Why Mission Matters

Why Mission Matters

Seen From a Secular Viewpoint 1

A commonly heard statement against missionary work is to leave people alone: do not spoil their culture and belief systems. One should not bother people groups with alien belief systems.

This argument is understandable because many appreciate the diversity of cultures around the world. Rightly so, it is one of the many beautiful aspects of human beings. Humans around the world have developed their own style of music, dance, and other traditions.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned objection is not as obvious as it seems. This paper will accommodate the given objection with the necessary comments. Note that most of this paper’s focus will be on rural African situations. Yet, this does not mean that the discussed ideas are restricted to this setting alone.

Before we move on to the actual objection it will be valuable to be familiarised with the concept of ‘world-views’. Cultural diversities make a big difference in people’s understanding of the world around them—how one interprets diseases, prosperity, natural events, etcetera, depends strongly on one’s belief system. To illustrate how one’s world-view can differ from others we will take a look at a paragraph from Burnett’s book ‘Clash of Worlds’:

Jean La Fontaine tells the interesting incident of an anthropologist having a discussion on the Yap islands with a group of islanders who believed that the cause of conception is not sexual intercourse, but the entry of a spirit into the woman concerned. The anthropologist cited the example of the improvement in the quality of the pigs that had resulted from the cross breeding of imported European boars with native sows. The islanders were quite prepared to agree with this yet refused to accept the idea that sexual relations among humans resulted in pregnancy, citing various cases of married women without children, and ugly women, whom no man found attractive, having babies. The discussion caused puzzlement on both sides, until light dawned on a particular islander: “Ah,” he said to his companions, “this man actually believes that people are the same as pigs.” 2


People who state that it would be better to leave other cultures alone, often forget that their statements have come forth out of certain presuppositions. Firstly, to say that Christian missionaries are bound to spoil one’s culture seems to implicate that the culture in question is ultimately satisfying to its inhabitants. And secondly, it indicates an outdated idea of missionary work where missionaries try to ban the established cultures in order to Westernise the world.

Satisfying in Every Aspect?
The first implication basically states that people from other cultures are most content with their own belief systems and co-existing cultural traditions. This, however, is not as straightforward as one might think. Especially in many rural African societies, where people give a lot of weight to the worship of ancestors and nature spirits, people suffer many fears. Frequently the people consult so called witch-doctors or medicine-men, who prosper on the fears of their ‘patients’. Diseases and other misfortunes are quickly explained as being a punishment or as inflicted by an upset spirit or by a witch. 3 Often it requires a sacrifice to restore the delicate balance. To say that this cultural facet is satisfying to the inhabitants is far from the truth.

Missionary of Culture
The second implication seems to have some historical truth in it. True enough, in colonial times many (but not all) missionaries viewed their own culture as superior to that of the people they tried to evangelise. Christianity was not only a personal belief, it was embedded in every aspect of many Western societies. Thus, bringing the Gospel was, for many, equivalent to bringing one’s culture. This attitude, however, changed rapidly after the enlightenment period. Today the West is no longer predominantly Christian.

Today’s missionaries understand that the Modern Secular Western culture is not advertising the Christian faith. 4 In other words, Western culture is not the appropriate tool to evangelise people since it does not guarantee a sound understanding of Christianity. Thus missionaries will try to make the Gospel culturally relevant for people. They cannot water down the Gospel but they can highlight different aspects. Take Jesus’ sacrifice for example: In the West we tend to highlight the juridical solution. In a nutshell this view says that all people have sinned against God and deserve punishment for their wrongdoing, just like a thief or violent person needs to be punished by a judge. It was Jesus Who took the punishment for us and He fulfilled the juridical requirement. Those who accept His offer can go free. However, cultures that do not highlight the legal side of society tend to emphasise aspects like shame and traditional fears for ancestors or spirits. For these societies it will be more applicable to focus on Jesus’ victorious work over all evil. Jesus had authority over evil spirits, He was shamefully treated and hang naked on a cross. He took the shame upon Himself of being separated from the Father. He died, but after three days He came back to life thus defeated death itself. Both viewpoints are equally true but will not always resonate with the listeners. It is important to find the most relevant aspects to make people listen. Later one can always teach the other aspects as well.

