Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ugly Missionary

There is a book I read a couple years back that was recommended to me by a missionary friend. He said this book should be required reading for all new missionary recruits. It is not about missionaries or ministry. It is not even a Christian book. What is it called? Maybe you've heard of it:

The Ugly American

It tells a "fictional" story about American involvement in Asia during the Vietnam war. While the narrative is fictional, it is made up of an amalgamation of true stories, actual personalities (names changed), and some of the real dynamics that existed during the war in Southeast Asia. It is one of those books that makes you angry as you read it when you see how inept and arrogant many of the American Foreign Service people were. And it is this very arrogance and ineptitude that led to failure in the region.

Why is this book appropriate for missionary recruits?

Because it describes the same attitudes and dynamics that make many missionaries ineffective, too.

I am not a perfect missionary. Far from it. I have made many cultural mistakes and have been confronted by my own ignorance and arrogance on multiple occasions. In fact, I don't think there is anything out there that challenges and stretches us more than extended cross-cultural living where we try to accomplish something in that context and have meaningful relationships with the people. And it is perhaps because of these challenges that many missionaries either fall into some certain well-worn ruts or circle the wagons and separate themselves from the community. And when these two things happen it can produce some pretty rancid ugliness.

I have considered writing a similar book and calling it The Ugly Missionary. This would detail (using "fictional" characters who actually exist) some of the dynamics of arrogance and ineptitude that I've witnessed in the missionary community. These are things that many who support missionaries back home never realize. And my purpose in writing would not be pride or to lift myself up as a good example. (Parts of the Ugly Missionary would be myself!) But my purpose would be to warn new missionary recruits of the pitfalls that face them and to educate supporters on what to look for in sending and pastoring the missionaries they choose.

A "missionary" is equivalent to "hero" or "big time spiritual stud" to many people who have never traveled overseas. It doesn't take many qualifications other than going to another country (the more different the better), knowing how to say a few words in the language (if you can tell people your language is "tonal" then they're really impressed), and being able to do the "secret handshake," or whatever the local greeting gesture is. People are mostly impressed because you are doing something they know they couldn't or wouldn't ever do. (And many of them will give you money because of it, too.)

But far too often we fall very short of being effective cross-cultural ambassadors of Christ who demonstrate a genuine love for the people we've come to reach. Far too often we fail to even come close to immersing ourselves in their communities. Instead, we become the Ugly Missionary who spends all of his time around other expats, only eats at foreign restaurants, lives in a gated mansion far removed from the nationals, prohibits his children from playing with the local kids, and only dabbles in the the language, food, and community.

For many missionaries the only contact they have with nationals are the ones they hire as maids, nightwatchmen or as English-speaking managers of their projects. For many, the only knowledge they have of the culture, country and people is what they have read in an English travel guide or heard from other expats. I have found this information to be quite unreliable here in The Location.

So, if you get a chance, pick up The Ugly American. Give it a read. Think about it in terms of ministry--wherever you are. Is it applicable?


  1. I would imagine that learning the culture, allowing yourself to be taken to school by the people you hope to reach, could only benefit the missionary and ultimately, the mission. I've never served in a foreign land, but I have served in a food kitchen for victims of Katrina. People sense when you feel superior to them, and boy was I ever convicted of that feeling! I find myself going back to Philippians 2 over and over again, because I struggle with my pride. It's such an ugly thing, and it sneaks up on me when I'm least expecting it. It goes back to how you love a person I suppose.

  2. Hi Koffijah. I don't have anything wise to say, but I thought I would let you know I was here today.

  3. Katdish--I think that if we're not struggling with pride then we're probably letting it win us over. Keep up the fight!

    Helen--Thank you for coming by the Koffi House! You don't have to say anything wise, or funny for that matter. I AM glad to know that you came by! You are always welcome! I appreciate that you left a comment! I wonder if there are people who read this and never comment, or if it is only the 2-3 people who comment who read. Oh well! :-)

  4. My first or second visit here - can't recall over how many links I came. I like what I'm reading here - thoughts that echo in my own heart. Thanks for this post and the next. I especially agreed with your arrogance of agape love post. Powerful thoughts.