plotting mission

August 12, 2011

In many ways what I’m going to write will create a few artificial categories or “shifts”, and I will have to simplify things in order to speak. Simultaneously, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in conversation with church leaders to find out that our thinking about mission has already been simplified. What I’d like to do is take a few arguments for a “shifting missiology”, drawing on a number of very specific conversations that I can think of from the past few months, to produce something of a map of where we are. With “we” I’m thinking about white middle-class churches and theologians, because that is what I know, and that is where I come from. In plotting I’ll be drawing primarily on David Bosch, since his overview is what I know best, and since everyone, basically no matter which shift you are arguing for, like to quote him at some point.

1. From saving souls to saving bodies

Remember the time when if you’d ask a Sunday School class what the church is supposed to do, and they’d answer you that the church should “tell people about God”… well, those times are this times for the white suburban church. Somewhere in our DNA we still struggle with the idea that the primary (and at times exclusive) task of the church is to save the souls of heathens. When we do a soup kitchen, our primary objective is to “soften them up for the gospel”. In Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he point to writings from the very early colonialist period, where one of the pro-slavery arguments was that slavery gave black people a chance to become Christians, and thus their souls will be saved for eternity. The idea that “at least their souls will go to heaven”, either in it’s hard form, where that is all that matters, or in it’s softer form, where that is the primary concern, and any attention to the real life issues of people is reduced to second place at best continue to be very much prevalent in white churches today.

This is the shift many church leaders find themselves in: how do we move people from a focus on saving souls to saving bodies. It is the shift from handing out a bread in order to get an open door to “share the gospel” (already reducing the gospel to a spiritual message), to handing out a bread because that is what we believe the gospel to be. In the writings of Bosch you can look at his reactions to the 1974 Lausanne covenant to see his reactions to the idea that what was called evangelism is somehow the “primary” objective of mission. For Bosch there could be no exclusive or even primary focus on “saving souls”. This shift is important. But it’s not the only important shift happening.

2. From charity to development

“Don’t give a person a fish, teach them to fish” we like to say in our middle-class white congregations. If we keep on handing out food, we’ll be handing out food till kingdom come, we should rather develop skills in order for people to be able to find their own food. It is a shift which start to recognize that there are people in society who simply isn’t “sharing in the goods” as we are, and building on the belief that we should be saving bodies, and then continuing to say that we should not only save bodies, but save societies, we will argue for starting elaborate development projects. Education. Job creation. These are the answers for our society, this is what mission is about, and this is what the church should be about.

In a sense this is always a rediscovery. This colonial Western churches always has a strong emphasis on “developing” the “underdeveloped” nations. At some point this task of development was handed over to the state, with mission hospitals and mission schools being funded, or totally taken over, by the modern nation-states developing in Africa. But, at the moment we do see a re-emergence of a shift “from charity to development”. To find the arguments for development in Bosch you will have to turn to the chapter on “Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment”. Reference to the move from charity to what in Transforming Mission is called the “comprehensive approach” can be found in chapter 10.

3. From development to liberation

In all the talk about Bosch in my own church, what still remain a theme seldom discussed is Bosch’s critique on the development model. For some (although this is not common at all) in the white middle-class suburban church, Bosch’s thoughts under the heading “The Challenge to Progress Thinking” (p 356-358 of Transforming Mission) formulate the shift they suggest. Bosch doesn’t waste words, and if these 2 pages are taken seriously, for those in the white suburban church who doesn’t already find themselves in the midst of this shift, it might feel like participation in mission is impossible. Because this shift seek to destabilize the power relations, become suspicious of “solutions” provided by the rich which continue to keep the rich the rich.

When those of us in the white church start talking about this shift, then it imply a serious self-critique. It is a move away from the idea that we can somehow bring salvation (by saving souls, handing out bread, or teaching skills), and are in need of salvation because of our own indebtedness to the systems of power which has formed us into being white. For those who are rich and white, and moving from development to liberation, the move might best be illustrated by Bosch’s own move from thinking about the “church for others” (Witness to the World), to the “church with others” (Transforming Mission).

