Myths About Missions

The following article about some prevailing myths surrounding the world of missions is worth the read. I found it quite thought-provoking.
Dave Shive

By Trevor Johnson

April 1874 – the British Empire’s treasury pays £500 for the missionary David Livingstone’s funeral (around £38,000 today). A steamer carries his body to Southampton where he receives an artillery salute. His body lies in state at the Royal Geographical Society’s offices for two days and crowds throng to pay their respects.
David Livingstone died after contacting many remote tribes for the first time and opened up Africa to commerce. But his primary objective was always to tell them about Jesus. He was hailed as a hero.

November 2018 – a medically trained young man, John Allen Chau, was killed trying to go ashore to reach the unreached people of North Sentinel Island among the Andaman Island group. He is heavily criticized and even mocked online.

This is one metric of how far the West has fallen.

As Western civilization pulls away from its Christian moorings, we see a rising anti-missionary sentiment. Those who identify as Christians are not much different. Many professing Christians also criticized Chau. What is more, a recent Barna survey showed the shocking conclusion that, “Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong.”

Attacked in the press by a Russian photographer

This anti-missionary sentiment was brought home to me in a very personal way in September of 2018. While recovering from a swollen liver, spleen, and gallbladder from my 23rd bout with malaria after 12 years of service among the remote Korowai tribe, I was shocked to read this bold headline, “Ancient Tribe on the Brink of Being Wiped Out by Christian Missionaries.” In another newspaper I read these further accusations, “Fight for Survival: Ancient Jungle Tribe of Super-Strong Hunters Close to Being Wiped Out by Christian Missionaries.”

The Russian photographer Maxim Russkikh traveled 15 days throughout Korowai territory and documented his journey. During a mere 2 weeks Russkikh, who does not speak the local or the regional language, saw some abandoned houses and concluded that the missionaries must be wiping out the tribe. Because of the sensational nature of the photographs, several Western media outlets published his reports, which slandered my missionary work among this tribe.

Despite the Korowai being highly mobile and often possessing two houses (one in their jungle garden and another in the village) and despite Korowai sagu grub feast huts being abandoned after use, Russkikh falsely concluded that the empty houses were evidence that the tribe was dying off and that the missionaries were forcibly removing the tribe into reservation-type settlements. In reality, the Korowai themselves have organized several villages on their own initiative, have invited us missionaries in to help them, and are, in fact, increasing in population due to a decrease in mortality, a result of the work of the Papuan churches and missionaries. But nevertheless, these slanderous accusations by Mr. Russkikh have been read and believed by tens of thousands.

And all this time I thought I was helping! We’ve planted churches, built a school, ran a clinic and then built one, and supplied teachers and nurses. We’ve immunized the entire region. We’ve spoken to the Indonesian Government on behalf of the Korowai and even successfully fought the illegal gold mining that was exploiting their land. But all along, according to this online article, I was actually committing genocide. Reading the comments online is always “enlightening” – especially when it consists of hateful libel directed at me and my work (a work which has almost killed me several times already).

I have responded to this slander, but my voice will never be as loud as that irresponsible reporter’s voice.

In this blog article below, I’d like to briefly list five common myths about missionary work. More appropriately labeled, these are five common lies often told about Christian missions.

Myth 1. Missionaries destroy cultures.

While it is true that missionary work often leads to the abandonment of some tribal practices, what is objectionable that we missionaries are trying to eliminate? The past cannibalism – should we preserve that? The clan warfare and witch-killings – should we preserve those? We are trying to end child-marriages – should we preserve 8-year-old girls being forcibly taken and given to 40-year-old men? The occasional infanticide of unwanted children – should we preserve that? Illiteracy and rampant disease – should we preserve those as well? What exactly are we destroying that is objectionable?

In addition, we missionaries are working to increase literacy, preserve their language, provide education, improve health, decrease infant mortality, promote peace and unity among the clans, and even train some Korowai in job skills. What is objectionable about those goals?

