Vulnerable Mission, as the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission articulates it, comprises important missiological concepts. These concepts are not new to missiology, though they have often been under-practiced. Vulnerable Mission is thus a welcome call to more conscientious and thorough application of sound missiological principles. Yet, at least in the Latin American context, some questions remain as to the universality and absoluteness with which missionaries should apply Vulnerable Mission methods.
Clarifying the Contrast Between Vulnerable Mission and Mainstream Missiology
The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (AVM) is promoting a conversation that Christian missionaries can ill afford to ignore. I am grateful that Abilene Christian University, through the initiative of Dr. Chris Flanders, has brought the conversation into the realm of missiological reflection among Churches of Christ. I wish to respond to the proposals of Vulnerable Mission (VM) from my particular location. The reader might triangulate my location with a few key coordinates: I write as an Anglo-American, trained missiologically in an a cappella Church of Christ university, serving as a missionary in urban Peru. From this vantage point, the basic impulse of VM looks beneficial. The AVM homepage states:
“Vulnerable mission” may be seen as part of the movement toward contextualization of the Gospel of Jesus, which we regard as the theory of many and the practice of few. We would like to see more people take the risks of contextualization and vulnerability in order to reap the rewards that only come to those who value local resources and invest in local languages.
The notion that there is a disconnect between mission theory and practice is plainly true. The bifurcation exists on a variety of levels: academy versus ministry, missiology versus missions, ideals versus realities, goals versus potentialities, and the list goes on. The fundamental issue is how to overcome the divide, and VM is attempting to provide a solution: “VM does not propose different goals than mainstream mission and missiology. We are arguing that the mainstream methods of reaching those goals are not achieving them very well.” To be clear, though, the problem is not that mainstream missiology (just “missiology” hereafter) has failed to provide methodological direction. While there are still cross-cultural workers who are not cognizant of missiology, I believe this conversation, directed at an audience that attends missiological conferences and reads missiological journals, must really be about the best practices that many missionaries know about but find difficult to implement.
“Contextualization and sustainability are widely preached; imperialism and dependence are widely practiced,” states Stan Nussbaum with salutary directness. The criterion by which we can evaluate VM, then, is its effectiveness in bringing about contextualization and sustainability where missiology has failed. VM’s intention, in other words, is to provide a practical handle for actually propagating the “three selves” that have been missiology’s Sisyphean task for over a century. In Nussbaum’s taxonomy, that practical handle consists of three methods: local language, local resources, and local thinking style.
Nussbaum grants that there are “major improvements to the ethnocentric model” found in “partnership methods.” He lumps “most advocates of partnership,” represented especially by Mary Lederleitner at the ACU conference, with “missiologists.” Lederleitner’s book Cross-Cultural Partnerships is a popular-level example of the way missiology brings anthropological study to bear on cross-cultural interactions. Thus, it is not fair to missiology that Nussbaum represents the alternatives to VM as either (1) the “ethnocentric model” or (2) a partnership model that would use English as much as local languages and would opt for a simplified message instead of considering local modes of thought:
|| VM methods
|| Partnership methods
||English or local
||Prime the pump, or top up local resources
||Local thinking style
||Simplify the message
If the contribution of VM hinges on its ability to achieve what missiology has not, it is absolutely necessary first to grant missiology its full qualifications, in order to see what VM’s practical difference really is. And historically, missiology has taken local languages, resources, and thinking styles as the key to the self-realization, if I may use that term, of the indigenous church.
To tease out what is really at stake, we must think about the nature of the goals that missiology and VM admittedly share. Self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation cannot mean partial self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. “Self” does not mean some outside resources or some foreign modes of thought and speech. Rather, whereas VM is apparently advocating the method of permitting no foreign resources, languages, or thinking styles from the beginning of a missionary endeavor, missiology has historically made allowance for getting to the self-realization of the indigenous church by degrees. And it is only fair to note that by degrees is, from a missiological standpoint (rather than a blindly imperialist one), a deliberated compromise rather than a justification for easy, self-serving methods.
Furthermore, the introduction of no foreign resources, languages, and thinking styles, to the degree possible in a cross-cultural relationship, is a logical corollary of the goal. If the end is self-support, for example, the most direct means is quite obviously not to introduce foreign support. To take a well-known representative with a Latin American outlook, in 1953 Melvin Hodges was able to quote a missionary in Colombia as saying:
No money for [national] preachers and [national] churches is not a handicap nor hindrance; it is a challenge to missionary ability and a policy that, if adopted generally and more rigidly, would save many a heartache and produce a stronger, more humble church in the foreign field.
Advocacy of “no money” as the means to self-support is not novel; VM is not proposing new methodology but rather agreeing with extant missiological wisdom by which Hodges felt sixty years ago missionaries should “generally and more rigidly” abide. While the difference between Hodges and VM on this point seems to be that Hodges was willing to say, “The right use of money has its place in missions,” we still have to acknowledge that Hodges was advocating throughout his book—as a methodological outworking of Roland Allen’s proposals—the introduction of no foreign funding.
Moreover, the infamous “moratorium on missions” last century was “not because of liberal theology or anti-Western bias, and it was not intended to signal the end of missions” but was an attempt to foster “an alternative to remaining dependent on foreign funding and personnel.” We might understand so drastic an approach as the recognition that there is no way to use only local language, resources, and thinking styles as long as foreign missionaries are present. The only way to avoid compromise on some level is to dissolve the cross-cultural relationship altogether.
