Part of my time recently has been thinking about ‘the western mission movement’ and how it needs to change. These next few posts are some thoughts around that. First up: some of the issues we need to grapple with as we look to the future:
Who calls the shots?
The western mission movement has a problem with money, power and control. Sometimes money can be positive and enable things to happen; but other times outside money distorts what people would otherwise do and can easily breed dependence. And all the time we are exercising control we are exporting our cultural values and assumptions. We might not be able to avoid power but we can at least ensure that we use it to create space for others.
Acknowledging we have a problem isn’t controversial; every mission agency I know recognises these issues. Neither is acknowledging that there is wide variety, and that some mission agencies are better at navigating this than others. But the problem goes deep into the way we go about engaging in global mission.
Most mission agencies (and most mission workers) put effort into telling the story of what they are doing and seeking to raise funds for their work. Telling the story to supporters carries various implicit messages: what we do is important, your money is making a difference and has a powerful impact, your support is having an influence in this ‘foreign’ context. So please help us (me) to do more of this by giving more of your money. The criteria for success are the power of the story and the impact of the pictures rather than collaboration with local people and investment in relationships.
As we look to the future it is not just about changing how we interact with partners in different countries but about changing how we (as UK Churches and Christians) engage in and support global mission.
The majority of people in mission agencies are evangelical (at least broadly) and evangelical church culture has some very strong messages about missions.
The command is to ‘GO’ as stated in the great commission. But focusing our Biblical attention on one verse from Matthew 28 is problematic. Firstly, the key thrust of Matt 28 is about making disciples rather than going (just as when I say “go and clean your room” the focus is on cleaning your room rather than going) and secondly, the NT has a number of passages that give us a fuller understanding of how God wants us to be involved in spreading the good news of the kingdom of God.
There is also an urgency based on the assumption that Jesus is coming soon (which is more pronounced in the US than the UK) and that Christians will be raptured. Over the years Christians have had different ways of understanding the end of history, but premillennial dispensationalism is the new kid on the block. The impact of this thinking pushes us towards short term ‘we must get the job done’ thinking and towards the view that creation doesn’t matter because the world is going to get burned.
Evangelicals are often activists, and whatever the problems, would rather be doing something than just thinking about it. One result is we give less attention to faithfulness, holiness (unless it is just keeping the rules) and Christlikeness.
If we are not careful we are too narrow in our faith, in our thinking and in our actions. We are part of a much wider, richer, deeper theological history.
Globalisation can mislead us. Just because your favourite global brand (Starbucks, Pizza Hut….) has outlets in a country doesn’t mean they share your cultural outlook. We know this of course, but the fact that middle class life across the globe appears to be becoming more similar means we have to work harder to understand others. Globalisation has made travel much easier and cheaper; and has played a huge part in the rise of short term mission trips.
These days mission life seems to be a permanent stream of goodbyes as people come and go; even long term workers travel back to their passport country more regularly.
As well as the travel, the internet has shrunk the world. Skype, Zoom and other platforms make it easy to communicate with others across the world, Social Media leaves us permanently connected to a part of our ‘home’ culture – it is also instant.
All these things make cross cultural mission more possible but also harder. Providing you can get a visa going isn’t difficult, getting embedded in a new culture is.
As westerners we often want to see ourselves as helping others, fixing things and rescuing them. The trouble is our desire to get involved, our willingness to give money and our ‘biblical’ worldview can make it tough for us to really help people over the long term. But God likes helping the blind to see and helping the lame to walk and hasn’t given up using us yet.