The author advocates the voluntary self-imposition of strictures in some Westerners’ cross-cultural mission work, especially on the use of outside languages and resources. In a world that increasingly esteems material success, voluntary poverty of Western missionaries working in Africa and elsewhere amongst the poor is easily misunderstood. Yet, understanding vulnerable missionaries’ reasons for a self-restricted ministry style, trail blazed by Jesus, is vital for preventing their persecution or derision. Once other missionaries understand these reasons, good relationships between those whose approaches to ministry vary can combine deep impact with a testimony of godly love.
A Western missionary will instinctively respond to African contexts on the basis of prior experience. Such a missionary, if conscientious, will endeavour to initiate in their new context some of the good things that they have come to value at home. For many Christians in the West, such “good things” are likely to originate from the material world of science and technology. A Western missionary may not be aware of the ways in which their orientation to the material has arisen from a peculiar dualistic worldview which distinguishes material from spiritual and real from unreal. Many African people are not dualists but monists. They do not draw a clear distinction between material and spiritual or real and unreal spheres. As a result, they do not see things in the same way as the typical Western missionary. Monistic people, certainly many in parts of Africa, invariably understand causation differently than do true dualists. For example, negative occurrences are in Africa typically blamed on witchcraft or evil spirits, while in the West they are more likely to be seen as the result of “chance.”
Fearing “the nightmare of the ideologies and categories of racism,” Western governments and other bodies these days insist on treating everyone within their shores essentially equally, even sometimes ensuring by artificial means (i.e., positive discrimination) that people of a particular ethnicity do not dominate jobs and leadership positions. Fear of racism can cause Westerners to confuse equal opportunity with sameness. Their desire to treat everyone equally can blind them to worldview differences: for example, the difference in approach to life taken by people who are monistic in their outlook as against those who are dualistic.
This article suggests that some Western missionaries should self-impose strictures on how they do ministry for two reasons. First, missionaries should avoid misrepresenting the gospel by spreading Western dualistic thinking in its place. Because Western missionaries who do not consciously avoid spreading Western materialism can easily acquire a reputation for being preoccupied with it, “American missionaries in Africa almost automatically seem to be preaching a prosperity gospel even if this is not their intention.” All too often the inadvertent but powerful received message in Africa from Western missionaries is one of materialism, interpreted by monistic people as the prosperity gospel or as a cargo cult. Second, Jesus’ vulnerable way is a model missionaries should imitate. Therefore, some missionaries should consciously choose to confine their interactions with locals, at least in certain ministries, to local languages and resources, a practice known as vulnerable mission. Such “strictures” apply to the use of foreign languages and outside resources, thereby emphasizing the importance of indigenous languages and resources, though other self-imposed strictures may also be significant.
Voluntary Poverty in Ministry
Should you offer a lift to someone who has decided not to own a vehicle? If you know the person has the money for a vehicle and the ability to drive it, but they decided to do without it, their predicament is their own doing. Why should you be troubled to help them?
It would be different if the person walking could not afford to buy a vehicle. Then our charitable hearts would want to help the poor and disadvantaged. We might feel convicted to help a deserving poor person whose poverty has arisen through no fault of their own. The justification for being charitable to such a person might be relatively clear.
The idea that a person who needs help as a result of voluntary self-denial is less deserving than the one who has no apparent means to escape their poverty has not always been widespread. Giving alms to beggars was once a process valued by Christians and others. Historically, some people’s orientation to prayer instead of to business or employment made them dependent on the charity of others. It seems that the value once perceived to have been implicit in asceticism, meditation, and prayer resulting in poverty that requires “voluntary begging” is less appreciated in the contemporary world. Those who prefer priestly duties such as prayer, preaching, arranging sacrifices (or reminders of sacrifices) even if their dedication results in a reduced level of material well-being, seem to be diminishing in number in the Western world. At least their decline is evident in the Catholic Church.
