Through Every Land: Missionaries – It’s Complicated

In Defense of Missionaries:
It’s Complicated

I grew up in a Baptist context that revered missionaries. The back wall of the sanctuary contained the names, pictures, and places of service of all of “our” missionaries – the ones to which we directly gave support. Their birthdays were always remembered and their occasional newsletters were posted on a missions bulletin board for all to see. As I recall, the standard practice was to invite a furloughed missionary to speak and show slides of their ministry at the Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve. Additional services, especially Sunday evenings, were given to other furloughed missionaries to whom we contributed support. The coming of a missionary to our church generated excitement. These dedicated people had given up much and endured considerable hardship to serve in “exotic” lands, or so it seemed to a boy in Des Moines.

Missionaries responded to a call to “labor unrewarded,” as the earliest version of Margaret Clarkson’s hymn, “So Send I You,” sometimes cited as “the Missionary Hymn of the Twentieth Century,” stated:

So send I you to labor unrewarded
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown
To bear rebuke, of suffer scorn and scoffing
So send I you to toil for Me alone.

For the entire hymn, see

It actually may have been this hymn, sung throughout all my formative years, that discouraged me from considering such service, or perhaps planted a seed that I could never reach this level of commitment. Growing up, I discerned four levels of faith commitment in my Baptist context: 1) the first was an initial statement of faith; 2) next was rededication of one’s life; 3) third was dedication to full-time Christian service; 4) the highest was responding to the call for overseas or “foreign” missions. While I responded to the first three levels at one time or another, the final level seemed perhaps beyond my spiritual and vocational grasp.

Who knows, but my professional (academic) interest in the music and worship of the world church as well as the travel that this study entails may have become a vocational substitute for service as a “foreign” missionary. I know that from the moment I was contacted to take the place of a furloughed Baptist music missionary in Ogbomosho, Nigeria for a semester in 1989, I was going to do it. There was no hesitancy on my part. I left the family at home, went to Nigeria for nearly six months, and loved every minute of it!


Missionaries in Southeastern Asia – It all begins here: Statue of Francis Xavier (1506-1552), Portuguese missionary, outside St. Paul’s Church, Malacca (Melaka), the site of the oldest church in Malaysia and Southeast Asia (chapel established in 1521) on the summit of St. Paul’s Hill in the historic district of modern Melaka. [See header image of the structure today.] Following the Portuguese colonization of the Malay peninsula (1541), Francis Xavier with other Jesuit priests established a school on the site of the church in 1548, considered by some to be the first school in the modern sense on the Malay peninsula. He was temporarily buried at this site, but his body was exhumed and buried at the Basilica of Bom Jésus in Goa, a state in western India, in 1553. His network of mission activities throughout the region is legendary.

One of the many benefits of my current pilgrimage is a renewed sense of appreciation of the missionaries that laid the ground work for the work that I witness today. Having just finished teaching, leading workshops, and participating in worship in six Asian countries in 3 ½ months, I observe that 1) Christians in these countries have a reverence for the missionaries that first brought the gospel to their part of the world; 2) many congregations are actively engaged in mission activities both nearby and in other countries; 3) discussion about the efficacy of colonial mission efforts have come under severe scrutiny during the last century; 4) the nature of missions is much more complex in a highly pluralistic religious environment.

Reverence for the First Missionaries

It has become popular of late to point out the inadequacies of earlier missionaries who seemed to be quite “culturally insensitive.” For example, in The Mission (1986), a Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) teaches the Guarani Indian children in the Amazon jungle to sing Renaissance motets in Latin. See

In The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver, Georgia (USA) native Nathan Price seems to be the stereotype of a spiritually driven, culturally insensitive, colonially minded missionary who follows a self-proclaimed mandate to bring the gospel to the then-Belgian Congo. In doing so, his family suffers in many ways, partially because of his neglect of them. Their counterparts, the Underdowns, a Belgian missionary family, though perhaps much more likable, also bring their own brand of colonialism. While there are plenty of problems in both of these families, and they do represent aspects of missionary endeavors since the mid-19th century, it is overly simplistic to relegate their work, as is the tendency of many scholars, to the dustbin of “colonialism” or remnants of “empire” in Christianity.

It has been my experience to witness again and again a high level of appreciation, even a kind of reverence, for missionaries in Asia by the Christians in these countries. A few cases must suffice.

IMG_2905China. At East China Theological Seminary, Shanghai, I was taken to a special climate-controlled room in the library (these are hard to find in Asian libraries) where were housed publications by the missionaries during the first half of the 20th century. The room was overflowing with Bible study materials, Christian education curricula, doctrinal pamphlets, hymnals, brochures on family health, guides on church administration, and many other topics, all in Chinese. These materials were treasured by the librarian and the seminary and had been rescued during the years following the Communist takeover in China (1949) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) at considerable personal risk to the Chinese Christians who preserved them. Indeed, as the librarian indicated, the destruction of these materials would have been a tragic and significant loss to the heritage of Christianity in China. [Library at East China Theological Seminary, Shanghai]

Taiwan. In my numerous trips to Taiwan in the last twenty years, I am reminded each time of the reverence that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (PCT) has for Dr. James Laidlaw Maxwell, Sr. (1836-1921), a Scottish missionary from the Presbyterian Church of England, and Dr. George Leslie Mackay (1844-1901) of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. As physicians, Maxwell in the south of Taiwan (Tainan) and Mackay in the north of Taiwan (Taipei) set the tone for missions and guided the PCT toward its strong witness against injustice and political oppression. James_Laidlaw_Maxwell







Dr. George Mackay memorial in Taipei [Left]. For more information on Mackay’s ministry, see

