Review of We Are Not the Hero by Jean Johnson

In recent years, a number of books, both secular and religious, have sounded the alarm about aid dependency, i.e., the phenomenon that when rich countries give aid to poor countries, the poor countries often become dependent on the aid and fail to develop, sometimes becoming worse off than they were before aid was offered. Perhaps the most famous book in this genre is Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, but other titles include When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, and When Charity Destroys Dignity by Glenn Schwartz.

At first glance, We Are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide for Sharing Christ, not a Culture of Dependency by Jean Johnson looks like another book in the same vein. However, there is a difference. Johnson is not primarily interested in poverty alleviation per se, but in multiplying the number of Christians in non-Western countries. As such, her book is closer in spirit to David Garrison’s book Church Planting Movements. Johnson devoted many years of her life to planting churches in Cambodia, and gained many insights into what worked and what did not work. She decided to distill these insights into a form that could be used to teach others to avoid making the same mistakes that she made, and We Are Not the Hero was the result.

Part I of Johnson’s book is a short but fascinating introduction to her thesis. Johnson relates numerous cautionary tales, many from her own personal experience, about well-intentioned missionary work in Cambodia and elsewhere that has been motivated by a “hero mentality”—the unconscious assumption that the missionary is swooping in to bring salvation to the perishing masses, and that the means of salvation are the plentiful money, resources, and tools of the American church. All too often, the result is an unsustainable organization that not only fails to cultivate indigenous resources and initiatives but actually destroys them, and that is vulnerable to collapsing as soon as external support is withdrawn or reduced. For example, Johnson devotes an entire chapter to what she calls “The Thinning” of the Cambodian church. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, the Cambodian Evangelical Church grew to over two thousand members. Then the foreign missions board decided to phase out external funding in order to encourage the church to become self-supporting. It then became painfully clear that many had entered the ministry for its financial rewards and not because of true faith, because membership in the church decreased dramatically as people left one by one. This pattern of unhealthy dependency on foreign resources would return repeatedly to plague the Cambodian church in subsequent decades.

In Part II, Johnson lays out seven principles for promoting indigenous church growth and avoiding unhealthy dependency on unsustainable outside resources (she then returns to these principles in Part III, giving practical advice about how to implement them):

I would further summarize Johnson’s advice for building sustainable, self-reproducing indigenous churches as follows: Don’t set yourself up as the leader, because foreign leaders are not locally reproducible; don’t provide external financial support, because it is not self-sustaining; and don’t use foreign forms of worship or communication, because they will not flourish in indigenous soil, and because they will also cause people to confuse the essential message of the gospel with the external trappings of Western culture.

Reflecting on my own personal experience, I believe that most of what Johnson says is spot on. For the past few years, my church has conducted numerous missions trips to Haiti. Repeatedly, I have experienced (and seen my fellow Americans experience) the temptation to “solve” problems by donating freely what we have: money, material goods, and expertise. And repeatedly, I have seen that when we succumb to that temptation, the usual result is to undermine the initiative of the recipients of our generosity and cause them to become dependent on this external source of wealth. When the external support is withdrawn, a crisis occurs, often followed by complete collapse. Worse, sometimes the beneficiaries of our donations are targeted by blackmailers, who issue threats with the goal of inducing the external donors to cough up more wealth to stave off the threat. The more experienced I get, the more I feel that outright gifts should be given sparingly. When possible, I now lean towards low-interest loans (microfinance), or matching donations that are conditional on the recipient’s raising a certain fraction of the money themselves. One-time capital investments are much better than subsidies for ongoing operations. This philosophy is fully in keeping with what Johnson recommends.

