The thorns and fruits of vulnerable mission

Church Missionary Society gospel worker in Cambodia Dave Painter believes the movement known as “vulnerable mission” is greatly needed yet it will never be popular in the West because it is so counter-cultural.

Vulnerable mission is about learning to use local resources – local language, local money, and local ways of doing things – in order to do the main missionary task, which is to share the gospel. It is about making oneself vulnerable and subject to the possibility of personal failure.

For Dave, the practice of vulnerable mission is like Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12 – Dave’s relative wealth and educational advantages hold him back in reaching local people for the gospel. However, by becoming vulnerable he is in a better position to point people to Christ for their spiritual growth rather than them relying on the missionary or local pastor for their material needs.

“Being vulnerable is trying to just use the material things immediately available to a local for my ministry. In other words, I’m seeking to put myself at the level of people around me – that’s essential,” says Dave, who teaches the Preliminary Theology Certificate in Khmer at a Bible college in Phnom Penh.

“Secondly, I want to use local languages and that’s very disempowering for a foreigner, certainly at the beginning, because as soon as we open our mouths, we feel inadequate, and people know we’re inadequate. And people laugh at us – not with us, but at us. So, most people stop at that point. They quickly learn that: if I use an interpreter, people think I am important because I am using English, which is sophisticated and which I know very well. And, if I do make a mistake, it is not my mistake, it’s the interpreter’s mistake.”

“I want to use local languages and that’s very disempowering for a foreigner.” – Dave Painter

Dave says many foreigners in Cambodia still use an interpreter even after 20 years in the country. While they might know enough Khmer to understand what people are talking about, they have not learned enough to analyse what people are saying. “So, they feel comfortable in their day-to-day life. However, they haven’t actually unpacked the culture around them through understanding the language being used.”

Dave and Leoni with a small church they helped to plant in their home in Phnom Penh just before the pandemic.

Dave says a long-term dedicated commitment to learning the language and living out the gospel is exceedingly difficult and causes huge stress on the part of the missionary. 

“It’s not a very popular message because it’s about personal costs and it’s about removing oneself away from one’s comfort zone. It’s so counter-cultural for us that I don’t see there’s going to be a lot of people following this model.”

Dave has both witnessed and experienced a huge level of pressure towards foreigners from many locals to not learn the language beyond a rudimentary level.

“We might think the locals are encouraging us, but actually they don’t because they want to learn English.”

Many local people also do not want missionaries to learn more than they need to, he adds, because they are invested in a patron-client relationship in which foreign money keeps flowing to them and to their families.

“They have a personal stake in the whole patron-client model continuing. So, the foreign patron is happy because local people are being loyal to them. The clients are happy because they are receiving, so why would anyone want to change that situation? The only loser is the gospel.”

“This stagnation gets back to foreign sponsorship in which the missionary or local pastor becomes the patron and the congregation the client.” – Dave Painter

Dave sees Cambodia as a typical example of how foreign funds can damage the spread of the gospel. He says a lot of Cambodians came to Christ through the witness of overseas Christians coming in to do aid and development work from 1991 to 2001, and many churches were planted in that period. But the Cambodian Church today is far from a success story.

“When we turned up in 2001, Cambodia had gone from where in early 91, there would have been just a handful of Christians left in the country after the Khmer Rouge and the period when Vietnam had control of the country from 1979 to 91. Numerically, it exploded to about 200,000. So that was a massive increase of people who went to church and said they were Christian. Since then, the numbers have not gone anywhere – it’s just been 200,000.

“I believe the reason for this stagnation gets back to foreign sponsorship in which the missionary or local pastor becomes the patron and the congregation the client – a reversal of the New Testament situation where the church members support their full-time leaders. This creates a situation where there is a disincentive to share the [material] gifts with others.

“Most of the witnessing and church planting happened in an environment where there was money and other forms of sponsorship readily on offer. In this environment of great poverty, people were naturally attracted to such inducements. The poor were attracted to people who were wealthy, and particularly to people who spoke English, which is a tremendous economic asset to have in a place like Cambodia.

“As well, Christians are happy and nice-natured and have a good message, which appeals to the Buddhist mindset; there are lots of aspects of Christianity that are warm, and are almost the same, if not, identical to Buddhism. There is a lot of overlap. Some were attracted just for those cultural reasons.

“So, this multitude of churches began, coming to number more than 5000. However, churches formed like that are difficult to sustain, and they are even harder to grow. If I’ve got my family to support, and typically one has a high degree of loyalty to one’s own family and to one’s church family, and I’m receiving gifts, I don’t want those gifts to be diluted by the addition of new members. Moreover, I don’t want my sponsor’s attention drawn away from my family to someone else, such as a new convert. So, we were seeing even small churches living on substantial amounts of sponsorship fail to grow despite all the encouragement and pleading from the missionary or the overseas denomination.”

Dave believes vulnerable mission is desperately required for effective missionary service, particularly in locations where there is a significant economic disparity.

Vulnerable mission is a challenge to the Reformed evangelical mindset because such believers want to see people come to Christ and they want to use their relative wealth to give generously to foreign missions. However, Dave believes vulnerable mission is desperately required for effective missionary service, particularly in locations where there is a significant economic disparity between the missionary’s passport country and the situation on the field.

“I’ve had so many well-minded people from the West over the years seek to use me as a conduit to put funds into Cambodia. Most of the time I say no because it’s not just the damage I could do with it, but it’s also a massive consumer of missionary time to effectively administer it. A lot of the missionaries I see are spending a significant proportion of their time administering foreign funds, which don’t really do much good anyway.”

“I’ve had so many well-minded people from the West over the years seek to use me as a conduit to put funds into Cambodia. Most of the time I say no.” – Dave Painter

In vulnerable mission, the aim is to set up good churches in which people’s faith is in Christ, not in the donor, the pastor, or the missionary, he explains. 

“And the second part is that the people in the local church are giving from their personal resources to provide for their pastor because where your wallet or your purse is, that’s where your heart is.

“If you have a church where everything is provided for, and in fact, the members are only receiving, then their commitment is only towards themselves or towards their family. They are not seeking to help God’s people and they are not wanting to see the gospel go out to the outsider. And so, what you have are a lot of immature Christians forever sipping milk. And this is the main reason as to why the Cambodian Church has remained at 200,000.”

“We start to realise that their understanding in turn is growing. But at the same time, this is our thorn in the flesh. It keeps holding us back.” – Dave Painter

Dave’s commitment to teaching in Khmer entails a commitment to long-term missionary service. He and Leoni have served in Cambodia since 2001.

“It’s a lengthy process – you never stop learning. A local language is developed in a local context and so words have distinct meanings, but only in a particular context. It’s not just a case of I’ve got 5000 English words and I’ve turned them into 5000 Khmer words and I’m just going to substitute these foreign words for English. Language does not work like that. And so, the best way to learn the language is to be there and use it and make mistakes  … become vulnerable.

“It is a matter of patiently acquiring it and using it, knowing that the limitation of our ministry is the language we’ve learned – or failed to learn – as we can’t go beyond that level. The understanding of our predicament drives us on to want to learn more and more as we progress along our missionary journey. And then we see some of the results when our students respond positively, and we start to realise that their understanding in turn is growing. But at the same time, this is our thorn in the flesh. It keeps holding us back.”