The truth is that missionaries have blessed many parts of the world. In the Christianity Today article, “The World the Missionaries Made: The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” we read the following:
“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

(The missionary Don Richardson, who served among another remote Papuan tribe, the Sawi, also wrote this rebuttal, “Do Missionaries Destroy Cultures?”)

Myth 2. Missionaries coerce local people into Christianity.
An alternate way of wording this would be to accuse missionaries of helping poor indigenous peoples only as a means of introducing Christ to them. This just isn’t true.

We provide medical care and aid regardless of who needs it or what they profess. We help people, not in order to gain a hearing for the Gospel. We help people because they need help. We help people who absolutely reject any spiritual counsel that we happen to give them. We give medical aid to people who threaten us even. Why? Not merely to promote an agenda; but simply because they need medical help.

While I love the Lord Jesus and I come to help bless the Korowai because of the great blessings first given to me from God, we have never tied our work in with any obligation to profess faith in Christianity. We help people because they need help. People must always be free to choose or reject our faith. A forced belief is no belief at all; there is no coercion.

Myth 3. Missionaries bring deadly pathogens which decimate tribal peoples.
With the death of the missionary John Allen Chau, many internet critics asserted that he endangered the health of the tribal people by his mere presence. “What about the pathogens the tribe could have been exposed to?” they asked.

In the case of Chau, who was a trained wilderness medic, he quarantined himself for a time before making any contact. Now, in contrast to Chau’s careful regard for the health of the tribal people, contrast this with the actions of an earlier exploration party led by anthropologist T.N. Pandit who made first contact with the tribal peoples of the Andaman Islands:
“Pandit remembers that the contact party left gifts in the empty huts: plastic buckets, bolts of cloth, packaged candy. He remembers the festive air of the occasion—half military mission and half school picnic—and how, despite his protests, the policemen and naval officers took as souvenirs some of the household goods the Sentinelese had left behind: bows, arrows, a basket, the painted skull of a wild boar.”

Had this been done by a missionary, let alone an American missionary, the press would probably have portrayed it as, “Missionary takes armed party, leaves diseased blankets for the tribe and steals their needed goods as souvenirs.”

No criticism of this anthropologist Pandit exists online, despite the semi-military nature of his mission and despite the theft of tribal property.
Further, let us consider:

(1) The “What about the pathogens?” argument, if applied broadly, would condemn all missionary activity throughout all of history in every new land.

(2) The risk is not as severe in our day. The Andaman Islanders had already been exposed by Pandit and others before Chau arrived. Good medical care also would further minimize the risks, and Chau was a trained wilderness medic.

(3) Tribal peoples ALREADY suffer many diseases, and missionaries are often trained in medicine. The risks of exposure to the tribe are less than the benefits of good medical aid that is rendered by such contact.

(4) For Christians who believe in an eternal soul, what is more important, a small chance of infection from an unfamiliar pathogen, or a Christless eternity?

(5) Finally, we must ask how many remote tribes are actually left in the world so cut-off from outside contact that they actually suffer from this danger of pathogens? The answer: an almost infinitesimal fraction of the world’s entire population exists in such a state in the year 2019. Only several thousand out of 7 billion such people even exist.

Now, what about the Korowai tribe that I work with, and their danger from pathogens?

The Korowai are listed as one of the world’s most remote remaining tribes in the world. But even they have been trading with nearby tribes for years. Outsiders (including tourists and reporters) have penetrated the region in years past as well. And these tourists and reporters have never brought medical aid to the people. Many Korowai have also trekked out to town. We have seen colds and flus and measles spread throughout the broad region (none have originated from us, but started in other areas), and we’ve done our best to stop the spread and have nursed dozens back from the brink of death. But we have not endangered the Korowai due to our foreign pathogens any more than Mr. Russkikh the reporter has done.

Myth 4. Tribal people are more pure and innocent and exist in harmony with nature.

Another myth is that tribal peoples are pure and innocent while Western missionaries are greedy and zealous. The myth of the noble savage is alive and well and often propagated in the Media.

