Ed McCully of the “Ecuador Five” once wrote a letter to his good friend and missionary teammate, Jim Elliot, that he had resolved to live his life in “reckless abandon” for Christ. Now, if you know anything about To Every Tribe or David Sitton (the founder of To Every Tribe) you know that the phrase “reckless abandon” is at part of the heartbeat of the organization, its leadership and missionaries.
However, over the last two years I have become close to a people who would have a different context and understanding of this phrase, “reckless abandon.” These are the people living in the small villages and towns in Northern Mexico whom myself and others in the Center for Pioneer Church Planting have been ministering among over the last two years. So how would they understand this famous phrase? They would understand it not as who missionaries are but what missionaries have done…to them.
Yes, over the last several years American missionaries and mission organizations have by-in-large recklessly abandoned the people of Northern Mexico, including our own brothers and sisters in Christ. That stings to hear, I know. But let me briefly explain from what I have experienced over the last two years of doing mission in Northern Mexico.
First, well meaning Americans were reckless in their approach to mission in Northern Mexico the last several decades.
Not long ago Northern Mexico was saturated with well-intentioned short-term and long-term mission work. Sadly, the approach to much of this work was driven by the shock that most Americans have when they see the economic and cultural disparity between what they just left back home and what they encounter just across our Southern border. Thus, the approach to mission work in Northern Mexico centered around “service projects,” handing out material goods, building houses, building church buildings, etc.
Sadly, it seems as though nobody stopped to ask what this was communicating to the people. Well, Garry Weaver, points out to the missionary trainees he oversees at To Every Tribe, “One of the best parts about church planting in Northern Mexico is that you get to see the lingering results of mission done poorly.”
The steady flow of American handouts and “service projects” effectively communicated that the Mexicans should move over and let us show them how things should be. In fact, American mission efforts possibly put some people out of business as we brought in clothing to give away and building supplies to build with. Had we never considered that before gringos arrived the Mexican people were getting their own clothes and building their own houses and church buildings. Actually, they were building structures that they could maintain themselves as opposed to the American structures which require different tools, materials and skills to maintain.
The worst result of all of this is twofold. First, along with the handouts and buildings also came decisionistic gospel presentations which focused on getting people to come forward or raise their hand to receive Jesus. Again this is all well-intentioned but perhaps not well thought through. Anyone who has a very basic understanding of the Mexican culture immediately sees why this is a poor approach – Mexican people are very agreeable people. In other words, they do not want to disappoint you. Thus, if you ask them to do something or ask them a question they will give you the answer they believe you want to hear even if they have absolutely no intention of following through.
For example, our team goes around our village inviting dozens of people to our evangelistic Bible studies and every single person gives us the perception that they will be there. In fact, they will even double check the time and place with us before we leave their home. But when the Bible study rolls around a vast majority of those who indicated they would come are not there. Why? Were they lying to us? Well, I guess from a technical sense maybe, but culturally speaking, no. They just did not want to embarrass us or shame us by saying “no” to our faces so they said they will be there even if they had no intention of coming.
This is true for invitations to receive Christ as well. I could go to the villages we worked in right now and get almost every single person I share the gospel with to pray the “sinners’ prayer ” with me, not because they are genuinely giving their lives to Christ but because they do not want to embarrass me by rejecting my message to my face. However, odds are that many or all of them would probably have no real intention of truly following Christ. American Evangelicals have traditionally not only taken this approach but handed out stuff while doing it. Given the cultural context and a desire for the free stuff to keep coming, what other response would you expect? As a result of this simple lack of cultural understanding, American missions practices have led to many false conversions.
Furthermore, I have seen firsthand that this approach has effectively side-lined the Mexican church in gospel proclamation because they cannot reproduce what the Americans just did. Therefore, when presenting the gospel, seeing conversions and discipling people who live in Northern Mexico we must truly walk alongside them in life and have a long-term, fruit-oriented, reproducible approach.
Second, American evangelicals have abandoned our brothers and sisters in Christ in Northern Mexico.
All that was stated above leaves no doubt in the one’s mind that the church in Northern Mexico, in a vast majority of places, is very weak and wide open to heresy and other troubles that come with a lack of proper discipleship and leadership development. This is further compounded by the fact that over the last 15 years or so missionary efforts in Northern Mexico have really dried up due to the growing dangers associated with drug cartel violence.
I am not casting judgment on the churches and mission agencies that have pulled out of this region but I must ask the question, “what does this communicate to the people there?”
Those that I have spoken with feel abandoned. In fact, many people just over the Southern border do not believe gringos keep their word or genuinely care about their well-being. This is surprising when we first learn it but this perception is solidly backed a history of broken promises and leaving them when things got tough. What would you think of people who told you they loved you and wanted you to truly know Christ but when the situation gets dangerous and difficult they stop coming? I think we would all feel how many believers and unbelievers in Northern Mexico feel – recklessly abandoned.
My conclusion then is this: Northern Mexico does not need any more short-term trips seeking to do things for the people that they are capable of doing themselves. The people of Northern Mexico do not need any more slick in-and-out gospel presentations focused on quick decisions. The people of Northern Mexico do not need to be saved by the American heroes with matching t-shirts who come in for a week to help “those poor people.”
What the people of Northern Mexico do need is missionaries and US churches who are committed to loving them and laboring alongside them for the sake of the gospel for the long-haul. They need people who will walk through life with them, teaching them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how they too can make other disciples. In other words, the people of Northern Mexico need what every people need, the fullness of the Great Commission carried out among them.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold,I am with you always, to the end of the age,’” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis added).