This post has been revised from Original, enough so, it’s worth a re-read. Please leave comments!

On the cover of almost every missions brochure you can find the same thing: Glossy color photos of exotic faces. A henna-covered woman in a veil, a weathered-faced man wearing a turban, a New Guinean highlander with a bone in his nose. This desire for the exotic reflects an ideal I call “The Global Zoo.”

We go to the zoo to see animals, in all their colors, shapes and forms. We like to see them in exhibits approximating their natural habitat. These animals, however, are in captivity. They do not have their freedom. They exist in zoos not for themselves but for our pleasure and education.

Turn on the Discovery Channel or flip open a National Geographic Magazine, and you can see people treated in much the same way. A boat makes its way up river in a documentary on the Amazon. Deep in the jungle the crew disembarks to be met by a band of rainforest dwellers; one of them is wearing a cotton T-shirt. The narrator intones about the tragedy of encroaching civilization and the loss of their traditional way of life. He does not pause to think that this man chose to wear the T-shirt because he may like the protection it gives him against sun and mosquitos. He ignores the fact that the metal knife he now has saves him endless hours of work. His plastic bottle allows him to carry water with him and keep it clean. The narrator begrudges the man these simple things; he wishes to keep the man in a global zoo.

If the T-shirt, to the producers of the show, represents the corrupting influence of the modern world, how much more corrupting must be televisions, refrigerators, schools and medicines. But you wont find them forsaking these things! They want their education and entertainment, their refrigerators–keeping their food from spoiling and the many other benefits of modern life.

This is the self-serving and unloving attitude of the secular world. In his “natural habitat,” the Amazon native provides viewing pleasure for all those at home. The T-shirt, to the producers of the show, is the beginning of the end of their revenue stream, nobody goes to the zoo to see dogs and cats, nor does anybody watch National Geographic to see people in T-shirts. The film crew is there not to give but to take. They use the locals to create images and stories, the more colorful, the more money and success for them.

Secular anthropologists are not only content to impassively observe their subjects from the exhibit fence, they actually built the fence to prevent the loss of a “wild species”. They are attached to the false idea that traditional societies live in some kind of perpetual Garden of Eden until Westerners disrupt their paradise. There is no such nostalgia for their own societies, however. Academia is labeled “liberal” because they do want to change their own societies. Other cultures, however are locked in a romanticized ideal. This is simply another face of colonialism, a double standard which has unfortunately been adopted by the missions community.

Long ago it was considered acceptable to display “primitive” people such as Pygmies and Indians in zoos. This was the same period in which colonists were attempting to force their culture on peoples around the world. Today, people are no longer in literal zoos, but in virtual ones.

The reality is that very few of the world’s citizens today live in the same way that their grandparents did. Like it or not, the world is changing. The photos on the covers of missions brochures do not truly represent the people of the world; they are more representative of the global zoo. The people that God has called us to love are more likely to go to work on a dirty bus than on a camel, donkey or ox-cart. They more likely wear a T-shirt than a tunic. If that somehow feels like a loss to us, we need to check our hearts and reexamine our priorities. Is it our business to encourage people to stay within an outdated or difficult way of life, a rotten and corrupt culture, a traditional group identity?

The scripture tells us: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Is 43:19) “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  (II Cor 5:17) Cultural change brought on by the transformative power of Christ is a good thing. Is it justified to resist both the inevitable change of cultures and the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit within a culture for the sake of preserving some vestiges of a corrupt human cultural system?

Are we willing to bring a message of transformation and freedom or would we rather see people locked into an exhibit?


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  3. Who wrote this article? Wonderful observation! Thank you! This has been my thought for years. This was my reaction when I watched heroic Indiana Jones type tv showmen who go deep into jungles and join tribes. The showmen drug themselves and feel very sick while tribesmen are used to those drugs (to the admiration of the tv showmen). So you watch them cutting their skins, bodies and hear comments full of excitments for such unique and natural customs.

  4. Well presented. Exhibits such as this, of the Global Zoo, in a missions context have little to do with gospel expansion. They promote the idea of the “other”; of the exotic; of those who are not like us. The gospel is the message of the universal answer to common humanity. The gospel draws us into one Body, union with Christ. The Global Zoo promotes the agenda of anthropology and not of the One, Holy (separate), Catholic (all-encompassing), Apostolic (common foundation) church.

  5. This also leads me to think that perhaps this line of thinking contributes greatly to the desire to “produce” disciples. People want to get behind winners, ministries that succeed. And what better way to demonstrate the winnings than to be able to throw up some heart wrenching pictures of people bedraggled and sad – the targets of all the good things we can do to soothe our rich, Western guilt. Exploitation of people for the sake of the “Industry of Missions” is sad. Yet God is raising up those who will stand and be faithful to the ministry of the Word no matter what the cost, and will be dedicated to making Christ known, rather than scoring converts.

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