Because missiology assumes the necessity—and the benefit—of the cross-cultural relationship, it is dedicated to mitigating cross-cultural challenges and increasing the missionary’s capacity for contextual discernment. One can imagine easily that, given this purpose, missiology would advocate the use of local languages. If mission history is rife with examples of missionaries using colonial languages or depending upon translators, we need not confuse that fact with missiology’s own perspective. The goal is the self-realization of the indigenous church, and one method for everyone concerned is the use of local languages. David Hesselgrave states in his influential volume Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally:
Almost without exception, missionaries will be well advised to learn the language of their respondent culture. . . .
If one wants to communicate Christ to a people, he must know them. The key to that knowledge always has been, and always will be, language.
Or consider the position of linguist and missiological luminary Eugene Nida:
As regards a very high percentage of the social and religious culture language is an indispensable instrument for transmitting not only the outward forms but the inner content and subjective evaluation. Perhaps the best evidence of the essential function of language as a transmitting mechanism is seen in the almost total failure of meaningful cultural contact when effective communication is lacking. . . . If a culture cannot and does not transmit its own concepts except by language, how can missionaries expect to inculcate wholly foreign concepts without using the only language which the people really understand?
What is even more noteworthy, though, is the quantity of Nida’s work that simply takes for granted the missionary’s use of local languages. Local language is missiology’s presumed method for even the initial communication of the gospel. How much more so for the self-realization of the indigenous church? On this point too it seems as though VM is not proposing a new method but rather suggesting that missionaries actually employ the method missiology knows to be so indispensable.
That brings us to the final VM method, local thinking style. It is especially important for this paper because it is Nussbaum’s addition to the VM agenda. He states, “A paradigm is a tool that an analytical thinker uses to compare two or more systems. Non-analytical (oral) thinkers do not use that tool because they never undertake that task. They simply do not look at their worlds that way.” He explains further, quoting John Walsh:
“When people routinely assume that the opposite of orality is literacy, they are making only a superficial contrast. The real contrast is not oral vs. literate. It is oral vs. analytical.” In other words, an oral style is a story or narrative or holistic style of thinking as opposed to a conceptual style that breaks everything down into pieces and then connects the pieces. Oral thinkers apprehend whole ideas; analytical thinkers comprehend them one piece at a time.
Orality is therefore a way of looking at the world that is non-analytical and holistic. As Nussbaum mentions in a footnote, accounting for this sort of local thinking style is not methodologically novel. First, authors such as Duane Elmer and Sherwood Lingenfelter have dealt with “holistic thinking” in popular missiological publications—and they have done so by placing holistic thinking in relation to a much larger complex of cultural variables that more amply characterize “local thinking” in its sundry configurations. Second, as Nussbaum hinted, the bigger issue is the way local people “look at their world”—their worldview. It is an immense understatement to say that missiology has been concerned with worldview. One prominent representative is sufficient for our purposes here. Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews is a thoroughgoing overview of worldview theory, including sections on various kinds of logic and narrative epistemology and a whole chapter on “Worldviews of Small-Scale Oral Societies.” He also presents a chapter on “Methods for Analyzing Worldviews”—which moves well beyond the suggestion that we should use local thinking to methods for doing so, including the analysis of wisdom literature (including proverbs) and aesthetic culture (including music and festivals). These are not best characterized as “quirky interests of a tiny minority.” There is undoubtedly only a small portion of the missionary force that undertakes rigorous worldview analysis, but in the context of a discussion about what methods missiology offers for achieving its goals, that is hardly the issue. These are mainstream methods. They are well-developed, widely published, and accessible.
If these methods have been at missionaries’ disposal for so long, why then have they continued to use foreign languages, resources, and thinking styles? The answer, I believe, is that the complexities and difficulties of cross-cultural cooperation require mutual discernment and, often, ad hoc decisions. This reality is hardly an excuse for the many poor decisions that have led to dependency and paternalism. At the same time, doubling down on the counsel to use exclusively local methods is not a practical solution to the complexity of cross-cultural relationships that has prevented missionaries from doing so long since. Thus, in my own historical and cultural location I am left with a number of questions that challenge VM.
Problematizing Vulnerable Mission
What About Urbanization?
VM gives the impression that it has rural contexts in view. The idea of local language quickly becomes problematic in areas where urban migration is a factor. The urbanization of Latin America is a well-known phenomenon. I live in Arequipa, Peru, a city of about a million inhabitants. In Arequipa, there is a confluence of Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara—the three official languages of Peru. Spanish, of course, is the dominant language; that of the conquerors and colonizers. But it is, as a matter of historical reality, the first language of most urban inhabitants. It is the language of the school system, business, government, and the transcontinental social construct called “Latin America.” In Arequipa, Spanish is colonial and local.
The indigenous persons who migrate to Arequipa do so for a variety of reasons. In general throughout Latin America, “industrialization and the introduction of capitalist modes of production in rural areas from the 1930s onwards triggered a process of concentrated urbanization that seventy years later had led to a majority of the societies in the region crossing the urban threshold.” Although rural to urban migration had tapered off in many countries by the 1990s, in Peru no few fled the countryside in the wake of Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) during the 1980s and 90s. Droughts during the same time period also precipitated urban migrations. Currently, urban migration tends to be a matter no longer of industrialization per se but of its cousin modernization, driven primarily by the same economic impulses that marked earlier patterns of urbanization. Yet, it is not truly representative to characterize urban migrants’ motives as purely economic. In a study by the Wellbeing in Developing Countries Research Group, researchers developed a culturally specific model of wellbeing that identified the most important and most frustrated life aspirations of Peruvians. Regarding analyses specific to migrants, James Copestake summarizes the study’s findings:
Overall, what emerges from both the quantitative and qualitative evidence is the complexity of the personal wellbeing trade-offs entailed in migration. For many, the main cost of searching for a more secure livelihood was not delaying starting a family but being forced to live in a more insecure and uncertain environment. Migration behaviour is also revealed to be more than a movement of individual workers driven by real wage differentials or even the outcome of diversified household livelihood strategies: it is also part of a life-cycle process of seeking independence from and often then negotiating interdependence with relatives, particularly parents. An understanding of the relational dimensions of migration should not be regarded as a useful supplement to a separate understanding of more important material dimensions. Rather, material, relational and indeed emotional effects of migration are profoundly interrelated.
One area of the wellbeing paradigm, called improvement from a secure base (ISB), was of special importance: “In-depth interviews revealed there to be a strong positive ISB motivation for migration to urban areas, particularly Lima: this being associated with terms like ‘betterment’, ‘superación’, ‘improving life conditions’, ‘securing the future’ and ‘upward social mobility.’ ” In fact, three ISB goals were statistically the standouts for disparity between aspiration and achievement: “Perhaps the most distinctively ‘Peruvian’ aspect of [the results] is the low satisfaction with achievement of highly ranked status goals for education, salaried employment and professional status.”
Copestake notes, “The ISB goal can be viewed as corresponding closely with the Western idea of development, and suggests a desire to be part of a modernization process, subject to not taking excessive risks.” Certainly, there are among Arequipa’s urban migrants those less voluntary participants in the city’s modernized social arrangement—refugees from natural disaster or insurgent violence. But we can safely postulate that the vast majority of first generation rural to urban migrants, whose primary language is Quechua or Aymara, desire to be in the city precisely in order to participate in the opportunities modernization affords, to which the dominant Spanish-language criollo culture plays host. They endeavor, often at great risk, to enroll their children in a Spanish-only school system, to participate in the local urban economy, and to attain status as defined by urban Peruvian culture.
Especially regarding the Spanish-only school system we may recognize dynamics at work that are important to VM.
Whereas, in the past, formal education was exclusively Spanish in medium of instruction and urban and Western in content, the last quarter of the 20th century brought a shift in both policy and practice toward greater inclusion of indigenous language and content, usually under the label of bilingual intercultural education.
Peru, in other words, made a legal requirement the use of both the local language and Spanish in the classrooms of indigenous communities. As the quotation intimates, the use of local language is necessarily a change not only of medium but also of content. And while the simultaneous use of Spanish might mean that “interculturality” is “simply a new guise for the ‘same old’ enlightened assimilationism that yet maintains the hegemony of Spanish as the language of writing, of formal communication, and of power,” it is also possible that the recourse to local language affords “a genuinely new intercultural ideology that seeks to incorporate indigenous languages, cultures, and ways of knowing into a new national identity.” Here we have, for the indigenous peoples themselves, the opportunity to choose, at least to some degree, their local language and local thinking style. In the urban context, we must therefore reckon with the decision of migrants to uproot their families partly in order to place their children in Spanish-only, urban, Western schooling. Second generation migrants usually speak their parents’ language poorly if at all and typically do not use it outside the family context. But why should they, when their parents have sacrificed so much to assimilate to the urban environment?
The question for the missionary in urban Peru, then, is what local language and thinking style to use. The difference between Spanish and Quechua, as well as the difference between indigenous and urban worldviews, is every bit as significant as VM asserts. Yet, is it the missionary’s place to overrule the indigenous migrant’s intention to live in the linguistic world of her second language? If she speaks Spanish but still “thinks” Quechua, need the missionary insist upon a Quechua approach—or is this even a realistic view of language? Nida notes the complexity of what he classifies as “a heterogeneous society with included face-to-face constituency”:
When a single over-all social structure involves not only a dominant group but an included face-to-face constituency, it is essential to recognize not only their differences of structure, but also their interrelations. One of the most serious mistakes in missionary work has been to imagine that Indians in the Americas, for example, should be reached as a separate constituency and developed as an isolated community, when all the time they are in highly dependent relation to the urban center.
Nida points out that it is more common to err in the other direction, when the missionary “lumps them together without regard to their different structures.” So, even in this urban nexus VM provides a corrective when it provokes the sub-cultural sensitivity to which the melting pot can numb the missionary. But I emphasize Nida’s point about “interrelations” here because VM seems to disregard the complexity of the urban environment with its local-only formula:
In a heterogeneous society with an included folk culture there is always the acute problem of dealing with people in a state of transition. How are they to be ministered to—in terms of their rural circumstances, or in their city setting? In a sense, it all depends on where they are and how they view themselves.
The point here is to juxtapose the urban Latin American scenario with Jim Harries’s rural African context, from which much of the VM perspective apparently arises:
Presumably the content of African languages arises from the content of African lives. Does learning of another language “magically” result in a change in way of life? Or is the widespread use of English making people dependent on what they do not understand because it is not a part of who they are? If we had examples of non-European languages ‘succeeding’ [as the medium of enlightened advanced education] then perhaps we could say that the choice of a European language for an African student is a free or arbitrary choice. As it is, if it is a choice at all, then it is a choice that largely precludes taking the African person’s own context seriously. This default option for African students handicaps them for the rest of their lives.
