Sunday, December 5, 2010

When Did "Missionary" Become a Dirty Word?

When Sammy Davis, Jr., (1925-90) once heard someone complaining about discrimination, he said, “You got it easy. I’m a short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew. What do you think it’s like for me?” It is not nearly as serious, but I can identify a little bit with Davis, for I am a retired, Southern Baptist missionary (and maybe ugly, too).
From time to time during these last several years, I have sensed some negativity because of being retired. People my age and older who are still in a full-time job are respected more highly, it seems, than those of us who are (basically) retired from similar positions.
And then if Christian has become a “dirty word,” as I wrote about on my October 20 posting, Southern Baptist is viewed even more negatively by many people. In fact, it is the fundamentalist bent of many contemporary Southern Baptist leaders that has helped tarnish the name Christian. I am no longer a Southern Baptist, partly for that reason, but that doesn’t change the past.
But perhaps the most negative of all is the designation missionary. I have felt some disdain even from fellow church members because of my having been a career missionary. And the word missionary is rarely used in church meetings any more, except for the ladies in Women on Mission.
My church is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has a Global Missions program, but they send and support field personnel rather than missionaries. And our church has a Missions Support Committee and talks a lot about mission activities, which are usually activities in which members participate, but rarely about missionaries. For a long time now, the only positive thing I remember hearing said about missionaries was by the pastor of the First Haitian Baptist Church who preached last month and expressed appreciation for the missionaries who went to his country.
This is in the middle of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering emphasis of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I feel rather nostalgic for the time when I could go to churches at this time of the year and talk about the joy of being a missionary and to thank them for their support of missionaries across the world, men and women who were seeking to be incarnational servants of Christ in other lands—as, indeed, Lottie Moon and many others were and are.
But through the years too many missionaries have been too closely aligned with colonialism and with imperialistic policies, of both church and state. And too many missionaries have been insensitive to local customs and culture, although perhaps there are not as many missionaries like that as some think.
In addition, the growing emphasis on religious pluralism and the postmodern emphasis on relativism have resulted in widespread negativity especially toward missionaries serving in evangelistic activities. If missionary work is approved at all, it is more and more only that which is directed toward meeting the physical needs of people and primarily by those who go on short mission trips.
I am sad that missionary, even more than Christian, has, alas, seemingly become a “dirty word” to many even within the church.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I like the posting and first comment this week. Well worth contemplation.

    At staff meeting this week we looked at our charitable organization's mission statement and that of a governmental organization with which we collaborate toward a common end, with no intermingling of finances. (Our funding sources are very different - one from mandatory federal taxation, one freely out of individual, Christian charity for one's neighbor.) Except for the word Christian in our statement, there was not a lot of difference in our stated missions.
    One of our staff queried if ours meant we should be preaching at our clients. That is not what our mission is (although we certain are open to explaining our hope in Christ when asked), nor is it what our statement says.

    Do we have a mission? YES. Are we Christian? YES. Are we then missionaries??

    I guess those who live an organization's mission are missionaries. I would hope that would not make one dirty just by definition.

  3. I am sorry to say that I inadvertently deleted the comment by Guy. It was a thoughtful comment, and I regret that it is no longer available for others to read.

  4. Whenever a term becomes too weighted down with a specific historic definition, it it in danger of dying. For instance, the huge uproar over gay marriage has convinced a substantial portion of young heterosexual couples that they no longer want to be married. They are actively looking for a new name and format for their relationships. Apparently fundamentalists have done such a good job of defending Christian marriage that many young people have decided to abandon both Christianity and marriage.

    Missionaries may face a similar challenge. Obviously some sort of outreach programs will continue, but it may well be under a new name.

    Perhaps a good model would be corporate product names. General Motors has very publicly retired Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer. It does not mean the end of automobiles, or even General Motors (although that was a close thing), but things change. Meanwhile, Chevrolet and Cadillac roll on. I personally happen to have been driving a Saturn the last several years, and it is strange to consider that it is the last of a breed. Then again, I can remember riding in Oldsmobiles, Ramblers, Studebakers, DeSotos, and so on.

    So Leroy may be the last of a breed, the last missionary. Yet, he will not be the last witness, any more than my Saturn will be the last car. Good news will find a way!

  5. Guy posted this on Facebook: "Timing is everything. Your blog reminded me of a scene in a book I just finished: Poor Memory, by Stan Dotson. I commented on the blog site."

    Much of what Guy posted was a quotation from "Poor Memory" (2010). Dotson is (or at least was) a Baptist who is active in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Here is the passage from the book that Guy posted:

    Uncle Salem remarks that "they got all them conventions to send missionaries into the hills to help ease the way for progress." [The reference seems to be to "home missionaries" rather than "foreign missionaries.]

    "You got something against missionaries?" Daddy [asked].

    "Nothing except it ain't scriptural," Salem answered.

    "What you talking about? You've sat under Preacher Claybrooks long enough to have heard the Great Commission."

    "All that says is we ort to live the gospel wherever we happen to go in the world. It don't say we ort to hire out a special group and call 'em missionaries. Correc' me if I'm wrong, but I ain't found nary a word in the Book about missionaries. If we all live out the gospel, the folks that God plans on saving will respond and the one God plans on damning won't."

