Vulnerable mission hurts, but it works

Four ways to address power imbalances

Colonial rule and power imbalances continue to cast a long shadow over cross-cultural mission service, according to David Williams, director of training and development for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Australia.

Speaking at the CMS Summer School for NSW/ACT last week, which was attended by about 1000 people, including 18 missionary units (singles or couples), he asked a simple question:

“One man has a million dollars in his bank account; another has $10 in his bank account. Who has more power?”

“Well, clearly, the man with a million dollars in his bank account has way more power because money is a stored form of power. And so the fact that Western churches and Western mission societies typically have far greater financial capacity means that we have a disproportionate amount of power in terms of world mission.”

Williams, who prepares missionaries for cross-cultural gospel work at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne, painted a picture of how this power imbalance manifested when he and his wife Rachel were missionaries in Nairobi, Kenya.

“While we were there, we were contacted by a very, very large and extremely wealthy church from Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. They wrote to me and said that they wanted to send a team who would come and teach the Kenyan people that we were working with.

“I’d never heard from this church before – I’d never met anyone from it. They were going to come and teach Kenyan students. So I replied that we would be delighted to welcome a team from their church to come and learn from Kenyan Christians about what it means to follow Jesus in that particular culture. They replied and said that they weren’t interested.”

“Money and power are often used inappropriately in 21st-century mission.” – David Williams

Williams confessed that was a hard email to write because he could have expected considerable financial help for his struggling mission if he had developed a partnership with this wealthy American church.

“The reality is that money and power are often used inappropriately in 21st-century mission, and the concept of vulnerable mission has been developed as an attempt to address that reality.”

Williams then explained the history and theological foundations of vulnerable mission and how CMS puts vulnerable mission principles into practice in its gospel partnerships around the world.

British missionary in Kenya, Jim Harries, developed the idea of vulnerable mission as a way of tackling power imbalances in cross-cultural partnerships. Partnership implies an equal relationship, but Harries observed that while Western mission often wants to work in partnership, the reality is that the power imbalances in place make true partnership very difficult.

“We control too many things, resources and money, and people and ideas,” Williams said.

“So Harries named that power differential and went on to argue that Western mission should not try to create equal partnerships. Instead, he said we should try to create unequal partnerships, where Western mission is deliberately and intentionally seeking to act from a position of weakness, that we should deliberately try to give away power.”

“We should try to create unequal partnerships where Western mission is deliberately and intentionally seeking to act from a position of weakness.” – David Williams

He quoted American physiologist Jean Johnson (author of We Are Not the Hero) who, while working long-term in Cambodia, observed that mission was often set up so that Cambodian Christians were metaphorically playing uphill.

“She tells the story of medical teams coming to visit her ministry from the US on short-term trips. When they went into Cambodian homes, they were handing out gifts of medicines and vitamins. They got a warm welcome, but when Cambodian pastors returned to those same homes, well, they were just perhaps bringing the gift of a piece of fruit and they didn’t get the same warm welcome. What they got was hostility. ‘Why have you forsaken Buddhism? Why haven’t you brought us a proper gift? Bring back those white people. We prefer them.’ And vulnerable mission is an attempt to respond to those tensions. I think Jim Harries’ great contribution has been to think really practically about the specific ways in which power is mediated so that we can try to address that metaphorical unlevel playing.”

Harries focused on four practical realities in mission that help to level the playing field: language, resources, lifestyle, and learning and teaching styles.

Language: Mission should operate in the preferred language of the hearer, not that of the missionary.

“Vulnerable mission advocates for in-depth language learning. Now, this isn’t just a pragmatic desire for clear communication. This is about giving away power. If we speak in English, then we are speaking in a language that I’m powerful in. I have postgraduate-level ability in English. I don’t even speak with an accent,” joked the English-born Williams.

“But when I have to learn a second language, I become like a child. I’m a learner. Those I’m speaking to are the experts, they’re my teachers. They have the power that I’ve given away. And by operating in the preferred language of the hearer, I am ceding, giving away power and putting myself deliberately into the role of a learner.”

Resources: Mission should be conducted, as far as possible, using locally available resources. We should avoid injecting large sums of external funding into mission and development contexts because Western mission and Western development can be used to control. If we decide to operate the mission using only locally available resources, again, we are giving away power.

Lifestyle: Missionaries should live as simply and as closely as possible to the context in which they’re serving, which, again, is giving away power.

“Now, we need to be honest and realistic that there are tensions in this area. Frankly, there is little benefit in making ultra-hardcore lifestyle decisions if we land up burning out after nine months and having to return home. But living as proximate as possible to those that we are serving is an important vulnerable mission principle. Frankly, there are not many contexts in which it is an appropriate thing to be a fly-in, fly-out missionary.”

Learning and teaching styles: The vulnerable mission movement discourages Western ways of thinking and teaching, and embraces orality and models of holistic, rather than dichotomous, thinking.

“I shouldn’t envision teaching in the way that I prefer to teach. I should be teaching in the way that my students prefer to learn, and that is likely to be uncomfortable stretching for me. I’m giving away power and I’m putting myself on the back foot,” he said.

“So, pragmatically, vulnerable mission is all about giving away power, and practically, we can do that in the areas of language, resources, lifestyle and learning.”

The theological basis for vulnerable mission, he said, is modelled on Jesus Christ letting go of all the power and privileges of heaven when he became flesh: “The Lord Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness, by humbling himself and then being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

“All of God’s children are called to speak the message of the cross, to proclaim it. So the news of Christ’s atoning death is a story that is filled with hope and life. For every human being in Christ, there is hope for every person in every culture, and without Christ, there is no hope for anyone anywhere. This is the message that we are to proclaim.”

“There is an inherent vulnerability to the proclamation of the gospel.” – David Williams

However, he pointed out, wherever you go in the world, and whoever you are talking to, the message of the cross is weakness and foolishness.

“No missionary has ever rocked up in any culture anywhere and talked about a naked Jewish guy nailed to a cross 2000 years ago, and the local culture has said, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense,'” he said.

“There is an inherent vulnerability to the proclamation of the gospel. Christ’s crucifixion is supra-culturally a message of weakness and foolishness. But the New Testament goes further than that and says that not only is the message itself inherently weak and foolish, but the proclaimer of that message, the faithful herald of that message, is also, in God’s good design, a clay jar.

“In God’s good design, the gospel herald is also inherently weak and foolish. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, ‘We carry in ourselves in the body the death of Jesus.’ And as, 2 Corinthians 4 makes clear, God deliberately entrusts this beautiful jewel of the gospel to people who are like clay jars, in order that it would be very clear to everyone that the power at work in the gospel doesn’t come [us]. The power must come from somewhere else.

“So both the gospel message and the gospel messenger are supra-culturally weak and foolish, and that builds an inherent tension here to Christian ministry. We are weak. But God is strong and God has designed Christian ministry so that the person bringing and ministering life to others does so through what? Through their dying. If I want to see God powerfully at work in those I’m serving according to the gospel, I must embrace vulnerability. There’s no other way.

“But make no mistake, there is a cost to vulnerable mission … self-emptying is painful, and our missionaries are not treading an easy path, especially in the early years of vulnerability. Vulnerability hurts, but it works.”