For example, consider the contrast between monism and dualism. English is “at home” in dualistic communities. When used by dualistic people, it can be extremely productive, because the way it is used fits the contours of life of the people concerned. But if used by a monistic people, it loses its moorings. Its implicit categories are no longer the right ones. It serves a monistic people very poorly. This is the case unless they adapt English so as to use it in their way. Such “adaptation” of English defeats the original intention—that English be a means of easing communication with the wealthy and powerful international community and a means of achieving development and prosperity on Western lines.
The parallel is strong. Spanish is the colonial language and the “means of achieving development and prosperity on Western lines.” But the practical issue is Harries’s theory of language, which the Peruvian urban migrant’s intentions challenge. The logic of Harries’s argument is that the context (“the content of African lives”) is what determines their language. This is unidirectional, though, because in his view their context actually determines their worldview (monism) first, and their language is merely the manifestation of their worldview. Language is a surface element, which means that learning a new language cannot result in a new worldview (dualism). The context is still determinative, therefore the new language will be employed (adapted) only in terms of the existing worldview.
To this view, the urban migrant essentially poses the question: What if I change contexts? Is it possible for the Quechua speaker to see the world differently enough that her use of Spanish does indeed cohere with the native Spanish speaker’s use? The missionary’s expectation that every person’s worldview can be transformed into that of Jesus and VM’s expectation that the missionary can effectively adopt local language and thinking styles both require an affirmative answer. The oral thinker can learn to think analytically—they “simply do not look at their worlds” analytically, but they can do so every bit as much as the missionary can learn to think orally in order to “use local thinking styles.”
It is clearly paternalistic to require non-Westerners to conform to a Western worldview, but it is equally paternalistic to deny non-Westerners the agency to use non-local languages, non-local thinking styles, and non-local resources should they so choose. It is paternalistic to opt against partnership because potential partners may find it “very difficult, if not impossible” to “understand that the resources provided by the Western mission body to support the spreading of the gospel are not the gospel.” The methodology of using only local language, thinking styles, and resources, rigidly applied in urban Latin America, stands to become one more way that Western missionaries say, “We know what’s best for you, whether you realize it or not.”
Another way of putting this is that my context reveals the peculiarity of VM’s stated aim, to seek “more perspectives on VM from Majority World people whose contact with the West has not persuaded them to approach mission like Westerners.” I must ask, instead, why not equally seek the perspectives of Majority World people whose intentional contact with the West defines their reality in terms of interculturality and hybridity? The mestizo voice should not be marginalized here as well. It calls out a challenge to the notion of local culture as static and closed. It asks missiology to consider new, dynamic configurations that are oral and analytical, narrative and propositional. It seeks dialogue, discernment, compromise, and provisional decisions appropriate to contexts that are in flux.
What About Theological Education?
With the mestizo voice in my ears, then, I want to discuss the question of what language and thinking style to use from within the concrete (though diverse) situation of theological education. There are three principal issues that shape the conversation: (1) the nature of theology, (2) the extant voice of Latin American theological scholarship, and (3) the inevitability of cross-cultural interactions in the globalized world.
The Nature of Theology
There is no doubt that the dominant current of theological reflection in Christian history is part and parcel of the various Western church traditions. The recent overhaul of church history mentioned by Dyron Daughrity in the present issue implies a recovery of previously subdued non-Western theologies as well. Backing away from this development for a wider perspective, Western theology has already been in a long process of self-criticism, intensified by postmodernism, in which the idiosyncrasies, foibles, and blatant deficiencies of Enlightenment streams of Christianity have been laid bare. To some degree, Christianity finds itself in a theological malaise induced by an uncertainty about what to do after the assertion that theology is culturally conditioned. The instruments of communication that might potentially span the gap are themselves subject to the deconstruction of Western imperialism: rational discourse that assumes a particular rationality; communication media embedded in globalization; the practical need for linguae francae that finds a path of least resistance in formerly colonial languages; the written word, which excludes a variety of oral and grassroots theologies—not to mention academic standards such as peer review that further delimit publication. Paralysis results in theological ghettoization.
Personally, I hail from a theological tradition that drank deeply from the Enlightenment well and developed a hermeneutic that programmatically denied the possibility of theological pluralism, cultural or otherwise. Thus, along with the rest of Western Christianity, sectors of the Churches of Christ have been in a period of profound introspection, after which we see clearly that our culturally conditioned ways of talking about God are not universal and definitive. For all that, I maintain a commitment to the primacy of Scripture that must, for the Churches of Christ, be the point of departure for a discussion about the nature of theology.
There is vast diversity among literate cultures; conflating literacy with Western thought will never do. Yet, the VM advocacy of only local thinking styles among oral cultures runs up against theological education that makes Scripture central. Nussbaum contends that the contrast between orality and literacy is superficial, but superficial or not, illiteracy is a component of orality. To concretize the issue, what should theological education look like for my illiterate or functionally illiterate Arequipeño brothers and sisters?
Scripture stands as a testimony to the people of God’s enduring, trans-cultural impulse to center theology upon the written word. We may make historical caveats about the illiteracy of the majority, the priority of narrative, and the variety of cultural patterns that mark the reception of the text, but these do not obviate the nature of Scripture as scripture. Moreover, the rabbinic and Hellenistic modes of theology canonized in the New Testament demand to be met on their own terms by readers of every culture. At this point, it hardly needs saying, the cultures of the Bible stand at tremendous distance from US, Latin American, and African cultures alike. How could missionaries who focus upon Scripture not introduce foreign thinking styles? The use of local language in missiology intends to mitigate the distance, but as Nida said, the purpose is still in virtually every context “to inculcate wholly foreign concepts.”
