Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 10, no. 2 (Summer–Fall 2019)

done_all Peer Reviewed Article

Toward a Worldwide Theology of Vulnerable Mission

David Williams

The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission has proposed a theology of vulnerable mission that encourages Western mission workers to cede power in key areas. Eleonora Dorothea Hof has critiqued the Alliance for proposing a model of vulnerable mission that does not enable the participation of “non-Westerners.” This article seeks to develop a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission that is rooted in the inherent vulnerability of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vulnerable mission is a theme that Missio Dei has explored in depth, with particular reference to the work of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (AVM).1 The Alliance defines vulnerable mission as mission “carried out by a Westerner in the non-West using the language(s) and resources of the people being reached.”2 The Alliance urges Westerners engaged in mission and development deliberately to cede power. However, by articulating a theology and praxis of mission specifically for Westerners, the Alliance has not considered the applicability of vulnerable mission to Majority World mission workers. This article engages with Eleonora Dorothea Hof’s critique of the AVM in order to propose a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission.3

The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission

The AVM promotes a model of vulnerability that cedes power in the key areas of language and resources.4 The AVM’s focus on language is not simply about abandoning the language of the Westerner, but about operating within the vernacular language of the people being served. For example, in the Kenyan context where Harries works, this might mean operating in Dholuo or Kikuyu rather than Kiswahili, which is typically a second or third language for most Kenyans. The AVM has addressed the issue of resources by particularly focusing on the way that money is used in mission and development. However, resources are not limited to money but include soft resources such as thinking styles. Stan Nussbaum argues that Western mission workers are vulnerable as they recognize the validity of orality as a thinking style and choose to operate from this perspective.5 Vulnerable mission as defined by the AVM can be summarised as Western mission workers operating in non-Western contexts using local languages, local resources, and local methodologies, while living as proximate as possible to those they are serving.

Hof’s Critique of the AVM

Hof’s fascinating doctoral thesis explores the themes of spatiality, marginality, vulnerability, and vocation as she constructs a postcolonial theology of mission. In her review of vulnerability, Hof gives attention to the theology of the AVM, which she says is “to date the only academic and professional group of thinkers and practitioners who both research the theoretical underpinnings of vulnerability in mission and have strived to incorporate these principles in their praxis of mission.”6 Despite this encouraging introduction, Hof has reservations about the AVM’s construction of vulnerable mission, which she considers to have colonialist overtones.

Hof’s critique of the AVM flows out of her arguments about spatiality and an insistence that mission should move on from the language of “mission field” and “homeland.”7 The AVM’s articulation of vulnerable mission centers on a distinction between the Western missionary and the non-Western recipient. Hof argues that in a postcolonial world, theologies of mission must address the issue of Western privilege. However, the AVM’s theory of vulnerable mission is addressed only to the Western missionary working in a non-Western context, thereby perpetuating historic imbalances and an unhelpful geographic separation between homeland and mission field. Hof points out the inequity of a model that allows only the Western missionary to be vulnerable: “It is therefore problematic that the discourse of vulnerability is connected chiefly with activities of missionaries from the West. Vulnerability as defined by the Alliance attributes privilege to individuals and churches originating from the West. This privilege consists in the voluntary shedding of one’s privilege in order to engage in mission in the way of Christ. This type of vulnerability is relevant only in a Western context and privileges the Western missionary over the non-Western follower of Christ.”8

This issue would not be a problem if the AVM were proposing a contextual theology that only has local implications. However, Hof argues that since the AVM’s model of vulnerable mission encompasses both the Western missionary and the non-Western context, it goes beyond local theology. As Hof says, “Although the proposal of the Alliance is a form of local theology, the proposal is also a particular construct that only acquires meaning in contrast with the non-Western other.”9 In her review of AVM literature, Hof also notes that the question about the appropriateness of sending Western mission workers to foreign countries is not addressed. Hof does not offer her own answer to this question. However, the tone of her work and the focus on postcolonialism make it clear that she considers sending Western mission workers to foreign countries to be a sensitive issue. Hof notes that the AVM wants to promote non-colonial models of mission. Indeed, central to the AVM’s purpose is a desire to challenge hegemonic practises of Western mission. However, Hof argues that by perpetuating the Western / non-Western distinction, the AVM has committed itself to an inherently colonial model, in which the Western mission worker must be vulnerable “over there” but not “back here.” She argues: “The theme of vulnerability is therefore in the work of the Alliance employed to perpetuate the colonial distinction between an idealised and projected safe homeland on the one hand, and on the other hand the exotic and dangerous foreign territory.”10

The challenge that Hof places before the AVM is to articulate a theology and praxis of vulnerable mission that has “planetary”11 validity. Is vulnerable mission a concept that is useful for worldwide Christianity or is it simply a Western response to a colonial issue? It is the position of both Hof and of this article that vulnerability as a concept is deeply rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if the gospel is universal, vulnerability as a theme must have planetary validity. We will therefore develop a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission in the light of Christ’s kenosis before considering its practical implications.