Secular Gain Through Missionary Work
Most rural Africans have their own language and will have great difficulties learning in the official language. Often one of the primary goals of missionaries is to learn the native language. Normally they will try to put this language into writing. It does not need explanation to state that this is a great advantage for the people. Many local schools started right after these writings were (partly) finished. By learning how to read and write, people are more armed against fraud when buying or selling their goods.

Another very important aspect is that of healthcare. Clean drinking water, simple remedies against diseases, AIDS/HIV prevention programmes, etcetera, are all part of many modern missionary organisations. The success rates of these programmes are hard to express in figures. However, many organisations are committed to stay on a long term basis. During this period they will seek to train the native Africans. This way the organisation shares its knowledge and consequently the people become less dependent.

Although missionary work starts with the longing of spreading the Gospel, it is often a great boost for the local economy. Missionaries do not consider profitable areas as more important than non- profitable areas. That is to say, secular Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will have to abide to strict regulations of where to go and what to do. 5 Furthermore, secular NGOs may do a good job in education and the like, but more often than not rural Africans are not capable, due to religious convictions, to fully profit from their help. 6 Parris says the following about it:

“Anxiety, fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.” 7

Missionaries, on the contrary, have the freedom to go to people groups who do not have access to proper education and/or healthcare. Additionally, Christians are not committed to a secular world- view thus capable to address the religious aspects more effectively.

The Christian faith strongly depends, in contrary to the traditional rural African religions, on individual decisions. The Christian faith emphasises the unique bond between God and human. Christians do not need intermediaries in order to have a relationship with God. No longer will the person have to be subordinate to others, which will result in a bolder attitude towards progression. A naturalistic and materialistic approach to a people, who are deeply rooted in religious traditions, will not help them. Their religious system will have to change alongside. Fears need to be addressed. The traditional rural Africans will not change certain habits because they fear the possible negative consequences—better not disturb the ancient spiritual order. Those who entrusted themselves to the Christian faith however, will abandon these fears because they know that their new Saviour became victorious over all evil. Parris testified that the Christians he met “were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world—a directness in their dealings with others—that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.” 8

Missionary work in Africa is not only about winning souls. It digs much deeper in the change everyone wants to see in Africa. Although secular NGOs are of great worth, they cannot replace the deepest longing in the hearts of many Africans. Many rural Africans have a deeply rooted religious system which is unlikely to change through secular education. Missionaries can offer a solid replacement of their, often fear-driven, religious ideas.

To change the beautiful African culture should not and is not the goal of most missionary organisations. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects in these cultures that need a head on approach. 9 Many Africans are illiterate because in their culture they never actually needed it. Times change and so do trades. A literate person will not likely be a victim of fraud. Furthermore, reading and writing is of great use when it comes to education. To read that certain customs are harmful can help to change their (often cultural infused) habits. 10

Instead of spoiling a culture it would do more justice to missionaries to state that they enrich one’s culture. Not only in spiritual aspects but also in materialistic ways. This holistic approach has proven to be very sufficient for economical growth—and economic growth that many Westerns wish to see happen among the people from this beautiful continent called ‘Africa’.


  1. Secular: Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.
  2. Burnett, D., Clash of Worlds: What Christians can do in a World of Cultures in Conflict, London: Monarch Books, 2002, p. 15.
  3. Burnett, D., World of the Spirits: A Christian Perspective on Traditional and Folk Religions, London: Monarch Books, 2000, pp.126-128.
  4. Whether it ever did, is a different debate.
  5. Maggay, M. P., ‘Justice and Approaches to Social Change,’ in (eds.) M. Hoek & J. Thacker, Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor, Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2009, p.131.
  6. Ibid. p.123.
  7. Parris, M., As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God, Times Online, website (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece, 2008), Downloadable pdf: http://www.rootedinjesus.net/docs/Parris.pdf.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Maggay, M. P., ‘Justice and Approaches to Social Change,’ in (eds.) M. Hoek & J. Thacker, Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor, Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2009, p.123.
  10. Matters of nutrition, immunization, personal hygiene, family planning, child rearing, seeking early medical care, disposal of solid wastes and human excreta etc.

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Give Us This Day Our Daily…

Give Us This Day Our Daily…

We have lived in Tana for almost 2 months now. What is our daily life like? What is different? And what is the same?

Water – Rano

Our house has running water. It is not like that for everyone. There are many who have to go outside to a tap at the roadside. Sometimes it is a public tap, sometimes private (they have a lock).

