Probably one of the first things a child must learn when they leave the “me-centered” environment of home and start functioning outside of it is how to listen. School teachers, other children, Sunday-school teachers and friends’ parents all vie for their attention and the children who are most praised are those who figure out how to close their mouths and listen to someone else for a change. But at some point in the transition to adulthood, this lesson is often forgotten.
The Western world is one in which everyone fights for a voice. Whether this voice is found in a blog, the success of a business or as a professional speaker, in a large society that values individualism and recognition, listening can fall to the wayside. While owning special knowledge and controlling the ability to share it with others is valued in Western cultures, this is not the best way to bring about spiritual growth and independence when doing missions.
What many might call “sharing knowledge” or “enlightening the ignorant,” should actually be labeled spiritual paternalism. Like resource and managerial paternalism, spiritual paternalism can have honest and good intentions, but may stem from an underlying attitude of superiority and have a negative long-term impact on recipient cultures.
At the root of spiritual paternalism is a sense of superiority. One group or person feels they have knowledge to share that another group lacks and believes they are the best ones to carry the message. Of course this isn’t entirely untrue; different people have unique insights or greater access to certain areas of knowledge that might be quite useful to others. Many forget that it is a two-way street, however, as well as that knowledge may be of use in one context but not in another.
When traveling to a developing country like Cambodia where poverty is pervasive, it is tempting to think that missionaries have the key to spiritual prosperity. They may indeed have insights or spiritual resources that will prove valuable to Cambodians, but missionaries must also learn to employ their sense of hearing and listen to what Cambodians can teach them as well as what new spiritual knowledge would be most effective in doing ministry in Cambodia.
Evangelical tactics used by Paul to the highly philosophical Greeks and Romans might not have produced the same results had they been utilized in Jerusalem. Similarly, marching in with a system and structure that has proved to be tried and true in the Western world may fall on deaf ears in a culture that values different things or views concepts with different imagery than those of the West.
And while mass evangelists have certainly reaped a great harvest and thus become valued in places like the United States, ministry in Cambodia must be developed primarily on a local level in order to produce a healthy and thriving body of believers. Thus, it is important that missionaries not take ministry solely upon themselves. They ought to work alongside, and be purposeful to include, local pastors and believers. Teaching and preaching on a two-week trip sounds great, until you are gone and the community is left without the hype and “great knowledge” of the Westerners. Instead, it would be better to listen and work within a cultural framework and incorporate local believers into the ministry.
This is not to say that foreigners don’t have something new and valuable to contribute. Of course they do! But the ability to communicate it in an effective and enduring way that strengthens the community will make all the difference between seed planted in good soil and seed planted in stony places, where the hearer of the word receives it gladly but establishes no root and soon falls away.29
Take, for example, doing house-to-house evangelistic outreach. You might bring along a Cambodian believer to translate for you as you speak to and pray for the locals in their homes. This might seem like it is avoiding paternalism because you are working with another Cambodian. But instead of using this person merely as a translator, you ought also to have him pray for the family himself, from Cambodian to Cambodian – not from foreign missionary through Cambodian. A long-lasting relationship might be built between the Cambodian believer and the family as he receives honor and respect in their eyes for being asked to pray. By doing this, you are serving and ministering as well as helping to enable a network and community of local Christians.
Spiritual paternalism might be harder to recognize and thus more difficult to address because you are not dealing with projects and tangibles as you would with resource and managerial paternalism. And it is possible to begin classifying many types of ministry that are actually healthy as paternalistic. The important question is this: Is the ministry you are doing enabling and preparing the local church body for future success when you are gone?
Before you leave, consider habits of ministry you may have that might not work effectively in Cambodia. Pray for a heart that is receptive, for ears that hear, and hands that humbly help build a strong and durable spiritual community.
29 Matt. 13