August 11, 2016

Ministering to the “third world”

by Josiah Grauman

Have you ever heard someone speaking of the difficulties of ministering in a “third world” country? I would argue that we should remove this terminology from our vocabulary, being that our using it is probably ignorant, sinful, or both.

I know. That’s a pretty strong claim. But I’m speaking from my heart, as a man who recently looked up the meaning of the term “third world”, and was convicted that my sinful heart has used it in a way that is condescending to my fellow man.

Why ignorant?

Did you know that Switzerland is a third world country? China is a second world country? Puerto Rico is a first world country? You see, technically, “third world” was not originally an economic term. It was a political term. So if you speak of a third world country as poor, you’re not using the word according to its original meaning.


During the cold war, those countries who allied against communism were deemed “first world” countries (Countries in blue above). Those countries who fought for communism were “second world” countries (Why do communists like red?). Those countries who opted to stay out of the fight were “third world” countries (Green—many who abstained from the fight; many whose military was not deemed strong enough to make a difference).[1]

You say, okay, maybe I haven’t used the term that way, but language changes. Third world now simply means poor. And I agree. In fact, many dictionaries now define “third world” in that way. So why would I claim that it can be sinful to speak of the “third world” as we often do?

Well, what do you call it when someone divides human beings into different classes, some superior to others? Using the classification “third world” is not a simple explanation that some countries are struggling economically. It actually locates that country in a separate and lesser class of nations. For example, when we ask for prayer as we enter a “third world” country, speaking of how much we will have to lower ourselves to stoop down to their level, do you not suppose that they feel demeaned and patronized? (Matt 7:12)

D.R.Which brings me to another important question: Are we really more advanced than they are? Has all our technology and wealth led to actual progress? Do you call it progress when a nation slaughters babies in a sanctioned genocide and has regressed to Sodom in their definition of the family? Forgive me, but sometimes I see more Biblical progress in the Dominican Republic—where electricity might go out frequently—but whose moral compass is still functioning! Let’s pray they don’t follow our “first world progress” and legalize abortion.

Christ has erased all dividing lines between “Barbarian, Scythian, slave, free” (Col 3:11). So while some countries are less economically developed than others, let’s stop dividing them into categories as the world defines progress. There is only degree, not categories.

Furthermore, though some nations are at different locations on the spectrum of economical or spiritual darkness, we would be wise to not place them into classes. The Bible knows no categories.

There are only sinners; and forgiven sinners.

All of humanity has fallen short of God’s glory. All countries of the world have rebelled against their Creator. Every soul needs Christ equally.


Josiah Grauman


Josiah is the director of the 'Instituto de Expositores', a Spanish language training institute at Grace Community Church, where he and his wife serve as missionaries.
  • Jason

    Thanks, I didn’t know the term’s origins. Almost always when I have heard people who have had the opportunity to go to nations with less technology, they come back with amazing stories of community and people genuinely excited to live for Christ. It’s almost like texting isn’t the best way to talk to people… 😛

  • Ralph Kott

    Definitely an eye opener. Thank you.

  • Vickey Singleton

    Thanks for pointing this out! How easily we Americans fall into the trap of “Christian elitism.”

  • Andrew

    I understand (I think) the intent of what you’re saying: don’t marginalize people by calling a different country/society “third world” and therefore inflate your own status.

    I have a couple issue with this though. 1: states the definition of third world to be: “the underdeveloped nations of the world, especially those with widespread poverty.” This seems to be the common use (and my own use) today of the statement “third world.” 2: This does not necessarily imply a superior status of non-third world societies. Consider the following two statements:

    “Please pray for me, I’m going to a third world country on a mission trip and just don’t know if I can put up with the simplistic and rough life style.”

    “Please pray for me, I’m going to a third world country on a mission trip and know that there will be some hardship. I’ll need to be careful with what water I drink, food I eat, areas I travel to, and want to be aware of the Western-missionary-superiority that sneakily gains ground if I’m not humble.”

    One of those is said from sinful high horse, one is not.

    “Christ has erased all dividing lines between “Barbarian, Scythian, slave, free” (Col 3:11).”

    I believe the context of this is referring to salvation; throughout Christ’s ministry we see him frequently helping those who are poor and needy (in Spirit, yes but that typically corresponded with their lack of wealth). He had to make some sort of judgment call in order to distinguish between the “rich” and “poor”, so that he could help those deemed “poor”. The amount of money/wealth you have is something that is quantifiable and you are able to make a judgment based off of that and concluded that, “this person/country is poor” or “this person/country is rich”. That in and of itself is not sinful; what is sinful is to then conclude that the person/country with the greater wealth is worth more than the person/country with less wealth.

