Hyperbolic Missionary Tales and the Exalted American Christian


Normally, I don’t sweat the titles of posts much. However, I thought about this one a lot. Why? Because it says something about where many Christians in this country are today.

But what do I mean by that snarky title? Let me explain by telling five missionary stories.

Story 1:

    A team of young American men are ministering in SW Asia. Evangelizing door to door down a street, they are cautioned by residents to avoid what looks like an empty brownstone. Fearless, they enter the building and note that no one seems to live inside. As they climb the steps, they note Bible verses scribbled on the wall, but certain words in them are wrong. Only when they reach the top apartment do they find the building’s sole occupant: a bent old lady. The woman invites them in, and they begin to share the Gospel. Immediately, one of the missionaries has trouble breathing. Another feels hands around his throat, but there is no one behind him. Another feels something hit him forcefully. The room’s temperature drops. Unable to breath, the one young man falls to the floor and suffers respiratory collapse. The men gather up their fallen friend and beat it out of that apartment. Some have to be hospitalized. Later, they regroup after realizing they’d had an encounter with the demonic, bringing in some older men who have encountered this type of dark power before.

Story 2:

    Another team of missionaries in Asia have been working in a village for some time, but have had no success in converting the villagers. One day, a man comes down from one of the nearby mountains, walks into the village, starts preaching and healing the sick, and the entire village is converted. The man goes back to the mountain, leaving the missionaries to tend the new flock.

Story 3:

    A teen is part of a 10-day mission trip to Russia, but is bedridden after picking up the flu. She spends her entire trip unable to leave the hotel. On her last day there, while everyone else is getting ready to pack, she ventures out for what will be the only time she’s been outside the whole trip. Brokenhearted, she sits on the curb and asks God why this happened. A woman comes by and the Lord tells the teen to go talk with her. She walks over to the women, and despite not knowing any Russian at all, opens her mouth to speak , only to find she is speaking to the woman in a language she doesn’t know. The woman begins to cry, says something to the teen, and gives her a handshake.Back in the United States, it’s a couple months before the youth minister at the church receives a letter (and a translation written by another person) from a woman in Russia who says she had met a teen from the church. That teen had approached her on the street and—in fluent Russian—told her the story of Jesus and what He had done for the woman. The woman had gone home, prayed to accept Christ, and had started to tell everyone she knew about Jesus—all thanks to the fluent Russian-speaking girl from the church.

Story 4:

    A missionary team is preaching to a large crowd in Africa when a wailing family brings in a woman who has obviously been dead for a few days. The family says that if what the missionaries are preaching is true, like Lazarus, this woman could be raised to life. The team is taken aback, but all eyes are on them, so they begin to pray. Soon, the presence of God is heavy on them and they see the dead woman’s eyes flutter, then open. Minutes later, the woman is on her feet praising God.

Story 5:

    A missionary plants a church in a burned-out Eastern European town. One day, a man with AIDS comes in and requests prayer. The church leaders pray and the man is healed. This starts a revival in that town, especially among AIDS sufferers, who are healed of the disease by the laying on of hands.

We’ve all heard missionary stories, right? But do we believe them?

Now I ask you, can you spot the true story among the false ones?

Over my nearly thirty years as a believer, I’ve heard my fair share of firsthand missionary stories. I never fail to be enthralled by these tales, and have long wanted to do missions work myself. Just this last Saturday, Missionary to HawaiiI had folks from my church praying that one day I’d have the opportunity to serve as a missionary in some capacity.

Besides the accounts I’ve heard in person are the amazing adventures of missionaries that I’ve read in books. It’s hard not to be caught up in the glory of God’s working in amazing ways in countries whose culture is not far removed from the kind we see in the Book of Acts.

So have you separated the real stories from the false ones yet? Tell you what, I’ll save you some time by telling you that they’re all true. Not only did I hear them firsthand, but I personally knew most of the missionaries involved. Amazingly, one of the stories (#2) I’ve heard from more than one source, happening 0n two different occasions in two different places. And story #4 had video corroboration!