Voluntary poverty could be especially frowned upon in parts of the world where poverty is severe, where life is the hardest, where infant mortality is high, where diseases such as malaria are widespread. It is as if these parts of the world are constantly in crisis. Many people evidently believe that in these parts of the world the application of material insights, including salvific medical and other technologies, must have overwhelming priority. It is as if emphasis on the spiritual side of life should be suspended for these people. Even people who may have a wide variety of interests when in the West typically find that “poverty alleviation” becomes a dominant agenda for them when they reach Africa. I have found from personal experience that those who have been pastors in the West can, when they reach the developing world, end up functioning as administrators and project managers. To live amongst the poor and not to be preoccupied with trying to save them from material poverty can be seen as sacrilege or hypocrisy.
As things stand, it is very difficult for the West to “allow” their people to engage with developing-world populations other than from a benevolent position of providing material assistance. When working with other Catholic missionaries in East Africa, Joseph Healey noted that “many visitors challenged us for living the ordinary life of the local people without encouraging the villagers to improve their standard of living.” Many African people have the deeply ingrained expectation that Westerners who come to them will be preoccupied with saving lives, resolving crises, or enabling technology, typically by handing out funds. So then, pressure to do development work by providing aid comes from two directions. On the one hand, Westerners demand that missionaries do aid work. On the other, Africans now expect missionaries to do aid work.
The West’s concern for inter-racial (and other) equalities, which “forces” them to be preoccupied in raising the economic level of non-Western people they meet, is invariably on the West’s own terms. That is to say, others are expected to level with the West, and not the West with others. The desirable way forward is to become more Western. Westerners rarely advocate becoming more like other people. If the way forward is for all people to be the same, and the standard is the West, then any compromise with another people’s standards is, developmentally speaking, like turning the clock back.
Therefore, any Westerner who wants to stop implicitly telling African nationals that “we are better” with every other breath faces many barriers. A Westerner who wants to say to people in Africa, “Can I come to where you are?” can be seen as anathema. A Westerner who wants to relate to local people in Africa in at least a particular ministry using local language and local resources can have a battle on their hands.
Being preoccupied with pulling people out of poverty can make it hard for Westerners to identify closely with locals, and, if not identifying closely curtails understanding, this can preclude Westerners’ being a part of alleviation or change of complex cultural issues. Furthermore, Westerners who behave as saviors of poor developing world nationals ultimately perpetuate racial stereotypes. It is very serious for future generations of our planet to be permanently divided between races of people who are providers or receivers. Unhealthy dependency and evils such as imperialism are perpetuated in this way. Finally, the implicit assumption that the value of a Westerner is in their ability to provide materially can be dehumanising to them.
Some prefer wisdom in the use of resources over the non-use of resources. Unfortunately this easily results in paying insufficient attention to questions of power. A free choice to use or not use power is power. A missionary who works under self-imposed strictures would be a poor example if, unlike a truly powerless person, they retained the privilege of putting aside those strictures in cases of needs that they happen to consider serious. Leaving a missionary free to decide when to impose strictures and when not to will also encourage local people to look for the story or scenario that frees up the flow of funds. It becomes a kind of insurance policy. For example, should a missionary only provide help to those injured in a road traffic accident, nationals could see them as an insurance against road traffic accidents. Stories about road traffic accidents could be invented as a means to loosening purse strings. Victims of road-traffic accidents would be taken to that particular missionary, and so forth.
Being under self-imposed strictures does not prevent generosity. For example, if the strictures refer to language and material resources, a missionary can still be generous in the time and emotional or spiritual help they offer. They can share things that do not depend on Western financing. For example, teaching people to play a keyboard easily brings dependency on Western money for purchase of the instrument. Teaching people to sing will not result in such dependency. Missionaries can also be generous in ways that do not directly pertain to their ministry. Many charitable organizations are happy to receive donations. A vulnerable missionary could donate anonymously to a cause that is not local to their area of operation. Doing such does not contradict their vulnerability to their local community.
I suggest, therefore, that some Westerners will be best equipped to “help” Africa and the Majority World by seeing issues from a local point of view. The best, or at least a possible, means of doing this is for some Westerners to engage in ministry in Africa (or elsewhere in the developing world) from a position of self-imposed strictures, such as those of the use of languages and resources that come from local people.