Vulnerable Mission and Kenosis

As Hof points out, if a theological construction is located Christologically it should have worldwide application to all of God’s people.12 The incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ is therefore a helpful foundation for a worldwide theology of vulnerability. When Christ Jesus became flesh, he let go of the power and privileges of heaven, no longer counting “equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).13 The Apostle Paul’s Christological hymn in Philippians 2 provides a model for vulnerability. The Lord Jesus “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:7). The Apostle develops this self-emptying, or kenosis, in a series of explanations. The Lord Jesus emptied himself by “taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness and by humbling himself and being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). In the structure of the hymn, Christ’s death on the cross is the culmination of kenosis, the moment of the Messiah’s complete self-abnegation. It is also the turning point, after which comes exaltation.

Christ’s kenosis is therefore a model of absolute vulnerability, which Paul argues should be the attitude of the Philippian church (Phil 2:5). It leads to the most humiliating and agonizing of deaths. However, it is important that we move with caution from the life of Christ to the lives we are called to live as Christ’s people. The Lord Jesus died as an atonement for sin; this work is complete, and we do not participate in it. In order to understand how Christ’s kenosis applies to God’s people today, it is necessary to explore the ways in which the crucifixion is applied to God’s people in Scripture. The New Testament outlines three ways in which this happens.

First, God’s people must appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death for themselves through repentance and faith (Rom 3:22–24). The kenotic nature of Christ’s death is mirrored in the kenotic beginning of the Christian life. Nobody from any culture, class, or background makes a contribution to their salvation, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Vulnerability is therefore the universal starting point for the Christian journey, which begins at the foot of the cross. Every disciple must accept, with empty hands, the gift of God in Christ Jesus.

Second, God’s people must live cruciform lives, obeying the call to daily take up their cross and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34). The cross is not only the starting point for the Christian journey but also defines the shape of Christian living. God’s people are called to live in vulnerability, characterised by complete self-sacrifice and other-person-centered love.

Third, God’s people commit to speak the message of the cross (1 Cor 1:23–25; 1 Pet 3:15). The news of Christ’s atoning death is a story filled with hope and life for every human being. The gospel encompasses both universality and particularity—in Christ there is hope for every person in every culture; without Christ there is no hope for anyone, anywhere. In Hof’s development of kenosis, she suggests that Christ’s self-emptying leads us towards humility and silence.14 In the logic of the New Testament, however, kenosis moves God’s people not to silence but to speech. The cross is to be proclaimed. This proclamation is not coercive or power-laden but rather is inherently vulnerable because of the content of the message that is spoken. Scripture promises that no matter where God’s people go or what culture they are speaking within, the message of the cross will be weak and foolish in human eyes (1 Cor 1:18–2:5). There is nowhere on earth where the cross will make sense. While recognizing that the New Testament’s model of gospel ministry has often been abused in appalling ways, there is, nonetheless, an inherent vulnerability in the proclamation of the gospel by faithful heralds. Christ’s crucifixion is supra-culturally a message of weakness and foolishness. Faithful heralds are intended to be those who embody the kenosis of crucifixion, as we carry “in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:10).

Vulnerability is therefore central to the character and ministry of God’s people as they embrace the kenosis of the cross. While God’s people do not repeat Christ’s sacrificial death, they are called to believe it, to live it, and to speak it.

Language and the Praxis of Vulnerable Mission

Each of these activities requires self-emptying and is inherently vulnerable. How, then, does this theology of vulnerability inform a praxis of vulnerable mission that will serve worldwide Christianity? To speak about the cross is to communicate a message that is inherently vulnerable, since the cross is weak and foolish. However, the New Testament adds an additional layer of vulnerability to the speaking of the cross. It models to God’s people that the communication of the gospel takes place in the language of the hearer rather than the language of the speaker. As Lamin Sanneh points out, the New Testament is unique amongst sacred texts in being written in a language different from the language in which its founder conducted his ministry.15 Jesus probably conducted most of his teaching ministry in Aramaic; the New Testament is written in koine Greek, meaning that the Gospels are substantially translated documents.

The day of Pentecost adds further color to this story (Acts 2:1–13). God chooses to work in a way that demonstrates the translatability of the gospel. Filled with the Spirit, the Apostles speak in many different languages. God might have chosen a gift of miraculous hearing rather than miraculous speaking. The Apostles might have proclaimed the gospel in one language and the hearers might have been given the ability to understand. This is not what happens. Rather, the Apostles speak in the many languages of their multi-ethnic congregation. Pentecost is not a reversal of Babel that reunifies people into one language group. Rather it is a fulfilment of God’s promise to bless the nations (cf. Gen 12:1–3). The great eschatological vision of the New Testament is not one that imagines God’s people gathered around his throne in homogeneity. Rather, it points to a future where every tribe and tongue is gathered around the throne of the Lamb (Rev 7). The translatability of the gospel is not purely a linguistic phenomenon. The New Testament models not only linguistic but also cultural translatability, as the Gentile churches emerge from their Jewish roots (Acts 15:1–29).16

Sanneh has argued that the nineteenth-century Protestant missionary movement embraced two different missiological paradigms—mission as translation and mission as cultural diffusion, the translation model being the one promoted by the New Testament.17 As Sanneh says: “As translation, mission commits to the bold, radical step that the receiving culture is the decisive destination of God’s salvific promise and as such has an honoured place under the kindness of God, with the attendant safeguard against cultural idolatry.”18 Mission as linguistic translation is embedded in the day of Pentecost and as cultural translation in the council at Jerusalem (Acts 2; 15). There is, therefore, a double vulnerability inherent to gospel ministry. Not only is the message inherently one of weakness and foolishness, speaking as it does of a crucified savior, but the herald of the message is inherently vulnerable, speaking in the language of the hearer.

As the AVM points out, this model of language transfer within mission cedes power to the hearer. This theological construction allows the AVM to extend the principle of language to a worldwide level. Rather than saying that Western missionaries should engage in mission using local languages, instead AVM might argue that all missionaries should engage in mission using the preferred language of the hearer, thereby enabling not only the linguistic but also the cultural translatability of the gospel. It is important to specify that mission should take place in the preferred language of the hearer to ensure that the speaker does not retain power by deciding which local language should be used. The cultural translatability that is created through appropriate language use also ensures that principles such as orality will be taken seriously.

Resources and the Praxis of Vulnerable Mission

How might the themes that have been developed so far inform the use of resources in mission? The AVM argues that Western missionaries should engage in mission using local resources, with particular caution exercised around the use of money. Can this theme be extended from Western mission to worldwide mission?

The proclamation of the weak and foolish message of the cross creates an intended outcome in the New Testament. This outcome is not primarily envisaged to be individual converts who become individual disciples. Rather, the New Testament imagines that the proclamation of the cross will be God’s means of gathering believers together into local churches. A key concern within the New Testament is providing leadership for these new churches. Once leadership is established, the model of ministry proceeds with clarity; church leaders equip the saints, that is the members of the local church, to use their gifts to serve one another in love and build each other up towards maturity in Christ (Eph 4:11–13). The gifts that are described in a series of passages in the New Testament encompass practical gifts such as hospitality, acts of mercy, and generosity, as well as word-based gifts such as teaching and prophecy (1 Cor 12; Rom 12; 1 Pet 4).

The image that the New Testament paints is one in which a local church is established through gospel proclamation, with the church quickly moving to a point where its members use their gifts to serve one another. This service includes practical care for the marginalized and needy. The New Testament echoes the pattern of the Old Testament in recognizing the relational nature of poverty. In the Old Testament, the poor are identified in relational terms as the “sojourner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 16:11–14). God’s people are to provide for the marginalized by incorporating them into the life of the community. The Old Testament law requires that the nation organize its community life in such a way that the marginalized are both included and provided for (Deut 15:4–11; 24:19–22). The New Testament follows this pattern by ensuring that the needy within the local church are practically supported (Acts 6:1–7; Jas 1:26–2:7).

