Babies are dependent. They rely on others for food, shelter, clothing, and protection. Without adults, babies would die. Some parents prolong the infancy phase, treating their children like babies, when they can easily begin to do things for themselves. Imagine if parents of a teenager still continued to spoon feed, clothe, and bathe their teenager when the teenager was perfectly capable. You would think they are bad parents for stunting their child’s development and potential. Good parenting resists the urge to keep children dependent, and lovingly trains and instructs them on how to eat, clothe, clean, and protect themselves.

This concept of over-parenting can be seen in the mission field as well. It’s called “paternalism”: Doing things for people that they can do for themselves, or doing things for people without involving them in the process. With good intentions, Christian missionaries can come into a community that has challenges, and as they do their best to fix those challenges, they sometimes exacerbate the problem in the long term through paternalism. Let’s explore this through a hypothetical example.

There has been a large flood in Cambodia and a rural village is in desperate need of rice. A Christian missionary team comes with a container full of rice and provides it to the village that had none. Praise God! The following year, that same team comes back and they bring an additional container of rice, even though the village is starting to produce a small amount on its own. This container of rice floods the local market with cheap rice as the villagers resell some of the excess rice they have received. Praise God? This excess rice brings the local rice price so low that the local farmer has to sell some of his land to survive and he doesn’t have enough income to replant for next year’s harvest. On the third year, the team comes back and brings a container of rice to the village. This time the village needs the rice because there is a shortage. The villagers come one-by-one and take the bags of rice with thankfulness, but what the team doesn’t realize is that they caused this year’s rice shortage through paternalism.

Missionaries will often heroically enter into struggling communities and do building projects or institute programs without the involvement of the local community. And while this might make Western believers feel like they are giving a free gift and doing something good, they might actually unknowingly participate in a negative cycle.

There are several different types of paternalism that we will explore in the days to come: resource, managerial and spiritual. In all of these is the story of one group of people coming to do something good for another group of people. Despite admirable intentions, however, the efforts may only temporally help the latter and could potentially leave them in a state worse than they started. Paternalism does not help a local population learn for themselves and build their own community. It says that others will be there to do it instead. It creates dependency.

Let’s journey back to this hypothetical situation in Cambodia and see how this missionary team might have done something different.

Year one: The mission team brings a container of rice to help with the famine and they look to see if there is a local pastor with whom they can build a relationship. They find a pastor and distribute rice together. Praise God! Year two: They go back to the village to support that local pastor they met on their first trip. While working, the pastor informs the team that there are two families in the community who are in need of rice. The team decides to buy rice from the local farmer. They have the local pastor give the rice to the families in need and the families come to church because of their thankfulness to the pastor. Year three: Six months before the trip, the missionary team contacts the pastor and asks what training he would like to see for more effective ministry. The team formulates the trip around equipping and supporting the local pastor.

In this second scenario all the same needs have been met without the negative ramifications of paternalism. The reason is because this team didn’t do things for others that they could have done for themselves; they did things with local resources and with the intention of empowering those local resources. These trips have employed the expertise and experience of local people to best institute spiritual and material development.

Reconciliation is not accomplished by doing things for people. Rather, its purpose is to help them be all that they were meant to be; to restore them to the right living and right relationship with God that was broken with the fall of Adam and Eve. That is what Christ came to do through His death and resurrection, and that is the mission and message that ought to be proclaimed throughout the world by those who call themselves His followers. We are to humbly come alongside others in material or spiritual poverty and involve them in the process of restoration, recognizing our own brokenness and need for continuous refinement.

Jesus Christ could have been paternalistic with His ministry, choosing to do all the work Himself, because He was the only one truly equipped for ministry. Instead, Jesus spent His time training others and slowly passing on the responsibility of His ministry to the disciples.

Take a moment and consider whether your ministry plans in Cambodia could be paternalistic in nature. How might they be modified to support the community in a way that promotes reconciliation, edification and long-lasting change?

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