We Are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide for Sharing Christ, Not a Culture of Dependency. Sisters, OR: Deep River Books, 2012. 335pp. $15.99.
Missionaries strive to leave healthy, indigenous churches that are relevant to their host cultures and lead by local leaders. These dreams fall short, however, as they settle for planting unhealthy churches that are too dependent upon the missionary’s skills, resources, and Western ways of “doing church.” Missionaries unintentionally leave behind unsustainable models of church growth, leadership, and development that the local church cannot hope to emulate. What is needed is guidance and coaching to ruminate on the challenges associated with indigenous church planting.
In her first book, Jean Johnson provides a catalyst for rethinking missionary methods. Johnson previously spent sixteen years as a missionary in Cambodia, and she currently works as a leadership coach and consultant for both missionaries and indigenous church leaders with World Missions Associates. As she reflected on the history of Christianity in Cambodia, as well as her own challenges and failures on the mission field, Johnson came to a realization: although the mission churches she had helped plant were “healthy” and had good attendance, they were not able to multiply and grow effectively. These churches were, in essence, too Western in their worship, preaching, evangelism, and leadership development. They depended upon Western funds to sustain their outreach and church programs. With this realization, Johnson began to adjust her efforts in order to plant effective indigenous churches run by Cambodian leaders. Johnson challenges the reader to a “premeditated” missiology that focuses on “multiplication, indigeneity, and sustainability among the respective people groups” with whom they work (13). Using stories, parables, and case studies from her own time on the field, as well as those of other missionaries, Johnson seeks to share her new missiological understanding with her readers.
Johnson’s mantra throughout the book is, “Day 1 affects Day 100” (64). Missionaries often focus much of their time, effort, and energy on how to enter the culture. Even more important, however, is for the missionaries to focus on how to phase themselves out of the work. Sustainability must be worked into the DNA of the church from the first day, in the way that we reach out to the community and conduct evangelism. Indigenous evangelism focuses on relevant cultural forms: stories and songs, parables and poetry, etc. When the gospel is shared in culturally relevant ways, Christianity is no longer seen as a “foreign religion” and the new converts can easily share what they have learned.
Shockingly, Johnson calls missionaries not to plant churches. When missionaries begin planting churches, they unknowingly import Western forms of church: singing translated Western songs instead of using indigenous melodies; preaching expository sermons instead of telling stories; training through seminary classes rather than coaching and modeling. Instead of planting churches, Johnson calls the reader to plant the gospel:
Allowing the gospel (God’s presence and transformational work) to take root within a community in such a way that the community expresses and spreads its faith in an organic manner. . . . This organic expression may look very different from the cross-cultural communicator’s church experience. (241)
In order to build a sustainable evangelistic movement, missionaries must be intentional in every action they undertake. From the very beginning, missionaries should do evangelism with reproduction in mind. If the local leader cannot reproduce the missionary’s efforts and materials, and in turn teach others to do the same, then these methods must be rethought.
According to Johnson, every aspect of the missionary’s method and lifestyle must be rethought in light of the receptor culture.
Johnson’s book is broken into three parts and an introduction. In the introduction, Johnson calls missionaries not to think of themselves as heroes, which comes with an air of superiority and colonialism. Instead, she challenges missionaries to enter the culture humbly as learners and servants, walking alongside the contacts or Christians as a guide. Part 1 reveals the need for indigenous, self-reliant church movements that create disciples. Johnson uses the history of Christianity in Cambodia to highlight the need for multiplication, sustainability, and self-reliance. Part 2 helps the reader reflect on how to plant healthy, indigenous churches in which local leaders take the lead in all aspects of worship, evangelism, teaching, and expansion. Part 3 is more practical, helping the missionary conceive how these ideas can be put into practice. My only complaint with the material is in its organization. Parts 2 and 3 should have been integrated into one another in order to provide a cohesive flow. Also, at times the ideas of multiplication and sustainability overlap, and these areas could have been addressed together. Overall, however, the book was incredibly insightful and convicting.
Two sections were very thought-provoking. First, Johnson focuses on the differences between oral and literate societies in chapters ten and seventeen. Western communicators learn through bullet points, outlines, diagrams, and abstract concepts. Seventy percent of the world’s population consists of primary or secondary oral learners, however, which necessitates a different approach to communication, teaching, and evangelism. Johnson calls this type of communication orality. “Orality is a method of communicating truth by dressing it up in parables, poetry, riddles, stories, drama, dance, and song” (158). Johnson calls us to focus on the values and worldview characteristics of oral cultures by emphasizing community, working with heads-of-households, and using examples from everyday life in order to best communicate the gospel. She also reflects on ethnomusicology (“heart music”) as the best manner to convey biblical truths. Johnson’s insights into oral cultures are important areas of growth for most missionaries.
Second, Johnson calls the missionary to take the lesser role in ministry and instead work as a “shadow pastor.” Mission works often start with the missionaries as the leaders and then go through a process of nationalizing, in which local leaders are raised up and trained to take over these roles. Instead, Johnson calls us to practice indigenizing, coaching local leaders from the beginning and allowing them to succeed (and sometimes fail) in leadership as they learn to grow and thrive (247–48). The missionary keeps the focus off of himself/herself and instead mentors these new leaders behind the scenes, which allows local leadership to thrive faster than in traditional models.
Johnson’s book challenges the readers to rethink their missiological practices in light of what is best for the culture of their receivers. It would serve as a great textbook for an upper-level missions class or for missionaries who are strategically planning their work on the field.
Community Life Minister
Houston, Texas, USA