Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 2, no. 1 (February 2011)

playlist_add_check Review Article

Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission. Resources for Reconciliation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 160 pp. $15.00.

Christopher Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh (an organization devoted to serving Jesus among the poorest of the poor), and Christine Pohl, professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, team up to provide a compelling volume on friendship and ministry among the world’s poor, particularly the extreme and most vulnerable of the poor.

A programmatic statement that describes the thrust of the book is as follows: “Friendship with people who live on the margins of the larger society, who are generally feared, excluded or overlooked, invites us to reconsider the meaning and practice of mission” (73). In effect, this book calls the church to view relationality and gospel as necessary conditions of each other. Appropriately, the writing of the book itself is a product of friendship, as the authors’ brief narrative on how they came to collaborate on this book wonderfully recounts.

Pohl and Heuertz discuss several key commitments inherent in the very fabric of the gospel. Such include the rejection of any type of ministry or benevolence that flows in a mono-directional way, simply a transfer of resources (spiritual or material) from “giver” to “receiver.” They also challenge the notion, often prominent in mission practice (look at missionary living arrangements and social practices!), that social distance between donors and recipients is a tolerable, good, or even necessary arrangement. Rather, ministry assumes relationship.

At the heart of this book, however, is the call to refuse to view others as “objects of charity” in ministry (26). They warn about the possibility (reality in many places!) of communities that have been saturated with missional activity but where the good news has not been embodied in a consistent presence of love, concern, and friendship. It is in such situations where “folks know that they have been targets of one more program” (73). Such is not ministry, gospel, or friendship, but religious marketing.

Ministry that follows in Jesus’ footsteps, instead, is about seeing the “Other” as friend. A person becomes a friend when they are “not seen as a project or needy recipient but as a fellow traveler” (102). This counters any tendency of reducing people to “targets” or “converts,” a constant temptation in our consumerist, marketing-driven culture.

As for specific practices, Pohl and Heuertz suggest that the core of friendship involves, among other things, eating together and sharing ourselves as much as we share our resources. Such practices can help move ministry from a “need/solutions” paradigm to one of sharing joy and sharing life (50).

This is an important book. In fact, for me it passes the litmus test of good theological literature—it made me rethink my own practices, both personal and ministerial. The authors illustrate in anecdotes and theoretical discussion concrete strategies for forging such real and gospel-laden friendships.

Taken seriously, the authors’ suggestions could reshape how many of us view ministry and practice evangelism. Their brief but powerful sections “Facing our Tangled Consumption Patterns” (61) and “Is the ‘Plunder from the Poor’ in My House?” (55) should be required reading for all who engage in ministry and mission as they force us to take inventory of our own complicity in certain forms of global injustice.

The chapters are full of rich and challenging personal anecdotes, but also include mature and wise discussions of weighty theological challenges and ministry issues. Also, they include a brief but helpful study guide.

I do not know if over the past few years I have read a book as compelling and critical as Friendship at the Margins. Buy it. Teach it. Put it into practice.

Chris Flanders

Associate Professor of Mission

Graduate School of Theology

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA