[This is major essay submitted for one of my classes last quarter. It earned an A, which gave me great satisfaction. Enjoy. –b.]
The traditional model of Christian missions is to go to another culture or people group, set up a church facility and invite people in. This is what has become known as a classic “missions station”, and it has been criticized by experts in comparative religion as well as put into disuse by missionaries themselves for its Westernizing and syncretizing effect in the cultures missionaries have attempted to reach with the Gospel.1
While not referred to as a missions station, Christian attempts at social justice right here in America in no small part resemble the missions stations of a bygone era in overseas missions. Though well-intentioned endeavors, what has happened is that, like the advent of hybrid Christian-native religious practices in the Caribbean and Latin America as a result of the slave trade, the model has been turned on its head. As homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, food pantries and urban outreach efforts, all of which are noble Christian responses to serious domestic concerns, have become a part of the American cultural landscape, rather than addressing and resolving said concerns, they have become dependent upon them.
Hypothetically, if the problem of drugs in a metropolitan community was solved, a drug rehab facility would have to be closed, thus putting people out of work and money invested, usually by churches and upper-middle class benefactors, in facilities wasted. Or a converted hospital intended to be a one-stop refuge for all sorts of social ills: a homeless shelter, drug treatment facility, workplace training, urban ministry; what is to be of such a complex (and there are several of these around the country) if these problems were solved?
These attempts at social justice, though undertaken with good will and intent, are no different in spirit and scope than the obsolete mission stations of missions efforts past, and I intend to argue that they, rather than address the myriad problems of urban and suburban America, exacerbate them. Further, and more subtly, I intend to argue that our churches have themselves become missions stations, exacerbating a culture in decline from its Judeo-Christian ethical moorings. In brief, as we institutionalize, we minimize.
“Chinese is not a language, it is a speech impediment!”
— an unnamed missionary wife from the 1981 biopic Hudson Taylor
Missions stations were the primary mode of global evangelism from the medieval period up to the 19th century. Missionaries would reach their intended destination and build a church, greet the natives and work to compel them to faith in Western Christianity.2 It should also be noted that missions efforts were inexorably tied to the expansion of colonial power, with European powers viewing those heathens who were open to the faith as easily subjected to their encroaching respective political, military and cultural empires (Africa). Those who were not so welcoming would simply be trampled and conquered (Latin America) or abandoned (Japan).
If the point of the missions station model of evangelization is to bring the masses to a place in order that they get exposed to the message, it also doubles as a cultural foothold. The missions station is symbolic of the missionary bringing his or her culture to an unfamiliar people, the church is symbolic of a specific value set, for the missionary from that period, the church is a slice of home, with the hope, shared by missionary and country, that it is a seed for growth to come.
It is precisely for this reason that the mission station model was refuted an abandoned: not only were some parts of the world syncretized by the fusion of Christian faith and traditional religious practices,3 but the notion of cultural supremacy created resentment. Feudal Japan was very hostile to the missionary efforts of Catholics after Xavier, as depicted in the powerful historical fiction of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. The crusades left an entire culture hostile to Jews and Christians. Is it then any surprise that the post-Christian West is fundamentally hostile—or worse yet, ambivalent—toward Christians, their message and lifestyle?
The West may have seen the rise of capitalism, monarchies, empires and democracies, as well as Christian faith, but the two are not intertwined: that divorce was made very clear in the Enlightenment. Rulers from Constantine to Hitler tried to corral the power of the church toward their own motives with varying degrees of success. This is especially true in America, where the religious vote has been courted by nominees from local leaders to the presidency. The underlying message of our history is clear: our churches are and have always been American mission stations. As Charles Chaney has frankly said it: “The missionary task is one task.”4 The failure to recognize our churches as missions stations does not mean they are not. And if our churches are found to be missions stations, our ministry efforts are guilty by association as well.
“We have seen it out here in the West, where beside our rivers and lakes our towns expand; the first petal it puts forth is the Church—the second is the theatre.”
— an unnamed Unitarian minister, as quoted in Life: the Movie by Neal Gabler
It is generally common knowledge that for years the church and her adherents led the way in regard to caring for the sick, elderly and poor in America. The social gospel of the late 19th century emphasized Christian charity, some would argue at the cost of soteriological efficacy.5 All across the country, Catholic, Methodist and Baptist hospitals dot the cityscapes, from major metropolitan areas to farming towns on the byways. Nursing homes, homeless shelters, entire quasi-franchised drug rehabilitation centers all were fueled by Christian compassion for the less-fortunate and desperate. These facilities and programs were designed to alleviate suffering, an attempt to cure social ills and better the general welfare of the communities in our nation. And yet here we are, well into the 21st century, and these problems still persist and are as prevalent as they ever were, possibly worse.
Of course, the sick and poor will always be with us; about this Jesus was certainly correct. That said, if the problems we have set out to address have not been solved or even appear to be improving after an entire century (and counting, both before and after) of Christian charity and attempts at social justice, we must stop looking at how bad the situations have gotten and begin to analyze our methods, ethical standards and theological basis. Given the fact that the presence of churches has not stemmed the tide of cultural postmodernism and the rise of post-Christian America, is it then any wonder why our attempts to make our cities and towns better places have also not solved issues of drug abuse or homelessness?
At this point, I slightly digress to address a potential criticism of my thesis, that these “American missions stations” have actually expounded problems than adequately addressed them. It is true that hospitals and clinics do not make sickness worse (though a day spent in a urgent care waiting room might convince one otherwise), that would be the correlation-causation fallacy. And that would be a valid form of refutation, but for hospitals and clinics, and even then a point for the thesis can be made. There are those who, for whatever reason, will habitually show up in emergency rooms and urgent care centers trying to work the system. And therein lies the problem: it’s a system.
“There’s a great soup kitchen in downtown Scranton. Delicious pea soup on Thursdays.”
— Creed Bratton, NBC sitcom The Office
The Christian response to real people’s suffering in our midst is to create systems. Systems do not care for people, they fulfill perceived needs and perceived requests are inherently prejudicial statements. Homeless shelters do not solve problems of homelessness because they only treat the immediate symptom and operate with an implicit premise that there is enough of a long-term need that a church or non-profit is justified in making such an investment. Even a Christian homeless shelter will not solve homelessness, if for no more obvious reason than Christian salvation does not come with a home, a soup kitchen does not keep a person full, but rather gives the down and out another option for shelter or food tomorrow. Similarly, inner city ministries are reliant on the premise that inner cities are dangerous, violent places and they also happen to be sinful. Christian drug rehabilitation programs rely on a similar premise as the homeless shelter: if the problem weren’t long-term, there wouldn’t be such a push for investing in facilities, materials and manpower.
Again, we see that these are problem-based solutions; cynically, they are solutions looking for problems. Could it possibly be, then, that our churches operate in a similar way: that they exist to address the perceived sinfulness of the saved and secular? If one historically has come from the other, is there a way to say no with a straight face and sober mind? The reality of the matter is that our ministry efforts are a direct reflection of how we view ourselves, a window into the soul of a faith community. Frankly, if what we are doing is out of some misguided sense of civic duty, then we have already failed to act in Christ-likeness and we have failed ethically. We cannot extend a hand of compassion while our collective head is turned and the other collective hand is pinching shut the collective nose.
As the Great Society government initiatives of the 1960s have proved, soulless disregard for the personal nature of social problems has left in its wake nothing but cultural devastation and dependency. Housing projects destroyed the once-proud fabric of African-American communities, welfare payments took away the incentive for disadvantaged people to find work, the poor got poorer while also losing their (owned) homes for (rented/subsidized) ‘housing’. Governments are not supposed to be in the business of compassion, the terms ‘government’, ‘business’ and ‘compassion’ are prima facie mutually exclusive in the supposedly constitutionally democratic West. And, while the term ‘church’ should invoke the imago Christus, perhaps in actuality, it should be included amongst the aforementioned as well if the Church operates in such a cold, problem-based manner in response to the needs of those the Church has mandated themselves to reach.
