You know how we lived among you for your sake.
Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship;
we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
—Paul, to the Thessalonian Christians
Paul and his missionary teams saw themselves as guests, and they were determined not to be a burden to their hosts. They didn’t want to be financially dependent, and they wanted to be known for this, because they saw it as an expression of their message.
Today, for Western guests, the burden is reversed. We are independent, so much so that it can seem almost ridiculous that we might need anything from those hosting us. And our independence can burden our hosts in insidious ways. As a Western visitor, you come in power, even if you claim to serve others. No one will resist you. Anything you do, whatever your motivation, will be a symbol and extension of Western ways — the ways that are ascendent around the world. Who could say no to that sort of power and prosperity?
There is a need for another way. In this series I’ve been exploring the book Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission by Jim Harries. We’ve covered difficulties with language (part 1, part 2) and money as well as a case study. As Westerners, we’re being called to approach the world from a position of vulnerability instead of power. What does this look like?
One example: the implications for short-term visits from the West.
Writing in 2012 for the Gospel Coalition, Darren Carlson critiques existing short-term mission trips, and then goes on to suggest a series of valuable improvements. Vulnerable mission takes this a step further, questioning the very idea of short-term trips.
Don’t get me wrong, Carlson makes some excellent suggestions, and if there are going to be more short-term visits from the West, I’d love to see more of them taking this shape! However, Carlson’s overall thrust is to endorse the opportunity for Westerners to act in a short-term capacity. Yes, there are improvements to be made, but once we have the right information and the right motivations, we can continue. As long as we have people willing to serve, they should still have the opportunity.
Although this goes some way to recognising the difficulties, it also insists on Western generosity, which is a way of assuming Western initiative and prerogative. Short-term trips always lend themselves most naturally to our own timeframe, our own language, our own resources, and our own activity. The fact that Westerners want to serve in a short-term capacity, and believe they can do so effectively, does not mean that others will be well served by them — no matter how thorough our awareness, preparation, and prayer time.
A vulnerable mission perspective asks: what if the way forward with short-term mission trips involves less short-term mission trips? Among other things, Carlson asks us to ‘subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served’ — and what if this meant not coming? Which organisations will reduce their short-term efforts, or even shut them down altogether, so as to promote partnerships in which we do not assume positions of power? Which of us will reduce the focus on our own activity by using the alternative language of exposure trips? If there is a better way, why are we not practising it?
Put positively, it’s complicated.
Doing vulnerable mission is a simple enough idea: some of us should confine our work to local languages and locally-based resources. What that means needs to be worked out on the ground, case-by-case. From where I am, on a university campus in Tanzania, things look complex — especially with language.
What makes a local language, anyway? In an urban and campus context in Tanzania, it’s not straightforward. English, the language used for formal or official purposes, is obviously not a local language. Swahili is the common language, but although it’s an African language, it’s a second language for most Tanzanians today (although this is changing). And there’s the fluidity of language: Swahili has adopted a wide range of English terminology, even if in the form of ‘Kiswingli’.
There’s also a postcolonial tension here. What if Tanzanians themselves want to speak English? Globalisation often means Westernisation, and it’s often difficult to see this as a positive thing, let alone the best thing for Tanzanians. But who am I to try and undo that, to tell Tanzanians what language they ought to work in, or to claim that their choices are being determined by Western hegemony? OK, we could work with the grain of globalisation, or flip 180˚ and work against the grain — but I suspect there are more options than this. And of course, there’s diversity of opinion and ongoing conversation amongst Tanzanians themselves.
The reality is that the Tanzanian campus is a bilingual environment. Yes, I ought to become a fluent Swahili speaker, and I’m really pleased that my sending group has given us a generous transition period for this. However, students’ own local practice doesn’t confine itself to Swahili. It’s mostly Swahili with a bit of English thrown in. English is still used heavily in long-form writing, and my hunch is that there’s a real need for more writing and publishing in Swahili. But whichever way we cut it, my own ‘vulnerability’ must take its lead from the local people and their situation.
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A vulnerable stance is valuable and necessary. Like Paul and his friends, we are being called from the ways of power to the ways of vulnerability, from the ways of efficiency and pragmatism to the ways of mutual service and true collaboration.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.