Given how often I have seen myself and others fall into the trap of fostering unhealthy dependency, I believe that Johnson is right to push hard in the other direction. At the same time, her book has also caused me to think carefully about what the implications are if we follow her philosophy to its logical conclusion. The first time I felt myself balking a little at her message was in Chapter 7, in which she enthusiastically promotes the “three-self” principles of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson: an indigenous church should be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Surprisingly, though, Johnson does not discuss at all the world’s most prominent example of a church that accepts these principles, namely the Three-Self Church of China. Though many good things can be said about the Three-Self Church, it also has some well-known problems, mostly stemming from the fact that it is tightly controlled by the Chinese government. My guess is that Johnson is much more excited by the illegal house churches in China than by the Three-Self Church, because the house churches are autonomous and multiply rapidly and organically, whereas the Three-Self Church lies under the authority of a human government rather than under God alone. Yet the Three-Self Church is far freer from foreign influence than the house churches are. Does Johnson really want the church in every country of the world to follow the model of the Chinese Three-Self Church?

A second concern I have is whether following Johnson’s philosophy to its logical conclusion means refusing to provide any external material help at all. Here the distinction between Johnson and some of the other books I mentioned earlier comes to the fore; since Johnson is concerned only with the growth of the church and not with poverty alleviation, she could argue (although she does not explicitly do so) that injecting wealth into poorer countries should be completely avoided. Christians have, of course, long debated whether the church should be involved in poverty alleviation at all. Verses such as James 2:15–16 (If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?) would seem to be a mandate to Christians to alleviate poverty when the opportunity arises to do so, but a case can also be made that poverty-alleviation efforts can easily become a distraction from the more important work of expanding the kingdom of God. In Chapter 14, Johnson discusses an imaginary scenario that I find particularly thought-provoking:

“My husband is very sick,” says Chantha. “What are his symptoms?” inquires George. “He is hot and then cold!” George promptly assesses the situation by checking vital signs. Neighbors look on, saying, “Her husband has a bad spirit.” George goes to the pharmacy to find medicine for malaria. He returns and promptly gives Chantha’s husband Doxycycline to treat his malaria. Then George says, “Let us pray.”

Johnson criticizes George’s behavior:

In our example, George totally ignored a vital component of Chantha’s worldview by compartmentalizing the secular and the spiritual. How does Western culture affect the theology of prayer for those who need supernatural intervention from God? Keep in mind that theology is an intertwining of what we believe and what we actually practice. For example, I have noticed how lightly Westerners (including myself) treat the presence and active work of the Holy Spirit. The scientific nature of our worldview is a main cause of this casual treatment of the Holy Spirit and faith for God’s supernatural signs and wonders. When encountering a problem such as illness, we naturally look to natural causes and find tangible ways to solve the problem within our own power. We do eventually pray, but often prayer is a tag onto what we do. Westerners are definitely unaccustomed to the spirit world and often view it as little more than entertainment in the movies.

Western Christians will most likely have a very watered-down theology about the Holy Spirit, prayer for God’s supernatural intervention, and the demonic world. Our scientific approach to the world affects our theology, whether we admit it or not. I wonder how many times we unknowingly stifle Christians from other parts of the world in their intimate and active relationship with the Holy Spirit, their sensitivity to the spirit world, and their desire to rely on the power of God?

Johnson does not explicitly say what she thinks George should have done. It sounds to me that she is not just saying that George should have prayed first and then gotten the medicine afterwards rather than the other way around; my impression is that she would recommend rallying everyone to pray, and refusing the external, foreign, scientific Doxycycline entirely. If so, then this strikes me as a really radical point of view: It is better to risk letting Chantha’s husband die of a treatable disease than to risk the spiritual perils of the Western attitude towards science, not to mention the dependence on expensive foreign drugs. Though I see nothing logically inconsistent about this radical perspective, I instinctively feel that it goes too far in shunning the “physical” side of our existence in favor of the “spiritual” side.

On balance, however, I believe that Johnson’s message is one that needs to be heard by all Christians who are involved in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. If you are not yet convinced that the hero mentality, along with the unhealthy dependency that it fosters, is an insidious and ubiquitous problem, then you should definitely read this book.

Posted December 2013

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