Mission Malpractice: Week 5 | Day 6

Just as malpractice exists in medicine, a tragic history of malpractice exists in the Church, where the good intentions of mission have gotten corrupted. Br. Keith Nelson explores how we might do mission in a different way, with a curious, listening, open-hearted approach to others.

Question: Where have you seen a spirit of mission that is respectful and curious? Where have you noticed mission “malpractice”?
Share your answer in the comments below or using #5marksoflove
Activity: Icons of Hope

Transcript: Professor Robert Heaney of Virginia Theological Seminary introduced the brothers to a phrase that I find actually incredibly helpful, “Mission malpractice.”

So as I understand it, in much the same way that malpractice exists in the practice of medicine – you know, a doctor, someone who is a trained healer, never intends deliberately to hurt a patient, but sometimes through negligence, through insufficient training, it happens – in the same way, in the history of Christianity, we see a really tragic and kind of trenchant pattern of mission malpractice, in which there are missionaries sent out primarily from European countries to non-western countries, bringing with them the gospel, bringing with them the desire, the good desire to spread the gospel.  But also with certain blind spots so that that good intention gets clouded or actually kind of corrupted by the interests of colonial trade, by racist denigration of the wisdom of local peoples, the wisdom that’s already active within a place, by not listening to the unique needs and unique world view of the people to whom they are sent.

It was one of the most discouraging things for me that led to a really prolonged hiatus and made high school in my early 20s from Christianity altogether, because if that was the mission of the church, then words like “mission” and “missionary” actually became kind of dirty words to me.  They were words that I didn’t really want to have anything to do with.

If we take a step back from that and we think about doing mission in a different way, doing mission in a way that is curious about – if all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God – spreading the gospel with this open-hearted, listening approach that is curious, “How might God already be active in this person, in this place?” rather than presuming that it’s something that we bring that isn’t there already.  And then also just asking ourselves the question, “In what ways do we as the church today participate unwittingly in mission malpractice?” And in sensitizing ourselves to the ways that we do that, beginning to transform unjust structures by stopping and saying, “No, we can do this a different way.”

In the church today, where have you seen a spirit of mission that is respectful, and curious, and where have you noticed a spirit of mission that contributes toward the kind of mission malpractice that we’re talking about?

– Br. Keith Nelson

Question: Where have you seen a spirit of mission that is respectful and curious?  Where have you noticed mission “malpractice”?

Week 5 Activity: Icons of Hope
Icons are images that open us up. They act as windows that let the light of God shine in. This week’s activity invites you to compose your own “icon” for the Kingdom of God. Draw or paste in pictures that help you recall God’s vision, to create a collage that lets God’s light shine in.

Watch Video Guidance | Download Activity as PDF | Sample Completed Activity


  1. Betsy J on April 4, 2017 at 18:29

    We white Christians need to start being more Christian than white.

  2. Jessie Mantle on April 2, 2017 at 00:27

    In our church the respectful work of the participants in our social services who demonstrate unconditional love e.g. night shelter for the youth, food bank for those who are hungry, represent respectful missions. In the history of the churches in Canada their de-humanizing work in residential schools with First nations children, reveals a spirit of malpractice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has revealed to us the devastating effects of that practice.

  3. Kristi on April 1, 2017 at 07:01

    I think the mission work that many people are called to do comes with attachments or strings. As in, we’re here to help you but let me tell you also about Christ and why you need him in your life, that kind of thing. The mission work I would want to practice would be focused on serving others with what they need in their community with some kind of emphasis on a healing spirit which more people can relate to. Offering help but then preaching or trying to change a community’s beliefs without them asking for that goes against the purpose of serving others in my opinion

  4. Verlinda on March 31, 2017 at 17:23

    I see mission malpractice when everything about the church becomes a money grab; likewise, when the church tips too far toward one axis, causing an out-of-balance condition. A former minister put a high emphasis on fun/fellowship/camaraderie, sometimes at the expense of outreach/education. Now our current minister has tipped the scales to the other extreme, where going to church is more of a relentless harangue to do MORE MORE MORE outreach, and the sense of fun/fellowship/joy is acutely diminished.

    Like most things in life, balance is the key. Appreciate and value what’s important to people. We are all God’s children.

  5. David Cranmer on March 31, 2017 at 14:55

    In the 1970s and 1980s my brother and I were engaged in Christian work overseas, my brother in church planting in Italy, and me in Bible translation in West Africa. Both of us saw a lot of mission malpractice, where too many missionary-sending organizations were caught up in “numbers,” eg, number of decisions for Christ, number of baptisms. There was not enough concern for people’s spiritual growth after they had “come to Christ.” My own West African experience also included the fact that a good number of mission organizations did not respect the wisdom of the people of the area. I recognized mission malpractice at that time without having a term to identify it. Thank you for giving us this term.

  6. Stan on March 31, 2017 at 14:05

    Brother Keith’s lesson for today was thoughtful and emotional. And I think an important thought-provoking reflection about Man’s historical relationships with “Religion”.

    There are still people to this day who think that they have all the answers to “help” people in need and distress by just coming in and taking over. But there are also those who truly go in asking questions, to find out what the people actually need, and thoughtfully work with those folks to cooperatively help them overcome their hardships.

    The key to thoughtfulness is understanding.

  7. Jack Zamboni on March 31, 2017 at 12:38

    While the reality Br. Keith describes is not new to me, the language of “mission malpractice” is enormously helpful; so, too, the comments of Sue, an MD, upstream. Even more helpful is the image of mission as an activity that properly is “spreading the gospel with [an] open-hearted, listening approach that is curious.” That mission could begin with curiosity rather than a presumed knowledge of the “answers” is a wonderful insight. Thank you!

