American Bias and Overseas Missions
While the term “Great Commission” is found nowhere in the Bible, it has been a useful phrase to capture the gravity and obligation of Jesus’ words before ascending back to the Father. In the American context these words have motivated the vision and strategy of thousands of overseas mission trips every year, allowing the United States to have the highest totals for sending missionaries for decades. The prominence of Americans involved in overseas missions has led to much fruit for the advancement of the gospel, but it also has led to American bias regarding the role U.S. plays in the kingdom. American bias is seen in both showing preference for American values and customs and being prejudice against values and customs that don’t fit that mold. Bias isn’t evil in itself, like being right handed, but when it is pervasive in our thinking it can make one dismissive and neglect people’s differences, like the need for left handed scissors. However, the bias and prejudice towards non-American, especially non-Western European forms of culture, does not have to characterize missions. Here are four ways to avoid American bias while seeking to do overseas missions:
(1) Cross Cultures in America First
In Acts 1:8 Jesus promises the disciples that they will receive the power of the Spirit to be witnesses of the kingdom and salvation through the cross in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth”. Jesus’ words here and what is recorded in Matthew 28 should have been enough fuel to encourage Peter and others to pick up and get to to Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the known world without hesitation. However, it’s not until the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 and the severe persecution breaking out in Jerusalem that we first get disciples leaving Jerusalem and crossing into Judea and Samaria.
In the United States, “Jerusalem” is often a cul de sac or neighborhood where people largely share culture and language. When considering international missions we must ask ourselves how our comfort in, and unwillingness to leave, Jerusalem impacts our heart and effectiveness in going to the ends of the earth. The United States is becoming increasingly diverse both culturally and in its non-white population. Unfortunately, many lament the challenges that this brings rather than celebrate the God given opportunity. In God’s providence, Americans can befriend Nigerians, Koreans, Iranians, and Venezuelans, sometimes all within the same neighborhood. With these circumstances, we should do more than enjoy the Korean BBQ spot down the road or take selfies at the Diwali festival downtown. Rather, we should have meals with families and learn new customs from diverse backgrounds as our kids play together. We don’t have to wait until we are assigned by an international missons agency in order to get serious about crossing cultural boundaries, on the contrary we just have to get serious about loving our neighbors right across the street.
(2) Remember when you GO you are first SENT
The truth that God created the heavens and the earth is one of the most profound realities of Scripture and the Christian life. For missions, this statement should remind us that God the Spirit is not limited by American missionary efforts and God has the authority to send whomever he pleases. In the global West, we often operate from a place of privilege in both theology and practice that makes our going to the nations seem like God needs us due to our wealth of literature, mission strategies, and financial resources. Therefore a question Dr. Oscar Garcia-Johnson asks of the African context of missions history is incisive for all international mission endeavors:
“Did God bring the missionaries to …, or did the missionaries bring God?”
Christians should affirm the former because Scripture is clear that we go because we are first sent by God. The American missionary does not carry God around in a box to unreached people groups but rather God is on the move and we often are slowly lagging behind him. God’s heart to seek and save the lost all over the world is greater than any one country or people group can represent. We go not because of something so great about us but rather out of obedience and to the praise of God.
(3) Remember America is not the Center of God’s Kingdom
Earlier this year I had the privilege to work alongside Persian believers in Central Asia for 8 days. On one occasion during this trip I was out sharing the gospel and passing out literature with a Persian woman, and while we were trying to tell each other about our families she kept sheepishly apologizing for her English not being that good. I quickly assured her with one of the few Farsi phrases I knew that “It was ok” because my Farsi wasn’t good either. This experience provoked me to think about how English and the United States are perceived by other countries and especially Christians abroad. At times our rhetoric regarding religious freedom in America and the historical prominence of Christianity suggests that God is partial to the United States and English is His preferred language. God’s kingdom does not have America at its center and it’s important for Americans to humbly enter into non-American context seeking to learn and see how God’s kingdom is expanding through other cultures. As we embrace the diversity of the kingdom of God and celebrate that its borders go beyond the U.S., we can more readily walk with other believers like my Persian sister without making English or American culture a prerequisite for fellowship.
(4) Go to receive not only to give
A mission trip is only as effective as it is committed to the gospel message. As American believers we do have the gospel to give to people in any given country, however, we also have much to receive from these countries as well. Since we have large organizations such as the IMB and our country has an enormous portion of the world’s wealth, one can assume that this material abundance is reflective of our spiritual status as “the givers”. Even the notion of sending mission teams to the poor communities of African and Latin American countries has bred pride and caused American missionaries to conflate poverty with impiety. The conflation of poverty and impiety is salient since the most prominent missiological studies show that in the near future most Christians in the world will live in the countries of Africa and Latin America. Therefore, in our cross-cultural encounters we must recognize the richness within other customs and languages as bridges to communicate the good news about Christ and opportunities to learn more about who God is. Every time God brings a new ethnic community to himself by the power of the Spirit, the church expands and takes on new characteristics that contribute to God’s kingdom in ways that Americans never could.