I responded to this myth in the Aquila Report article, “Are Missionaries Wiping Out The Closer-To-Nature Ways Of Life In Remote Tribes?” In the original source, Alyssa Duvall quotes me as follows:
“…Johnson rejects the “derogatory” terms critics of missionaries use to describe peoples like the Korowai, such as “primitive” or “Stone-age”. “They are humans just like us, and they have desires and agency to act upon their desires. This has led them to petition the government for help. This has caused them to ask for missionaries.”

As for perfect harmony with nature, Johnson says it’s “a common Western lie.””

A common trope among Western tourists visiting tribal peoples is to remark how these tribal peoples “live in perfect harmony with their environment.” I must ask: “How did these tourists pick up on this “perfect harmony with nature”? Did they perceive it from the chronic cough and the drawn, tight, tuberculoid features of the older Korowai? Did they learn this from the yellowing or even balding heads of the young people from malnutrition? Did they learn this from child-brides silently inhabiting Korowai treehouses? Did they perceive this “natural-ness” from the dirt and grime-smeared babies? These babies ARE, indeed, closer to “nature,” I suppose, if you mean mud and earth.

In reality, the Korowai fight nature tooth and nail. And in the end, they almost always lose.

Now that we live among the Korowai, we have often given foodstuffs to them during times of famine and hunger. What do they do with the plastic packaging? They throw it on the ground and in the creek and river, and they litter terribly even though we instruct them to burn the plastic to keep the jungle clean. The Korowai are the worst litterers I’ve ever met. They are not “more natural” and “closer to natural” – they’ve merely lacked the means to destroy their jungle because they’ve been ineffective at technological progress.

What does it mean to be “more natural” anyway? If natural means basic and common to mankind, then the Korowai are not natural. They are an historical oddity, since steady historical progress is natural. To advance is natural. And so the Korowai are not natural. In the slow advance forward, these people have fallen out of the march and some have even wandered backward and degraded. The Sumerians, Egyptians and ancient Greeks steadily built new inventions and musical instruments and composed great works of art, even thousands of years ago. The Korowai, on the other hand, merely try to survive – even in the year 2019. Therefore, no, the Korowai are not natural if natural means to be common to mankind.

Or does natural mean more earthy and close to nature? And if this is so, then, yes, the Korowai are more natural. But why is this a virtue? I would not praise my son for eating with his hands if I had forks and spoons for him to use. Simple is not necessarily purer. The natural world is simpler, and yet brutishly cruel. The Korowai, lacking guns, murdered one another with alarming regularity for decades using arrows. The Korowai lacking sophisticated abortion equipment have often simply left their newborns in dirty holes, dug for that reason, to abandon their babies to death.

While their architecture is impressive with their tall treehouses becoming an icon of remote Papua, let’s remember that the motivation for building these tall treehouses was borne out of a superstitious fear of witches. The same modern secularist world that disdains religion also admires these treehouses, yet these structures were borne of their religious/spiritual worldview.

Myth 5. Secular reporters are unbiased and objective and report on these issues truthfully.
Perhaps the biggest myth of all as it relates to missions is this: those in the media who criticize missionaries are the voice of unbiased reason. The secular media are merely objectively reporting the news; that is perhaps the biggest lie of all.

What should we do in light of these criticisms?

In the beginning of this blog article I mentioned the missionary to Africa, David Livingstone. He, too, received criticism in his day. Here is his response explaining the reason and his encouragement for us: “It is hard to work for years with pure motives, and all the time be looked upon by most of those to whom our lives are devoted as having some sinister object in view. Disinterested labor – benevolence – is so out of their line of thought, that many look upon us as having some ulterior object in view; but He who died for us, and Whom we ought to copy, did more for us than we can do for anyone else. He endured the contradiction of sinners. We should have grace to follow in His steps.”

For a look at what is really happening among the Korowai tribe, view this link to the Heartcry Missionary Society video of the work.

Trevor Johnson serves the remote Korowai tribe of central Papua, Indonesia as a missionary with HeartCry Missionary Society. He is married to Teresa and has four children.