Ed McCully of the “Ecuador Five” once wrote in a letter to his good friend and missionary teammate, Jim Elliot, that he had resolved to live his life in “reckless abandon” for Christ. Since their fateful day on that Ecuadorian beachhead this phrase has served as both a a rallying cry and a way of life for many missionaries. There is no doubt that many great Kingdom advances have resulted around the world with the phrase “reckless abandon” echoing in the background.
However, over the last two years I have become close to a people who have a different context and understanding of the phrase, “reckless abandon.” These are the people living in the small villages and towns in Northern Mexico whom myself and others from To Every Tribe 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. I know that stings to hear. But let me briefly explain why this is from what I have experienced over the last two years of doing mission in Northern Mexico.
First, well meaning Americans have been reckless in their approach to mission in Northern Mexico the last several decades.
Not long ago Northern Mexico was saturated with short-term and long-term mission work. As a result some great work was done. On the other hand, there was a substantial amount of work that 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 largely 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 it was meant to help.
The steady flow of American handouts and “service projects” inadvertently communicated that the Mexicans being ministered to would be better off if they just let us show them how things should be. In fact, American missionary efforts have most likely put some of the local people out of business as we brought in clothing to give away and building supplies to build with. Although intentions were good, we may have done better to consider that before we arrived in any given village or neighborhood the Mexican people were buying their clothes locally and building their own houses and church buildings using locally produced materials. Therefore, when Americans began giving away items for free that Mexicans were selling at a cost, the local business owners could not compete and their businesses failed which was damaging both to their families and the local economy.
Along with the handouts and buildings also came invitation-based 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. Those who have an understanding of the Mexican culture immediately see 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 their “no” may sound like a “yes” to one who is unaware of how they culturally communicate. They are not seeking to deceive you, rather they are seeking to help you save face by avoiding the shame of rejection. This cultural communication is crucial in understanding response to the gospel as well.
The impact of coupling handouts with an invitation-based gospel approach cannot be underestimated. The result has been many false conversions, confusion as to what it actually means to be a disciple of Jesus, and the introduction of evangelism and church planting methods that are nearly impossible for the nationals to reproduce. This leads to an ongoing dependency on American missionaries and funds. When this happens we often inadvertently side-line national believers when it comes to their role in carrying out Great Commission work in their communities.
Second, American evangelicals have by-in-large abandoned the people of Northern Mexico.
All that was stated above leaves no doubt in the one’s mind that the church in Northern Mexico, in many 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 10-15 years missionary efforts in Northern Mexico have really dried up due to the growing dangers associated with drug cartels.
While we must be careful not to cast judgment on the churches and mission agencies that have pulled out of this region, we must ask the question, “What does this withdraw communicate to the people being left behind?”
The national believers that I have spent time with over the last few years often feel abandoned. In fact, many people just over the Southern border are cautious about believing promises made by American Christians. This is surprising when we first learn it but this perception is solidly backed by a history of broken promises and leaving them when things got tough. In reality, American evangelicals has left many Mexican evangelicals unprepared to evangelize those around them, sustain biblical churches and continue to grow in their understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
A Better Way Forward
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 (i.e. building houses, giving away handouts, etc). 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 need is missionaries and US churches who are committed to loving them and laboring alongside them for the sake of the gospel. 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. They need missionaries who will invest into their pastors and church leaders in order to better equip them for the work of the ministry they have been called to do. 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).