Rice Christians

I have gone on several short-term mission trips. I love going and think they’re awesome, but not because I think that I can “save” anybody in a week. Actually the reason I go is to be further converted to Christianity by serving people who seem to have a deeper, richer relationship with God than I do. In Methodism, missions is mostly about service and awakening to the realities of global injustice for the person going on the trip. In the evangelical world where I grew up, missions was primarily about saving souls; if you gave people a “cup of cold water,” it was so that you could talk to them about Jesus. But as missionary Laura Parker shares in a recent post, when you use a bait and switch missions approach, what you end up with are “rice Christians.”

My mission work has primarily been in Latin America supporting churches indigenous to the region who always took the lead in whatever outreach we did in the community, so I have never experienced the complete cultural dissonance that Parker had in her Asian mission setting:

I was face-to-face with the realities that the story of Jesus was so completely other to the people I was living among. Buddhism and the East had painted such a vastly different framework than the one I was used to that I was at a loss as to how to even begin to communicate the gospel effectively.

Parker shares that after spending a long period of time learning the culture and building trust with very little “progress” in terms of people converting to Christianity, she started to hear about short-term mission teams claiming to have bagged “decisions for Christ.”

Sometimes they would do vacation bible schools for the kids, other times they would show a film. Sometimes they would do a sermon or go door-to-door. Other times, they would help build a bathroom or a water well or a new church. These Americans — many of whom didn’t know the language and hadn’t studied the culture– often came back thrilled to have witnessed several locals seemingly convert from Buddhism to Christianity. After three days of ministry.

Hearing these stories was somewhat disillusioning for Parker, but as she got to know others in the missionary community, she began to hear the term “rice Christian” being thrown around about local people who get a bag of rice or other goods and services (that “cup of cold water”) from a group of affluent Westerners who then want to talk about Jesus through a translator for a few minutes and pray a sinner’s prayer afterwards if they’re “ready.”

It could go a bit like this: uneducated villagers, a little (or a lot) in awe of the white American, are provided with goods they desperately need, entertainment that encourages their kids, and attention by the wealthy Westerner, all of which they gladly accept. And at some point over the course of the event, the Westerners share honestly about their religion and eventually ask for public professions of faith. And, seriously, what’s an impoverished person, raised in a culture of respect, supposed to do in light of  this turn of events?

So think on that the next time you want to keep score on a mission trip. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do vacation Bible school and that sort of thing. We do it every mission trip, and I think that giving the kids in the community a basic knowledge of songs and stories about Jesus is a wonderful gift. But trying to get them to “make a decision” so we can add jewels to our crown turns the mission trip into a tour of self-congratulation. I wrote in a previous post that Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood is an excellent resource for mission teams. By all means, go to far away places even if you have only a week, but don’t go there to save people; go there to be saved by Jesus.

15 thoughts on “Rice Christians

  1. You are so right, Morgan. We want to believe that we have “converted the heathen” to Jesus (that is why we are there, right?) but if we are blessed and truthful, it is WE who become more deeply aware of others and to HIS plan to witness salvation to them. We are instuments of HIS peace, equality and love, as well as tasked to planting the evangelical seed for those who are searching higher salvation beyond food, shelter and political justice. (Many thanks to Laura Parker for saying it much better than I).
    If we truly learned anything from our trips, we learned that many people already know and deeply love God… “differently”. We humble ourselves by losing the arrogance we initially displayed, and open our eyes to also see Christ “differently”. We do the hard work we were sent to do, provide the necessary social relief, and we show God’s unconditional love by giving of ourselves better than VBS or any pamphlet.
    We should come away more personally convicted that we serve a living God who is visable in the harshest of environments and is present amongst the poorest of the poor (of which, we, also are included).

  2. exactly! the only person who benefits from the prosperity gospel is the guy who sells your his books, videos and other merchandise–that is not God’s saving grace. as for short term missions, yes it is wonderful for the prosperous americans to go and see how others in the world live, just remember that you’re there to get perspective and to be saved by Jesus in the world. the quota tally has got to stop. be the example of Christ in their lives and let them witness God in their community. sow the seed. the reaping will come later and probably not by you.

