Wrestling With Onesimus 6: Conclusion

I’ve spent a while looking at Onesimus excellent post entitled:  When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don’t Need Us Anymore and now it is time to look at the conclusion.

The bottom line is that, if we Westerners don’t get out of the way, the churches of Africa and Asia and Latin America will remain the spiritual infants and self-absorbed teenagers that many of them really are.  I was a teenager once, and I remember seething with resentment when a parent forced me away from entertaining myself with TV and music and from stuffing my face with all manner of junk food and made me work as a responsible family member.  With all our faults, we in the West have been instrumental in relaunching Christianity as a global religion.  But our current posture is no longer healthy.  That movement now needs desperately to stand on its own two feet and be made to use limbs and muscles that have been coddled so long that they seem to have atrophied.  We’ve been addicted to each other for way too long.  And as long as we are around, we (the West and its ‘resources’) will be your (non-Western Christians’) preferred drug of choice, rather than learning what every other legitimate disciple and church of our Lord has had to learn, that his call means that each one of us pick up our cross and follow him to our deaths.  Our imported business models of ministry success have persuaded too many non-Western Christians that the cross can finally be avoided and that victory is ours for the grasping.  But this sort of hyper-over-realized eschatology is little more than the ‘American Dream’ writ large, which actually is one of the devil’s more effective delusions.

There are three basic reasons why I believe that Onesimus’ call on a moratorium of Western missions to Africa (and perhaps more broadly) is mistaken. The first is pragmatic and the second two are theological.

I am not convinced that the African (or Southern church, generally) is in such a parlous state as Onesimus seems to imply. He makes some valid criticisms, but I know from my own experience that this is not the full story. There are real strengths and real dynamism in the African Church. Equally, the Western church is not as strong as we might like to think it is. As Onesimus points out, we have bought into the American dream or into a materialist mindset more generally.

The thing is, that the Church in Africa and the Church in the West both have their strengths and weaknesses. Onesimus says, ” We’ve been addicted to each other for way too long”. But I think he has missed the central issue. The church in the West and the church in Africa need each other. We should be interdependent; we can help each other.

The second reason I disagree with Onesimus is that Scripture makes it clear that rich Christians have an obligation to help those who are living in poverty. There is a responsibility placed upon those of us in the rich world to support those who are materially less well off. I recognise all of the issues of dependency and these have to be faced up to, but this does not take away our responsibility towards our brothers and sisters.

Finally, I believe that Onesimus has fundamentally misunderstood the nature and motivation for mission. Simon captured this well in a comment on an earlier post in this series.

The issue of dependency and the calls for moratorium come up periodically in missionary thought. But if you work with the assumption that mission is something that we do because it is a reflection of God’s own character, then moratorium does not make any sense. God works in covenantal partnership. That’s his character. As I wrote elsewhere, “we cannot imagine a world in which God leaves humanity to grow up and sort things out on its own for a while. Paternalism in mission is unacceptable, but equally we must lay to rest the idea that maturity means independence. Growing must be done together, however cumbersome and awkward this may seen, for it is only together that partners in mission can `decisively impinge upon and affect’ one another in a spirit of inter-dependence.”

When Onesimus argues that we should stop missionary activity because of the impact it is having, he is dangerously close to falling into the modernist, managerial models of missiology that he he is actually criticising. Our mission is a participation in the life and mission of the Triune God.

None of this is to disagree with Onesimus’ contention that the relationship between the Western and African churches has been unhealthy. However, the answer to an unhealthy relationship is not to break the relationship off, but to address the underlying issues.

  • We need to address our theology of mission. As long as we present mission as an activity which we perform in order to make a difference to the rest of the world, then issues of paternalism and dependency will continue. We need to realise that mission is God’s work and that we are called to participate in it. This sort of thinking (which I’ve outlined in Kouya.net many times – try this one for starters) needs to infuse the life of mission agencies from recruitment and fund-raising through to our teaching and life on the field. When we say to people that they are able to change the future for people on the other side of the globe, we’ve already lost the plot. Only God can do this – though he may graciously use our money or time in achieving his purposes.
  • We need to develop true mutually beneficial partnerships.(Or as Simon says, we need to be inter-dependant.)  All too often, missionaries and agencies use the term partnership in a one dimensional sense. “We are partnering with a Church in Africa to give them X”. The problem with this sort of thing is that it perpetuates the myth that only the African church is in need of receiving. Were the church in the West prepared to listen; it could learn a huge amount about the place of suffering, the reality of faith, effective evangelism and much more, from brothers and sisters in the South. If we could learn to create truly mutually beneficial partnerships rather than (to put it crudely) one side giving and the other side receiving, we would be able to avoid many of the dangers that Onesimus has rightly highlighted.

No one says this is easy. Onesimus is right to point out that the Western (particularly American) missions movement has a huge momentum and a lot of investment in the current way of doing things. However, If we are to faithfully participate with God in his mission and play our role in the new reality of the global church, we are going to have to do things differently.

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