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Vulnerable Mission

Vulnerable mission I suggest, is an important and key part of enabling the contextualisation of theology to occur. It enables a missionary to draw near to the context where insights about theo are to be taught, and only thus in effect to enable those insights to become truly a part of the indigenous church.



This article looks at complex contemporary understandings of pneuma (spirit and the Holy Spirit) in East Africa. It has been found to be difficult to find a term to translate pneuma so a foreign word—roho has been introduced. This has prevented pneuma from acquiring a truly local indentity, which has meant in effect that he has easily taken foreign values and significance. That is – roho can be seen as a means to the acquisition of money and wealth—a belief widely known as the prosperity gospel. Use of a foreign term has left indigenous fears of ghosts and other ‘evil’ spiritual entities largely intact.

The above complexity of understanding of even one theological term is given as a fundamental reason in favour of the adoption of vulnerable mission practices. How can a foreign missionary teach the Gospel to people without understanding them? How can he or she understand them without approaching them in a vulnerable way? The massive predominance of very un-vulnerable donor based approaches to mission and ‘poverty alleviation’ are noted. They have made it much more difficult for Western missionaries to draw near to local people and be perceived other than as outside donors. Hence this article advocates that more missionaries set themselves the rule of thumb—that their ministry work in the Two Thirds world be carried out using only local languages and resources. This is known as ‘vulnerable mission’.



© Jim Harries. Used with permission. Originally published on the In Depth Index at the legacy Pneuma Foundation website (Pneuma Foundation is the parent organization of in 2010.



[1] Kiswahili is a regional language spoken through much of East Africa. Different versions of Dholuo (the language of the Luo) are spoken by Luo people in parts of the same area. Dholuo mentioned in this article refers to Kenyan–Luo, which is almost identical to the Dholuo spoken in Tanzania.

[2] Many East-African language Bibles are actually translations from English and not from Greek. (Misingi. nd. ‘Misingi ya Biblia. 4.3 Roho ya Mtu.’ (accessed 6.05.09).)

[3] Biblia, 1994. The Holy Bible in Kiswahili Union Version. Nairobi: Bible Society of Kenya. Richard J. Goodrich, and Albert Lukaszewski, 2007. A Reader’s Greek New Testament. (second edition). Michigan: Zondervan.

[4] This use is especially common in South Nyanza, and less so in central and northern Luo regions of Kenya.

[5] Although I here use the term evil, ‘bad’ may be a better translation. (Jim Harries. 2007. ‘Pragmatic Theory Applied to Christian Mission in Africa: with special reference to Luo responses to ‘bad’ in Gem, Kenya.’ PhD thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham, UK, 2007. (accessed 20.9.07).) Pneuma is at times translated into jachien in Dholuo, as in the Luke 24:37. (Bible, 1976, Muma Maler mar Nyasaye: moting’o Muma Machon kod Muma Manyien. Nairobi: Bible Society of Kenya. (Bible in the Luo language.))

[6] John S. Mbiti, 1975, Introduction to African Religion. London / Nairobi: Heinemann, pp.72-73.

[7] Bethwell Ogot, 1961. ‘The Concept of Jok.’ In: African Studies, 20(2) 1961, 123-130. p.124.

[8] Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton, 1996, Women of Fire and Spirit: history, faith and gender in roho religion in Western Kenya. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.xiv. (Juogi is the plural term for juok.)

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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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