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Vulnerable? Mission

Comments by Woodrow E. Walton

Amish men make themselves vulnerable in their horse-drawn buggies amidst faster driving traffic. They are at risk of danger on the road and vulnerable for an accident. Vulnerability raises the possibility of danger and is most often considered in terms of risk and negative results.

Christian mission is always at risk in this regard and in harm's way. There is no more glaring and appalling example at present than that of the Christians in Darfur and of the arrests of Christian leaders in Zimbabwe.

The "Vulnerable" in the Alliance of Vulnerable Mission headed by Dr. Jim Harries is of a different kind. It is one that is closer in kind to self-sustainment, self propagation and self-support and yet distant to it. The three "selves" just mentioned are associated with the move toward indigenous churches and contextualization mostly on the part of western missionaries. That is laudable in and of itself but it is not enough. Closer still to "vulnerable" mission is an incident that this writer witnessed in Mzuzu, Malawi, in 1986. A newly formed congregation took an offering that morning but the offering, instead of being accepted for the continuing ministry of that congregation within its community was sent on ahead to Rumphi, a small community further to the north, for the establishment of a Christian witness there. That was vulnerable mission as it put the new congregation at risk for its own continuation in Mzuzu. Risky and fraught with danger, the action was nonetheless filled with possibilities unimaginable. The congregation in Mzuzu grew by leaps and bounds and the mission expanded into Rumphi as well and beyond there.

Vulnerable Mission takes things just a little further with self-definition, self-theologizing, self-contextualizing, self-purposing, and self-translating without the benefit of western input. This is vulnerability, vulnerability to risk and danger but also to great possibilities for the Christian witness not only for Africa but also for the Indian sub-continent and for the Islamic world.

The perceived danger is in the self-theologizing. There is always the danger of conflating the unveiling of God in Christ Jesus with an indigenous concept or perception of God. The two cannot be confused. This is the danger. It is an old risk, a risk as old as the Chinese Rites controversy that arose on the mission field of China between the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Yet, in Africa, as well as in China or South America or anywhere else, one must come into contact with the God of the Bible directly and not through cultural, social, or historical constructs from inside the indigenous culture or from outside (western) cultures.

In his dissertation submitted to the University of Birmingham, (see under 'articles') Jim Harries raises the issues of language and translation so that the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic of the Scriptures may come into the Luo language with such precision of equivalency as to avoid misunderstanding the intent of the messages of both Old and New Testaments. Take the simple word "covenant" or "testament." Is there a direct equivalent of either of them in the Luo of Kenya, the Timbuka of northern Malawi, or the Swahili of the Mombasa coast? None but the speakers of those languages know.

Here is the argument for self-translating. One former student of this writer, a man from Nigeria, questioned the wisdom of contextualizing the gospel as propounded by individuals like David Hesselgrave. At the time, this writer was taken aback by the Nigerian's reaction. Now, I better understand his concern. No one can contextualize the Gospel within a recipient society and culture than the person who lives within that society and participates in its culture. When confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the reading of the Bible, he is better able than a western missionary to perceive where the dangers of accommodation may lie. Music fads within British, American, and Japanese cultures are frequently questioned as to their appropriateness in communicating the gospel to youth or anyone else without accommodating to the prevailing mood of the time.

Self-defining and self-purposing are not as vulnerable on the danger side as they are vulnerable on the positive side. Yet one can ask the question as to whether the Church is Kenyan or is it the Body of Christ in Kenya? There is no "real" danger here except on the intellectual level of understanding one's self. This is an identity issue that none but the Kenyan believer can answer. In cultures such as that of Kenya, one can push the issue further as Kenya is as much home to the Masai and the Swahili as are the Luo or any other people indigenous to Kenya. A Masai Church? A Swahili Church? or the Church among the Masai, etc.?

Question, is there such a thing as an American Church? Not really when one considers the fact that the Church in America exists in a variety of communities of believers in Christ. There is no need to go into all of them.

One of the big issues at stake is that of support. "Mission Frontiers" of the U.S. Center for World Missions has at different times raised the question of western financial support for missionary endeavors in other parts of the world. Is self-support an actuality in practice? Yes, in many respects. In other respects, no. Even with churches supporting themselves in Korea, in India, sub-Saharan Africa, and in Uruguay, money flows from the U.S.A. and elsewhere into receiving parts of the world. Vulnerable Mission raises the question, "How much longer need this go on?" "Does this not place the indigenous churches in a dependency situation? This is a thorny issue. Even when one speaks of partnering, are the partners of equal strength within the partnership? Just perhaps, the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission has come for such a time as this.

Woodrow E. Walton

November 2007