The Role of Dignity in the Transformation of Christian Missions
“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.”
(Romans 12:9 NLT)
For decades, well really centuries, Christian missionary efforts have been more effective at spreading western culture, division and dependency than the freedom, empowerment and joy that comes through Christ alone. In recent years many have begun pushing back against Western influence and the global damage it causes through “evangelism”. So what can we do about this? Does this mean that the call to go and make disciples in all nations should stop? Or are there new and healthier ways of sharing God’s love? Given the globalization of our world and the Biblical mandate to go, I believe we must make a painful turn and begin to rethink how we share the gospel in both our words and our actions.
At its core, the pain we have caused is a result of our pride. We sought to “serve the world” by making those we intended to help more like us. We failed to show them Christ so He could transform them into His image. So, one of the first things we must do to turn our sinking ship of missions around is to humble ourselves and look at missions from the perspective of God and those with whom we are seeking share His love.
I remember that day vividly. I was almost 13, in the seventh grade, and very proud. It was just days before Christmas when we received a knock on the front door. It was a middle aged man and his daughter who was just a little older than myself. They had with them a huge box decorated as a sleigh. This sleigh was full, well actually overflowing, with food. For my family this was huge! My mother worked, was a full time student and raising 4 children with little help from my father. My mom was thrilled to fill our empty cupboards for the holidays, while I was just mortified that a peer had seen my poverty.
Had those delivering our saving meal done anything wrong. No, not really. They were striving to be kind and spread “holiday cheer”. In fact, I truly am grateful for that holiday meal. But I wonder if they had thought about how they might feel in my situation. As a young teenager, living in a middle class area I didn’t want anyone to know we were constantly living in desperation. I didn’t want to see that girl at school and watch her whisper to her friends “that is the poor girl my family helped at Christmas”. I’m just glad this happened prior to the social media age where this family would take a picture of all of us smiling together with our box of food and post it on Facebook with the caption “being the hands and feet our Jesus to those in need this Christmas.”
So what could this sweet family have done differently so I could have maintained my sense of dignity? Well, they could have sacrificed their desire to be a part of the transaction. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less."
For decades parents of affluence have used charity to teach their children to be grateful for what they have (truth be told, I have participated in this type of service as well). But this behavior needs to stop. Because, while children of affluence are learning about gratitude, their neighbor with an obvious worldly need walks away from the interaction with a full stomach and depleted of dignity.
Ministries here in the US and around the world are making changes that place emphasis on human dignity. Many food pantries today are addressing this issue. They are changing the way they address those in need of support from clients to members. These members contribute ideas on how the ministry functions and work in the ministry as gifted and able. They then shop for their food and other items like a store. These ministries also provide coffee and provide opportunities to talk, play games or just be community. Internationally, ministries are engaging local leaders to run ministries.
So if you are looking to start, participate in, or partner with an outreach ministry, one of the first questions you should ask is…. “Does this ministry work in humility and understand dignity is a human right?”