27 February 2007

Mission is a two-way street... or is it?

Mission is a two-way street.

So they've been telling us for the last 50 years or more, so much so that it's almost become a cliche. It's become one of the unquestioned axioms of Western missiology. Mission, we were told, is giving and receiving. We need to be partners in mission. As the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Dublin once put it, "If we once acted as though there were only givers who had nothing to receive and receivers who had nothing to give, the oneness of the missionary task must now make us all both givers and receivers."

The phrase "Partners in Mission" is also used very widely in Western mission; it is used by Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army, to name but a few. Among Anglicans, at least, it replaced a much more verbose and cumbersome phrase that meant something similar: Mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.

Nearly 50 years ago a friend of mine, John Davies, wrote, in a paper entitled Religion versus God
Missionary work is essentially two-way; Christ said, `Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them' (Matthew 7:12). If we took this seriously, we should probably have to pack in half the missionary work of the Church that we are used to, if it meant that blacks would start teaching whites , and doing good to them, and expecting them to be grateful. Our mission is not, in a one-way traffic, to extol the greatness of our religion: it is to hear and know the living God - and just as between God and man, so also between Christian and non-Christian, all real living is meeting. If this is not our way, we misrepresent the God who has sent us out, whose very nature as trinity is one of reciprocal relations.

And now that is beginning to happen, at least in the Anglican Communion. Blacks have begun teaching whites, and the whites don't like it. I've noticed a growing number of Anglican bloggers in the West writing about "the African problem".

But why is it "the African problem"? Why not "the American problem"?

Why do so many people in the West think it's OK for Americans to spread their values, culture, fast food and cluster bombs all over the world, but when Iranians or North Koreans or Africans do any of these things they scream blue murder?

And doesn't this talk of "the African problem" show that noble phrases like "partnership in mission" and mission being a two-way street are just empty rhetoric, and have been all along? Only a few benighted Africans were foolish enough to take it seriously.


Nathan said...

I think your perspective as a South African is showing you only one element of the first of your two points: that of blacks teaching whites. The point is not that they are black (mostly), it is that they are conservative. White conservative Christians suffer the same discrimination. (I know, I'm one of them) Where this sense of superiority goes beyond a liberal/ conservative divide, it touches on the second of your points, that of the West vs. the Rest. The problem is, when (or if) most Westerners think of Africa, they think immediately of grass huts, National Geographic photos of hunter gatherers, and +30% HIV infection rates. None of those lend credibility to arguments, and definitely not on a moral basis.

To further address your second point though, I think a simpler reduction can be used. It is Us vs. Them. The reason the West is not ok with Iran, or North Korea, or any other rogue state developing nuclear weapons is that we believe in our security, and act to defend it. The fact of globalization forces us to act globally. There is simply no altruism in politics.

In a time when someone so minded could buy a vial of something contagious and nasty in Central Asia, and 20 hours later be spreading it on the streets of Los Angeles, any country desiring security must either isolate itself, or take steps on a global scale to ensure security. The West is following the latter path.

Chris & Kara Wynn said...

Thank you for your comment on our blog. I am one of those with great hope in the impact on the West (Europe and the US) from Africa and Asia. I'm convinced the future of the Christian faith will advance most noticeably out of these places. It already is.

How will it be received? With resistance, of course. Wealth creates arrogance. I'm an American and I know for a fact my country is bloated and self-absorbed. I don't like it. I believe the pride is present, and the fall is eminent.

But my hope in the rise of African and Asian Christianity isn't based on the effectiveness I might think it will have in the West, it comes from the faith I've seen in these places. A few years ago in Mozambique it came clear to me the depth of faith my brothers out side Maputo possessed. I was a few years out of seminary, and in their company I realized clearly that I was the learner and poor one at that. It was their faith.

I could read by sight and almost write ancient Hebrew and Greek, overall I had invested a whopping 10 years in theological study, but at the end of the day, I saw sincere but uneducated brothers living powerfully for the Lord ... more powerfully than I had seen any of my school mates in seminary living.

It reminded my of Jesus choice of the disciples, pulling them from the ranks of fishermen and the margins of society. It seems to be God's style to select the sincere and obedient over the sophisticated and wealthy.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, the the disputes over sexual morality within the Anglican communion are, to some extent a conservative issue, to the extent that those who want to retain the morality they were taught are tring to conserve.