The Western tradition’s historical-critical tools may be indelibly marked by the culture(s) in which they developed, but it is something else to say they are irredeemably compromised. Christopher Wright says:
There is no point, it seems to me, in swinging the pendulum from Western hermeneutical hegemony and ignorance of majority world biblical scholarship to the fashionable adulation of anything and everything that comes from the rest of the world and the rejection of established methods of grammatico-historical exegesis as somehow intrinsically Western, colonial, or imperialistic.
At their best, historical-critical tools allow us to meet biblical cultures on their own terms. If the choice is between attempting that cross-cultural encounter with the text or subjugating it to the autonomy of a local thinking style, theological education should choose the former in every context. As a scholar who has spent much of his career giving the Latin American context a voice to critique and improve Western hermeneutics, René Padilla’s words on this point are weighty:
It has been argued, however, that . . . the grammatico-historical approach is itself typically western and consequently not binding upon non-western cultures. What are we to say to this? . . .
No interpreters, regardless of their culture, are free to make the text say whatever they want it to say. Their task is to let the text speak for itself, and to that end they inevitably have to engage with the horizons of the text via literary context, grammar, history and so on. . . .
The effort to let Scripture speak without imposing on it a ready-made interpretation is a hermeneutical task binding upon all interpreters, whatever their culture. Unless objectivity is set as a goal, the whole interpretive process is condemned to failure from the start.
Objectivity, however, must not be confused with neutrality.
Similarly, as a twenty-first century American, my encounters with Irenaeus, the Cappadocian Fathers, Anselm, Calvin, or Karl Barth are all cross-cultural. Theological education actually seeks to challenge the student’s local thinking style, not to place it in a reservation.
Latin American Theological Scholarship
Vibrant theological scholarship already exists in Latin America, though its scale is modest relative to the number of churches it serves. Latin American theological scholarship bears certain prominent traits that present difficulties for VM methods. First, theological leaders think of themselves in terms of Latin America and therefore undertake their task internationally in Spanish or Portuguese. Entities such as the Latin American Theological Fellowship and the Evangelical Association of Theological Education in Latin America represent this characteristic most prominently. Second, they are participants in the theological discourse of the global church. Prominent leaders such as Samuel Escobar and René Padilla have played vital roles in the Lausanne Movement, for example. They participate in this global scene, as well as publish, in English.
The weight of these simple observations increases in proportion to the degree that theological leaders of the dominant criollo culture do indeed represent their diverse national contexts. This is not to say that local languages should be ignored—the principles of sound missiology stand. But even in indigenous communities in Latin America, “in the pedagogical process and in the development of an integral formation both languages are necessary and complementary”:
The educational process, within the framework of the religious conscience is decisive in a socialization which will allow the aboriginal people and other participants to elaborate critical and constructive relations with the society in which we are living. The contrary, within current conditions, would inevitably lead to one form or another of the extermination of minority groups. In this sense, the proposal which certain anthropological currents uphold, to “maintain the indigenous cultures in a state of purity” simply brings on the same tragic consequences that the destruction/absorption plans have produced. . . .
The aim of a school in the aboriginal context is a double one: on one hand, to rescue and affirm the values of their own culture, language, identity, religious cosmovision; and also to offer adequate training so as to enable participation on a level of equality in a multi-cultural society, which at the same time is a dominating and vicious one towards certain sectors.
If it is necessary to introduce Spanish-language theological education into the indigenous community rather than maintain a purely local-language theology, how much more must Spanish-language theological education be the right approach in the urban context, where indigenous migrants have made dominant-culture socialization their goal? It is invariably best to bring students’ culturally and linguistically determined thinking styles into dialogue with Spanish-language theology, first because balance is necessary in order not to perpetuate marginalization, and ultimately because the “promotion of inter-religious and intercultural dialogue for an improved mutual integration into a pluralistic society” is one of the goals.
Considering Latin American theological leadership, it is important to note that Nussbaum sees the charismatic movement in Latin America as an example of Jim Harries’s “VM approach to theological training.” It may be that we see here the contrast between largely analytical mainstream theological scholarship in Latin America and that of supposedly oral charismatic Christianity. Yet, charismatic Christianity in Latin America is notoriously marked precisely by a lack of theological education, not an alternative “oral” model of it. And while many “grassroots” groups have certainly developed without foreign funding, it is not the case that they demonstrate a particular care for local languages—in fact, in Arequipa there are a significant number of native Quechua speakers participating in Spanish charismatic church services. Here as well, urbanization is determinative, and charismatic churches flourished first and foremost in Latin American urban environments.
If it is right to describe the widely diverse charismatic movement in terms of Nussbaum’s conception of orality, then there is no doubt that the movement’s chief characteristic in regard to thinking style is not local indigeneity but socio-economic marginalization, along with which goes a lower level of education. José Míguez Bonino summarizes various sociological descriptions of Pentecostalism’s emergence:
A series of diverse hypotheses arose, but with a common denominator: They saw Pentecostalism as a movement which found its space in Latin America’s transition from a traditional society to a modern one, or more specifically, in the transition from a largely agrarian society to a partially industrialized one, from a rural to an urban society.