  6. Sue Wright, Thinking Friend who is a fellow member of Second Baptist Church here in Liberty, sent me the following e-mail this morning, and I post it here with her permission.

    "Leroy, having a Master's in Social Work, I have also felt the sting of name-calling. Folks like to call social workers, 'do-gooders,' as though that is something terrible. If you aren't a social worker you may not know we are among other things, community organizers, group therapy leaders, family counselors, etc. and we use our skills for rich AND poor. We are more than 'welfare' workers, in fact, most welfare workers are BA people, not Master's professionals.

    "Alas, missionaries are also being defined by only what we see of them in movies or derive from past fundamental church memberships. How many folks realize missionaries serve in countries around the world as Professors and Business managers, as nurses and doctors, and in other vital functions otherwise not availabe in 3rd world countries. Living out an example of Christ, they may do any number of things in a foreign community besides preaching day and night. I have to admit, I'm currently confused how to commit ourselves to the Great Commission without appearing the Bully. No remedies to the question, from me. Just a confirmation, I understand."

  7. Two Thinking Friends who are former Southern Baptist missionaries wrote saying that in their circles "missionary" is not a dirty word nor are retired missionaries seen in a bad light.

    The difference between them and me is that they are still members of Southern Baptist churches. I have no doubt that SB missionaries continue to be respected in SB circles and that that respect is shown to retired missionaries as well.

    But the problem is: I was unable to sign that I would work "in agreement with and not contrary to" the "Baptist Faith and Message" as revised in 2000. Thus, June and I were forced to retire. Then it seemed only fitting that we would not join a Southern Baptist church here in the U.S. since we were not "fit" to be allowed to continue to serve as SB missionaries.

    I do not regret the decision we made to leave the SBC, but I do miss the "old" SBC and its mission program before it began to change during the years that the Convention as a whole shifted farther and farther to the theological right.

  8. Here are some significant comments made by one of my most esteemed Thinking Friends:

    "You have analyzed the sentiment very cogently, Leroy. I think the Southern Baptist Convention generates much of the negative feeling because it pushes a fundamentalist agenda. It is hard for the average observer to distinguish some of the positive work missionaries do even now from the extreme right-wing thinking which characterizes the SBC and some of its leaders. European Baptists stated that very forcefully when the Foreign Mission Board defunded Ruschlikon in 1991. They said, 'We don't want "militant fundamentalism" such as now dominates the SBC. . . . Here in the United States, however, we find it harder to distinguish what is done in places like Japan and has been done in many other countries from the 'militant fundamentalism' which characterizes the SBC today. . . . I'm very suspicious of people who now work under auspices of the International Mission Board or its national counterpart, even knowing that some of them do highly commendable work."

  9. Leroy makes a good point about CBF's use of the term "field personnel." I'm sure when asked "what do you do?, those folks don't say, "I'm a CBF Field Personnel." It seems to lose something. I suspect many of them may describe themselves as missionaries, but I'm not sure of that.

    Many words do go out of favor. Such is the case with words such as secretary, stewardess, spy, farmer, janitor. Words sometimes seem demeening or out of date. I'm not sure if that's the case with missionary, but Leroy is right. Our church doesn't talk about missionaries like we used to. We do talk about missions and mission activities.

    This is the season to celebrate, give to and lift up foreign missions and those who serve on those fields. I celebrate Leroy and June, Carl Hunker, Janie House, George and Helen Hayes and so many, many others I have know who have given their lives to telling others about Christ in another language. May your life's work be honored and respected. And may it continue by others who may or may not call themselves missionaries.

  10. Indeed. There are a lot of terms that I feel were "stolen" when I left the SBC. I put that in quotes, because one tends to assume that the SBC is the one doing the "stealing," but in this case (as you mentioned) that isn't the case. My grandparents are also retired SBC missionaries, and I continue to be very proud of them and their work. Of course, my grandfather went to work for CBF and continues to call the field personnel "missionaries."

    I'm truly sorry that those of us in former-SBC circles have let terminology blind us to the great things our brothers and sisters have and are continuing to do. Thank you for all you have done, friend.

  11. Still thinking here.

    Maybe semantics are too much. I am very aware of CBF and IMB personnel who collaborate in the field because we grew up together and still serve the same Jesus Christ. I am also aware that the many in the IMB and other organizations cannot use the term missionary due to location - their specialty is the designation instead. My brother was one of these. And finally there was one who used the term "on mission" very strategically to open doors not open to Christians.
    I would hope that those still serving with the IMB and other fundamental/ traditional, Christian groups (American/ European/ whatever) are not assumed to be anathema to the mandates of Christ just because definitions are changing.

    Unity among the believers is still an imperative of Christ regardless of differences (acceptable parameters were laid out by Christ and the early Church). Most of us fall within those although we may not like it. I still struggle too, especially with one denomination, as they persecuted our family and others and drove them from their homes and lands. But by definition they are still on mission for Christ in the full sense of the word.

  12. The Sammy Davis Jr. quote at the top of this blog rather deflated the image I had of him. I naively assumed that his experiences with discrimination would have made Davis compassionate/understanding toward others, not dismissive. But, come to think of it, I can think of others who seem to make a sport of saying, "I've suffered more than you, so shut up." I wonder if this might be an underappreciated side effect of "the American Dream"?