Paternalism in world evangelism: Helping or hurting?

Mission Briefing: Ideas shaping world mission outreach today

"Paternalism" is the label for the behavior of adults when they act like benevolent but intrusive parents toward other adults. When people act in paternalistic ways, it means they are letting their good-hearted desire to help push them into taking charge of other people's programs and projects.

Those well-intentioned acts of overriding the decisions of other people and doing things for people, which those people might prefer doing for themselves, happen even in relationships in the global church. Even when the objects of paternalistic acts understand that the outsiders really believe they are helping, the parent-like interference is annoying. Sadly, paternalistic attempts at helping can wind up hurting the very people who have become objects of heavy-handed kindness.

When a visiting believer or church leader from another country acts like a pushy daddy, that's paternalism. Fearful of souring a promising relationship, those on the receiving end often hesitate to push back or speak up.

Cross-cultural interactions create a heightened potential for paternalism. For example, a paternalistic spirit can lead short-term mission team members to make additions or "improvements" to a project without input from local leadership and no deference to them.

Partnerships are also an area where paternalism can creep in. For example, it has become popular for large churches in the USA and Canada to "partner" with a church or district in the Developing World. Sadly, when people on the more affluent side of the partnership always have the final say, those relationships can look and feel paternalistic.

To be sure, no one ever thinks they're being paternalistic. However, there's a good chance paternalism is involved when someone says, "I see a problem here. Here is how I will fix things for you."

While paternalism in global outreach is a danger, it is not inevitable. Mutual trust and respect will do much to inhibit its appearance. Here are six suggestions for each side

To those on the receiving end . . .

  1. Be gentle and gracious even while standing your ground.
  2. Insist that ministry design originate locally rather than being imported from elsewhere.
  3. Lovingly and often, say that you are far more interested in relationships than projects.
  4. Do not accept offers for help that will erode the possibility of something being locally sustainable.
  5. Don't cede control in hopes that more outside money will flow your way.
  6. Be willing to say, "When you do or say . . . ., I feel . . ."

To the outsider being tempted to take control . . .

  1. Leave your "I can fix it" mentality at home.
  2. Act in ways that demonstrate your respect for and dependence upon the leadership of others.
  3. Make sure your concept of "helping" means that project design and program implementation will be done mutually with local people rather than unilaterally by you and other outsiders.
  4. When you find yourself saying or thinking, "Let's do this for them," stop and take a step back.
  5. Insist that accountability be two-way rather than just one-sided.
  6. Empower local leaders to champion their own models of ministry, outreach, discipleship, and leadership development.

Discussion questions

  1. What is paternalism in world evangelism, and how does it hurt the very people to whom help is being given?
  2. How might mutual trust and respect inhibit the appearance of paternalism in cross-cultural interactions?
  3. Can you think of some examples of paternalism in world evangelism efforts? How could those situations have been avoided?
  4. How can those on the receiving end of paternalistic behavior respond in a gentle and gracious way while still standing their ground?
  5. What steps can outsiders take to avoid acting in a paternalistic way and empower local leaders in world evangelism efforts?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine. That series looks at issues such as unreached people groups, contextualization, indigenous churches, dependency, sustainability, leadership development, senders/goers, a sender, culture shock, and globalization,

Helping without hurting -- a real-life case study

Working cross-culturally is never easy. It's even more complicated when there are different economic levels involved. There are occasions when we really want to help. The question is, as Steve Corbett and Brian Fickert noted in their book When Helping Hurts, How do we help people without creating a sense of dependency that winds up making things worse for them rather than better?

photo of book cover

Though names and places have been changed, this letter in the case study is genuine. It required a response. Imagine that you had to write that response. What would you say?

It does need to be noted that the missionary referenced is not the district superintendent. The person supervising the denominational ministry in that area is a Mexican.

Rev. Roswell's church in Texas runs in the mid-20s. She has been pastoring there for about 10 years.

Dear . . . . .,

I was reading the update on the upcoming trip to Mexico and it sounds exciting.

Last year, our church sent two from the congregation, and we had planned to send four this coming year. Now, that plan has changed and I thought perhaps you could help me flesh out our new plan.

Maria, one of the two participants from our church, acted as a translator last year. She became good friends with the Mexican Pastor and his wife who cooked and cared for the American team members working at their church. While Maria was with them, she noticed a great need in their home and church for simple things.

Upon returning home, Maria gave a great report to our church. As a result, we decided to partner with this couple for a year. Our plan was to send them financial support and to help with their two boys as we saw a need. We wound up being unable to send them money the traditional way, but we have still communicated in spite of that obstacle.

Recently, we had a note from them saying they have been moved to a new place and they are now across from the border at Del Rio. They have been told there is no money available to help them. They are living in one room of the house because it has been flooded and is in terrible condition.

This year, instead of paying for four people to go on the Mexico trip, we, as a congregation, will make a trip to this pastor's home and help them.

I would like to know why there is no money to help them and why they were moved into a place that is in such poor condition. My attempts to reach missionary Baker, who I understand is in charge of work in that area, have not brought results.

If you have any information or advice that would help us, I thank you ahead of time for it. Thank you and have a great trip.

  — Pastor Lois Roswell, Seymour, TX

Writing a response


The issue of paternalism in world evangelism highlights concerns about how outsiders approach cross-cultural interactions and attempt to help others. Paternalistic behavior, even though well-intentioned, can erode people's sense of control and dignity, resulting in unintended harm. Thankfully, fostering mutual trust and respect can mitigate the appearance of paternalism. The key lies in empowering local leadership, encouraging accountability, and promoting sustainable and locally-driven projects. To avoid acting paternalistic, outsiders must prioritize collaboration and involvement by all in decision-making processes. We must address economic dependency concerns and seek to support initiatives that enable self-reliance and empowerment.

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