But I was focusing on something different, where people who discussed the issue in blogs focused not so much on the merits of the issue, pro and con, but on the temerity of Africans in gainsaying the wisdom of the West. One blog referred to it "The African problem" -- with the implication that if America changes, everyone else should follow along without question. Another British blogger focused on the obscurity of Tanzania, a place where the opinions of people don't matter, and asked who knows the difference between Tanzania and Tasmania.

The friend that I quoted, John Davies, once also remarked on the difference he saw between Anglo-Saxon boss-nation theology, and the theology of oppressed and downtrodden people, like the Welsh, and blacks in South Africa (at that time).

There has been much talk on the importance of listening -- until they say something we don't want to hear.

Steve Hayes said...

Chris & Cara,

I'm reminded of hearing a Roman Catholic priest from Yugoslavia speaking, in the days when Yugoslavia was under communist rule, and Christians faced discrimination in society. He said that wherever he travelled in the West, Western Christian would pray for the faith of Christians in Yugoslavia, but that was an odd thing to do. Faith was the one thing the persecuted Christians in Yugoslavia did not lack. But it seemed to be in short supply in the West.

The Scylding said...

I have often thought that the problem the West has with say Africa, is that it commits one of two opposite but equal errors: Either they view Africans as backwards, barbaric etc - the old colonial view, so to speak. Or, they view them as favoured household pets. Either way, it is wrong. Africa provides both deep faith and heresy - recently the old heresy of Adoptionism has been rearing its head in some Southern African circles. It does not mean that because of a darker skin colour, Africans are somehow deep and spiritual. Saints and sinners are as prevelant in Africa as they are anywhere in the world. Any other view is in the end "ethnic profiling".

Steve Hayes said...

The Scylding:

As an example of what you say: Africa gave the world both Arius and Athanasius.

Pastor Phil said...


I have been so impressed by your perspectives on the voice of African theology, but this post really caught my heart when you mentioned the Welsh in your following comments. Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant!

Joey said...

I think American missionaries are doing their best not to impose their "superior" culture to the people they are trying to win. But I think the effort is not good enough. I'm in the mission field right now and I could not help to compare the lifestyle and methods of evangelizing people of American and Asian missionaries. Asians missionaries live a simple life. Americans could not and will not dare to live with people and live in "cheaper" house to be with the local people while Asians are willing to work side by side with local church leaders as equals and to some extent even as learners.

Americans insist that the local ways of doing things are inferior if not wrong compare to the way they do things. They build up companies, training centers as platform to reach people thus fail to empower the local churches to evangelize their own people.

It may be different in the other mission fields but this is how i see it from here. I know there are great American missionaries out there who have dedicated their lives completely to mission work and somehow fully given up their being "Americans" but I have yet to see one here.

Sally said...

Your post to pinch Phils words caught my heart too, and I can see how it is much broader than the African issue- it seems to be you are talking about a willingness to learn more about God with and through a different culture...rather than imposing our own believing it right...
We cannot declare we hold the whole truth...we can always learn!!!

Steve Hayes said...


One example that I thought wwas a good one was Hudson Tatylor, founder of the China Inland mission, later the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He insisted that missionaries should wear local dress (at the time when it different more markedly than it does today), and generally adopt local culture and customs.

When I vitied Thailand, I did not know how to contact any local Christian communities but I did manage to make contact with the OMF. I think they had changed a bit since Hudson Taylor's day. They still tried to adopt aspecrts of local cultuire, but they lived together in a compound, which made them a kind of foreign enclave.

My question to them was about monasticism -- since monasticism was part of Thai Buddhist culture, how would they relate to Christian monasticism, and would iot make any sense.

Steve Hayes said...

Sally & Phil,

This whole thing raises, or can raise, far wider issues, if one wants to. The Welsh, of course, being oppressed and downtrodden people in relation to the English, but an Orthodox priest I know in Blaenau-Ffestiniog says that the Welsh are possibly the most secularised people in Europe, even more so than the Serbs!

And of course it raises the question of power relations in learning, which can sometimes distort the understanding of what is taught and what is learnt.


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