Self-Imposed Strictures in Jesus’ Ministry
Our primary example in self-imposed strictures in mission is Christ’s incarnation. Jesus voluntarily relinquished divine power (Phil 2:6–7). In the interests of establishing the kingdom of God he commonly chose not to provide people with immediate material benefits.
The Gospels portray Jesus as making claims to divine status (for example, John 10:30). Christians understand Jesus through his incarnation as having been a man who, although he was also God, did not actualize the great power to which he had access (Phil 2:6). There is much evidence for this: Jesus refused to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the temple, or to use the means of the devil in establishing his kingdom (Luke 4:1–13). He walked away when people wanted to make him king (John 6:15). Although Jesus evidently healed many people, he did not heal them all—such as the cripple at the gate of the temple who had been there for up to forty years (Acts 4:22) when healed by Peter and John (Acts 3:1–12). People’s expectations as to what Jesus would do (for example, their rejoicing at the time of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem; Luke 19:37) were not fulfilled. Instead of accepting political office and clearing Israel of Roman domination, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. Although one problem of Jesus’ claiming to be divine might to some have been that it appeared blasphemous, another was more pragmatic: It was wrong in the eyes of many people that Jesus claimed to be divine but did not confirm his might through more sufficient displays of power. One important reason some people despised Jesus was because his life did not seem to justify his overt declarations regarding his divinity.
We are told time and time again that African and Majority World people value Western missionaries at work amongst them according to the wealth that they bring. Why after all should one pay great respect to missionaries, if they do not have the wherewithal to back up their claims of access to the divine? A claim to represent God that is not backed up by demonstrations of evident power can be treated as a false claim, especially by those who are jealous of the attention that the person making the claim is getting. This basis of evaluation is very logical. One could even say it is very natural or innate to human society. It is the basis on which we would evaluate almost any other claim: we want to see actions that prove the authenticity of what is being asserted. Jesus, on the other hand, chose not to satisfy people’s requirements in this way. This may well be why he ended up with relatively few, only 120 believers, even following his resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:15).
The hero of the Gospel accounts was not the kind of hero found in contemporary historiography, whose life invariably ended in triumph or honour. M. T. Speckman tells us that “healing miracle stories authenticated the hero or performer of the miracle.” Yet despite his aptitude for performing miracles, Jesus ended up crucified. The Gospels were clearly unique. Jesus did what he did in the way that he did due to the particular nature of the kingdom that he was introducing. He wanted to be in the world and not of the world (John 15:19; 18:36). Religious leaders of Jesus’ time, jealously protective as they were of their own prestigious standing amongst the people, attacked Jesus’ claim to have a unique theological eminence (Luke 22:66–71). While to some extent Jesus’ response was one of a demonstration of power (as in his reply to John the Baptist’s question in Matt 11:4–6), that demonstration of power was insufficient to save himself from judgement by Jewish authorities (Luke 23:2) nor did he rescue himself from the cross as some thought he ought to have done (Luke 23:35). In his ministry, Jesus put himself under strictures. He did not use all the power available to him. As a result, he was crucified. For Christians, his crucifixion has become the emblem of their salvation. It has become the very core of Christian belief.
Jesus’ weaknesses became the source of his power. Whether or not he was the first person to operate in this way, he certainly took it to new lengths. There are many reasons for Jesus’ “success” in establishing a heavenly kingdom that was to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6) and to attract more followers than has any other “religion” the world has ever known. I cannot go into all of them now. I would suggest that many of them are rooted in his practice of demonstrating power through the weakness and vulnerability that he achieved through self-imposed strictures on what he did and how.
Jesus’ power was of an unconventional nature. The position of not searching for power can, by winning the respect of people, itself be power. Ghandi is known to have drawn on this source of power. Jesus was the master of it. Self-imposed strictures were required in what he did and how for him to be able to have and to express power in such an unconventional way.
