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Vulnerable Mission

Along with many contemporary linguists, I take language to be a pragmatic and not only a semantic system.[27] That is, that for language to be learned accurately and correctly it has to be learned in the context (or a closely related context) to that in which it is to be used. I take it then as a necessity for a theologian who wants to speak helpfully into the East African context, to have learned an East African language, and to have done so in an East African context.

How useful are theological discourses where that theology has no cultural context?

In this sense, I am questioning the value of the un-translated transfer of theological debates and discourses from the West to Africa. Texts and discourse I suggest, because of the contextual dependence on meaning in language, can never be moved intact across cultural boundaries. Instead—they are transformed in the process of being moved. Such transformation usually subverts originally intended meanings and impacts. There is therefore an urgent need for the development of an East African pneumatology and theology that is appropriate for the East African context, and is rendered so appropriate by the existence of an intermediary translation process between Western and East African theological discourse.

Such translation requires knowledgeability at both ends. That is, given the requirement for a pragmatic understanding of language above, a close knowledge of Western ‘culture’ is needed for someone to understand Western theological texts. Then a close knowledge of East African ways of life are needed to enable a theologian to transfer Western theological insights into East Africa. The question arises, whether this requires an East African person to become familiar with the West before begin able to pass on theology to their own people, or whether it requires a Westerner to become familiar with East Africa, or both? I suggest that the latter is actually the most helpful if not essential.[28]

It has been assumed that donor activities don’t affect the theology on the ground. But is that true?

There has been a widespread understanding, that Western Christians can provide help or support to the East African church, and thus enable African theologians to better do their task, without affecting as such the theology that exists in Africa. This thinking underlies a lot of project activity by Christian NGOs of various sorts involved in fund-raising in the West and ‘spending’ in Africa. The assumption that such donor activities may not affect the theology on the ground is unfortunately in my view somewhat misguided. Unlike Western theology, African thinking about theo is as much[29] to do with power as with abstract reason. Theo is as much defined by what he does as by scholarly perceptions of him. When Western-based NGOs show, by what they achieve by the means of science, him as capable of doing great things, then these great things become part of his attributes. It is only a short distance from there to the prosperity Gospel – wanting God exactly for those attributes, and then rejecting him if he does not demonstrate those attributes.

We have found that learning the language and context of an East African people is an essential part of effective missionary work amongst East Africans. An important question that remains is how to go about learning the language, this especially bearing in mind the need to do so as far as possible within the local context. A language needs to be learned, that is, not in a school with formal teachers and a classroom, but as much as possible in the ebb and flow of ‘life’.

I have already mentioned above, the tendency in recent years for what was once hands-on missionary involvement to have become the provision of funds for projects. In other words – whereas in previous centuries the West sent many missionaries to Africa, these days the focus is on sending resources. The West has rationalised its way out of on-the-ground contact with African people in various ways, arguing that it’s most helpful role is in the provision of money and other resources. Because the West has the money, but Africa has the personnel, then it seems to make sense for the West to provide the money for the African personnel to use. Hence the West has sought to provide the finance to enable the African church to prosper. This has been of limited success for various reasons too complex to go into in detail in this essay. Suffice it to say in brief – that flows of funds from the outside easily occur in such a way as to engender jealousy, corruption, and conflict in recipient communities. [30] In addition, it has proved impossible to effectively delegate responsibility for use of funds to those who are not the source of those funds, leading either to abuses and/or to control from the West in ways that are not helpful because such controllers are ignorant of local realities.[31]

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2019

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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