may not know what has become of Lisu Christianity since Fraser. In Songs of the Lisu Hills, Aminta Arrington skillfully fills this gap, recounting the history and development of Lisu Christianity from its early days to the present in a way that puts the Lisu Christians, and not Fraser and other missionaries, at the centre of the story. This book is not a mere history of Lisu Christianity, however, but also the reflective analysis of a participant-observer who weaves together first-hand accounts of modern Lisu Christians and their practices with academic analysis, setting the Lisu Christians in cultural, religious, linguistic, and political context.



Though not the focus of Arrington’s narrative, the early missionaries feature prominently in the early chapters of the book because of their lasting formative effect on the Lisu church today. The author’s greatest attention, however, is given to the communal practices of the Lisu that define their faith.  Arrington repeatedly emphasizes the unity of internal faith and the external, communal expression of that faith among the Lisu. Despite the presence of a Lisu written script, developed by Fraser, the Lisu remain a primarily oral culture, and have little place for the solitary individual reflection that has shaped Western Christian practice and spirituality. Arrington emphasizes that practices, not doctrinal formulations, define Lisu Christianity. These include communal hymn singing and prayer, regular church attendance, seasonal festivals, short-term Bible schools, and a prohibition on drinking alcohol and smoking. This does not mean, though, that the Lisu do not have any theology. The doctrinal convictions of the Lisu are reflected and expressed by their shared practices rather than written works of theology per se. That said, the Bible and the Lisu hymnbook are treasured resources for learning and expressing shared beliefs.

Arrington’s survey and analysis of Lisu Christianity seeks to answer the question of why Lisu Christianity virtually disappeared in southwest China between 1958 and 1980, the harshest years of Chinese government anti-religious policy. The answer lies in the communal nature of Lisu Christianity which is simultaneously its greatest strength and weakness. For the Lisu, Christianity is a lived and expressed faith or it is no faith at all.  When their faith was suppressed in China, many Lisu Christians fled to Burma, and some eventually to Thailand, although Arrington unfortunately includes extremely little on the development of Lisu Christianity outside China, a weak point of the book for any reader who had hoped to learn about Lisu Christianity in other parts of southeast Asia. Yet, every author must limit the scope of their study somehow, so this lacuna is understandable.

Both academically rigorous and engagingly accessible for the educated lay reader, Songs of the Lisu Hills makes a valuable contribution to not only the story of Lisu Christianity, but also the broader topics of literacy / orality, individualism / communalism, and the philosophy and practice of Christianity in East Asia.

This review was published in Studies in World Christianity, 27:2 (July 2021), 197-199 and is reproduced here with permission.



Is Everyone a Missionary?

I understand why some Christians say that everyone is a missionary. I get it. I really do. And I am totally on board with encouraging every believer to have an outreach mentality and to look for opportunities in their daily life to share the Gospel.  Challenging people to think beyond themselves and to bless other with the Gospel is super important and I don’t want to discourage that.  When I hear people claim that all believers are missionaries, it is rare that I would say anything to contradict that because I know why they are saying that, and I agree with their goal.

That said, the word “missionary” has traditionally been applied to only a small segment of Christians, namely those who leave their family and country to go someplace far away to share the Gospel with people who have little to no exposure or access to biblical truth. In Scripture, the apostle Paul is the prime example of a missionary since he traveled around the Roman empire sharing the Gospel in places where Christ was not yet known (Rom. 15:20). 

Since “missionary” is not a biblical term, it could be defined in various ways and some people apply the term “missionary” to those who dig wells or try to stop human trafficking. Those are great things for Christians to be engaged in but are they missionary work?  Because of the example of the apostle Paul and the long tradition of the term “missionary” being applied to those proclaiming the Gospel in foreign lands, I’d say no.  They are not missionary work…. unless they are being done not only to provide people with clean water or freedom from abuse, but also to seek opportunities to make the Gospel known to the people involved. Ministries that provide practical or physical assistance to people are valuable parts of the broader calling of God’s people to be a blessing to others and to love their neighbors but I don’t think a person could properly be called a missionary unless part of their goal is making the Gospel known to people so that they can trust in Christ and be saved.  Granted, their day-in, day-out work may not be Gospel proclamation but are they doing their work with a mindset of “How can my work point people to Christ and how can this work/ministry be used to verbally make the Gospel known to people?”