Two reasons caused me to point to these movements. The first is as a reminder that simply because we find a shift in the mission theology of a congregation or church leader, doesn’t imply that we have “arrived”. Sometimes the discovery of a gospel which is not merely spiritual, or of a gospel which not only talk about charity towards the poor, but about a comprehensive approach of upliftment, give rise to the idea that we have finally found “the answer” to what the gospel is about. These shifts are important, but the conversion of white Christianity will require a long and tedious process, and we’d do well to remember that our shifts are, for the moment at least, en-route. It is part of a long process of exorcising a gospel which for centuries taught us that we are the main beneficiaries of the gospel, and the answer God gave to the world.

The second reason for pointing to this is as a reminder to myself that I won’t be making this shift on my own. Shifting my own mission theology, which remain in a process of shifting, will require an extensive process of listening, primarily listening to those voices from what was created as the “Third World”. While every movement illustrated is important, and we should be applauding congregations which make whichever is the next shift that they need to take, in the long run we as the white church will have to face the fact that we won’t be saving ourselves. Others will help us in converting from the privilege and power which we were born into. The last shift is not the final shift, but it is a necessary shift if we are to find any hope of moving beyond a liberation approach (which had it’s own problems).

I guess the missional reawakening being experienced at the moment can be described as something of the following:

Mission isn’t simply going to faraway countries with nice beaches or forests and preaching the salvation of souls to naked natives (and teaching them not to be naked in the process), mission is asking “what is God up to”, and joining this in my life day to day, and for those Christologically inclined something about the Kingdom of God need to be added.

I guess this is not a bad definition, and Ive preached it myself. Telling people that “life” is mission. It’s about the way I approach my job (no, not about smiling to the secretary, but hopefully about considering whether the work I’m doing is oppressing others, or freeing them), my relationships, you name it. And there is something beautiful about this, if the evangelical in my comes out I’ll say something biblical about this. Live your whole life in the face of God, and participate in the work of the triune God every day. Really beautiful.

Almost too beautiful. But I’ll go with this kind of talk for the moment, obviously assuming that you’ve used you’re “God-given rational mind” and all the tools of analyzing the context and trying to find out what would be “good”, since I confess that God is the source of all that is good.

In this same vein, you find this notion that “God has placed our congregation in this place, and we are called to serve God here”. Again, really beautiful talk. I love it. With one problem: God didn’t put you there.

OK, listen me out before you report the blasphemy.

Did God create the townships? The suburbs? The racially segregated areas in South Africa?

Did God put all the rich people into one security village, and did God appoint those in power who make sure that the beggars don’t bother the taxpayers?

No matter how you interpret “that which we call God”, Christian theology would say “no” to the above questions. This world is broken.

Although I applaud this broader understanding of mission, there is a warning that needs to be heard: God didn’t place you in the suburbs*, in most cases Apartheid did. Mission then becomes the questioning of the systems which give us this nice privileged suburban life, while making sure few enough people have access to it, so that we don’t spread the little capital available too thin. Sometimes mission will imply that we ask whether we should even be in this context.

We might even want to remind ourselves of the old-school missionaries. Those who didn’t accept the context in which God had them to be born, but who felt the call to a different context. Please, let us not imitate them too closely, that the mission of the church has committed it’s own evils is a well-known fact by now. But they might be a nice corrective to those who found that God called them to the suburbs, and understanding mission as keeping this status quo in place.

A third way might be in order: Neither the going to faraway countries with nice heathens and learning them western manners, nor the simple acceptance of the suburb where “God has placed me”. Our task might be to critically ask whether this context should exist, and challenge the structure which create oppressive contexts, not simply fix small issues we encounter within some particular context.

* I’m not on a suburb-bashing mission (no pun intended), but I do believe that serious questions need to be asked about the development of suburbs. Furthermore, I use this example because this is my own context (I live in the suburbs, attend church in the suburbs, preach in the suburbs).

This reflection flows from the debate on Antjie Krog’s Begging to be Black, organized by the Centre for Public Theology at the University of Pretoria, in which Jurie le Roux, Klippies Kritzenger and Rodney Chaka participated. Tom Smith wrote a brilliant critical overview of the debate, which I’m not even going to try and repeat. However, I’ve been journeying with my own being Afrikaner since July last year, and would like to continue this journey with reference to the current conversation.

