What Should We Call Them?

A few years ago, I wrote an article about what the Church in the West could learn by reading the Bible together with people from other cultures. A number of responses from Christians around the world were published alongside the article. One of these, from Malaysia, if I remember correctly, said that they appreciated what I said, but they were concerned that I was writing in a “them and us” fashion. I had to concede that this was true, but given that I was writing about what one set of Christians could learn from another, I’m not sure how I could have avoided this.

More recently, a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about British mission agencies which referred to “target countries”. A friend tweeted me and gently suggested that it might have been better to say “host countries” rather than “target countries”. Again, I take the point, though in that case, I was using deliberately provocative language to make a point (apparently, I failed).

These two illustrations serve to illustrate the point that nomenclature in the Christian church is rather difficult. As someone writing about the Western mission movement’s interaction with the world church, I feel as though I’m constantly walking in a linguistic minefield.

Let’s take the word “Western”; what on earth does it mean. At first glance it is simple, it refers to the Western Hemisphere – except that Latin America is not generally considered as part of the Western church and it is much more west than Europe. Another option is to think about the Western Church as consisting of those situations where the European diaspora dominate. Once again, you have the problem of Latin America and what about Australia and New Zealand? These are societies which have their roots in the “West”, but which are diverging from Europe and North America. At the risk of offending anyone, I’d suggest that in terms of mission thinking, Australia is still Western, but New Zealand possibly not. However, neither of these places can be remotely considered as being geographically in the West!

So how do we refer to Christians who are not from the West. The easy answer is to say non-Western, but it is problematical to describe people in terms of what they are not, especially is the concept of what it is that they are not is so ill-described. The church in the East ignores Latin America and talking about the South excludes Korea. Some writers talk about the Global South as including the Southern Hemisphere and much of the North, too. It’s all a bit confusing.

For my own part, I tend to use terms loosely, admitting that whatever term I use is probably inadequate in some way, but not wanting to have pages of footnotes on my blog posts explaining all of the possibilities. When I do need more precision, I tend to talk about the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America, rather than trying to find one catch-all phrase. The thing is these churches each have their own distinctive and, in many ways, they are as different from each other as they are from the Church in the UK. Even using continent-wide terms may be painting with brush strokes that are too broad. Describing them on the basis of what they are not, smooths out these differences and makes them look uniform. Equally, I suspect that a term like “Western Church” is not really very helpful. The church in Europe and North America shares similar roots, but in many ways they are on very different trajectories at the moment and lumping them together may not be helpful.

So how should we describe the people who are on the receiving end of our mission effort? The problem here is that we are dealing with a moving target. If you are working with a well-established Evangelical diocese in East Africa, your relationship to the local people is likely to be somewhat different than if you are church planting in one of the “Stans”. In one case the world “partner” might apply, but in the other you’d need a very different term. But which one? I’m not sure that “hosts” is entirely applicable to a situation where you might be beaten up and run out of the country if it were known what you were doing.

This might seem like an exercise in semantics (people who indulge in word-play, don’t half get up to semantics), but there is a serious point. The language we use should not objectivise people made in the image of God, nor should it rob them of dignity by failing to accord them their own identities. When we describe other Christians as non-Western, we are sub-consciously suggesting that the West is the norm and other Christian cultures are less important. For believers who are struggling to develop and maintain their own identity in the face of overwhelming financial and cultural pressure from the “West” (whatever that is), this is a big deal and we in our part of the world need to realise this.

One thought on “What Should We Call Them?

  1. I can only think of the oxymoronic “generalizations are generally not helpful.”
    Say what you mean however many words it takes.

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