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Vulnerable missionaries: liberating liberation theology?


By Louis Krog, creator of African Theology Website: 

October 2008 

It is unfortunately no great secret that western mission(ary) exploits in, mainly, the third world has had a less than perfect history. In fact, the very fabric of the liberation theology movement was (and is) defined by the sometimes horrendous actions of many “colonial” missionaries who failed to contextualise their messages of hope and salvation appropriately.

The resulting resentment was captured by Itumeleng Mosala in his iconic summary of the situation: “When the white man came to our country he had the Bible and we had the land. The white man said to us ‘Let us pray’. After we opened our eyes, the white man had the land and we had the Bible” (Mofokeng 1988:34).  Such was the gravity of the situation that the Rev. John Gatu, the then General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, suggested that the solution to the problem of western missionaries "…can only be solved if missionaries can be withdrawn in order to allow a period of not less than five years for each side to rethink and formulate what is going to be the future relationship" (Kato:1974).   

Although the issues concerned are far more complex and broad, I would like to briefly explore whether the concept of vulnerable mission can provide a workable solution to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Vulnerable Mission

The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission defines vulnerable mission as “using the language of the people being reached, and not using foreign funds to support one’s key project or ministry”3.  Within this definition the two elements made reference to could, if implemented adequately, provide an answer to the future concerns of liberation and black theology.  


If missionaries were more willing to communicate within their local context, instead of promoting western political agenda, much of the resentment felt today would not be an issue. This might seem like an obvious observation to make, but, it does illustrate the potential contribution vulnerable missions can make to avoid similar situations. 

Primarily, the problem(s) that existed between western missionaries and local communities was a social one. Western missionaries were often seen to be of higher social class due to factors such as skin colour, knowledge and material possessions.  But, the idea of western missionaries ministering in a native language can be very effective in breaking down similar social barriers.  By making themselves intentionally vulnerable, western missionaries could be more effective in understanding the needs of their local communities and therefore, be able to be more effective in their ministry methodology.


Another aspect liberation theologians are concerned about is the autonomy of the local church.  The primary problem with western financed (mission) projects is that, the parties providing the finance would very often dictate outcomes and methods.  This in itself is not a problem per sГ©, but when these demands are made without giving adequate consideration for local contexts, the results are potentially damaging.

I recently heard a story of pastors in Malawi who refused to attend a local conference unless they were financially compensated for every day.  The reason for their request became clear when one Malawian pastor explained that just a week before, an American pastor paid local pastors to attend his conference to ensure a glowing report back home.  Of course, this is not about pointing fingers but about the potential dangers of foreign funding. 

Sadly, the economic situation of many third world nations lends itself perfectly to western financed projects.  This has created a dependency culture amongst many churches and Christians in these nations.   The ultimate aim should be the long term self-sustainability of local churches and projects.  Such an approach would again breakdown the perceived barriers that can exist between western missionaries and local communities. 

This has been a very brief discussion on the potential contribution(s) vulnerable missions can make towards creating a better understanding between western missionaries and local communities thereby going some way in liberating modern liberation theology.  The full effect of such a claim will of course only be measurable in time as missionaries take up the challenge of becoming vulnerable to their local communities.  


  1. Mofokeng T 1988. Black Christians, the Bible and Liberation. Journal of Black Theology, Vol. 2 No. 1, 34-42.
  2. Kato, B. 1974 “Missionaries: Should they go? Let’s Face Facts”,  TARGET, July 21, 1974, No. 134a