The socio-economic implications of this transition are well known. The connection is clear between the indigenization of Pentecostal churches and the nationalist stirrings that accompanied the rural to urban transitions of poor, oral, uneducated populations. It is, however, difficult to demonstrate that a principle of orality was the cause of indigenization. It is perhaps a simpler explanation that lack of education, and therefore continued orality, became endemic in transitional groups precisely because marginalization prevented them from completing the transition they intended, which in turn led to a break with the wealthy, educated, analytical culture that marginalized them. They did not indigenize because they were oral but remained oral because they indigenized through conflict at a time when their identity was shaped by limited access to education.
To put it this way highlights the fact that one notion of education is regnant in Latin American urban society. There is no romantic notion of local indigenous education at work here. Rather, there are systems of urban poverty that perpetuate a divide between those with greater educational opportunity and those without. In this context, an “oral” rather than analytically trained mind is indeed the default mode of cognition, but it is hard to imagine idealizing such orality as an equally beneficial thinking style in a society that functions economically, legally, and politically in a more analytical mode. Indigenous migrants know as much and for that very reason seek every opportunity to integrate.
Furthermore, it is similarly difficult to think that such orality in the church context should not be challenged by the analytical theological mode that is itself indigenously Latin American and understands its context in the socio-economic terms pertinent to the urban reality of uneducated oral communities. There are strong links here to Paulo Freire’s conscientization—part of a pedagogy for marginalized groups that focuses on “critical literacy,” dialogue, and engagement. Freire’s influence on Latin American liberation theology, which much of Latin American evangelical theology has appropriated to varying degrees, finds expression in mainstream Latin American theological scholarship in the tendency toward discourse and interculturality. This disposition is especially concerned to empower the voice of the marginalized, yet it certainly expects theological education to be dialogical rather than monologically “local.”
Cross-Cultural Interaction in the Globalized World
Theological education cannot afford to treat local cultures as closed systems; especially in urbanized contexts, attempting to treat them so is futile. The world is plugged in, and there is no going back. Harries says, “The responsibility is on the West to communicate and interact inter-culturally.” That is a justifiable challenge to the ethnocentric Western missionary force; a historically reasonable corrective. Especially because the missionary enters the local culture to instigate the cross-cultural relationship, the burden to assume an incarnational posture is hers. Yet, when it is a matter of the local Christians’ theological education, to insist upon banning non-local thinking styles handicaps the resident of the globalized urban setting. What is more, to place the responsibility of the cross-cultural relationship solely upon the West is, inversely, to advocate the ethnocentricity of local Christians.
Were Western missions to achieve a moratorium on ethnocentric short-term missions and cut all “dead aid,” local Christians would nonetheless need the capacity to self-theologize (a self unmentioned in Nussbaum’s proposal) in dialogue with the global community. This precludes the local-only thinking style—or perhaps, more accurately, redefines the local in relation to the global. Of Harries’s context, Mercy Amba Oduyoye said twenty years ago—just before the hyper-acceleration of globalization through the Internet:
We short-circuit the cultural context of Black Africa if we forget that the contemporary culture, except maybe in the remotest of villages (and how many do we have left?), is fast becoming an amalgam of Arabic, European, technological, and African cultures. The context is today as it has been shaped by yesterday, and continues to interact spatially within a world of changing cultures.
Missiologically, there is little to gain by ascribing moral value to globalization. It is not intrinsically good or evil; it affords opportunity for both. More importantly, it reshapes local realities regardless of our judgments. The missionary who judges it negatively may choose, to the extent possible, not to be an instrument of globalization. But globalization will change her context in any event. Therefore, the missionary task of contextualization must account for that change:
For some missiological reasons, traditional indigenization has been enthusiastic about preserving our Indian culture, especially in Indian dialects. This indigenization has been to a large extent romantic, in the sense of looking to the past and glorifying the noble savage without seriously taking into consideration the present, much less the future. Contextualization is asking for the incarnation of the gospel, not in a traditional and static culture, but in the struggle and agony of the people in search for a new culture, namely, a better way of life for them and their children.
Beyond the inevitability of globalization, the bare fact that Majority World churches are engaged in cross-cultural mission throughout the world is enough to bring local-only thinking under scrutiny. Just as VM (and missiology) calls Western missionaries to respect local thinking styles, missionaries from oral cultures must learn to meet more analytical cultures on their own terms. This critique becomes all the more urgent given that theological leadership of the global church must begin to arise from the Majority World. On this point, no one speaks more eloquently than Andrew Walls:
It is inevitable that the religio-cultural transformation of the 20th century will place Africans and Asians more and more in positions of leadership in world Christianity; the more so since the Great Reverse Migration will ensure that the United States and Europe become more consciously multi-religious as well as more secular entities, and as the once axiomatic identification of the West with Christianity becomes more and more problematic. But any leadership needs to be an informed leadership; it is incongruous to have Western intellectual and theological leadership of a non-Western Church. That Africa will bring gifts to the church is widely recognized, and many see those gifts as including zeal for Christ, unembarrassed witness to him, energy and delight in worship, and fervency in prayer, all of which will bless the wider church. But Africa and Asia must bring other gifts too. Intellectual and theological leadership of the Church must increasingly come from Africa, Asia and Latin America. As a result, theological adequacy, rubbing along, is not going to be enough. There must be excellence, world-quality capacity for leadership. Africa, Asia and Latin America will increasingly have to be the powerhouses of Christian thought.
