Because Arthur and I are strong advocates of the church in Africa, often speaking about what God is doing here and the richness of African theology, we are sometimes asked, “Well, why are you there?” or “Isn’t the work of missionaries in Africa done?”
These are good questions, considering the way we in the west have traditionally thought and spoken about ‘mission’. However, I think that paradigm needs a re-frame.
So, the general line, the one that I heard in my church and in my university group was that the world needs to know Jesus. I was asked to consider my role in that as someone who knows Jesus and could bring the gospel to places where people don’t know him. I was asked, “If you don’t go, who will?”
These days, we are aware that many parts of the world have a witnessing church, so sometimes this message gets changed to helping people to know Jesus better or more accurately, offering our theological riches for their theological poverty. Either way, mission is about the great need for us to help or fix or bring change. And if we don’t participate, the implication is that things are dire and people left wanting.
So when Arthur and I speak about the strength of the church in Africa, it might sound like there’s not a need for western missionaries, at least in Africa. (Should we turn our attention elsewhere? Maybe to church planting in our backyard?) If global mission is about deficits that need to be met by western missionaries, this might be true in Africa. (It also might not be but that post is for another day.)
But thinking about needs and our role in meeting them might also be the wrong paradigm for thinking about missions.
As the numbers of Christians declined in the west and strengthened in the majority world, missiologists asked if the centre of Christianity was shifting to the majority world. It’s not been as simple as that and missiologists have instead talked about going ‘from everywhere to everywhere‘. The gospel moves not only through professional missionaries like Arthur and me but also through migration, business, employment, and even displacement. There are Brazilians sharing the gospel in the UAE, Koreans teaching at Bible colleges in Tanzania, and Nigerian pastors leading the largest churches in the UK. In none of these examples do western missionaries feature and it can be hard for us westerners, who are used to thinking of ourselves as the needs-meeters and gospel-bringers to see if there is a role for us; are we being cut out of the picture?
This is where I got on to thinking about climate action. Well, tangentially. See if you think the analogy works.
As I understand it (and this is far from my area of expertise), Australia’s contribution to climate emissions is negligible compared to big polluters like the US, India and China (though we play a role in supplying them with fossil fuels.) If we stopped all our emissions tomorrow and they didn’t, we could not avert disaster because we’re simply not a big enough player.
However, we ought to be serious about Australia’s climate emissions because (a) it’s the right thing to do – I don’t know about you but I’m not keen on fronting up to God one day and telling him that we decided since the other guys were wrecking his world and destroying their neighbours’ livelihoods, we’d just go along with them, and (b) we punch above our weight in terms of global emissions per capita; our privilege comes with greater responsibility.
The parallels I’m going to draw here are inaccurate and ought to be taken as saying more about global missions than about climate change. But just as in climate change, we understand that our contribution is somewhat negligible, I think in global missions, we need to readjust our understanding of ourselves. When asked the question, “If not you, then who?” the answer ought to be, “Why did you think it was all about my contribution in the first place?” If we think about God’s global mission as “the west to the rest” we will naturally think of ourselves as the crucial players.
Nevertheless, Aussies ought to be involved in God’s global mission alongside Christians from all over the world. Why? Two reasons:
- It’s the right thing to do. Christians who focus only on their own people betray their identity as citizens of the New Creation where every tribe and nation and tongue will gather to worship the Lamb. Christians ought to be concerned with seeing increasing diversity and numbers of our brothers and sisters globally, because God cares about this. If we don’t, we also run the risk of becoming myopic, concerned only with ourselves. We become unable to be enriched by the way other Christians know Jesus or read the Bible.
- Our privilege comes with greater responsibility. As our Tanzanian colleagues become more aware of their role in God’s mission not only in Tanzania but in the world more generally, they are hampered by their relative lack of access to resources: they face many more obstacles, both financial and geo-political, in moving to the west as a missionary than what we do coming from Australia to Tanzania. We must consider how to wield responsibly the greater mobility and wealth our privilege affords us.
So, just as Australians should be involved in climate action irrespective of its relative impact, I want to challenge western Christians to play our part. Global mission is not ours and we need to give up that idea but neither do we have the luxury of opting out. The world still needs to know Jesus!
To use the image of a body, we may not be the heart or the spine or the brain, the body parts that drastically affect body function. We might be more like a toenail – you can get on without it but if it’s missing, it’s painful and the body works better with it. It’s a hit to an ego to think of yourself as a mere toenail, but the truth is, God makes the body with toenails for a reason. God’s mission still needs Aussies!
So I want to challenge missions supporters to move way from asking their Aussie missionary, “What is the need you are meeting?” and towards asking, “What are you doing with God and his people in your location?”
If it were me speaking to a new generation of university Christians, I wouldn’t ask them, “If not you, then who?” Romans 10:9 is still true in many places in the world today: they cannot know unless someone with beautiful feet comes to them! But those beautiful feet might be Black or they might have come on a boat, fleeing persecution. This would be no less the work of God than a western missionary funded from their home country. That refugee might even be better at sharing the gospel than us professionals. They might also benefit from our care. But the point is, the mission of God is going forward.
Instead the question I want to pose to university students is, “Do you want to be involved?” In Colossians 1, the apostle Paul talks about the mystery of Christ, the hope of glory. We’re used to thinking about this in terms of presenting everyone mature in Christ but in Colossians, this mystery is revealed not only in us but among the nations. Don’t you want to be part of the new ways hope is emerging in the world? Don’t you want to be there to see it?
This is not a self-centred desire or a fear of missing out, but an opportunity to be part of something, the mysterious and beautiful thing God is doing in our world. You will likely not be the star player, but you can be part of a team. Maybe you’re the sub or the coach or the psychologist. But you get to be there, to see the hope of glory, Christ amongst the nations.
And the longer you stay, the richer and deeper your understanding of that will be, the richer and deeper you’ll become, and the richer and deeper your understanding will be of just what you can contribute. There are many beautiful, rich and complex things in my life that I thank God for. One of those is serving overseas. It has been the privilege of my life so far to do so. Join me.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.