‘A Just Mission’: Biblically Critiquing the American Missionary Movement

by John Ellis

The journey toward true mutuality is hard work for all of us, but it may be especially difficult for a white person who holds a missiology shaped by the doctrine of discovery.”[1] Mekdes Haddis

While reading A Just Mission: Laying Down Power and Embracing Mutuality by Mekdes Haddis, I had to stop myself from essentially posting the entirety of the book’s contents on Facebook. As it is, A Just Mission may now be the most highlighted book in my library. There’s so much excellent, insightful, encouraging, rebuking stuff in it that as I read, I wanted to share it with everyone I know.

To that end, this is not really a book review. My goal isn’t to “rewrite” the book nor to co-opt or explain Mekdes Haddis’ arguments. She doesn’t need my help, nor do her arguments need my stamp of approval. As she explains, “The role of the Western church in this season of change for global missions is largely to be an ear that listens.”[2] What we need – white people, including myself – is to listen to her and learn from her. To that end, my goal is to prompt interest in A Just Mission so that more white people will buy this incredibly helpful book, read it, and be changed by it. This is an unabashed call to fellow white Christians to buy, read, and learn from Mekdes Haddis’ wonderful and needed critique of the Western missionary movement.

King Jesus commanded us to go into all the world and make disciples. Unfortunately, and I think most of us are aware of this, Western (specifically American) efforts to do so have been largely corrupted to varying degrees by imperialistic impulses that tend to conflate Western values (American values) with Christianity. Often, missionary efforts are as much about turning Indigenous populations into model Americans as they are into making disciples of Jesus. In some instances, the efforts have been explicitly imperialistic. Mekdes Haddis not only gracefully and boldly diagnoses this problem, but she also provides clear solutions. Her desire is for her sisters and brothers in Christ to be faithful in going into all the world and making disciples but in ways that honor Jesus, honor the Holy Spirit’s work in cultures not our own, and engage in restorative justice.

Towards the end of the book, Haddis reveals her heart when she writes, “We cannot passively watch as the next generation of Christian leaders actively does the work of deconstruction of their faith to the point they find the mission movement offensive to God and his people. We must step in and shepherd their journey by acknowledging past mistakes and paving the way for forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. We should and can help them rethink their beliefs and strategies and empower them to do what they’ve been called to do for God’s kingdom.”[3]

Her objective was made clear to me throughout the book. For the sake of stoking interest in reading A Just Mission, I offer one example.

For me, one of the most impactful and sobering parts of the book is found in chapter 5, “Decolonizing Short-Term Mission.” In the chapter, Haddis utilizes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to unpack and demonstrate how short-term mission work damages relationships, dehumanizes the very people the mission is intended to help, undergirds white saviorism, and fails to communicate the gospel. She writes:

“It is extraordinary to see how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reflects the Western church’s view of salvation. The poor at the bottom of the pyramid clamor to receive their daily bread, and the rich at the top pursue self-actualization by capitalizing on the pain and suffering of others. There is no exchange of privilege for the sake of others. There is no walking in another’s shoes or seeking to understand their life. There is simply exploiting another’s reality to feel good about one’s own.”[4]

The above quote comes after Haddis artfully and convincingly lays out her argument for how short-term missions often reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the negative impact that reality creates. I began with that quote for a dialectical reason. No doubt, some of you, while reading the quote, instinctively balled-up and became defensive. And this is my reason for writing this “review.” Maybe you need to humbly listen and learn from Haddis so that you can make changes where needed. On the other hand, maybe your short-term missions’ trips avoid steering into the problems the book points out. If so, praise God! But if that’s you, I assume that you already recognize the need to listen and learn from those like Mekdes Haddis. Buy this book, no matter where on the spectrum between those two groups you fall. We all have much to learn.

I’ve already written that Haddis provides clear solutions. I’m going to leave it at that. You’ll need to buy and read her book to learn those solutions. The entirety of the book is so valuable, if I were a senior pastor of a church, I’d require my entire staff to read A Just Mission. If I were on a church’s elder board, I’d implore all my fellow elders to read the book. Since I’m neither a staff pastor nor a lay pastor, I offer this “review.” I’m also going to be purchasing copies of Just Mission to give to friends and family members. I believe this book is that important.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Mekdes Haddis, A Just Mission: Laying Down Power and Embracing Mutuality (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2022), 63.

[2] Haddis, A Just Mission, 158.

[3] Haddis, A Just Mission, 187.

[4] Haddis, A Just Mission, 100.

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