If we translate this into academic terms, it means that Africa, Asia and Latin America must first become centers of creative thinking, world leaders in biblical and theological studies. And theological and biblical studies may be one of the few disciplines, possibly even the only one, in which this will be true for much of the area. Economic and other factors will always give Europe, North America and East Asia the edge in scientific and technological disciplines, and in many branches of the humanities and social sciences. But for the sake of the Christian Church worldwide, Africa, all Asia and Latin America, home to so many Christians, must pull their true theological weight.
This is not to reduce theological studies to Western modes of academia. There is much that other cultural modes of study and reflection can bring to balance and correct Western scholarship:
It may again be time for Christians to save the academy. And it may be that salvation will come from the non-Western world; that in Africa and Asia and Latin America the scholarly ideal will be re-ignited, and scholarship seen as a vocation. To follow a calling means putting other things aside as distractions, laying aside every weight; and the scholarly vocation may be best fostered by breaking with some of the Western models; developing new structures that encourage the community of scholars, rather than their competition. And in theological scholarship—the area in which Africa and Asia and Latin America have to excel for the sake of the worldwide Church—this will mean scholarly communities that maintain a life of worship and are in active relation to Christian mission.
By itself, the Western church’s need for an intelligible, dialogical corrective from Majority World theological leadership is a powerful reason not to establish local Majority World churches with a purely self-oriented vision of ecclesial existence. The resistance to dependency and paternalism that powerfully compels the conscientious Western missionary should not engender a reactionary methodology that ultimately blinds the local church to God’s global mission. Theological education of local Majority World churches for global theological leadership cannot be reduced to Western academia, but it must certainly encompass Western modes of theological reflection.
What Is Vulnerability?
I affirm the need for vulnerability in mission. The narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, life, and death provides the theological imperatives for mission. Nonetheless, those imperatives need nuance. It rings true that Western missions has often compromised its own missiological principles because of the temptation to work from a place of strength and convenience. At the same time, it is not clear that mission in weakness and vulnerability can be flatly equated with exclusive localness.
On one hand, Jesus certainly did not leave humanity to its own resources. As Mary Lederleitner puts it, “Jesus is the ultimate high-powered and highly resourced partner in global mission. . . . I am glad Jesus didn’t say, ‘You know, there is such a big gap between what I can do and what you can do. Why don’t we just work separately?’ ” I get the sense that the VM response to this point is that it was the Holy Spirit rather than Jesus who brought these “outside resources” to bear, and that missionaries have relied on their own resources rather than the Holy Spirit. Yet, the analogical mode in which incarnational theology issues its imperatives for mission also permits us to compare Jesus’ power and authority with whatever resources the Creator has placed at our disposal. Taking for granted a biblical worldview, what resources would a missionary actually arrogate to herself, as her own strength?
On the other hand, there is nothing more vulnerable than the attempt to negotiate cross-cultural partnership in the most faithful and beneficial way in our postcolonial reality. The missionary who seeks to prevent dependency and facilitate sustainability is far more vulnerable to frustration and failure when she serves in a mode of genuine mutuality and intercultural dialogue rather than avoiding the complexity of the cross-cultural relationship and the reality of the globalized world. Absolute local-only methods may take missiology to its logical conclusion, but in abstraction from local realities, they may serve as oversimplified answers to questions whose difficulty makes us truly vulnerable.
An Appreciative Comparison
I conclude with a comparison between VM and the mission work I am a part of in Arequipa, Peru. There are two facets of the work in Arequipa: church ministry and development ministry. The missionaries conceive of both together in terms of kingdom sowing, but for practical and heuristic purposes they may be separated. I limit my comments to church ministry.
Historically, Churches of Christ have tended toward a building-oriented strategy in Peruvian (and Latin American) urban church planting, whether renting or building facilities in order to establish a congregation or beginning in homes with a view to renting or building facilities. In either case, raising funds from US churches has been normal. Our intention to establish churches in poor urban communities caused us to doubt the appropriateness of such an approach. We concluded our study of the context:
Naturally, in the context of the poor, the rental or construction of a building is neither reproducible nor often sustainable. For churches intended to multiply themselves, it is not an acceptable model of church planting. Practically, churches that would choose to train leaders capable of growing congregations large enough to reproduce the building model will stifle the potential for church multiplication. This leads to a second point—that of leadership training. Building-centered strategies are virtually always locked into a pastor-laity dichotomy fostered by the institutional structure of the church. The assumed roles and tasks of church leadership professionalize ministry to the detriment of church-wide equipping. The assumed goal of growing large further removes the possibility of “ministry” from many would-be spiritual leaders and frustrates even natural leaders’ best efforts. Furthermore, the quality of the church communities that have had the most growth is contingent on the dynamics of small groups that have no need for a building. Lastly, the building of church buildings among Peru’s poor, as well as the leadership style it assumes, fails to contrast strongly enough with the religiosity that spiritually impoverishes nominal Catholic believers. Such an approach cannot adequately redefine and reconstitute “church” for new Christians. On each of these points, a building-centered strategy is at odds with the contextual factors uncovered by the best of Latin American missiologists and sociologists.
Thus, we bring new Christians into a house church network. The use of local resources is not our only concern, but our critique of standard strategies does have some similarity with Nussbaum’s discussion of the financial implications of the “analytical church”:
Biases that go with assuming a mature church must be an analytical church
- Professionalization—the leaders are the best analysts; laity tag along.
- That kind of leader needs special schooling for analyzing the Bible.
- A congregation must be big enough to support a professional pastor.
- That size of congregation will need a building.
- The building, the schooling, and the pastor all require major funding.
