Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (February 2013)

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Vulnerable Mission (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Christopher L. Flanders

Dr. Flanders is the Director of the Halbert Institute for Missions and an Assistant Professor in Missions in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. He spent eleven years doing mission work in Thailand, seven of those working as a church planter in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. He is a consulting editor for Missio Dei as well as a member of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission executive board.

A non-Western church leader recently remarked, “When I hear the word partnership, I run the other way!” Why? Because despite their rhetoric and intent, Western missionaries often end up creating the very thing they seek to avoid, viz., dependent churches.

Though we must be thankful that most missionaries today do hold (in theory!) incarnational, contextual, and empowering as appropriate modes of mission, we all know that quite often our practice falls short. The indigenous, empowering, partnering type of mission that is the “canonical” version of modern missions theory is frequently unrealized in our mission efforts. In the end, dependent churches are often the result.

This is not true in every case. Some examples exist of Western missionaries establishing local churches that thrive, become able to carry out the work of God utilizing local capacities and resources, and exhibit full ownership of their lives under God. As a whole, however, such is less frequently realized than we all desire. What noted mission historian Wilbert Shenk has claimed remains the case, that since 1850 the “indigenous church” has been central to Protestant mission theory but infrequently practiced.

This is a problem. It is a dependency problem. And dependency is about resources—control of, use of, and access to resources.

While we often focus on the use of money (and money does represent a huge challenge), think of the multiple resources missionaries often represent or control directly. These include language (non-local languages, often English, either to evangelize or for use in training and worship), leadership (non-locals making significant or primary decisions for local believers), theology (note the dominance of translated Western works but the paucity of local writing and the imposition of Western theological conclusions), competence (many local believers look to missionaries as more authentically “Christian” or equipped to do ministry and make the important church decisions), worship style (Vineyard, Hillsong, and contemporary English praise and worship songs dominate across the globe as do modern Western liturgical patterns), and access (Western missionaries can provide networking to potential donors and funding sources). Additionally, recent scholarly studies demonstrate that thinking styles (not just communication styles), identity construction, and the configuration of the human self are significantly different across cultures.1 Many missionary-planted churches default into Western preferences in these areas, thus creating all sorts of subtle but ultimately destructive dependencies.

Dependency, whether financial, theological, cultural, linguistic, psychological, technological, or personal, remains among the greatest challenges for mission in the twenty-first century.

A recent incarnation of the age-old dependency/resources conversation is that of “Vulnerable Mission” (VM). Taking its cue from biblical (e.g., Luke 10) and contemporary (modern studies on western aid and development activities) resources, the VM conversation takes as central the call to address these important issues with vigor. VM advocates that some missionaries take seriously a model of mission that steers away from using the power of non-local resources for mission. Instead, VM advocates capacity-building missionaries that rely upon local resources.

As Stan Nussbaum reminds us in his article, VM as an approach is something with which most of us are already quite familiar. Three modern mission stories of note (the independent and African-initiated churches in Africa, the modern Chinese house-church movement, and certain Pentecostal movements in Latin America) all rely upon what VM advocates suggest as the best ways to achieve the goals of mission.

The papers in this issue of Missio Dei represent some of the current and best thinking on VM. On the Campus of Abilene Christian University in March of 2012, the Halbert Institute for Mission (ACU), the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, and TransWorld Radio jointly hosted the first global conference on VM. It was simultaneously livecast on the internet with participants from every continent.

Whether one adheres fully to the principles advocated by Vulnerable Mission proponents, the questions they raise demand serious consideration from a church that often takes easy, conventional wisdom. In particular, VM forces us to grapple with both priority in mission and our mode. What is the goal of mission? What is of most importance? What way(s) are most consistent for participating in God’s reconciling reach toward the world? VM advocates contend that often our goals and our mode do not properly match.

Is VM something new? In one sense, it is not. VM represents the age-old questions of missions, use of resources, and dependency. Yet, the new context in which we find ourselves presents different challenges and calls us to evaluate our mission practice anew. This new context involves the massive surge in short-term mission, the growing vibrancy of the non-Western church, the continued financial dominance of the Western world, and the ambivalence created by post-colonial global commitments.

This is what constitutes the conversation we call Vulnerable Mission. It is a renewed probing of the hard questions that we must ask in order to see our ultimate goal fulfilled—churches fully reflecting the glory of God in their local contexts.

What does this conversation mean, then, for missions in Churches of Christ and Christian Churches? Particularly in these two branches of Stone-Campbell churches, mission has operated primarily without the denominational structures of a mission agency. One consequence of this is that anyone, anywhere, can send or do missions, regardless of their qualifications, preparation, or approach. With the current swell of short-term mission efforts, the number of “missionaries” has vastly increased. Yet, many of these “missionaries” unwittingly create and perpetuate structures of dependency.

Additionally, our commitment to Scripture as the foundation of mission practice requires us to be deeply concerned about the examples of Jesus and the earliest Christians. Vulnerable Mission advocates suggest that Jesus, the disciples, and the early church all operated with a very vulnerable approach to mission.

These papers represent not a final destination or some fully articulated theory of mission, but a conversation. In my opinion, it is worth pursuing precisely because of the high stakes. After reading and considering them carefully, we hope you will join us in this important conversation!

1 Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently—and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003).