Though missionary work has traditionally been focused on cross-cultural Gospel proclamation, it is not the number of hours that is spent on proclamation that makes one a missionary, but rather the mindset, the effort, and the intentionality in sharing the Gospel that makes one a missionary.  In a given week, how many hours did Paul spend mending tents?  How many hours did he spend speaking with people about the Gospel? I imagine that the amount of time he spent on those tasks varied from week to week, or month to month, and there were likely some weeks that were filled with teaching and evangelism.  But then there were other weeks that included 40+ hours of sewing tents.  Was he any less of a missionary during those periods when his time was largely spent on his “secular” work?  No, because his secular vocation was part of his broader missionary calling and he made tents within the context of his broader goal of proclaiming the Gospel.

With the example of Paul in mind, should we say that anyone who does their work with a missionary mindset is a missionary?  You could, and I would encourage every believer to be actively thinking about how they can point people to Christ through their words and deeds in whatever line of work or ministry they find themselves. We all need to have a “missionary” or “missional” (to use a trendier term) mindset.

Yet, I still think it is best to reserve the word “missionary” for those who cross cultural (and often linguistic) barriers in order to share the Gospel with those who have less access to the Gospel.  It is best to use “missionary” in this more restricted sense in order to 1) have a common working definition of what is meant by “missionary”, and more importantly 2) encourage and challenge believers to seek opportunities beyond their own cultural, linguistic, and geographical comfort zones for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel to the lost.

If we say that “everyone is a missionary” then Christians may get the impression that there is little need for churches to send or support cross-cultural missionaries to go to difficult or far away places. If you can be a missionary right where you are, why go someplace else?  Why go to the effort and expense to send someone someplace else when they can stay put?

In sum, it is important that every Christian has a “missionary mindset” in the sense that he or she is thinking about how they can make the Gospel known by word and deed, whatever their place in life or line of work. But, in order to highlight the on-going need for churches to call, equip, send, and support people to specifically proclaim the Gospel in places that are unreached or under-reached, the word “missionary” is probably best reserved for those called and sent to share the Gospel cross-culturally with the lost.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


What is Contextual Theology?

