Christian missionaries and full disclosure

UPDATE: To see how this shook down, you can read here:

In catching up with a friend yesterday, I learned about some Americans (a young married couple) that she is tutoring in Chinese. She spoke in glowing terms about these folks and how she wanted me to meet them. She talked about their 2 children, how they are here just because they want to learn Chinese and about China, how they only thing they are doing is studying Chinese and they plan to live here for a while – at least 3 years. They are such good friends and so nice, she told me, and she wants me to meet them.

And the whole time she was talking and showing me pictures of them I was thinking one thing, “Christian Missionaries.”

I’ve met plenty of Americans moonlighting as English teachers, personal organizers, students, etc while they are here in China (and in Thailand and Russia) to “bring God’s word” to the Chinese (Russians, Thais) and, in general, I don’t have a problem with evangelizing. In fact, I have always admired and even envied folks who hold their own beliefs as singular truth with such certainty. I am usually sufficiently tentative in my own conclusions and perspectives to really take them to the street. But this is the first time that I am experiencing the work of such folks from the other side and it just doesn’t feel right.

My friend doesn’t know what these folks are really about. It just seems so sneaky and dishonest- she is their mark and she thinks she is just their friend. How much of the work of converting her is done under the guise of bringing her into their family? It’s not that I have a problem with my friend being educated about and offered the opportunity to practice Christianity. It’s more that I think that she should be able to choose whether or not that is of interest to her. There should be full disclosure.

Of course, this is all speculation. The folks might not be up to anything but learning Chinese. If I get a chance to meet them I will ask. Either way, I feel that I should suggest to my friend that she be careful in becoming so emotionally attached to these people until she finds out what they are about.

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5 Responses to Christian missionaries and full disclosure

  1. Andrea,
    The work of ministry happens first by creating relationships and by loving those you minister to. To suggest that American Missionaries only do things like spend time with people caring for and educating them only so they can proseltyze them is narrow minded and demeaning. It also mocks all the good work that is done by missionaries who serve people overseas because that is they feel called by God to do. Sure some missionaries use questionable ethics but the vast majority of missionaries I know have done some good work for God’s people, the bulk of which may have nothing to do with conversion, things like medical assistance for example.

  2. Wendy says:

    I’m with Andrea on this one. Little is creepier or more dishonest than going to another country to “learn” about their culture, and make “friends” with them, all under the guise of bringing them Christianity. I don’t care if people think they hear God’s calling to bring Christianity to others. This is all about the assumption that their culture and religious beliefs aren’t the correct ones. And who are we to judge? Who gives someone else the right to decide they “need” something– that their lives are missing something? How do you know?

    I have a lot of Christian friends, and respect Christianity but NOT missionary work and all the ethnocentric assumptions that go with it. It smacks of “bringing God to the heathens”. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.

  3. Wendy says:

    and to clarify: if someone is going somewhere to help people by bringing medical care and clean water, that’s more than fine. But to do that with the hope of also bringing them Christianity is where things get creepy. And since the definition of “missionary” is “someone who attempts to convert others to a particular doctrine or program” than there you go.

  4. Andrea Voyer says:

    to clarify my concern:
    1. In the US when you meet folks who are starting a church, you know what’s up and the fact of their faith is part of your understanding of the relationship. In China people aren’t even technically allowed to have a religion that isn’t communism so folks don’t really have the idea of religious conversion on their radar screen. The fact that missionaries need to keep their true purpose on the DL (otherwise they are arrested or ousted) doesn’t help the fact that folks like my friend have absolutely no idea what is going on.
    2. In the US forming close friendships and inviting people to spend significant time with your family is common and people can walk in and out of such relationships with ease and regularity. In China this is not the case. Folks are very close to their families and they form a few close friendships with the kindergarten classmates they stay with all through high school. There is no getting out of these relationships. Other than that, people do not tend to form many close relationships and they certainly don’t spend time with each other’s families at their houses etc (even with close friends). So, the meaning of this loving behavior, as you put it, is very different in the Chinese context. It establishes bonds of mutual obligation, deep attachment and a responsibility to maintain harmony and agreement that just do not translate to the American way of doing things.

    For these 2 reasons, I find the non-disclosure of the intention to proseltyze problematic – potentially entangling my friend in a situation where she feels that it is impossible to decline what they are offering out of fear of displeasing them, losing their (in her eyes) remarkable attachment, failing to show respect, etc.

    As I said in the post, I have no problem with proseltyzing. The problem is that in this case cross-cultural factors have the potential to turn a well-intentioned desire to have people willingly learn about and accept one’s faith into an instrument of coercion.

    On an unrelated note, I find it pretty hurtful when you use words like narrow-minded, demeaning, mocking, evil and self-centered to characterize my writing and perspective.

  5. Pingback: World News Tweets » Blog Archive » Christian missionaries and full disclosure « Vermont 2 China

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