The problem with these stories is that too few Christians are ready to believe they’re true.

I don’t know when American Christians (and Western Christianity, for that matter) got so smug, but we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we’re the final measure of ALL THINGS CHRISTIAN. We live our comfortable lives in the U.S. free from the burden of believing that anything supernatural occurs anymore, so when we hear these kinds of tales from missionaries—tales that are quite commonplace, actually—we chalk it up to some kind of hysteria. We find ways to explain those stories away. The woman in story #4 wasn’t really dead, even if the missionaries claim rot had set in. The teen in story #3 actually said something to the Russian woman in English and just forgot about it later on. People just don’t come out of nowhere and heal people. A revival featuring converted AIDS sufferers who are freed of the disease? No way.

All I can figure is that those kinds of stories scare the average American Christian. We don’t want to think the demonic is real or that healings and evangelism go together. We don’t see that kind of stuff at home, so why should we believe it goes on in backwater nations? We want to live our Christian life out of our head knowledge about the Faith. We don’t want to confront the truth of these wild stories spun by people laboring in Third World countries because if we do, that truth asks something of us, challenging our careful, comfortable existences. Too many Christians in the West want to make liars out of missionaries rather than accept their tales as true and be forced to deal with the ramifications.

This is not a post about charismata or the continuationist/cessationist battle, but a wake-up call to Westernized Christians that we are not the be all and end all of Christianity. In fact, I would argue that we Christians in America are woefully behind the leading edge of what God is doing around the globe. In fact, the Lord may even have passed us by and gone on to those places in the world that aren’t so cocksure of being the top of the spiritual foodchain.

When missionaries tell us the kinds of stories I shared above, do we really believe them, or do we make them out to be liars by brushing off their encounters with the miraculous power of Jesus Christ?

When did we Christians in America become the sole measure of true faith?

25 thoughts on “Hyperbolic Missionary Tales and the Exalted American Christian

  1. Pig wot flies

    I read the stories, thinking you were going to make some comment about overhyped stories and then you go and confound my expectations.
    Thanks! Yes, God is bigger than we think. Hugely more powerful, and not at all influenced by our Western self-importance.

  2. The Christian Woman

    Wow Dan, this was very interesting. As a non-charismatic believer I’ll admit (again) that I find some of this stuff hard to believe. I’m relatively new to your blog so I went back to read your post on Chthonic Unmentionables which I also found fascinated.

    I really don’t know what to say. I want to believe that all you are saying is true but yet (I think we’ve had this discussion before)I have never witnessed such stuff myself or heard of such things from those I respect (pastors, mainline preachers, etc).

    Can you recommend some books on this subject?

    I really love your blog, Dan. Keep it up!

  3. Steve Sensenig

    “the christian woman” wrote: I want to believe that all you are saying is true but yet…I have never witnessed such stuff myself or heard of such things from those I respect….

    I mean this question completely in gentleness and sincerity, as a loving brother:

    Is there possibly any sense in which Jesus’ words to Thomas apply here? He said (and I paraphrase), “You are blessed because you have seen and then believed. But those who have not seen, yet believe, are more blessed.”

    I think that, unfortunately, the need for empirical evidence among us as western Christians is antithetical to the nature of faith. Hebrews 11 says that faith is the “evidence of things not seen”.

    Growing up in a cessationist environment, I was always under the assumption that these things were not possibly true as well. But I have come to a point where I choose to believe in the power of God. To that end, when I began reading these stories above, I was concerned that Dan was somehow going to tell me that they weren’t true! (I should have known better, having read Dan for several months now!)

    I sincerely hope that what I have written here is not offensive. I just long for others to see the same possibilities with God (Jesus said that nothing is impossible with Him, and that nothing is impossible to him who believes) and allow Him to be the big God that He is!

    Thanks for writing about this topic, Dan.

