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Mission partnership (Summer Encounter 2011)

These are my notes from the talks at Summer Encounter, the annual conference of CMS in South Australia.

Steve Maina is the national director of New Zealand CMS.

I was excited to see him popularising some of the new thinking about mission that we’ve been getting at college. We were also excited that he didn’t slam Western Christians, as it can be easy to do, but showed us how to take our place in mission. He’s not a jaded African who has ‘outgrown’ Western strictures, but an African who recognises that it is increasingly the Western Christians who are feeling inadequate, and has the generosity to build us up.

1. Strategic and healthy mission partnerships

‘Partnership’ has been a much-used word in mission circles, but let’s consider it in a global sense — the global body of Christ.

Traditionally, there has been a strong dichotomy between ‘overseas’ and ‘local’ — a dichotomy that is no longer necessary or meaningful. Christian groups can no longer express themselves in terms of ‘We just do local,’ or ‘We just do overseas.’ Mission means both.

Traditionally, ‘partnership’ has involved Westerners ‘going’ to the majority world, the wealthy giving to the poor, ‘the blessed’ bringing the blessing. Yet this has always created a sense that the ‘receivers’ cannot give in return. It is a relationship with no reciprocity.

Now, the world has changed. In 1800, only 1% of the global Christian population was from the non-Western world, but in 2009, 75% of the global Christian population is non-Western. Only 1 in 4 Christians are Westerners. World Christianity is emphatically trans-Western. (Arthur: this growth has been truly explosive; even in the early 1980s, around when I was born, it was still about a 50-50 split.)

Here is Steve’s (hilarious!) ‘New International Partnership Version’ of 1 Corinthians 12:14-27:

Now, if the South Australian church should say, ‘Because I am not an African, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body. … If the whole body were German, where would the sense of vibrancy be? If the whole body were European, where would the sense of colour be? … As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The Australian church cannot say to the Asian church, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the African church cannot say to the PNG church, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, the South Pacific church should be treated with special honour, while the big and wealthy American church needs no special treatment.

The meaning of partnership

1. Diversity. We are all different. I will not be like you! Steve (a Kenyan) cannot change his accent any more than he can change his colour. Yet this is the strength of the body! Mission is not about changing others to be like us, but about appreciating all the different gifts that God has given, enabling us to join in with what God is doing. Difference is powerful, not a weakness! This is why cross-cultural learning takes time.

2. Mutuality. In the ‘body’ imagery, every organ receives and every organ gives! There is no organ that is not doing both! Yet we have sometimes given the impression that we Westerners are independent. This has left some African churches wanting to become independent, because the West has given the impression that independence means maturity. No! Maturity is about interdependence. Real work and exchange of resources occurs when there is a capacity to respect the divine calling of the other person, without being patronising, treating them with dignity and reciprocity, working together in every respect. Even the parts of the body that are unpresentable, that are kept unseen, are still involved! We need even the small and hidden organs — and we need to honour them! Mission in partnership truly is for the whole church.

3. Reciprocity. Unhealthy dependence will develop when one party controls the relationship and sets the terms. That leads to an environment of mistrust and suspicion, and kills off mission. …

4. Honour. Steve tells of an African saying to an American, ‘Because you are giving all the money, you make it look like money is the most important resource. But what really makes a difference is when you put your life and your family on the line.’ …

The question is what the different partners bring to the partnership. There’s an analogy here with goats! In Kenya, mountain goats are a delicacy, more expensive than either beef and chicken. In NZ however, Steve has discovered mountain hunting — goats are tests to be conquered! Steve is a classic African: he just shoots randomly, without planning or strategy! His hunting mate is a classic Westerner: he aims, and aims, and aims, until sometimes the goat moves before he takes a shot — it’s a concern for analysis and planning! But the two need each other: the African needs more planning, and the Westerner needs more spontaneity. One person’s weakness can be another’s strength.

Daniel Rickett speaks in terms of a cycle of 3 interdependent factors:

  • Vision is needed for sustaining things long-term.
  • Relationships must come before funding or anything else.
  • Results. There need to be some kind of aims, and the key is to agree on them despite many differing expectations.

How to build better partnerships

1. Listen to the other voices. This means ‘double listening.’ Steve lives in NZ, so he listens to the voices discussing life in the post-Christian West, but as a Kenyan, he also listens to African vibrancies. He looks for answers in the different voice: solutions to African problems may lie in the post-Christian West, and solutions to problems in the post-Christian West may lie in Africa.

In much of the Western church, the emphasis is mission-mission-mission. In other parts, the emphasis is maturity-maturity-maturity. But both perspectives are needed. It has been said that African Christianity is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’, but large parts of the Western church, including NZ, are an inch wide and an inch deep. It’s not enough to just talk about mission.

NZ has a comfortable lifestyle and so its churches tend to have a theology without hope. Africa has a hard lifestyle and so its churches tend to have a theology with hope. The Western church can learn from the majority world about suffering!

The priority for the NZ church is relevance and ‘fresh expressions,’ but majority world churches prioritise endurance, going against the flow, being counter-cultural. The Western church needs this emphasis in order to fight apathy!

NZ Christians are preoccupied with ‘stories,’ trying to reach postmoderns and Gen Y. Yet in poor, uneducated Africa, Steve is looking not for more stories, but for more teaching and theology. We do need more stories — but they will not be the salvation of preaching!

New Zealanders talk a lot about the ‘global village,’ but Africans are looking for a ‘global village church’ — a church that learns to suffer with the suffering, to rejoice with the joyful, all parts coming together and honouring the less honourable parts. Unfortunately, while the world is talking about globalisation, the Western church still hasn’t imagined what it would be like to live in a truly global comnunity! David Boyd: ‘The measure of the mission-minded church in the 21st century is not how many missionaries are sent out, but how at home the stranger feels in a church.’ Yet we can engage this ‘global village church’ even here, at home in the West (more on this in the next post).

Western Christians ask, ‘Where are the young people?’ But African Christians are asking, ‘Where are the mentors, the teachers, the experience?’ African Christians are longing for this wisdom that is carried in the Western church! These are our ‘Prime Timers’ — the over-50s, the empty-nesters, the retirees — who are in an ideal position to serve and to give to other parts of the church!

2. Adventure. We’ve sometimes been over-strategising mission, when actually we need to be more adventurous.

Sometimes this is a call to simplicity, to child-like faith, to following and obeying even when we don’t have a blueprint. Some of us want to go to safe places, but God’s calling us to be vulnerable and go out of our comfort zones! …

We need missionaries from elsewhere. One Madagascan church leader was given a diocese with 1000 miles of coastline, and only 3 trained evangelists. No Americans would touch it, but the Kenyans came!

3. Generosity. This means not just money, but people. And when we do give money, it is not our money for the things that we want, that we value, but God’s money, a gift to the global church to be used as needed! Yes, the Western church has powerful resources and networks, but we have freely received, so let’s freely give!

A church in Ethiopia sent a missionary to Pakistan. The Pakistani Christians were touched: ‘Now we too know that we can give, that we have something to offer!’

Steve is tired of seeing Christian organisations just wanting to do their own little thing in this new globalised world.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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