Thus another problem arises in relation to these missions stations, an existential Catch-22: do these outreaches exist to address particular needs with the intent of ending them, or do they exist to address a need that will never go away? While a third way also exists (what if there is no endgame in mind?), it ultimately would fall into the second category, the lack of endgame thinking would seem to indicate that there is no end to the various social ills, or else they would strategize in a way that would show they are interested in ending problems instead of unintentionally embracing them.
These organizations, and the people who staff and support them, are not acting out of malice: many of these people are Christians who take their faith seriously. They are simply unaware of the unintended consequences of our outreach efforts, but are all for changing things for the better. If the missions station model has been largely abandoned overseas, why do we still rely on it here in the States, which are admittedly post-Christian? And why has there been so little second thinking on the matter?6
In our zeal to serve God and the world with compassion and a message of repentance, in a way that sometimes seems to reflect Machiavelli’s prince more than Christ’s great commission, we have othered the downtrodden. My reasoning is based in a criticism of overseas missions: many times I recall it was commonplace for missionaries to come to churches wearing the garb of the culture they were working with and have slide shows of desperate mothers and children in examples of extreme poverty, only to eventually get to a picture of the missionary, usually in American business casual or a classic minister’s suit, preaching at some kind of crusade or church with a financial appeal at the end. Though they have definitive Christian foundations established and have their own native missions efforts, America still is eager to send missionaries to South America and Africa. During the Cold War, it was thrilling to hear about Bible smuggling operations past the Iron Curtain, underground church meetings and escaping the police. A similar excitement exists today with missions efforts into the so-called 10/40 window.
I’m afraid that we supported these missionaries because they offered a kind of sex appeal: these are exotic people with exotic traditions, if for no other reason than they are merely different than the Scandanavian American nuclear family sitting in a church in the upper Midwest, transfixed by the stories of how badly these people need the gospel we’re going to take to them. And the reasons for reaching these people are not entirely pure, when 1) we have already othered them; and 2) Evangelical mission is heavily guided primarily by eschatology rather than compassion: “…And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”7 What, then, is the reason for domestic social justice ministry? Genuine compassion, a desire to see things change or perhaps is it white guilt? Perhaps it is, to varying degrees, all of them.
Though the culture has dramatically shifted away from Judeo-Christian moorings, our strategies have not; in so doing, there has been a dual syncretism taking place: these ministries accept the fact that they will not make things better and simply keep operating for the sake of operating, and those who are recipients of these outreaches always have options that keep them in a cycle of dependency. Neither option is very palatable, but very much rooted to the reality of the situation.
The aforementioned one-stop urban missions stations that began to spring up in the 1990s came from a megachurch model that saw its height of popularity in the late 80s and early 90s. Such an idea is reminiscent of Oral Roberts’ failed City of Faith complex, itself an unorthodox syncretism of faith healing and medical practice that ended in embarrassing fashion in 1989. A one-stop urban missions station developed in a former hospital in Los Angeles was the brainchild of an charismatic megachurch in Phoenix, which linked the missions effort to the church they were planting in the same area. The model was so blatantly similar that the pastor’s son became the pastor and director of the LA enterprise. A similar effort was started in New York by the same people who launched LA, and the idea began to grow.
