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The Kingdom of God, The Pearl, and the Visitor Centre?

The Idea of Vulnerable Mission

As published in idea, the magazine of the Evangelical Alliance, UK, January to February 2009. (The published version is slightly different from this one.)

idea is the bi-monthly magazine for members of the Evangelical Alliance. It keeps readers informed about what's happening at the Alliance, members' news, and takes an evangelical look at some of today's most challenging issues. (The idea Magazine )

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)

I've always wondered what he did next, this man. Especially when he heard there was another field just around the corner: a mission field. Well, this was exciting news. He leased out some of the first field, to generate assets, and funded a trip to the other field, the mission field. He had some misgivings - the field with the treasure wasn't really supposed to be an income-generating investment, it was meant to be the place of joy and rest for his weary heart - but surely it would be worth it if he could persuade some people in the other field to come and join him?

Newly empowered, off he went. He arrived and built a visitor centre in the new field, with large displays of the treasure he had found back home, guidebooks to pearls we have loved, classes and seminars on foreign pearls, and a fine air-conditioned restaurant. It was the biggest thing going in the mission field - a shiny new project that attracted the locals for miles around. Soon he had to ship in staff to run the visitor centre: experts, consultants, accountants, cooks and teachers who understood the project, unlike the locals. The opportunities were immense. They didn't all have time even to learn the language, but no problem, they could employ some local people to translate for them, who would be glad of the money. People rolled up in huge numbers.

But the costs - the never-ending costs. Costs to the locals, who found themselves competing for the most prestigious jobs at the centre. Costs to those who came to work, bringing stressful work patterns. Costs to the original field: now more a business centre than a haven for the weary.

Until one day the man packed up, set off to another field, and started again. With no money or resources to share, no grand-plan, no infra-structure, no imported agenda in his back pocket, except to share Christ with those he came to. He let them teach him how they spoke, how they thought, how they longed and loved and learned and laughed. And he told them about this treasure which warmed the heart and satisfied the soul. When one day they asked for this treasure, he suddenly realised: the treasure was buried in their field too. So they got to digging together, and began to uncover it, then couldn't quite dig it out till they sold everything they had, and bought the field.

And there was evening, and there was morning. Vulnerable mission.

The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (AVM) is a group of mission practitioners who would rather help people dig up pearls than import pearl-processing machines. They recognise that every language has its own words for 'pearl' and 'treasure', that must be learned and learned well, if their speech is to be understood. It is so easy, in mission work today, to get drawn into thinking for people rather than with them, and to buy into people's lives (even unwittingly, with the best intentions) because the offer of some new project or benefit just looks too much like Western 'success' to be refused. Even simple knowledge of the English language is often perceived as a golden key to undreamed of riches, a key greatly to be coveted for reasons unrelated to the treasure in anyone's field.

So in response, and very simply, the AVM advocates that some missionaries (or development workers) run their ministry or project in the majority world using neither a foreign language nor outside resources. Doing their work face-to-face using local languages and resources may be slow, frustrating: three steps forward, two steps back (and sometimes more). But projects not being governed by external finance or directed by foreign donors bring a refreshing freedom. Discussion turns from finance to deeper issues: commitment, how to navigate anger or find forgiveness, what it really means to live with a passion for the God of heaven and earth.

The AVM is inviting interested people around the world to attend exploratory conferences on vulnerable mission. Two UK events are in Andover, Hampshire (February 13th 2009), and at Cliff College in Derbyshire (March 10th 2009). It is seeking to promote 'vulnerable mission' alongside all the other ways in which the UK church is keen to serve the kingdom of God. For details see Get on board. It will be a great adventure.

Dr. Jim Harries (Chairman, Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, Missionary in Africa)
Dr. Richard Briggs (Director of Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics, Cranmer Hall, St John's College, Durham, former missionary in Western Europe)