Had Jesus built his popularity entirely on his divine nature, he would have left his followers with an impossible act to follow. The alternative course which he followed provoked the envy of the powerful as much as it frustrated them; he did not use the power that he had in ways that they considered appropriate, for example, to support political insurrection. It was evident that he knew that this would turn people against him; he was aware that he would be rejected and killed (Mark 10:33–34), but he nevertheless went ahead. To use our terminology, he consistently kept to strictures that resulted in his weakness, vulnerability, and death. One of the reasons for doing so was to encourage his followers to do likewise. Jesus’ vulnerability was voluntary. His disciples’ should be too. As Jesus chose not to utilize power available to him, so Christian leaders and prophets should follow his example. As Jesus was consistent in his non-use of power, so should be missionaries today.
We find no records of Jesus raising funds from foreign communities, or of using languages that were not already well known by the people he was reaching. We have no knowledge of his having appealed to the temple, to Herod, or to Rome for funding for his ministry. The question of language choice was probably obvious as there were no powerful global languages being spread by technology such as the printing press, internet, radio, and television in Jesus’ day as there are today. We can surmise that if Jesus were to go to a non-Western people to evangelise them today he would do so using their language. He would prefer an already known language to a language of empire that obliged his listeners to spend years in school before they could begin to understand what he was on about and that could never communicate at depth with their hearts.
People following vulnerable mission principles make ministry dependent for its success on the heartfelt approval of indigenous people. Because it does not come with financial benefits, I have found that vulnerable mission is a way of discerning what people actually want aside from economic help and of doing things that can be imitated by local people.
The Difficulties of Working under Strictures
Having looked at the principles underlying self-imposed strictures in ministry outside of the West, I now want to ask more specifically what it is like to work under them. This account is based on my personal experience of practicing vulnerable mission amongst Africans since 1988.
Envy can undermine self-imposed strictures. One kind of envy is that of the people whom the vulnerable missionary serves. For example, is it just for two people to do the same job but receive different pay? A Western missionary generally needs a lot of money just to get them and keep them on the field. To some, this can only be justified if the same missionary is bringing money for others on the field. If it is unacceptable for a missionary to perform a role other than being a conduit for donors, then apparently justifiable envy of local people could come against a vulnerable missionary. The only way out of this dilemma would seem to be to cut their link with their Western home country (or countries) and become as poor as local people in ministry.
Another kind of envy is that of the vulnerable missionary’s colleagues. They can become envious of a vulnerable missionary’s ability to understand and engage at depth with the local community, an ability that they may well lack. The self-worth of many missionaries and development workers arises from the good they perceive themselves as doing. Any suggestion from the position of greater understanding of a vulnerable missionary that what they are doing is less than adequate can be threatening to their raison d’être. Foundationally envy is a sin (Deut 5:21). A vulnerable missionary’s activity may be a test as to whether colleagues are avoiding that sin. As with a missionary working under strictures today, this was also the case at the time of Christ, who tended to reach the poorer elements of society (e.g., see Luke 1:51–53 and Luke 4:18) but was rejected by religious leaders (John 11:53). Jesus was a victim of the envy of others (Mark 15:10).
This issue of envy probably deserves more attention than it has had in recent years. Some people attempt to legitimize envy. (Chilton considers Sider’s efforts at advocating for the redistribution of wealth to be the actions of a guilt manipulator.) Missionaries’ responses to poor people’s expressed envy has helped to make intervention in the poor world into a very materially oriented activity. That is, attempts by missionaries to equalize resource availability with those who are poor in a place like Africa, so as to reduce the legitimacy of the envy of the African people, can be so absorbing of their time and energy as to define their whole identity. Envy motivates a lot of the “asking for things” that Maranz identifies as commonplace when Africans meet Europeans. One widespread response to this has in recent years been for missionaries (and the West as a whole) to give massive amounts of aid to those asking, even when the process of giving aid can be very destructive.
Many African people can greatly appreciate a missionary’s practising a type of vulnerable mission that enables them to learn local languages and cultures. On the other hand, they may not appreciate a missionary’s resultant inability to extend them material aid.
