Sometimes helping hurts, particularly within Christian mission work.
Daniel Carro, professor of divinity at The John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Virginia, and a Baptist Center for Ethics board member, explored this reality at a focus group during the Baptist World Alliance’s 2015 World Congress in Durban, South Africa.
“Christian missionaries can come into a community with all good intentions trying to help with the local challenges without realizing that their ‘help’ does not help but exacerbates the local problem and makes the local community dependent on foreign sources,” he asserted.
This is paternalism that leads to dependency, a persistent reality that must be overcome.
Paternalism involves “the interference of an individual or an organization or a state on the life of another person or persons without consulting their will,” Carro explained, while dependency is “a complex of inferiority that develops in the person or persons that are being ‘paternalized.'” They are “two sides of the same coin.”
Comparing paternalistic mission efforts to parents who never allow their children to grow up rather than helping them to become self-reliant, he emphasized that it is “a power-and-control game from which the church has nothing to gain, and much to lose.”
These attitudes and their resulting practices stem from the sending-receiving mission dichotomy, whereby, historically, Western churches and denominations from developed nations have sent missionaries and forms of aid to less-developed regions.
“The ‘sending’ churches do not see themselves and their area of the world as a mission field,” Carro said. “That creates a sense of superiority among these churches, who see themselves as already fully evangelized while the rest of the world still sings the old hymn, ‘Send the Light.'”
He added, “When missionaries from these churches reach the ‘mission field,’ that sense of superiority is transferred unconsciously to the ‘receiving’ churches as a corresponding sense of inferiority and dependency.”
This reality is changing and missionaries and mission agencies “do their best” and are “well intentioned,” Carro said. Yet paternalism is still persistent, manifesting itself in at least four ways:
1. Money and resources that influence when, where and how work is done or aid is granted, used.
2. Methodologies that are exported without regard for a new context.
3. Educated missionaries who bring years of learning and expertise that can harm or hinder new Christians from growing in the faith.
4. Social and political perspectives prominent in missionaries’ home countries that become intertwined with their presentation of the gospel.
To avoid these pitfalls, Carro offered six suggestions:
1. Be transparent and honest by acknowledging the “biases and embedded beliefs” that everyone possesses.
2. Be a learner first, rather than a teacher, so as to avoid taking a position of superiority.
3. Be a partner rather than a powerbroker, allowing communities to share their needs and then form joint strategies to address them.
4. Be a co-laborer in a relationship of equals, not “an all-knowing guru.”
5. Be vulnerable and live among (and as) the community in which you serve.
6. Be accountable to the gospel not to culture, developing assessment tools to avoid paternalism and dependency.
“With some dishonorable exceptions, gone are the days when missionaries regarded Western ideas concerning progress, civilization and power as both natural and providential in advancing the Gospel around the world,” Carro commented.
“Regretfully,” he added, “only few discerning missionaries and mission agencies have been able to realize the degree in which their missionary practices have created paternalism and dependency around the world.”
This reality must change, Carro emphasized, but this will only happen when Christians “devote themselves to a ministry of transparency, partnership and friendship in missionary practices.”
Editor’s note: Pictures from the BWA World Congress are available on EthicsDaily.com’s Pinterest page and Facebook page. Video interviews with Congress attendees have been posted on EthicsDaily.com’s Vimeo page. Additional reports from the Congress are available here: