Whisked from the United States to Costa Rica with nothing but “five weeks of missions ‘training,’” Jamie Wright started blogging to emotionally process and intentionally expose the brokenness she saw crippling the missionary system around her (117). Over the years, her writing evolved from her blog to her first book—The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever—in which she details her journey from sweaty pagan to sweaty missionary to slightly-less-sweaty blogger and minister’s wife.
Admittedly, most of what she has to say has already been said, and said with less profanity. Pastors, churches, and missionaries looking to avoid the mistakes she describes could pick up Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity, Bryant Myers’s Walking with the Poor, or any one of John Perkins’s many works. Even Wright’s excellent suggestion that missionaries should leverage their secular skill sets and “find ‘real jobs,’ pay [their] own way, and fully integrate like normal immigrants or expats” isn’t unique to her (196). Indeed, that model of missional marketplace workers constitutes a key piece of the International Mission Board’s “limitless” vision.
And yet, despite acres of worthy scholarship offering solutions, these problems persist. And with the stakes as colossally high as they are in the work of the Great Commission, it’s not surprising that Wright feels she needs the strongest available language to express just how unacceptable these missteps are.
Do the Homework
If there’s one thing Wright and I could have a good, old-fashioned screaming session over, it’s unequipped and unstrategic missionaries. As she writes, “It’s not enough to just show up ignorant and ill-prepared and expect God to work miracles,” be it in long-term missionary work or with short-term teams (8–9). Yes and amen.
Now, no missionary assessment or training system is or ever will be perfect, but “we have a responsibility, as the church, to choose whom we send, so that we send the right people to do the right things in the right places—and to not send them when it’s not right” (133). We must be willing to tell spiritually immature or cross-culturally ignorant church members that they can’t go overseas, at least not yet.
Our churches must be communities that are qualified and equipped to assess missionary candidates. We must be willing to forego the splashy, Instagrammable #MissionTrip moments in favor of short-term trips that actually support long-term, strategic missions work.
We must be willing to tell spiritually immature or cross-culturally ignorant church members that they can’t go overseas, at least not yet.
Additionally, wide swathes of Wright’s memoir read like a colorful companion piece to Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts. She points out the economic damage done to communities by free missionary labor, the relational damage done to families when foreigners provide what parents cannot, and the emotional damage done to orphans “when a never-ending stream of smiling volunteers comes and goes from their lives” (180). She also shows how incredibly patronizing it is for American missionaries to blaze in and overtake the diligent missions work of local churches.
In a frenetic yet insightful sweep covering everything from useless donated clothing to corruption in orphan care, Wright makes it clear that “poverty is . . . complicated” (172), and missionaries can’t afford to do their work in ignorance of the principles of poverty alleviation.
Indeed, we at the International Mission Board are constantly examining our missions practices for that poison Corbett and Fikkert call “paternalism,” in which the materially rich seek to “help” the materially poor without reference to their own abilities, knowledge, preference, or input. Whenever the missionary task touches issues of disaster response, fair trade, hunger relief, and even financial subsidy of new church plants, missionaries have a responsibility to seek out and follow sound advice on poverty alleviation.
Real As It Gets
While Wright’s missional methodology might be sound, her gospel message isn’t. And this undoes her entire project.
Chapter 9 of her memoir, “Get Real,” relates her own struggle with authenticity as she learns to set aside the mask of perfection that Christians and non-Christians alike wear to make ourselves worthy of the love we need. She crowns the chapter with a choice she frames as emblematic of an authentic life: her decision to joyfully affirm her mentee’s gay marriage.
While Wright’s missional methodology might be sound, her message is not. And this undoes her entire project.
I don’t object to Wright’s teaching on authenticity simply because I disagree with her position on gay marriage. I object because this teaching on authenticity is the product of a gospel that is qualitatively different from the one to which Scripture testifies.
No Other Gospel
Wright’s gospel claims that our identity is an expression of our sexuality, whereas Scripture testifies that our sexuality is an expression of our identity in Christ: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit . . . ? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
Christ didn’t come to make men straight; he came to make them holy. Let those of us who’ve never experienced same-sex attraction beware, for there is nothing salvific in heterosexuality. Straight people go to hell every day. Sexuality is too small a thing to bear the weight of human identity, and we’re called to build our identity on bedrock far stronger than sexual preference—Christ himself, who bought us with his blood.
Beyond that, Wright preaches a gospel that claims we’re at our most real when we do what we feel. Setting aside every biblical passage on gender and sexuality, that’s a profoundly unbiblical belief. Even the regenerate heart feels a thousand things each day that are in direct opposition to the gospel (Rom. 7:21–25). If the call to submit our sexual desires to Scripture seems too steep a cost, it’s because we don’t grasp the high cost of discipleship demanded of every believer (Luke 9:23–25).
If we lose biblical teaching on gender and sexuality, we lose the gospel.
If all we have is a Western evangelical syncretism that embraces the relative truth of postmodernity, then who are we to tell our Hindu neighbor he must cast down all other gods before Christ? Who are we to implore an African animist to abandon centuries of her culture and tradition, when we aren’t even willing to abandon our own culture’s call for sexual freedom?
In short, if we adopt a gospel of authenticity in order to embrace modern Western understandings of gender and sexuality, we lose the true gospel. And if we have no real gospel to offer the lost, what point is there to all the missiological research in the world?
So while I respect her moxie and appreciate her methods, Jamie Wright has gone where I cannot follow.