    God bless,
    steve 🙂

    • michael

      I find it funny, this word faith you people use to justify raw ignorant acceptance of what amount to fairy tales that are believed to be moral guidelines.

      I also find it funny how you people infight. You actually poke jokes and sometimes knives at each other over the right to be considered the BEST Christians.

      Well, i would find it funny but you people start wars. And because of that i got to see what it looks like when your agenda is allowed to persist.

      Thank you for the excellent christian nation you created.

      Thanks for the wars, and the christmas presents.

      Thanks for the fact that the world, mostly, now hates us because we do our best to be good christians.

      Please, go be missionaries, all of you, just go help the rest of the world. Each and every christian, go, dominate. Leave this country to the people who know how to love without fear of retribution, sin and feel personal responsibility for it, and ask questions without pretending to already know the answer.

      • Michael,

        You forgot to thank Christians for nearly all the world’s hospitals, schools/colleges, and orphanages. The majority of the world’s charities were started by Christians, too.

        I’d love to thank the atheists for those same things, but I can’t seem to recall that they’ve done much to start any.

  4. Deeper Roots

    Guilty! I can believe in a God that spoke a physical universe into existence but have trouble seeing Him work outside the box I try to keep Him in. How I need to change any thoughts of God�s limitations to see them as my own.

  5. I think some of the problem lies in the difference between what the average short term mission team and the long term missionary experiences.

    If you were the guy who came from the mountains, sparked revival and left, your stories are going to be remarkable. If you were a missionary that came to that village right after that and you spent the next five years trying to establish that church in the middle of a godless land your stories would be markedly different.

    I have only been on one missisions trip outside of the United States and it was awesome. I often wonder what the long term fruit was though.

    On another note. If anybody has followed the work of the Bakers in Mozambique you would no longer doubt that these things happen. Their ministry there has launched native ministers that travel the world telling of the miraculous exploits of God in their land. http://irismin.org

  6. The Christian Woman

    No offense taken, Steve. I’m just being honest. And I don’t mind confessing my apprenhension as I know many others who would feel the same as I.

    Please though, I don’t want a pile-on to start. It’s not that I doubt it is possible, it’s that I haven’t experienced it myself or heard of it from people I know well and can trust.

    I don’t think the need for empirical evidence is completely out of line. It wouldn’t be wise for me to just believe everything I “read” either, especially when it is contrary to what I have been taught by people I consider to have great faith.

  7. Capt. Eucalyptus

    Wow! That is indeed hard stuff to believe. I mean I know the miraculous happened and does continue to happen (truly miraculous not “babies being born” miraculous), but still awesome stuff.

  8. If the Church is doing so well in other countries, then why do so many of those Christians jump at the chance of coming to America? The American way of life, if you can call it that anymore (since perhaps we should call it the way of death), is what everyone seems to want: physical security, financial potential beyond our wildest dreams, civil liberty, and (for the most part) non-corrupt government officials. A Brazilian once said to me that one reason he loved living in America is because he could go into the DMV and not have to bribe anyone in order to get his needs met.

    There are healings and such here. I know of at least four healing services convening weekly or monthly in my city. Testimonies abound from the two I have attended. The two I have not attended probably have plenty of testimonies.

    Probably one reason Americans can seem so cocksure of their spiritual strength is that most mission efforts in the world have some level of American involvement, whether directly with American missionaries or indigenous missionaries taught by American preachers or Bible college, or indirectly with American funding, Bibles translated by Americans, or teaching aids donated (or sold to the foreign missions) by Americans.

    We should not be cocksure, of course. Britain used to be the leading source of missionaries. Germany used to be the leading source of theology.

  9. Gaddabout

    Michael Rew wrote:
    If the Church is doing so well in other countries, then why do so many of those Christians jump at the chance of coming to America?

    The Church does well where there is a greatest need. Politicians, war lords, and dictators are not likely to be so humble to recognize their spiritual needs.

    Did you really take Dan’s post as a jibe at the American political system?