The responses at the above mentioned debate again made me realize how much more thorough I still need to think about my own being, my own Afrikanernes. The detailed and critical analyses of Krog’s book, pointing out some of her own indebtedness to being an Afrikaner, as well as some naiveties in her approach forced me to think about by own almost naively positive reaction to Krog’s work.

One thing I think we have almost consensus about. Krog’s use of Black wasn’t the best choice of words. We might differ on our reason for saying this, but maybe Begging to be African would have been a better choice. For me, however, this quest has found words over the past year in becoming an Afrikaner. I, the naive reader of Krog and Jansen, want’s nothing more than to reclaim being Afrikaner. I want to claim being Afrikaner, being born from Afrika, wanting to be from Afrika, while being white and Afrikaans speaking, but I want to be that other white African, not the Afrikaner from the Voortrekker monument pictures, not the Afrikaner from the April 2010 letters to daily papers in South Africa,but the new kind of Afrikaner, the one who has no identity other from being part of a democratic South Africa.

And yes, Krog help me with this. I have called Jurie le Roux “one of the unsung heroes of my life” in the past, and I’ll stick to this, althouh I have realized years ago that we differ when it comes to how we understand our own being part of Africa. As a brilliant philosopher and exegete, he was able to point our some of the problems in Krog’s approach. Using French philosophers one could say he, and others, is able to “break” Krog’s work. But just because it’s broken, doesn’t mean it’s broken. Somehow Krog seem to fail the deconstructionists, whom I love – the little I understand about them, and then in my eyes get up and become helpful in spite of messy formulations, lack of philosophical depth, and lack of theological understanding.

And I think it’s something on a more emotional level that really get’s me into Krog’s work. The way in which she attempts to deny her own European heritage at some stages, but then have to admit her comfort in Germany, they way in which she are uncomfortable with her white Afrikaner tradition, but at times are forced by others to admit her own being advantaged by exactly this which she fights against, and the way in which she simply goes out there, and attempt to live relationally with a broader South Africa.

Through messy formulations and all, I find in Krog’s work something which missiologists called interculturation, an exchange of concepts, ideas. Krog might make it sound as if her attempt is simply to become more African, but in her person she really learn from different cultures, and in her story also give of what she is back to those black’s whom she so easily identify with Africa. Maybe I’ll not beg to be black, not even beg to be African, as if there are some ideal form of African out there which I should strive to become. But please let me be that different Afrikaner.

I want to be the interculturated Afrikaner, the Afrikaner that are actually able to listen to my fellow Africans, to allow them to deconstruct who I am, to deconstruct my own whiteness, to help me become more Afrikaner. No, I cannot deny that I also feel this connection with European and white thoughts, that is part of me. But I want to see that part of me through the eyes of my fellow South Africans. I don’t simply want to continue existence as an Afrikaner, but I want to understand my own being white and being Afrikaner, and understand it in relation to other around me, and through this become more of a white African.

Krog would call this something different. She’ll call this becoming black, maybe. She will sound different when she speak about this than I do. But I see in her work how she finds a reinterpretation of her own identity in relationships with black, colored, indian South Africans, South Africans of different languages and backgrounds. She struggles, she’s critical, and yes, in the end we’ll agree that she remain a white Afrikaner, but she’s more and more of a white Afrikaner that finds identity in relationship to others, and in spite of brilliant critique against her work, in spite of the fact that her work could be broken, it’s not broken for me, because on an emotional level, and in spite of critique also on an intellectual level, she helps me along this journey of becoming that white African, that Afrikaner that’s not the Afrikaner that we know.

Steve Hayes asked four questions from those who attended the South African Missiological Conference. I’ll just answer them today:

1. What do you think was the best paper/presentation?

I think that of Tom Smith. Not necessarily because of some amazing academic insight (although I don’t doubt for a moment that Tom can make a contribution to the South African missiological scene), or because he’s a good friend, but because Tom gave us a story. Not a wow story of someone fixing the world in a few days, but a small story that says a congregation can actually take on challenges which is even more daring than what many at the conference would have thought necessary. I say this was the best, because I saw how voices from different sides of the conversation all thanked Tom for what he said, and how his story was used again and again afterwards. The only paper I think I might vote for rather than this one might have been that of Willem Saayman, but that is only from what I gather from Reggie’s tweets, since I couldn’t attend it.