  3. “But trying to get them to “make a decision” so we can add jewels to our crown turns the mission trip into a tour of self-congratulation”

    A sobering thought and one I agree with. If people were honest about their mission trips it would make them a whole lot more fruitful. My conviction is that we are called to be wholly present to all we come in contact with and be Jesus to them in the leading of Holy Spirit in what he wants to be to them in that moment. He may want to feed them, to make them laugh, to comfort them; but he won’t be forcing a decision upon them. We don’t save people; he does and we have to trust him in the process and if we can play a small part in that then it’s a great privilege. (It’s also never about putting a notch on our belts of how many souls we saved – that thought makes me nauseous).

    • I hear you. Although I live in ‘Catholic’ Ireland and it’s not so much that people here need to be converted out of Catholicism but they do need to meet Jesus and know the heart of the Father. A lot of damage has been done in my country at the hands of terrible men representing Jesus which needs to change. The real heart of Jesus needs to be presented to all denominations.

    • As a Christian (Protestant, but I hate labels), I tend to be more ecumenical in spirit. If I get into a conversation about faith with someone who already claims to be a Catholic (or Orthodox), rather than convert them to Protestantism like many Evangelicals do, I simply engage them in a conversation about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This is something that all of us Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) can learn from one another. Even though I am Protestant (technically speaking) I often learn from my Catholic and Orthodox brothers, as I hope they too have something to learn from me.

      • I am all for ecumenism! And, certainly, there are Christians of all sorts — but particularly, perhaps, “cultural Catholics” — who need to be called to a deeper relationship with Christ.

    • The Christian theologians who have shaped my thought the most have been Latin American Catholics like Oscar Romero, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Jon Sobrino.

      • Yes. He was a Franciscan priest. I had heard that he was banished from the priesthood because he got married and suffered from alcoholism. But, I am not 100% certain of these claims.

  4. This is exactly the same dilemma we are facing with our work among the Roma in Albania. They are an impoverished people group living in the slums of Tirane. Many groups including Christian missionaries, NGOs, and others come to give free handouts in their community, including: clothing, food, hygiene products, water. Maybe the groups will put on a skit or give a brief Gospel message. The Roma will cooperate, act excited, and maybe say YES to Jesus. Anything to receive their tangible reward. Then, the groups leave. Never to be seen again. As a long term missionary these same Roma wonder what we’re here for. They ask why we don’t give them anything. We tell them we will help when we can, but our primary mission is to share and show the love of Christ through our lives. Doing life and community together. Sharing the Gospel, not for quick conversions to add to our quota. But also doing something that will help long term. I think of poverty alleviation. This is why I am currently in the process of praying and thinking about what can be a long-term solution to helping them exit from the cycle of poverty. They are both spiritually and physically impoverished. But, I believe if we address both the spiritual poverty and the physical poverty their lives will be greatly changed for the better. Another problem we face is the spread of the prosperity gospel. Some Roma are taught that if they only believe in Jesus, they will no longer be poor, receive a new house, be absolved of their debt, and get a high paying job. I think the prosperity gospel in many ways does more harm than the groups that come out to give free handouts.

    The bottom line. It takes years to invest in people’s lives, both spiritually and physically. For some, it may mean this is where we spend the rest of our lives.

    • I love the Roma! I am sure that you are offering wonderful, much-needed aid, but please be careful to recognize how we invariably bring our own Western lens through which we view poverty, and realize that the “impoverished” in the “slums” may not feel that they are so poor, and may take pride in what they have managed to make of their living situation.

      I can think of no worse cultural group to whom to introduce the prosperity gospel. Wow. Total agreement. They are going to love that — until it doesn’t pay out, and then they are more disbelieving than they started.

      • Thanks for your caution. This is exactly what the book, “When Helping Hurts” addresses. This is why rather than I think what they need, it is more prudent for me (or any of us) to solicit the input from the community to find out what their felt needs are. And, this is exactly what I have been doing. Now, I just need to pray and determine how best to initiate it.

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