  10. Anonymous

    Aye, Steve, you can say that we should not need empirical evidence, that our faith should be enough, but I can point to many, many, many Americans who will ask you: “if faith is enough, why do so many church leaders do so many bad things?” Is it not ‘by faith’ that we are converted? Is it not ‘by faith’ that our behavior changes? Is it not ‘by faith’ that we step out and love God and our neighbors? Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen – but not everybody has the kind of faith that will believe based solely on written words. Thomas was one such. There have been others.

    As Sproul mentioned in one sermon, “Leave my Thomas alone.” Jesus did not tell him that his doubt was a sin, you know.

    America is not really a Christian nation. Not anymore. Lots of people claim Christianity – but how many show by their actions that they believe that Jesus Christ is REAL?

    Part of the problem is that many American Christians are trying to worship both God and Mammon. They say they believe in God – but they actually worship their pocketbooks and their checkbooks. They have plenty and they want more. That’s the nature of worshipping wealth. The worshipper always wants more.

    How does this relate? Simple. Whenever the spiritual gifts are truly present, you can almost bet that there isn’t much money present – or if there is, that wealthy person is a very rarely generous individual.

    The wealthy depend on doctors for health. The poor depend on God. They have to; they can’t afford the physician’s fee!

  11. Jason Coker

    thanks dan. i can honestly say that one of the reasons i am charasmatic is because of the firsthand accounts of missionaries in india. i have several friends there, they routinely witness the miraculous, and they routinely suffer terrible persecution.

    in america we have neither.

    good book: the heavenly man, by brother yun. i challenge any christian to not be moved to tears on the one hand and skeptical on the other.

  12. Fundamentally Reformed

    Thought provoking and challenging post, I must say!

    A few thoughts/questions…

    First, let us follow Dan’s exhortation and trust our great and Sovereign God all that much more!

    Second, I wonder if this line of thinking should lead us to be much less critical of the Catholic claims for its saints of years gone by? Who is to say that many of the reported miracles did not actually happen?

    Third, speaking as one who grew up cessationist (and is beginning to lead to a non-cessationist position) I think there is a dis-connect in many cessationist’s minds. I would not have had a problem believing at least some of those stories, and heard a good many of them myself growing up. But somehow this did not connect with my theology. It seems cessationists have no problem admitting that there are demonic encounters and healings and etc. on some scale out there. But theologically they are afraid of seeing the NT teaching on spiritual gifts as normative and prescriptive for this age—due probably to some Pentecostal excesses.

  13. Craig Dunning


    I guess the reason I read the reports you offered in a sceptical way is that I have personally seen too many missionary ministry reports that I KNOW have stretched the facts or have been written in a misleading way.

    Unfortunately, there is much competition for missions support and even good people feel pressured to embellish their reports. Another month of sowing, but not reaping oftentimes turns off American donors.

    I know from where I speak – I’ve been on the writing end of ministry reports for quite some time.


  14. Dan McGowan

    Dan – my comment ain’t gonna win me many friends… but I’m commenting anyway…

    There is another reason why stories like this don’t sit well with a lot of us “comfortable” Christians… it’s because deep down, we DO know they are TRUE – and, as Jack said to Tom, “we can’t HANDLE the truth!”

    See, the minute we are “sold out” for a story like this – and claim to believe it – we suddenly realize that WE, TOO can (and should) live this way – with the Power of God revealed in us and through us – in the NORMAL COURSE of our gatherings. But we ALSO know that, were this to happen, our “comfy” gatherings would no longer be “comfy” because with Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit comes “messy-ness” and we really don’t like to be messy. We really DO want to REMAIN comfortable.

    It irritates the snot out of me – seriously – how our NA churches can just continue doing NOTHING week after week – and then have annual meetings where we pontificate on all the wonderful things we’ve done – using as our measuring stick things like potlucks, membership numbers and whether or not we’ve installed Power Point.

