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Vulnerable Mission

Christian and other activists from the West seeking to promote relief and development in Africa have been slow to concede to problems in the donor model. This is for many reasons. One of these is the predominance of secular thinking that has affected even Christian people in the West, with its suggestion that there is actually no alternative to the donor model in relationships with the so-called two-thirds world. This contributes an implicit allegiance with historical materialistic thinking that has marginalised any role for God, godliness, spirits and even ‘culture’ in development thinking, which has in turn brought an enormous narrowing of options. So, said Wolf, although there is a big question as to whether the poor really can effectively utilise aid from the West, “yet the option of doing nothing is worse …”[32]

The outcome of such a narrowing of options combined with an activist tendency has been an almost sickening association in much of the world between Western people (language, skin colour etc.) and a slavish unquestioning faith in the ability of outside money to bring positive change to a community. Such has come to be the identity in much of the world, of visitors from what was once the home of Christendom (especially Western Europe and North America). It is an identity which has created enormous barriers with non-Western peoples. Not only can Western foreigners now not be understood, but it is also known that they are unlikely to be content without occupying a powerful position in their host community which they justify to themselves as being in the interest of its development, and particularly economic advance. This relatively cold, distant and power-hungry face of the Western Christian is not always in the interests of the Gospel, and has certainly made it difficult for Westerners to relate to others without donor-money, on which more and more have become grossly dependent, being constantly in view.[33]

A prerequisite for effective language and culture learning and then effective service outside of the West, I suggest, is creating a distance with dominant donor-oriented Westerners. Not to do so is to be surrounded by yes-men and donor-seekers that are determined to please so as to rise to the top of the list of potential beneficiaries. The front presented by such people is little related to the deep culture on the ground. This combined with the shame African people already often feel due to a constant despising of their deeply-held beliefs (such as those in witchcraft) by the West, can result in gross misinformation being received by the outsider.

At the same time, the donor-oriented approach has become so prevalent, that it is extremely hard to avoid. A Westerner coming into the Two-Thirds world may have the best possible intentions of meeting people where they are and relating with them as equals and fellow human beings. But the barriers to doing this are legion, and appearances of success to this end must often be deceptive. Major efforts are need in order to avoid the image of being a power-hungry[34] ignorant (not being familiar with local languages and conditions) donor.

Vulnerable mission is key to enable the contextualisation of theology.

Ironically, the wide-spread today of Western languages in much of the Third world can make it more difficult still for an outsider to become familiar with local contexts. Today many Westerners visiting Africa may be told: “you do not need to learn our language because we know English”. Local people who have spent often a decade or more learning English can be greatly frustrated if a foreigner then wants to stumble along with them in their mother-tongue! But unless that foreigner stumbles along, then later becomes fluent in that mother tongue, they will not easily become aware of what is happening in the community around them. That could be all right, if it wasn’t for the factors mentioned above including corruption, to which can be added that the Two-thirds world national is unlikely to comprehend anyway the aims of a foreign-designed project, much less to know how to achieve those aims without ongoing dependency on the West. Great efforts, even in the light of opposition from the local community, may well be needed in order to learn and use local and not international languages, and thus to ensure the possibility of local sustainability of a project and a true understanding by an outsider of what is going on around him or her.

Following the above discussion and the case made above, it is possible to make some clear recommendations to those Westerners who seek to have a deep, profound, and effective impact on two-thirds world communities. That is – that they should as strictly as possible confine themselves in their ministry to the people they are reaching to the use of local languages and local resources. This mission style we are referring to as ‘vulnerable mission’. A series of conferences has been held internationally (in Germany, USA and UK) considering and promoting ‘vulnerable mission’—as being vital for some western missionaries to follow in the interests of the future of the church, as well as the people of the Two-Thirds world as a whole. Then teaching (in word and deed) of the persons of the Trinity including pneuma hagion can be appropriately contextualised and effective.

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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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