Sensing the excitement, a denominational branch in Wisconsin was hoping for a similar effort in Milwaukee. A Milwaukee-area health care provider finally donated an old hospital complex in 2000, and ambitious churches and denominational leaders rallied behind what some bragged would be Milwaukee’s own version of the LA operation. Nine years later, the dilapidated complex sits largely vacant, some of it parceled off to developers, a fraction of it actually used for ministry and efforts to keep it alive have nearly caused a financial implosion for the denominational chapter. More tellingly, the neighborhood where this complex is has not been rejuvenated in the least by their presence; Milwaukee’s most dangerous years, including being in the running for being the “murder capital” of the US, were during the nine years between the opening of the complex and today. They may not have contributed to making things worse, but clearly, things are not getting better in the central city. With or without them, Milwaukee, a once-proud city with a great sense of tradition, continues to rot with few silver linings around the myriad dark clouds.
The same denomination is the parent of a major Christian drug rehabilitation program, which proudly cites an 86% long-term success rate.8 The program is a fusion of drug rehab, Christian discipleship and personal renovation, with facilities and programs all around the world. Its advent was the subject of a compelling, best-selling book in the early 1960s and is a major recipient of donations and denominational manpower. After over 50 years of existence, a major US initiative to crack down on the drug trade and thousands upon thousands of dollars in donations, rehabilitation ministry to drug addicts is as needed as ever. It is true that they were the benefactors of failed domestic policy, they have also failed to resolve one of the most troubling domestic problems America faces.
“For the poor you will always have with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”
— Mark 14.7 [ESV]
In the zeal of wanting to improve our communities, Christians have devoted countless hours and an enormous amount of money and manpower in the attempt to cure some of the social ills that have plagued our culture for seemingly as long as America has been a country. Some efforts predate the nation, others came from the grassroots of the American churches and revivals. While we ought to admire the efforts of those who have tried to make the world a better place, in the same manner, we ought to face the sobering reality that we not only have not solved these problems, but have accidentally perpetuated them by creating institutions and programs that only address these issues as extensions of sin.
In conclusion, and to be fair, these efforts are not the only ones worthy of criticism: first, no one person or organization has adequately tackled issues of homelessness or drug addiction. One must, when considering the gravity of the matter, consider whether or not Jesus was right when he suggested that these problems may never go away. How seriously do we take his advice? It seems to be that the best remedy for overcoming such problems lies within the will of those who are homeless or addicted. Shelters can be exploited and rehab can quickly turn into relapse, but the determined person, surrounded by a supportive community can overcome.
Second, these Christian social justice enterprises are a direct mirror image of the Church’s utter inability to grant others the grace of humanity needed to be made whole. As the missions stations of old failed to adequately bring the message of Christ to cultures, the American missions stations which dot the landscape from one coast to the other—that is, our churches—have a myopic, sin-oriented perspective that permeates everything we do, giving off a sense of persona non grata to anyone who is different than us. Like the religious leaders of antiquity, Evangelicals have a difficult time seeing people for their inherent value but for their sin status. A properly Christian ethic addresses those who are poor or afflicted with compassion, while flatly refusing to other those who may not be ‘one of us’. The fusion of proselytizing with charitable work has left these well-intentioned organizations insufficient in regard to both: if our churches cannot adequately convey the gospel to the surrounding culture, what gives us any hope that our social justice efforts will adequately address the serious needs of our suffering neighbors?
In short, perhaps we, the Christians, are the ones who need to be rehabilitated.
1Guenther, p. 457
2A good example of this is found in Hovland, p. 144
3Some would argue that the early patron saints were, in fact, a syncretism of Christian faith and pre-Christian European gods.
4Chaney, p. 52
5The social gospel movement’s advent during the same time period as the holiness movement’s tent revival meetings and healing crusades is, in all likelihood, not mere coincidence.
6Multiple searches for criticism of urban ministry efforts or missions stations models of Christian evangelization, over multiple academic and periodical databases, yielded nothing that directly relates to this matter. The auxiliary material is included in the bibliography and has influenced this work, as noted elsewhere, but to this specific concern, the voices are eerily quiet.
8While they do good work, the 86% statistic only tells so much: it neglects those who are dismissed or withdraw from the program, and it, like the 50% divorce rate tossed about several years ago in churches, comes from a 1975 government study. (Citation withheld to protect the organization.)