Deciphering the Missionary code

Encryption2Jamie Wright posted an insightful, eye opening, and somewhat humorous article that deals with the deception that too often takes place in the mission’s field and the “missionary code” that is used hide what is really happening. Jamie’s article focuses on missionaries who are doing little more than vacationing in a foreign country but sending support letters that describe their “ministries” as almost beyond miraculous. My own recognition of the “missionary code” began in 2008 and many of my own personal experiences mirror the kinds of “coded” examples given by Jamie in her article but the motivation for speaking in “code” was a little different for the missionaries to whom I had spoken. They were not using the “code” to hide their lack of work, they were using the “code” to hide the kind of work they were engaged in; work that most of their supporters would not have invested in if they really knew what was really taking place.

What is the code?

Jamie describes the “Missionary code” as “Christianese on steroids.” Here is an example from Jamie’s blog post.

Random guy: “Wow, you’re a missionary? That’s cool. What do you do?”

Shady missionary: “Well, I partner with the local church to make disciples.”

Random guy: “Oh. How do you do that?”

Shady missionary: “I create inroads through intentional relationships.”

Random guy: “Soooo, you invite… people… to church… in another country?”

Shady missionary: “That. Plus, I initiate interest by engaging in Christ-centered dialog with locals.”

Guy: “… *blink blink*… Wait. What does that even mean?”

Shady: “It’s hard to understand from a limited North American perspective, but the Holy Spirit is hard at work in Peru/Italy/Cambodia/PickACountry, and I’m merely there to be a vessel. My job is really to just stay available to the call.”

Guy: “…Aaaand you get paid for that?”

Shady: “The Lord says a worker is worth his wages.”

Guy: “Of course He does.”

Random Guy walks away with a super unclear idea about what the missionary actually does, but has heard, in no uncertain terms, that the missionary has been “called” by God to this mysterious but important job. That’s the Code at work.

Jamie is right, we need to ask our missionaries lots of questions but we also need to make sure we are asking the right questions. Cracking the code can often be difficult because too often we do not know what questions to ask. In 2008 when I first realized that I needed to be asking questions, not only did I not know what questions I should be asking, I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. Because I was asking the wrong questions, the answers I first received seemed a little off but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. Unfortunately that is where most stop asking questions.

Most missionaries will be able to answer your questions without resorting to evasive language and obscure ideas. But if they can’t? That should be a serious red flag and you should feel emboldened to push back until you clearly understand what they’re doing with their time. Jamie’s article provides a number of great examples of the “Missionary code;” I would like to add a few additions to the list she has already provided.

~ When a Christian missionary tells about the hundreds or even thousands that have come to faith Christ through their ministry, ask what it means to come to faith in Christ?  Ask if these new believers attend a Christian church, an Islamic Mosque, or some other place of worship? Ask if these believers identify themselves as Christians (or followers of Jesus), or do they identify themselves as Muslims or Hindus, or Buddhists? Ask if these followers of Jesus believe that Jesus is the Son of God or merely a prophet?

~ When a Christian missionary affirms their own personal belief in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, ask whether they believe these are essential for the believers to whom they minister or whether they are only essential for them personally? Ask them if the spiritual leaders within their ministry affirm these same doctrines?

~ When a Christian missionary tells us about those, who through their ministry, have come to trust Jesus as their Savior, ask them what it means to trust that Jesus is their Savior? Ask them if these believers believe that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was necessary for their salvation? Ask them if these believers even believe that Christ died for their sins?

~ When a Christian missionary tells us that they are ministering in culturally sensitive ways, ask them how they define “culture.” Ask them if they see a distinction between cultural expression and religious expression? Ask them if they see Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as expressions of cultural or religious systems.

~ When a Christian missionary tells us that the do not want to extract new believers from their “culture,” ask them if they believe that believers in Christ should leave their non-Christian religion? Ask them if they believe that one can remain in their culture and not identify as a member of its dominate religion.

I truly believe that most Christians would be truly shocked if they knew how some prominent leaders of Christian missions agencies would answer these questions and what their money has been supporting. Because these leaders speak the “missionary code” so fluently, these views have remained largely unknown to those who have not been in directly involved. Until very recently even many missionaries themselves were unaware of the direction that the leadership of their own agencies had taken. One of the most influential leaders and thinkers in missions over the last few decades has been Charles Kraft. While speaking about Kraft’s influence of modern missiology, his Fuller Seminary colleague Charles Van Engan said that “One might say that there is missiology before Kraft (BK) and missiology after Kraft (AK).”  Here is how Kraft has answered some of these questions in his own words.

“The issues that we deal with, even the so-called religious issues, are primarily cultural, and only secondarily religious… [The Muslim] doesn’t have to be convinced of the death of Christ. He simply has to pledge allegiance and faith to the God who worked out the details to make it possible for his faith response to take the place of a righteousness requirement. He may not, in fact, be able to believe in the death of Christ, especially if he knowingly places his faith in God through Christ, for within his frame of reference, if Christ died, God was defeated by men, and this, of course is unthinkable.” Charles Kraft

Are you surprised at his answer? Don’t be, these views are not unique to Kraft, they are shared by many of the most prominent thinkers in the missiology today and they dominate the missiological journals today. These are the views held by many of the men and women who are training our next generation of missionaries. The western church has unknowingly spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding ministries that promote these views because we haven’t taken the time to stop and ask the hard questions before we write our checks. It is time we begin to ask the kinds of questions that should have been asked long ago.  


Why the silence?

First, many of those engaging in this kind of ministry are so adept at using the “missionary code” that they have even fooled their fellow missionaries. Until very recently, many good missionaries involved in healthy and vibrant ministries were unaware of the involvement of their own missionary organizations in ministries that had stepped outside of Christian orthodoxy. Because of the autonomy (described in Jamie’s article) of most missionary organizations, few knew the details unless their own ministries were being directly impacted.

Second, there can be very negative consequences for those who dare to speak out. Satirically speaking Jamie says that revealing the code “will probably get me killed by the Knights Templar or something” and while satirical, it isn’t that far from the truth. Those who speak out often have at lot a stake; speaking out often means leaving (or being forced to leave) the ministry where they have invested their life and/or leaving the churches that they have called home. In the last year, some large missionary organizations have actually put out “gag orders” prohibiting their missionaries from even speaking about this topic in public. Because speaking out can mean that one must go against the direct instruction of their organization’s leadership, speaking out can be one of the most painful and heart wrenching decisions a missionary can face. Because I am not a missionary the stakes are not has high for me but I do know personally what it is like to be given a “gag order” from leadership that would prefer to ignore this issue and then have to make the painful decision to uproot my family because my conscious would not allow me to keep silent. I have a great deal of sympathy for those missionaries who, by speaking out, stand to loose so much more than I did.


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