    See? Not a great “friend maker” is it?

  15. Steve Sensenig

    Blogger wasn’t letting me post last night, so I’ll try again this morning…

    Several people have responded to my comments about doubt, and I want to follow up with a couple things.

    First of all, I was embarrassed to see that I accidentally compressed the Hebrews quote. As someone else quoted correctly, faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen. I apologize for the misquote! 🙂

    Moving on to the responses, I did not mean to indicate that empirical evidence is something that is never warranted or helpful. I’m not trying to draw a false dichotomy with the issue.

    But with this issue, as with any issue related to God, I think it is important for us to wrestle through what the Scripture says on the topic. We see faith contrasted to sight, we see the faith of those in Hebrews 11 who did not see what they were believing in commended, we see Jesus’ words about the greater blessing for those who believe without seeing…I really think we need to start with that. Not only that, but we see recorded in Scriptures instances of exactly the type of miracles Dan was describing here.

    I’m not trying to bash anyone. I’m just thinking out loud that we here in the West, as Dan was saying, really do seem to be so far away from true faith and trust in God.

    I’m not advocating believing everything that is read — unless it’s in the Bible! 🙂 But to be honest, if we see ourselves at a point of saying, “I know this is what the Bible says, but…” we should check ourselves very carefully right there.

    I don’t know if that clears up my point any, or just adds to the pile-on. 🙁

    steve 🙂

  16. The comments here have been so good that I haven’t felt any reason to add my own till now!

    Christian Woman: I will be posting on some solid charismatic resources in the near future. If you listened to any of the Leonard Ravenhill sermons at the link from my post the other day, he talks about this in a rational way in some of his messages. Beyond that, hold on for e little while. It’s a good question and I want to do it justice as a post for others to see.

    Craig Dunning: No doubt that some reports achieve an almost mythic quality. The difference in the cases I cited above is that I was friends with the people in the first three stories. The last two were friends of friends. If they were told by complete strangers, then I think I would be more skeptical. Still, why is it so hard to think that these things happen?

    Michael Rew: Why do Christians in other countries come here? I think one reason is to escape persecution. Another is the American Dream. The problem though is that while these things are enticing, no one questions what is lost by moving here. And a lot is. You’ve got Christians in China right now praying that persecution will come to the American Church so it will wake up out of its slumber and become a vital Church again. In many ways, we are like Laodicea in Revelation. We’re rich and claim we have no need for anything, but we’ve become spiritually poor. The Christian who comes here from a foreign nation only sees that after being here a while. How else would they know? By then, they’ve often become residents of Laodicea, too. Just something to consider.

  17. Dyspraxic Fundamentalist

    I know what you mean. Coming from a Charismatic background (from which I have escaped) I have plenty of far-out stories.

    God Bless


  18. Pingback: Missionary Mirage « Lingamish
  19. I can sympathize with those who trust the stories and with those who doubt them. I’ve had experience with one missions leader whose numbers are always conveniently large and conveniently round. I’ve heard a man on TV tell a story that couldn’t possibly be true, or else the news media would have reported it. I’ve been inspired by a man who later turned out to be a chronic liar. I’ve known another missions leader who repeatedly lied about non-miraculous things, so that made it much harder to trust the person’s stories (some certainly true) about miraculous things.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen remarkable healings with my own eyes on more than one occasion, where there were no more than a handful of us present and no famous healer present (except the Lord). I’ve sat with a demonized man and prayed and used scripture with him until the demon fled and the man was (at least for the following hours) perfectly sane. I’ve heard a charismatic lady say that she understood the words that we heard a young African man praying in his native language. All of this is not my power, but the power of Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit.

    Does the Lord do remarkable things today? Yes.
    Do we need to have much discernment, to separate the true from the false? Yes.

    One starting point: Once you’ve heard the person speak or read the story, are you left thinking how wonderful the story is, how wonderful the mission or mission trip is, how wonderful the messenger is, or how wonderful the Lord is?

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