A few years ago, I wrote a series for this blog on weakness. I was coming at it from feeling reasonably competent in the tasks given to me and trying to work out if that was OK. My question wasn’t about whether I was competent enough to do what God had asked but about whether I was weak enough to bring God glory.
Now, nine months away from heading to another country and whole other culture, my issues are completely different. Because pretty much all my competencies are called into question by this new context.
Let me outline why I feel so incompetent for the task ahead:
- Language. A sure-fire way to feel like an idiot is being unable to communicate basic things, let alone gospel things – and it’s one thing to have functional language skills but quite another to be proficient. Yet, this is the thing I’m least concerned about, partly because just the effort to try to learn a language speaks volumes, and partly because I’m a fairly good language student.
- Relational tension. Intercultural interactions are fraught with giving and taking offense. For me personally, relational discord is one of the most distressing things that can happen. But what about if it’s my fault and I can’t fix it, or worse, I don’t even realise I’ve done something wrong! Yet, this sort of incompetence will be an everyday experience in Tanzania.
- Power dynamics. I consider myself reasonably good at getting alongside people and this skill is essential in ministry. But what if my foreignness (and westernness) create too much distance? There’s a sense in which, though I’m powerful in a worldly sense (education, wealth, etc.) I’m totally disempowered because I’m ‘other’. I may never be able to get alongside others as I would like to or understand them as I want to, no matter how long I live in Tanzania.
- Complexity. The history of cross-cultural missions is full of people with the best intentions and the love of Jesus who used the premier scholarship of their time but failed to come to terms with their context. One example is nineteenth century missionaries who dismissed witch doctors and spirit possession as fakes and so failed to communicate that the gospel speaks to this central aspect of African worldview. The legacy of that is Christians who don’t see a contradiction when they consult witch-doctors (after all, what does that have to do with Christianity?) Our own worldview and blind-spots may lead us to make similar mistakes.
- The challenge of sustainability. Lots of ministries go really well while a missionary is there and then totally fold once they’re gone. That’s a real possibility for us. How do we process this? Is it OK for things to spring up for a while or is it just a sign of western imperialism? Should we not have gone in the first place?
In short, I’m absolutely terrified that our time in Tanzania will be not only a waste of time but also damaging to those involved. I’m scared that our best intentions won’t mean squat, that others will look back on our time and see ignorance, presumption, failure, short-sightedness, ego-centrism and an attitude of superiority.
My intercultural lecturers assure me that having these questions is actually the first step to not making the mistakes I’m so worried about. And CMS’ ministry principles help here too. They require us to do a five-month live-in intercultural training course before we go. (The more I learn here, the less confident I am – but maybe that’s the point!) They mandate that our first three years be about language acquisition, learning the culture, and listening to local people. CMS people always work under Tanzanian leadership. A primary goal is to facilitate Tanzanians to come up with models and get into leadership. So it’s not like I have to have all the answers or the competencies. In fact, if I thought I did, CMS would be worried!
But it’s a scary place to be, knowing that you don’t (and can’t) possess the necessary competencies, but heading into intercultural ministry anyway. On one hand, it seems incredibly arrogant. On another, it’s the most humbling thing I’ve ever done.
The danger for me is to think that my incompetence is a sign we shouldn’t be going, to do nothing for fear of hurting others or damaging future ministry. One of the lecturers here describes this as being ‘paralysed by your own missiological principles.’
The antidote is an almighty trust in God that he has in fact planned in advance good works for us to do, that I can’t get in the way of that. So even if others look back on our time in Tanzania with with disdain and condemnation, somehow, somewhere in there, God will have used our clumsy efforts for his purposes. Another one of my daily prayers: “Help me to believe Romans 8:28 when I am incompetent.”