These assumptions are generally typical in my context as well. Yet, the issue is really professionalization—a particular model of theological education—not a particular thinking style. Because theological education in the urban Peruvian church must take into account the nature of theology as dialogue with the historical church, dialogue with extant Latin American theological leadership, and dialogue with the global church within the globalized world, we are searching for an alternative model of theological education that does not professionalize students and conforms to the economic reality of Arequipa. Nussbaum’s proposal is suggestive:
Alternative model if a mature church can be an oral-thinking church
- The laity can be involved in developing the theology of the group.
- Special schooling not required for leaders; they can be apprenticed.
- Congregations can thrive and sub-divide though too small to support a pastor.
- Buildings are optional.
- Little or no funding required.
Practically, apprenticeship is the model of theological education for Nussbaum’s oral-thinking church. The rest are implications of refusing to professionalize ministry or otherwise grow congregations into large budget-maintenance mechanisms—implications that are also the goals of an alternative theological education model in Arequipa. The question, then, is whether apprenticeship will be sufficient to equip theological leaders to serve the urban Peruvian church. We affirm the essential commitment of VM: to foster an ecclesial existence among poor urban communities that is truly Peruvian (self-governing), economically sustainable (self-sustaining), and reproducible as the Peruvian church participates in God’s mission (self-propagating). Nonetheless, we must also promote the “fourth self”: self-theologizing.
Self-theologizing in the urban Peruvian context must not be a detriment to the economic sustainability of the church. In fact, because theology is done by the church, the nature of the church as contextual, sustainable, and missional should provide strictures for its self-theologizing, including the equipping of those gifted to be theological leaders. Therefore, it is unreasonable that theological education would entail costs incommensurate with the local economy or require foreign subsidy.
At the same time, theology is the point where historical, social, and global dialogue become indispensable. While the trappings of the Western academic edifice are both unsustainable and unnecessary for the education of poor Peruvian theologians, there may be some vital components that are more costly than the local church can afford. For example, one area where we have departed from a local-only resource methodology in Arequipa is the acquisition of Spanish theological texts. Books are more expensive in Peru than in the US, despite the relative weakness of the Peruvian economy. Therefore, US Christians have donated texts to the church in Arequipa. Is this the slippery slope of dependency, or is there a place for cautious, deliberate collaboration?
Discussing the “western captivity of theology,” Andrew Kirk, a theological educator in Latin America and other Majority World contexts, articulates the basic problem that theological education faces in contexts such as Arequipa’s:
Theological education is restricted in many instances to those who have reached a particular level of academic achievement, who can lay hands on sufficient financial resources for study and who share the cultural background of the educator. How is theological education to be made available to people who inhabit a “non-book” culture, i.e. for those who have not succeeded in meeting the expectations of the normal educational process? Present patterns of theological education will probably continue to reinforce the Western Church’s alienation in deprived, urban areas. How is it possible for existing Western theology, given its cultural assumptions, to equip a genuinely indigenous leadership in all strata of society?
Both local resources and local thinking styles are at issue when we decide to make the theological library a component of education. It is not a decision to make lightly. Of course, the same can be said about the decision to translate, mass publish, and disseminate the Bible. Even if we hold firmly to VM convictions, when practical benefit outweighs idealism we must discern legitimate compromises. Undoubtedly, Christianity can thrive and expand without access to theological texts. But what is most beneficial for the urban Peruvian church: absolute economic independence or access to historical, social, and global dialogue? This is a situational dilemma that cannot be reduced to a choice between right and wrong but instead requires discernment of the contextually most beneficial option—which in turn makes us vulnerable to error. We must pose such questions prayerfully and humbly. And it is perhaps best to reiterate that our commitment to missiological principles already excludes Western academic institutionalism, ministerial professionalization, and economically unsustainable church forms.
I believe interculturality is the best mode for Latin American theological education—and probably for the global church of the twenty-first century. In Peru, at least, it is already an intelligible pedagogical framework. In this dialogical mode, which fosters theological interdependence, hybridity, and “a new level of partnership that is fully bi-directional,” it is a legitimate compromise for wealthy churches to put theological tools at the disposal of under-resourced churches. The use of those tools in a contextually appropriate educational framework will require creativity, experimentation, a permanently repentant heart, and attention to Latin American theologians who are already leading the way.
VM seems to look at such a compromise with the expectation of impending dependency and paternalism because the history of Western missions justifies pessimism. Western missionaries have long felt empowered to compromise where it seemed expedient without regard for the imperative of vulnerability or the long-term cost of “strength.” Looking upon a global missionary movement prone to compromises that have undermined missiological principles, it seems reasonable to feel a more radical position is the only alternative for real change. My call for discernment and cautious compromise can appear to be just another path back to colonialist practices. I have great sympathy with the VM perspective and great appreciation for its intention to be consistent. In many cases, missiological principles need simply to be carried to their logical, hard conclusions. Yet, missiology also gifts us the fundamental insight of contextualization: there are no universal formulas. Urbanization and globalization are not excuses for missiological delinquency, but they are realities that complicate our notions of local, create new opportunities that are both risky and possibly constructive, and, ultimately, may require more than a local-only methodology.
Greg McKinzie (http://gregandmeg.net/category/greg) is a missionary in Arequipa, Peru, where he partners in holistic evangelism with Team Arequipa (http://teamarequipa.net) and The Christian Urban Development Association (http://cudaperu.org). He is a graduate (MDiv) of Harding Graduate School of Religion. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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