Mission trips and the history of imperialism

Beginning in the 1500s, and stretching all the way to the beginning of the 20th century, the historical Age of Imperialism fundamentally changed how Christians evangelized, and especially how they did missionary work. Imperialism tied Christianity to Western culture, ultimately forming the white Christianity we see today and, consequently, imposing it on people groups all over the world. Historically, this conquest has included forcing native people to dress like Europeans, even when such attire was impractical in the climate, and forcing them to eat European diets, even when it caused major health issues. Europeans made no effort to learn the culture of the native people; instead, they enforced their own culture because they believed it was superior to the “savage” or “uncivilized” cultures of other people groups.

Imperialism established a way of systematically stealing resources and economic prospects so that the charities and missions of the time gave back only enough to sustain those communities, while keeping power in the imperialists’ hands.”

It’s easy to pretend that this mentality was left behind in the past, but that’s far from the truth. Oftentimes, mission trips seem to take on a savior mentality, similar to the one that existed throughout imperialistic history: that those going to “help” have the resources and are providing for these people, as well as saving them from poverty, disease or drought. Rather, quite the opposite is true. We need to understand that, while many people who partake in mission trips do live a very privileged life with resources that aren’t available to others, it’s not because of a superiority they possess, but because the broken world we live in is built on systems of racism whose roots trace back to the era of imperialism.

Historically people have been deprived of resources and access to economic gains, and are suffering repercussions even now. Imperialism established a way of systematically stealing resources and economic prospects so that the charities and missions of the time gave back only enough to sustain those communities, while keeping power in the imperialists’ hands. Now, we must find a lasting and productive way to give back not only the resources, but also the agency to these communities and societies. 

A key component of imperialism was the imposition of white Christianity onto subjected communities. In order to combat this, we must actively learn about the culture we are entering into. Long-term missions and charities who understand what the community needs, why they need it, and the best way to provide should be used as examples. Organizations should have native community members in their leadership because the people of the community know how to best serve that community. 

Short term missions —  in which many of us participate — need to improve as well. Ideally, they work with established community organizations and simply serve. We are not there to take pictures with cute little kids; we are there to ask what they need, provide and serve. We spread Christianity by showing the serving heart of Christ, not by forcing it. 

Additionally, the procedures for anthropological studies can be a source of inspiration for how we can improve charity and evangelism in underdeveloped countries. When conducting an anthropological study, the anthropologist will live among the people they are studying for an extended period of time. They eat the same things, they live in the same conditions, and they learn the language. Through this, they are able to become part of the community and to better understand their way of life. 

Because of the corrupt past of imperialism and imposed Christianity, we need to be especially wary of how we, as Christians, go about mission trips. We are not there to implement a way of life, but to serve, learn, and understand, and do so in a way that is rooted in love, not superiority or laced with the painful history of imperialism.