We cannot count on the water pressure. Now that it is rainy season the pressure is often failing. Because of that we have a store of about 30 litres of water in 2 big lidded buckets in the kitchen. We use the stored water frequently.

We would rather not drink water directly from the tap. There may be too many bacteria, virusses or parasites in it. Many Malagasy also use filtered or bottled water. One of the children’s chores is to fill the waterfilter and the storage buckets.

The water does not taste great. Even after filtering the chloride  lingers. The colour is changeable. Sometimes it is more mud than water, but the water is clear most of the time. The filters from the waterfilter do reveal there is always the typical terra cotta dust.

Food – Sakafo

Our eating pattern has not changed much. Most of the foods we are used to are available, although it does cost more trouble to buy the ingredients to bake our own bread. Storebought bread is mostly white and we prefer wholemeal or at least brown bread. We have to travel about 7 miles to buy our favourite bread baking mix and about 14 miles to buy wholemeal.

The Malagasy diet is based on rice. Many families eat it at all meals: vary (rice) with loka (whatever you eat with the rice). Lunch is the main meal of the day. In the evening the leftovers are served. It is easy to buy the ingredients for vary with loka: almost every street has several stalls with vegetables, meat and rice. It is quite cheap to buy food in the street or at the market.

Before preparing fresh food it needs to be washed thoroughly. Sometimes the stalls are not more than a filthy plastic sheet spread out on the ground near a local waste dump or open sewer. We either rinse fresh food with filtered water or we let it soak in water with a drop of chloride. We are relieved this hardly affects the taste of the food.

Laundry – Manasa lamba

The laundry is done by hand. Whoever has a little money can hire a laundry woman – mpanasa lamba – to do the work for him. Washing machines can be bought, but for the same money you can help someone to a part time job for 3 years. We are very happy with our laundry woman as our laundry takes her and Katja more than a full working day a week. The downside of washing by hand is that clothing does not last as long: the scrubbing grates heavily.

The laundry is line-dried. It is clearly visible the sun’s radiation is stronger her: the colours are quickly fading. The other day Jurgen pulled out a black t-shirt and we both remarked we could easily see he had not worn it here yet. The clothes are dry quickly, but often the heavy monsoon rains surprise us – a free extra rinse so to speak.

Transport – Fiara

We do not have our own vehicle – fiara – yet and we are happy for it. Because of our walks and bus rides we make more contact with the people around us and learn more language. People are somewhat surprised to see white foreigners using public transport and we feel it is a witness to them that we respect them and want to be like them.

It is cosy and snug in the bus. Up front near the driver there are 2 seats. Behind the driver there are 5 rows with 2 seats on each side. In the aisle small seats can be lowered or short planks are used as an extra seat. That all adds up to 28 seats. Add to that the driver’s helpers who opens and closes the doors, receives payments and cries out the destination at every stop; quite a few children on people’s laps and the people standing at the back and on the bumper and the capacity of the bus is about 40 people!

When buying groceries at the local market we walk. This is not very healthy or safe: there are no footpaths and smog is filling the air. Some Malagasy cycle, but there are many safety issues there.

Traveling by normal car is also different. Seatbelts – if there – are hardly being used and there are no children’s car seats. The possible number of passengers is again quite flexible. Only a week ago we saw it no problem to fit 3 adults and 8 children in a car when using the back (a favourite place of our children). It is very baby-friendly: you can drink while traveling!

Language: Malagasy

Malagasy is very different from European languages, apart from the French words that are being uses like ‘fromage’, ‘olives’ and ‘taxi’. We are happy to find we are remembering more and more words. Syntax and grammar are quite mysterious to us. The subject usually comes last in a sentence. Verbs are only conjugated for the past and future tense. There are many adverbs of place, Malagasy are very precise in these matters. One of Katja’s favourite sentences is: ‘Manana zanaka dimy aho.’ which transliterated says ‘Have own children five I.’

The Malagasy are very happy to hear our limited Malagasy. They even brighten up more when Jurgen tells them he has absolutely no mastery of French. His favourite sentence: ‘Tsy mahay teny Frantsay i aho.’ which transliterated reads ‘Not to be good at language French I.’ The Malagasy are very encouraging when we are using their language. We witness first hand how language learning is a labour and a witness of love. We want to be known as friendly and humble people so we greet everyone we meet. It works: people like to great us back and chat with us, asking where the (other) children are. The market sellers already know we have 5!