  8. Kimberly Evans on March 31, 2017 at 11:48

    My aunt was a “missionary” in Peru for almost 40 years, from the end of WWII. “Missionary” was her official title, but she firmly taught me not to call her that. She did not want to be associated with those who went to proselytize. She was a teacher and servant who loved and respected the people she served–their dignity, their culture, their very selves. The love they had for her was breathtaking. Your well-chosen words remind me of her lesson, and the many times we have wanted to rush in and fix things for others, such as Haiti after the earthquake. The best of intentions, but…

  9. Bryan Cook on March 31, 2017 at 09:55

    In AA meetings, we achieve our mission by being respectful of eachother’s space and points- of- view. Knowing my boundaries and sticking within them is vital. I must listen and don’t cross-talk….only speak of my own experiences, not those of others, so that I might lead and heal by example. I must not preach or be condescending. I found a person with greater maturity and experience to call on if I find I am failing. I found and love my higher spirit. It works if I let it. I swallow my pride, let go of my ego and seek humility. I have my own version of a serenity prayer which is a mantra to get me past daily challenges and confrontational situations.
    I now have twelve years of sobriety, and I know that if I practise all these actions in my daily life, they help me avoid ” mission malpractice”.

  10. Rhode on March 31, 2017 at 09:25

    Being born in Indonesia, the grandaughter of missionaries to Indonesia and New Guinea I heard moving stories about the people they served. My grandparents loved God and loved their calling. They lived their lives helping and ministering to the sick, spending every cent on those they came into contact with, all for the love of the gospel. They helped birth many grateful people coming out of complete darkness to followed in Christs’ footsteps as reunion groups still come together in different countries to remember. Many fearless unamed forgotten lived and died so others might live. Yes, we hear, too much, of those who have used the Cross as a weapon. Likewise we forget the gospel flourished because God truly called / calls people to go out and spread the great good news…Unfortunately, hypocrisy is alive and well and having been burnt once, we become twice shy. Hollywood loves to play to foolish stereotypes and we rush to see because darkness is a box-office draw.
    To discourage the gospel for fear of causing offense to other religions is to nullify and make light the significance of the very Being who called himself the Way and the Truth. Great discernment, great love, great forgiveness and great courage is needed now more than ever. Christ died and rose for all, not for all religions to come into one great religion labeled Good Works and I do not mean to discourage good works in any way. Mission malpractice is reducing God by worrying about how He / we are being perceived and glossing over the embarrassment of a straight gate and narrow way…I sometimes forget what that means. God’s word will not come back void, it goes out and accomplishes what He intends… sadly, in spite of us and sometimes, joyfully, with us… Thank be to God.

    • David Cranmer on March 31, 2017 at 14:49

      It is to our shame that what you have written is so widespread. I remember being in one church where when in reaction to a person saying that all religions lead to the same God, I pointed out that Jesus said He is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father but through Him, the minister of that church expressed his displeasure in what I said.

    • Ruth West on April 1, 2017 at 00:10

      Rhode, yours are such good comments. Thanks for telling us about your grandparents and your views. May God bless you!

  11. Phil Armstrong on March 31, 2017 at 07:42

    Discerning that often practicing or serving in a mission has necessary and vital activity which is so tiring that it is perceived as worship. Activity encompasses the tyranny of the immediate. Prayer for guidance and soul restoration is forsaken as things are counted, moved, preaching, pontification and checklists are fulfilled. Superficial changes are viewed as goal accomplishment while seeking souls are avoided because meaningful, empathetic dialogue takes too much effort and time while could delay finishing the mission on time. This can be malpractice.
    The urgent requirement is to move to the lonely place and pray – to become refreshed and again receive the clarity to view life as Jesus does. After all, a Christian is a tiny Jesus, empowered to obey Him.

  12. Sue on March 31, 2017 at 03:31

    As a doctor, I found this phrase very helpful. In medicine, malpractice happens when the doctor blurs boundaries and starts to act independently and starts doing things more for their own needs ( however they may rationalise it ) than for the patients..starting to assume they know best, not recognising their limitations or involving the patient in their decisions, trying to hide their failings rather than being honest and trying to deal with any problems openly.
    I can see strong parallels.
    Where I see mission as positive is when the service is given from openness and love rather than a need to convert…I think when people ‘ try’ to convert others it starts to come from their own needs ,however well intentioned ,rather than the other persons.I think instead, being an example, which might make someone ask’ what is it about that person, I’d like to be like that’ and then being open to discussing your belief with them seems much more honest and powerful to me. A positive example I can think of is ‘ street chaplain ‘ program I was involved with- the team ran a ‘drink safe’ tent in a night club strip, offering water, first aid,help to get home safely , a space to dry out,and an ear to listen. No one pushed help or preached, but I feel some of those young people on the strip would have learnt a lot about Christ in action.
    Mission ‘ malpractice ‘? When I see people picketing others because they don’t follow their specific understanding of the gospels…it seems to me that just spreads hate rather than love.

  13. Ruth West on March 10, 2017 at 17:08

    Sad to say,” mission malpractice” is too often present with those, whose intentions are golden, but who forget the first and greatest commandment. I heard recently of two preachers on the streets in England who got into a physical confrontation, and the police had to come and break up their fight. Fortunately, such an occurrence would seldom be found, but anytime we as Christians fail to follow and practice the law of love, we contribute to “mission malpractice.”
    This term is one I had not heard before reading your homily, but one I shall not forget. Thanks for coining a new phrase in my vocabulary with an awareness of its meaning, lest I become such a one.

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