A missionary not wanting to root their ministry in linguistic superiority or financial provision must be careful how they relate to a missionary colleague who has not self-imposed such strictures. Their influence on the use of resources by such a colleague will effectively mean the vulnerable missionary is providing resources (i.e., redirecting the flow of resources) despite their commitment not to do so. For example, should missionary A who is self-imposing strictures so as to work in a vulnerable way affect the ways in which missionary B uses resources, then missionary A is in effect a source of those resources. This requires the vulnerable missionary to maintain a certain distance from missionary colleagues, especially if they are searching for guidance regarding the local context, and especially if they are not careful to whom they will give credit for having influenced their decisions.
Working under self-imposed strictures can definitely slow the rate of progress in ministry. This is clearly one reason for its unpopularity amongst Western people. Western missionaries like to report success stories, and they like to be able to do so after relatively short periods of time. The growing popularity of short-term mission points to a requirement for “success” to be achieved ever more quickly. The desire for success stories to report is linked both to the need to raise funds and the need to “prove faith.” Donors like to contribute to projects that are resounding successes with large apparent impacts over a limited timeframe. Increasingly, it appears that parts of the Christian population in the West are seeking affirmation for their faith in the feedback they receive from poorer parts of the world outside of the West, typically Africa. African people are often not reluctant to provide such support for faith, if only because they usually stand to benefit materially and even in terms of prestige as a result of having pleased a Westerner.
The limitations that Christ found himself under as a result of the self-imposed strictures that he worked with should be clear. His ministry would, on many counts, not be considered “successful” in today’s terms, nor would he be considered a successful person. He had few followers when his life was prematurely cut off. Those who did follow him seemed to be plagued by doubt and uncertainties. They seemed rather ready to abandon him (Matt 26:56). They were often incapable of grasping the greater depths of his teaching (Luke 24:36–45).
I have discussed some of the negative impacts of working under strictures in mission. I consider it essential that some Western missionaries in years ahead engage in ministry under self-imposed strictures. The practice must be given a high priority for the sake of the future health of global church and society.
Working with Conventional Missionaries
Genuine conventional missionaries need not feel threatened by having vulnerable missionaries work alongside them. The two need to work in a complementary way. Missionaries who self-impose strictures can become dependent on more conventional missionaries for infrastructure, resources, and fellowship. Conventional mission could become dependent on missionaries that work under strictures for the acquisition of necessary contextual insights.
The Christian missionary seeks for righteousness firstly from God and not from colleagues. If our righteousness comes from God, then we have no need to be proud of what we are doing. We have even less cause to try to show up other ways of working. The aim of missionaries who work under self-imposed strictures is not to expose, offend, or embarrass a missionary who does not do so. The insights offered by a missionary who works under self-imposed strictures should be as the weaker partner trying to convince the stronger partner to rely more on the providence of God.
Missionaries and development workers are not immune from the general pressure to “succeed”; yet the very contrary contexts that they work in often make it peculiarly difficult for them to succeed. They face cultural barriers that are often little understood by their supporters back home. The liability to “failure” in mission evokes various responses. Some take a critical view of fellow workers, perhaps despising those who succeed where they have failed. A scapegoat may be sought. Missionaries should be aware of and avoid this kind of behaviour. Humility and joy in the light of failure should be a part of true Christian mission. The self-imposition of strictures does not make someone into a “better” missionary. All should be ready to forgive, and to avoid taking offence.
We live in an age in which it has become important for the results of someone’s work to be measurable. Missionaries may not escape from the pressure to demonstrate quantifiable outcomes to carefully defined aims and objectives. Vulnerable missionaries may not be able to demonstrate quantifiable outcomes to their ministries. If we draw a parallel with the world of research, the missionary who works under self-imposed strictures is engaging in qualitative rather than quantitative research. Such missionaries’ aims can be vague, such as “encouraging the church.” Their not drawing on outside resources to boost their ministries often means that they have much less to show for their efforts than do colleagues who fund projects with foreign money. Conventional missionaries justify relatively affluent living conditions through their need to host, entertain, and travel with the foreign visitors who are an essential part of their task. Not having such a justification (and for other reasons) missionaries who work under self-imposed strictures can end up in relatively poor living circumstances.
