There are a thousand ways to debate the pros and cons of missionary work. From historical examples of human rights disasters to the potential unethical consequences of pushing a religion on someone, to the debate on whether charitable acts help communities or simply worsen “white savior complex,” there is a lot to unpack. An extra layer of murky morality is created when discussing children’s involvement in mission’s work.
As a child, I grew up going to an Assemblies of God church. (This denomination is technically non-denominational Pentecostal; or, as Christian comedian Tim Hawkins put it, “Baptists with a cool website.” It’s a fairly average, laid back church setting.) One of my favorite things about Children’s Church was a program called BGMC, or Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge. This program was highly inventive and rewarding as well as deeply flawed. When taught correctly I believe it can do more good than harm, but there is a worrying potential for failure.
One week out of the month, our Sunday School lesson revolved around a country where missionaries worked. We would see a powerpoint, hear a “true missions” story about a harrowing adventure ending in divine intervention, and learn about the culture. This included a paper handout with some basic facts and a few phrases in the country’s main language, pictures of the nation in the powerpoint, and a sample of a traditional food from the country. Then the children would hear about what missionaries were doing to help people and have the opportunity to donate money if they felt the need to. I’m going to discuss my opinions on each aspect in the following paragraphs:
The powerpoint: These presentations have some great qualities. They restate a lot of the country facts mentioned in the paper handout, and they discuss what life is like for an average person in that country. There would be a greater variety of pictures than on the paper, which made the country feel more like a real place to kids who had usually never traveled abroad. There would be a story of a child would was supposed to represent a typical kid in that country. It spoke of the child’s favorite school subject, games they used to entertain themselves, things like that. The main problem is that the child chosen would be someone involved in a program the missionaries ran. For example, if they ran a church they interviewed a child in their Sunday School class, or if they distributed meals to poor families the child would be a recipient of these meals. While it is good to expose kids to the lives of others and remind them that poverty does not negate humanity, it often created the idea that most people abroad were living in slums or struggling to eat. That is the case for many people and should be acknowledged, but believing that to be the norm everywhere outside of the US can convey subliminal messages that people live better, are more advanced here in our wonderful country. It can also create an “us vs. them” mentality. A prominent example of this occurred when my friend from Mexico came in to speak about her country and culture. The idea was to give the kids a firsthand, more thorough account of what life was like there. The kids, of course well-intentioned in their naivety, asked a multitude of questions. “Are there cars in Mexico?” “Are there toilets in Mexico?” “Do people there watch TV?” I began to realize that the assumption for these children was that life abroad was vastly different beyond cultural differences. Ideally educators should find a way to balance acknowledging the hardships of areas where poverty is prevalent while also showcasing ways in which people’s lives are rich and diverse. There is some effort to do this, such as giving examples of games children like to play, but there is certainly for improvement.
The true missions story: The positive aspect of this is that these stories were all real life situations, and they highlighted peace and compassion. Some scenarios involved natural disasters from which God rescued the missionaries, while others were more mundane. The most interesting were those where someone brought a threat of danger. The “bad guy” character/s would attempt to harm the missionaries, who would never fight fire with fire. Often the bad person was actually a good person in need of prayer and/or love. In a way, that’s a good message for children. Some conflicts should be approached this way. It should also be noted, though, that this style of story telling has the potential to put missionaries on a pedestal. The kind, benevolent heroes that save the day. That school of thought not only has the ability to minimize problems caused by mission work, but also to view members of foreign cultures as defenseless victims who need someone to come save them from themselves. Granted, it won’t automatically make children believe that, but it plants the first seeds of ethnocentrism. The more harrowing of these stories can also make the idea of visiting other nations seem frightening and dangerous. It’s not wise to paint a child’s first picture of a place (and, by extension, the people living there) as somewhere to be afraid of.
Paper handout: This was lots of fun. Kids would run around after church shouting mispronounced words in random languages. Some would actually remember the capital city or most popular sport of the place they were learning about. I honestly can’t think of a problem with handing out fact sheets about different countries. Trying to memorize new words marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong love of linguistics for me. It is a great idea to give children information about other nations and cultures in a fun environment. It makes the differences seem intriguing rather than frightening.
Food: This is another part I cannot complain about. I am not sure if this was part of actual curriculum or something my children’s pastor invented, but it’s a fantastic way of introducing children to the cuisine of a foreign country. Food is an important, yet strangely overlooked, part of culture. Additionally, it’s easy to teach without much room for problems. Some parents might become upset over discussions about religious differences or gory subjects like war, and kids won’t find political dilemmas particularly interesting. Food is something everyone loves, and controversy can be avoided if the educator knows about any allergies and doesn’t make a meal of an unconventional animal. Kids being kids, there were always picky eaters and other unavoidable small problems, but otherwise it was a way to both understand what types of dishes were common in other places and to humanize those living there. It’s difficult to empathize with someone living in a slum when a child has little concept of what that means; it’s much easier to feel the textures and flavors and imagine someone else’s mouth experiencing the same food in a different part of the world.
Donation: The last few slides of the informational powerpoint talk about how missionaries in the country are helping people. This includes a mixture of charity and sharing religious beliefs. After that, the children have the opportunity to come forward with money to donate. I am not going to go too far in depth about how I feel about the way this donation money can be used, because I could write a whole different blog post comparing the importance of charity and the unease at combining charity with spreading religious beliefs. (If you tell a person on the brink of starvation that they will be fed at a church service, this person isn’t attending because they genuinely want to learn about Christianity.) I will say that it’s a decent way to help kids feel involved with the people they want to help. However, this is a system which is very easy to abuse. No matter how the rest of the lesson is taught, there is never a point in which children should be guilted or persuaded to give money. I’ve seen lovely pastors take on a no-pressure approach as well as well-meaning leaders making kids feel awful for wanting to spend their offering money on a candy bar. (Teaching selflessness is great, but it is unethical for guilt to be used as a money-grubbing tactic like this.)
When all is said and done, this is an intriguing system with a lot of potential. I will save my opinions on mission work in general for another time. I should mention that I attribute much of my fascination with other cultures to my church’s BGMC program. While I find many flaws with it and some of the messages it (unconsciously) promotes, it helped instill a desire to get to know people and places I am unfamiliar with. I am currently studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, and living with a host family. Instilling children with knowledge about people different from them in a positive setting is wonderful and important. It should be done in more settings, and include differences not only in culture but other areas as well. (A quick Google search can show a multitude of adorable stories of young children who were appropriately educated being kind to their peers with disabilities. My favorite is a little boy finding a book at the library that taught him some basic sign language to play with a deaf neighbor.) While BGMC is far from perfect, when taught by a caring and competent teacher it is beneficial to growing minds and is worth having in a Sunday School setting.