Two Trips into Town

Two Trips into Town

Katja ordered two Dutch books. The were shipped to Madagascar. To collect the parcel she had to travel to Analakely, Tana (17km). Because all Buses were full she had to take a taxi for the first stretch. There she took a bus for the second part. With a second bus she arrived at Analakely. Ones there she had to walk up a hill to a post-office to get a stamp and a signature. With that she walked down to another post-office. There they wanted to see her passport and she had to give two signatures and after receiving another stamp and paying 2000 Ariary she received her parcel. She was able to take a bus that drove back home in one stretch. The trip to collect her parcel took her 4 hours.

Today Vanya and I (Jurgen) had to go to the pharmacy in Akorondrano, Tana (14km) to get Simeon vaccination. We left at 10am with the first taxi-bé (bus), Thirty minutes later we took the second bus and arrived at 12 o’clock. We bought some whole wheat flour at Jumbo (supermarket) and then walked to the pharmacy just to discover that they were closed until 13:30. So we bought some bread to eat and waited. After getting the vaccination we had to get back to Mandriambero. Not one bus stopped as they were all loaded with people. After an hour of waiting it started to rain and we decided to take a taxi. Just in time as it started to pour. The window of the taxi was not there any more and the roof did not cooperate with us (leaking). The taxi had to drive very slowly. The engine stopped several times due to water… All in all we arrived home at 15:40 AND best of all… we have the vaccination! It ‘only’ took us almost six hours total 🙂



Our departure to Madagascar is drawing nearer. For years we have been preparing ourselves, but how?


The language amongst missionaries and within most missionary organisations is English. That is one of the reasons why we have decided to raise our children bilingually from an early age. From about 3 years of age – when they have an age appropriate fluency in Dutch – Katja speaks as much English to and with them as possible. After having learned to read and write Dutch at beginner’s level, we start teaching them the same in English. Sofar this approach works for our family: our children are capable of conversing in 2 languages and are confident about their abilities. On the mission field they will be able to communicate with other missionaries and their children from the start.

Cultural Awareness

Compared to thirty years ago, when we were in primary education, the world seems to have ‘shrunk’! The world comes closer in the books we read, the television programmes we see and even through people living around us who have come from a different culture.

Since we will be living in a vastly different culture than our own, we read and talk a lot about the continents, climates, cultures and religions in the world. We hope to get a better understanding of what culture is and how important it is in everyday life. We read books on Madagascar in particular, so we will have some idea in advance of what we might experience and see.


Children of missionaries generally have more identity problems than their peers who have no cross-cultural experience. It is often heard that the live between 2 or more cultures and have difficulty identifying any which country as home. Ties with the country of origin can be weaker than the ties with the country they, as a familly, have served in.

For these reasons we emphasize our own cultural identity as well. Through history lessons, typical Dutch celebrations and family traditions we enforce our identity as a familly, Christians, Dutch and Europeans. We trust this will enable us to move and feel freely in both our own and our host cultures.

About Our Work

About Our Work

When we arrive in Antananarivo (Tana) we will become part of the Tana FOCUS team. It is the vision and stategy of the team to reach the unreached of Madagascar through the training of local believers. The team will train Malagasy Christians as missionaries and will support them when they serve amongst an unreached people group on the island. After successful service in Madagascar the Malagasy missionaries will be encouraged to go back to their roots (Indonesia) to do missionary work there. We are much delighted about this approach and find it a privilege to take part in it.

While in Tana we expect to spend much time on language acquisition and study of the culture and history of Madagascar. Katja will continue educating the children.

AIM’s unit leader over Madagascar has proposed that we help him survey which people groups still need to be effectively reached with the gospel and how this can be achieved. We will probably visit various people groups and locations on the isle. In time hopes are that we may be involved in starting a new team amongst an unreached people group.

– As part of the Tana FOCUS team we will help train Malagasi Christians to be missionaries;
– We will study Malagasy language, culture and history;
– We will help survey unreached people groups;
– In time we hope to start a new team amongst such a group;
– Katja will home educate the children.

To read more on unreached peoples visit this page. To learn more about Madagascar and its people go here.