Local people in Africa can be very protective of their links to donors. Their desire to protect “essential” donor-based ways of working may result in attacks (not necessarily physical) on missionaries who work under strictures. The sensitivity of on-field relationships means that missionaries working under strictures may be advised not to feed what they are learning back to missionary colleagues on the field. They should be given avenues of feedback higher-up the missionary hierarchy, such as to missionary strategists who are based in the West. Western mission leaders need to devise careful and sensitive means of taking advantage of insights that are provided by missionaries working under strictures.
Recent trends in mission from the West to Africa tend towards missionaries acting as donors. This typically requires a Western missionary to engage in a lot of fundraising. Time spent administering and distributing resources has made close identification with “the poor” difficult. This has restricted missionaries’ ability to understand the local context and hence to share a contextualized gospel.
Jesus, believed by Christians to be God in human form, did not take advantage of all the power available to him in the course of his ministry. Rather, it seems that self-imposed strictures on the ways in which he engaged with people defined his ministry. To follow Jesus’ example some contemporary Western missionaries ought to consistently self-impose strictures on the ways in which they minister. Only thus will they be able to effectively represent the gospel of Christ. Not to self-impose strictures can be to represent the benefits of Western ways of life rather than the Jesus of the Gospels.
The association between what is Western and what is “good” in parts of Africa can make mission under self-imposed strictures difficult today. These days faith in the benefits of Westernisation is so hegemonic that to be Westernized almost defines what it is for a people to “develop.” The self-imposition of strictures is the necessary means for missionaries to avoid the pitfalls of humanistic agendas and instead to remain faithful communicators of Jesus’ message.
Jim Harries (PhD) served for three years amongst the Kaonde people in Zambia. Since 1993 he has lived in a Luo village in western Kenya. Jim ministers in a Bible-teaching ministry to churches in Kenya and beyond (especially Tanzania) using the Swahili and Luo languages. In Kenya he works particularly with indigenously founded and run churches. Harries is the chairman of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and serves as adjunct faculty at William Carey International University and Global University, both in the USA. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Blommaert, Jan, and Jef Verschueren. Debating Diversity: Analysing the Discourse of Tolerance. London: Routledge, 1998.
Chilton, David. Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators: A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1981.
Dear, John. “The Experiments of Gandhi: Nonviolence in the Nuclear Age.” http://fatherjohndear.org/pdfs/The_Experiments_of_Gandhi.pdf.
Future Church. “Priestly Shortage at a Glance.” Future of Priestly Ministry. https://www.futurechurch.org/future-of-priestly-ministry/optional-celibacy/priest-shortage-at-glance.
Harries, Jim. “The Immorality of Aid to the ‘Third World’ (Africa).” In Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability, 23–40. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2011.
________. Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.
________. “Witchcraft, Envy, Development, and Christian Mission in Africa.” Missiology: An International Review 40, no. 2 (April 2012): 129–39.
Healey, Joseph G. A Fifth Gospel: The Experience of Black Christian Values. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1981.
Johnson, Jean. “The ‘Thinning’ Revisited: Dependency and Church Planting in Cambodia.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 27, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 69–72, http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/27_2_PDFs/27_2%20Johnson.pdf.
Johnson, Kelly S. The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
Maranz, David. African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa. Publications in Ethnography 37. Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2001.
Martin, Jonathan. Giving Wisely? Killing with Kindness or Empowering Lasting Transformation? Redmond, OR: Last Chapter Publishing, 2008.
Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, edited by Neil M. Alexander, 507–733. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Reese, Robert. Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2010.
Schwartz, Glenn J. When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2007.
Sider, Ronald J. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977).
Speckman, M. T. A Biblical Vision for Africa’s Development? Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Cluster Publications, 2007.
Young, Robert C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.