In missionary circles today, a frequent topic of conversation is contextualization. Whether it is a particular way of evangelizing, teaching the Bible, or conducting worship, missionaries sometimes wonder whether the way they learned how to do these things is the best way to do them in their particular cross-cultural context. In this post, I want to briefly explore contextualization and, more specifically, contextual theology. Is contextual theology good or bad? Or can it be both?
Sometimes contextualization is a lot more clear cut than others. Western-looking church buildings and church organs are really easy examples of things that may be (or used to be) appropriate for North American or European contexts but are unnecessarily out-of-place in many places in the global south. Can you safely swap out the pipe organ for some other musical instrument if you are church planting in Africa, Asia, or South America?  Sure. The bible doesn’t say you have to use a pipe organ even though it is traditional in the West. The question, however, becomes more complicated with something like preaching.  Missionaries who are strongly conservative theologically might say that expositional preaching is essential and biblical but some more broadly evangelical missionaries, in the name of contextualization, might advocate for ditching or significantly modifying preaching in favor of facilitating small group discussion of the Bible or oral Bible storying.  Personally, I am not convinced that all of these various approaches to biblical communication are mutually exclusive but when it comes to properly contextualizing our gospel communication, there is a wide spectrum of views within evangelicalism as to what is best and what is biblical.
Contextual theology might be best understood as a subset of contextualization more generally. Contextual theology (properly conceived and within biblical bounds) is the attempt to think about and present biblical truth in ways that are understandable to a certain culture/people and answer the questions that they bring to the biblical text.  Contextual theology starts with simple adjustments of language used, along with idioms and illustrations. For example, use the mother tongue of your listeners rather than a trade language like English.  For the American preacher, it might mean ditching comparisons and analogies that assume listeners understand American football, and using examples from the world of soccer instead. More importantly, however, contextual theology deals with questions in a particular cultural context that may not be relevant in other places. For example, in Europe and North America, atheism and a perceived conflict between science and religion are topics that need to be addressed.  However, if you take an apologetics book on those issues and translate it for people in Thailand, for example, it would be met with a yawn by many because those are not live issues for most Thai people. Likewise, questions that arise in an animistic Buddhist context like Thailand are important for Thai Christians to address, but are less relevant to think about and address in a Western secular context. Examples include what parts of Buddhist funerals can Christian participate in, or in what ways is "karma" compatible or different from the biblical idea of sowing and reaping.
It is important to “do" contextual theology in the sense that you are answering from the Scriptures the questions that the culture is asking.  How do Christians live faithfully and biblically in a very particular cultural context?  How should biblical truth be presented in a particular place to a particular people so that it is as comprehensible as possible?  Those are the key questions that should drive our theologizing, which is always done in a particular context. With that said, proper biblical contextual theology ends and syncretism and compromise begin when go beyond the question of comprehensibility and theologize with the goal of maximizing the acceptability of the Gospel in a certain context. Often the shift can be subtle because who doesn't want to present the Gospel in such a way that listeners clear see how attractive Christ and the Gospel are?
But in mission contexts (in the West and overseas) where there is a lot of hostility or opposition to the Gospel and conversions are coming very slowly, there is the temptation to go beyond the bounds of Scripture in making the Gospel attractive to listeners.  In many cases, that involves ignoring or softening the parts of the Gospel that listeners find most objectionable in order to win greater acceptance of the Gospel among them.
In the U.S., we have the problem of softening the Biblical condemnation of homosexual desire and practice, and the immutability of gender, in order to win LGBT folks to Christ. That's American syncretism.  Another example, would be the so-called prosperity gospel, whether it be the hard core version preached by folks like Benny Hinn or the soft core version promoted by Joel Osteen. Americans value wealth, comfort, self-reliance, and individualism (all of which have their place when limited and bound by other biblical priorities) but the prosperity preachers have tried to boost conversions and increase followers by turning the Gospel into just another way to satisfy people's desires, unmodified by the Gospel.
In the context of cross cultural missions, you sometimes get inappropriate syncretism too, such as missionaries who are okay with believers in Christ maintaining their identity as Muslims. Granted, if missionaries view such an identification as merely transitional as the person works through what it means to follow Christ, that is one thing and totally understandable. A person’s whole worldview rarely changes overnight.  But if a missionary encourages long-term identification that straddles the fence between Christ and Islam, that is a problem. Similarly, sometimes contextual theology ends up being little more than liberation theology that seeks to make Christ more appealing by making the cause of Christ synonymous with the political (socialist? communist?) struggle of a particular group. Of course, inappropriate mixing of the cause of Christ with a particular political cause or party is hardly limited to the global south and there has been a lot of heated discussion in recent years about so-called “white Christian nationalism” in the U.S. That particular discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I bring it up merely to make the point that Christian compromise with politics is a live issue around the world, not limited to either the global south or the West.
So is contextual theology a good thing or a bad thing?  It all depends how it is done. When I hear about a book on "African theology" or "Asian theology”, I am intrigued because the author(s) might be indigenous Christians who have some really keen insights into how biblical truth relates to, and can be best presented in their certain cultural context. There is great potential for me to learn something really helpful about how to share the Gospel or disciple people. But on the other hand, my approach is “open but cautious” because there is also the potential for compromise or syncretism within those same pages. The same might be said, of course, for Western theology books which, for some reason, are often consider to be “just” theology rather than contextual theology. 
In sum, any and all theologizing is contextual, whether we realize it or not so it is both unwarranted and unbiblical to disregard contextual theology per se. We are all theologians and we are all contextual theologians.  The question is whether or not we are good ones.  Are we aware that we are reading and thinking about the Bible and its implications within a particular time and place in history and in the world?  The more that we understand the Bible and the history of biblical interpretation, and become aware of the strengths, weaknesses, and peculiar characteristics of our home culture and those of other cultures, the more we will be equipped to think biblical and do theology well in particular cultural contexts. Contextual theology is not something to shy away from but something to embrace and to commit to doing well, not compromising Scripture but committing to make all of God’s word understandable for the people(s) with whom we come in contact.  Biblical truth, well-contextualized, may still be rejected, but not because it was misunderstood.
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