B. Hunter Farrell and S. Balajiedlang Khyllep. Freeing Congregational Mission: A Practical Vision for Companionship, Cultural Humility, and Co-Development. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022. Paperback. 288 pp. $19.59.
As a student of intercultural studies and a practitioner in an intercultural setting, I greatly appreciated Farrell and Khyllep’s two-pronged approach in Freeing Congregational Mission. The use of research and data to present critiques and build arguments for better approaches to mission was balanced with many practical elements. Many books I read leave me wishing there were more practical suggestions. This one did not.
B. Hunter Farrell and S. Balajiedlang Khyllep explore the crises, praxis, and potential of missions in US congregations. Farrell and Khyllep are, respectively, the director and associate director of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. They describe this work as a “call to a reformation in congregational mission” (17). The authors set out to dissect the current crises that are holding back congregations from becoming more effective and responsible mission partners. Costly and self-focused short-term trips, potentially harmful strategies, social media’s impact on mission, and the need to confront missions’ colonial past make up the crises (3–12). Using research, anecdotes, and experience, they identify the crises and offer a “three-stone”approach to building a practical vision for congregational mission. The practical tools offered between several chapters are a major strength of this book, designed so that congregations can implement them in their mission processes. Readers may find they have already wrestled with some of the critiques and processes presented here. Yet, Farrell pulls from a large survey of congregational leaders in order to present intriguing new data.
Chapter one identifies subtle cultural shifts that have taken place over the last few decades, affecting the nature of mission in sending congregations and pulling them off course. Four critiques follow: (1) Farrell and Khyllep use data from other sources to explain the growing Short-Term Mission (STM) industry. STMs are expensive, not resourceful, and highly transactional. Often, STMs are transformative for sending congregations but not for the people on the receiving end. (2) The authors’ research with mission leaders questions several strategies that US congregations use to engage in mission. Orphanages, child-sponsorship programs, and meal-packaging projects need to be examined carefully for the effects they have on the receivers and also for costs, abuse, and sustainability. (3) The authors critique the age of “selfie mission.” Social media is a powerful tool, but can have negative impacts on host communities if not handled responsibly. The question must be asked, “Who is this mission for?” (4) The authors reckon with missions’ colonial past, and its consequences. Doing so can be difficult but is necessary for congregations to understand how to be more effective mission partners going forward.
In addition to these critiques, the authors also cover the benefits related to each area of concern, including missions’ colonial history. Farrell does not necessarily offer any new critiques of mission categorically but does well to relate known critiques to a congregational level while including some data from previous research he has done.
Building on the critiques previously summarized, the authors propose a three-stone approach on which “a more faithful and effective understanding of mission can be built” (15). First, the authors argue that theology of companionship joins four commitments: to walk together in intentional, mutual accompaniment; to share from a place of vulnerability; to keep the triune God at the center of the relationship; and to elicit the presence and leadership of those who have been marginalized” (68). The authors excel with their explanation of this stone and relating each element to the ministry of Jesus.
Second, the authors examine the role of understanding culture within missional engagement. They discuss five dimensions of culture: individualistic versus collective, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, long-term versus short-term orientation, and indirect versus direct communication. An intercultural scholar might identify additional dimensions of culture, but the authors do well in promoting key dimensions that the average leader can understand.
Farrell and Khyllep also focus on developing cultural competence and discuss the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) as a tool that can help individuals move from monocultural mindsets to intercultural mindsets. I am also a proponent of the IDI as a tool for understanding difference but would encourage congregational leaders to research similar tools and discuss with intercultural experts which tool is right for them.
Third, the authors posit that development studies need to be a part of the toolkits of US congregations. The overarching theme here is that people cannot develop people, people must be able to develop themselves. I believe this chapter is important because it makes a firm argument that using tools outside of the traditional Christian repertoire can aid faithfulness in our mission approaches.
Seven tools are included between chapters to offer congregations practical ways to be more responsible and effective in their mission. Tool 3, an evaluation tool designed to help leaders evaluate their role in development projects they are involved in, is particularly helpful. There is a very helpful tool that offers guidance on how to use pictures responsibly in the age of “selfie missions.” The short-term mission curriculum and reflection guide are also very useful.
One notable strength of the book is its practical approach, providing readers with actionable tools and guidance for improving congregational missions. This emphasis on practicality makes it valuable for both academics and practitioners seeking to enhance their mission strategies. The authors’ backgrounds in anthropology and theology also bring a unique perspective to the book, as they explore the cultural dimensions of missions and advocate for cultural humility. Chapter four dives into practical tools and resources such as the Intercultural Development Inventory® and Hofstede’s dimensions of culture. Although the authors spend several pages describing each of these resources, readers may wrestle with the academic nature of these and wonder how they can specifically implement and utilize them in their missions practices.
Overall, Farrell and Khyllep do an excellent job of highlighting several well-known criticisms of mission and how congregations can not just read about the criticisms but take action and implement tools into their processes that lead to companionship, cultural humility, and co-development following the example of Jesus’s ministry.
Columbia International University
1 The authors borrow this reference from the Luba and Lulua people in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Luba and Lulua people understand that “three stones make home”; that is the three stones create the diku, the hearth or cooking fire that is the center and foundation of family life (14).