More information on some of the accomplishments and hardships of Dr. Maxwell [Right] in south Taiwan is available at

Malaysia. One of the most interesting and revered missionaries in eastern Malaysia is James Matthew Hoover (1872-1935), commissioned by the Methodist Church USA (1900). He arrived (1903) in the Sarawak region in the northern part of the island of Borneo, now eastern Malaysia, under the invitation of the White Rajah Sir Charles Brooke, the third in a dynasty of British rulers of Sarawak. The colonial and empire dimensions of this endeavor were evident from the beginning. Brooke worked with Wong Nai Siong, a Chinese-born Singaporean who had become disenchanted with the Qing dynasty, to bring over 1000 Chinese migrants from Fujian and Guangdong provinces to work the fertile land, mine the tin reserves, and develop rubber plantations. This was the result of economic hardships corruption in the Qing Dynasty and the Opium Wars. Hoover and his wife Ethel Mary, who arrived a year later, were engaged to work among these Foochow Chinese, a work that has led to a dominant presence of Methodists in Sarawak to this day. Hoover was not as responsive to tribal populations, however, including the Iban people.

Yet, Hoover and his wife, Ethel Mary, established 41 churches and 40 schools and a number of firsts, especially in education and early 20th century technology.

Part of the extensive memorial to the James and Ethel Mary Hoover in Sibu, Sarawak. Their accomplishments included:

The first rubber seedlings (1904)
The first steam launch
The first rice huller (1908)
The first girls’ school (1911)
The first generator (1912)
The first agricultural school (1913)
The first bicycle
The first ice making machine
The first circular saw
The first wireless telegraph


A memorial to the Hoovers was erected in a park by the river in Sibu, Sarawak, in appreciation for their selfless ministry. Virtually all visitors coming to the Methodist Church in Sibu are taken to see this large monument. On the one hand, the Hoover’s ministry was clearly carried out in a highly colonial context under the dynasty of a white Rajah from England who imported a particular group of oppressed Chinese to develop the land in his kingdom. On the other hand, the Hoovers, with all of their faults, established a Methodist Chinese presence that thrives to this day. What can I say – It’s complicated.


See the state of Malacca on the lower southwestern section of the Malaysia peninsula where St. Francis Xavier established his school in the 16th century. See Sibu, Sarawak, on the northern section of the Borneo Island where James Hoover ministered to the Foochow Chinese under the monarchy of the Brooke dynasty in the early 20th century for the Methodist Church. Sarawak became a part of the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

Asian Congregations Are Mission-Minded

In each of the six countries I visited this pilgrimage, with the exception of China where overt proselyting is forbidden, congregations were actively engaged in mission efforts. For example, several Singapore Methodists are involved in missions in Cambodia. Wesley Methodist Church in Sibu, Sarawak, was sending a group to earth-quake ravaged Nepal. Predominately Chinese Methodists in Sibu are now making attempts to reach out to the indigenous Iban people, a communal tribal group who live in longhouses that accommodate as many as forty or more extended families. Of course, the spread of Christian missions by South Koreans is famous with more than 10,500 missionaries in at least 150 countries, an effort only surpassed by the United States in the 21st century.

Having experienced some of these Korean efforts in various parts of Asia, one becomes aware of not only the passion of the Koreans, but also perhaps some of the new forms of colonialism that come from the Korean cultural context. On the one hand, the spread of powerful prayer practices is influencing Christian rituals in other countries. At the same time, there is evidence that the sense of male dominance that characterizes Korean culture and hierarchical structures that places Korean missionaries only in decision making roles may also come with Korean mission efforts.

We Are Not Alone in Missions

In a conversation with the President of the Sarawak Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Malaysia, I was told that the most difficult issue facing the Conference was the influx of more conservative Muslim missionaries from western Malaysia to the Christian-dominant eastern part of the country. Christian-Muslim relations have been cooperative and cordial in east Malaysia to date, but the influx of more militant Muslims from the western part of the country threatens this relationship. Muslim missionaries have targeted the poorer rural people such as the Iban tribes, groups that have not received as much attention because of the strong urban work of Chinese Methodists.

An Iban communal longhouse gathering space [right] outside of Sibu, Sarawak. This particular longhouse provides accommodations for 40 family units, some with three or more generations. This longhouse is built on a swampy area near a river [upper left]. Children’s bible school and worship prepared by a local Chinese Sibu congregation [lower left]. See a video at the end of this article of a longhouse worship service singing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in Iban. Note the members of a Chinese Methodist congregation in Sibu who come at least monthly to lead worship in this Iban village.


I am not a missiologist. But, as an academic, I am wary of current movements, often under the labels such as “post-colonial” and “anti-empire,” who seek to dismiss past mission efforts in a wholesale manner. Surely post-colonial perspectives and other recent theological movements offer a corrective to earlier practices, and cooperative missions between missionaries and local Christians is much more desirable. I believe, however, that we have much to learn much from the best of the past missionaries not only in their dedication and service, but also in their ingenuity for working in the people’s lives through medicine, agricultural development, technology, economic improvements, and education. Many immersed themselves holistically in the lives of the people with whom they lived and served. There may be an tendency toward arrogance, even hubris, among many  today that seems to assume that 21st century scholars and mission efforts have special insight into the dangers of cultural imperialism, and an enlightened perspective on post-colonial and anti-empire assumptions. Matthew 7:3 should haunt us when asserting such claims: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV) Yes, these more recent approaches are valuable, but without humility, they may be subject their own forms of imperialism.

NOTE: For those who might expect for me discuss musical imperialism in missions, that must be saved for a later time. By the way, it’s complicated too.

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