    • Andrew, thanks for your input.

      I think we are on the same page, and I tried to note both the current definition of the term and the fact that it could be sinful to use the term, but not always.

      I think my main point, and I should have been clearer, is that I have spent years living and interacting with folks from countries we call third, and they certainly think third sounds beneath first… It’s just built into the math :), so I also want to love them with the knowledge that it could be offensive.

      • Andrew

        Josiah, that’s fair, and I’m in agreement. Thanks!

  • Am I still allowed to make fun of so-called “first world” problems?

  • Karl Heitman

    I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill, bro. Calling impoverished, primitive countries third world is not the same as assigning people into inferior classes…at least in the Gal. 3:28 or Col. 3:11 sense. If Paul was condemning separation in the church based on class, then I fail to see the gravitas of this issue. I spent some time in three different places in Iraq and it’s most assuredly a third world country simply because 1) their infrastructure is nearly non-existent (a lack of plumbing/sewage, electricity, refuse, public trans, ect.), 2) their government was/is severely corrupt and divided (i.e, there is little-to-no law & order, hence the reason why the Americans had to provide it), and 3) socially they still live by an extremely archaic and misogynistic code of conduct. Those are just three examples off the top of my head….

    All I’m saying it that to dub a country like Iraq, for example, as “third world” doesn’t mean that I’m somehow placing myself above them in a spiritual sense. That’s the sin Paul was speaking of, correct? I can see how someone may look down on a third world country, but I think most Christians take pity on them; not viewing them as lesser human beings because they still use a donkey and cart instead of a Chevy.

    • 4Commencefiring4

      Agreed. There is a distinction to be made, on an objective level, between some cultures and others. Some nations–as opposed to individuals living there–are clearly superior to other nations in measurable ways.

      Human rights are deplorable in many countries vs most western nations. Freedoms and rights are far more honored in America and most of Europe than in Muslim nations, where women cannot vote, gays are executed, education lags, and religious oppression severe.

      We can decry abortion, murder rates, porn, and general culture rot here, and we should. But the average person in a western culture has a lot fuller future in store than the average person in Cameroon or Syria or North Korea. People there are just waiting to die…wishing it in many cases.

  • ‘African’ Andrew

    of all, thanks for the post. I couldn’t agree more. And I’m pointing
    the finger to myself for having the same sinful attitude to the “first
    world” countries as well as to those who are “more third world” than me.

    I may offer a response from “the third world” regarding some of the comments that function so well as illustrations of this post…

    I think Heitman said it best when he says “I think most Christians take pity on them”. We certainly feel it when “the Americans provide”. We expect fellowship and mutual encouragement, but often (thankfully not always) receive only pity – usually in the form of youthful first world Christian zealots instructing older godlier third world men for the two week in which they grace us with their presence.

    And if you need to be careful of the water you drink and the food you eat, it is not always because the water is contaminated or because the food is infected by the open market. Sometimes it is simply because it contains a different set of germs to those that your bodies are accustomed to. When we go to your countries, we also sometimes get sick because the hand dryer at the mall blew your cozy germs all over us.

    About the “archaic” code of conduct … some third world countries are quite content to wait for the post-modern countries to sort out the obvious terrors of their tolerant legislation (no men in our girls bathrooms!) before they follow suit! Girls in my country might be at a higher risk of various atrocities, but at least it is labeled “crime and corruption”, not “legislation by a ‘Christian’-founded country”.

    I write the above with a slight tongue-in-cheek because I want to make a point, but I do think there is much validity to what you wrote. Having spent a few years in your country, I’m hard pressed to define my future or yours as “fuller” than the other.

    The first-world-produced social gospel has turned the third world into something to be pitied for its economic or political situation. So when true Christians also dress their ministry in pity, we cringe. Does Scripture not teach us to expect fellowship and mutual edification?

    Josiah, I had class for a year from your brother Joshua. Based on what he said about you, I’d encourage you to write more on this topic. It might help stop true believers (in first and third world countries) from subtly succumbing to the social gospel and all its variants. It will clear up the need for a Saviour of souls over the perceived need for Americanised peace. There are after all, only sinners, and forgiven sinners. The sinners need the same Jesus who saved you from your sins, and the forgiven sinners need the same edification from you that you need from them.