A couple of missionaries in Cambodia wanted to do something to encourage the church they had planted, give them more credibility in their community, and provide opportunities for evangelism. Seeing the health needs around them, they decided to bring a team of doctors and nurses from the United States to serve the Cambodians.
The medical team arrived, and everything when according to plan. They visited Cambodian families in their homes, treated their medical needs, and shared the Gospel. May responded, accepting Jesus and agreeing to come to church.
I’m sure the Americans went home and gave a glowing report about the great work God had done in Cambodia.
Before leaving, the medical team gave a list of new converts to the local church for follow-up. These baby believers would need encouragement and discipleship in their new faith. But when the Cambodian Christians went to visit these homes, they were given a cold reception. They were even lectured on their acceptance of a “foreign religion.” Instead, of asking to know more about Jesus, the families asked for more medicine.
What went wrong?
It turned out that the American medical team, being well educated and (relatively) wealthy, had higher social status than the local believers. Plus, they were handing out medical care for free, creating a what one mission consultant calls a “patron-client” relationship. The Americans made themselves needed, and the Cambodians perceived themselves as “needy.” As a result, the families that were evangelized agreed with whatever the Americans suggested. That was the culturally expected response, and had nothing to do with the wooing of the Holy Spirit.
Not being doctors and nurses themselves, the local church didn’t enjoy the same superior status, and so received a totally different response. Instead of increasing their credibility, when they were compared with the visiting medical team they lost status.
Additionally, the local church lacked the resources and expertise to replicate this method of evangelism. They had to rely on outside help, rather than take responsibility for reaching those around them.
When churches from wealthy nations use their abundant resources to reach out to people in poorer countries, there is a distinct danger of allowing donated goods and services to displace the gospel. Are people coming for the food, clothing, and medical care, or because the Holy Spirit is drawing them? And how will the local church be able to compete?
We need to be wary of creating a sense of dependency. We must get past the idea of seeing ourselves as the answer to the problem, the source of resources, goods, and ideas. Instead of ministering from a position of superiority, we need to consider ourselves humble servants.