As God’s people are gathered into churches through gospel proclamation, they are therefore to become a community who love one another and care for each other’s needs, using the gifts that God has given them. This model of ministry reflects AVM’s argument that mission should be conducted without injecting external resources. The only external resource that is imagined in this scenario is the gospel of Jesus Christ. A great deal of worldwide mission is conducted in exactly this way, since many worldwide missionaries possess no resources other than the gospel.

This theological argument begs a number of missiological questions. First, is this construction proposing that the model of holistic or integral mission be abandoned in favour of a model of mission that makes proclamation the priority? In order to answer this concern, the possible meanings of priority must be considered. Priority might mean either prior in terms of sequence or prior in terms of importance. To argue that the gospel is first proclaimed, then the church is gathered, through whom the poor are cared for, is to place proclamation prior to care for the poor in sequence but not necessarily in importance. An analogy can assist us here. Godliness in the believer comes after conversion, but is no less important.19 To argue that a local church has a responsibility to care for the poor as it has a responsibility to live godly lives is to place proclamation prior to care for the poor in sequence but not in importance.

Second, does this theological construction ignore the poor who are not Christians and limit care for the poor to those within the community of the local church? The answer to this question will depend on the faithfulness with which a local church reads and obeys Scripture. If a local church understands the principle of other-person-centered love and accepts the challenge given by the Lord Jesus in the parable of the good Samaritan, then they will not put boundaries around their loving acts of service.

Having reviewed the ways in which the issues of language and resources might be informed by a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission, we are now in a position to revisit definitions. The AVM defines vulnerable mission as mission “carried out by a Westerner in the non-West using the language(s) and resources of the people being reached.”20 In the light of Hof’s critique and her challenge to articulate a theology of vulnerable mission with worldwide scope, the following definition is offered: Vulnerable mission argues that mission should take place in the language of the hearers and should empower the local church to care for the poor within its community using its own gifts and resources. This definition enables vulnerable mission to take place at a worldwide level and requires no external resources other than the good news of Christ crucified.

Conclusion: Vulnerable Mission and the West

Having argued for an expression of vulnerable mission that has worldwide scope, this article now comes full circle and defends the need for a specifically Western expression. The worldwide definition of vulnerable mission that has been offered engages with the critique leveled by Hof to enable God’s people around the world to participate in vulnerable mission. However, a local theology of vulnerable mission for Western Christians is still necessary for two reasons: first, because the West was, for the most part, the perpetrator of colonial rule. Second, because the twin hegemonies of colonial language and Western resources create specific issues that Western Christians must address. A local, Western, theology of vulnerable mission can be constructed as a subset of the worldwide theology of vulnerable mission that has been offered. Vulnerable mission is defined as above, while a Western expression of vulnerable mission is articulated as mission carried out by a Westerner that deliberately cedes power by not using Western languages or resources.

Rev. Dr. David Williams is Principal of St. Andrew’s Hall and a member of the faculty at Ridley College (Melbourne, Australia). David and his family served as missionaries in Nairobi, Kenya, where David was Principal of Carlile College. David helped the college to establish a specialist urban mission training program based in Kibera slum, one of the largest informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa.

1 The whole of vol. 4, no. 1, of Missio Dei was dedicated to Vulnerable Mission. See Christopher L. Flanders, “Vulnerable Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (2013): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-1/authors/md-4-1-preface.

2 Jim Harries, Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012), 258.

3 Eleonora Dorothea Hof, Reimagining Mission in the Postcolonial Context: A Theology of Vulnerability and Vocation at the Margins (Utrecht, NL: Boekencentrum Academic, 2016).

4 See esp. Harries, Vulnerable Mission.

5 Stan Nussbaum, “Vulnerable Mission Vis-a-Vis Mainstream Mission and Missiology,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (2013): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-1/authors/md-4-1-nussbaum.

6 Hof, Reimagining, 188.

7 Ibid., 80–121.

8 Ibid., 193.

9 Ibid., 194.

10 Ibid., 195.

11 Planetary and planetarity are terms Hof uses to describe worldwide inclusion. She prefers this to the term global since globalisation implies uniformity and Western control.

12 Hof, Reimagining, 194.

13 Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

14 Hof, Reimagining, 221.

15 Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, American Society of Missiology Series, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

16 See Timothy C. Tennent, The Translatability of the Christian Gospel (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2009).

17 Sanneh, Translating, 36–7.

18 See Jim Harries, Communication in Mission and Development (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013).

19 Tim Chester and Tony Payne, “Social Involvement and Evangelism (Part 2),” The Briefing, February 2005.

20 Harries, Vulnerable Mission, 258.