2. Please give an abstract of the most important points.

Abstract of the most important points in Tom’s story? Well, he’ll do a better job, but let me try.

    • Attempting to work on reconciliation in practice is difficult.
    • Reconciliation between black and white people in South Africa require deep friendships

I hope Tom will write on his paper. But you can also follow much of what he said by reading the stories he writes on his blog.

3. What was the most important/significant thing you learned at the congress (not necessarily from the paperts — chatting to people over coffeee late at night often yields better insights)

The names of a number of local theologians which I must read.

4. Were you inspired to do anything as a result of the congress? If so, what?

Go and read these voices. Break out of my enclosed white theological space even further.

alice-in-front-of-rabbit-hole9Theology never should be a simple set of answers to lifes complex questions. It’s a system that creates a whole understanding of reality, God, life, and if it’s Christian theology, the place that the story of Israel and the life of Jesus of Nazareth takes in understanding this reality. This said, reality is that you cannot simply change one of the answers on your list, and expect everything to remain the same. Rather, when you start pulling on one of the threads on your web of ideas, and observe closely, you’ll soon notice that the whole web is changing, the whole system is changing.

It’s like falling down Alice’s rabbit-hole, the further you fall down, the more you realize that the world in which you lived will never again be the same. Everything has changed. And you cannot go back. This is obviously not only true of theology. This trip down the rabbit hole we call a paradigm change.

  • If you fall down the rabbit-hole and realize that the three-storied-universe need be dropped, much need to be changed. Where is hell if not down under? When is heaven if not up there? Where is the spirit world if not inbetween?
  • If you fall down the rabbit-hole and Plato’s dualism starts crumbling, it raises a number of questions (most of which I don’t even understand yet) on body and spirit, spirit-world and flesh-world, God-world and human-world. Can these actaully be taken apart like we do?
  • If you fall down the rabbit-hole and western rationalism with it’s veto-right in every conversation starts to become a little blurry, then much of you’re critique on mystical experiences feel a little shaky. Then much of you apologetics, from whichever side of the argument, just becomes relativized.

Thomas Kuhn called the rabbit-hole paradigm changes, “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community”. Hans Küng used his theory and applied it to theology. David Bosch has made one of his biggest contributions to the world of theology by applying Kuhn and Küng to missiology. This was the task of Transforming Mission. The church still seem to be struggling with the implications of the rabbit-hole that we are falling down into when it comes to missiology.

  • The imperialistic approach of medieval and colonialist times still pops up every now and again, where mission and the expansion of the empire (or the expansion of American culture) goes hand in hand.
  • The apologetics of conservative high-modernists still remain popular in places.
  • The conversion of souls to become part of heaven and the church from early Roman-Catholic times has not left us yet.

If you want to understand Transforming Mission, if you want to understand David Bosch. One of the key chapters would be Chapter 5. You need to understand how Bosch used Kuhn, Küng and Capra. Not doing this will make Transforming Mission another book of quotes which you use when it fits your own approach to missiology.

This post is part of the posts growing out of our discussion of Transforming Mission. I’ve blogged on previous chapters here:

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

And others who have blogged on our last discussion (chapter 5 and 6 of Transforming mission) can be found here:

Arthur Stewert

on the primacy of mission:

October 20, 2008

Why is mission so central at this stage? Should it be? Is it possible that as missiologists we should “dethrone” mission from its current position of privilege in theological talk? Why the missional church? Why the missio Dei? And why am I even asking these questions?

I didn’t follow much why back with the Christology, Ecclesiology, Missiology argument raging on. But from what I gather many today seem to say something in the line of “Christology forms our Missiology forms our Ecclesiology”, right? But how do we come to this?

It was Andries van Aarde’s Fatherless in Galilee that pointed me in the direction of the idea of a “Christology from the side”. Where a “high Christology” tend to work out our Christology from the faith-language (read “dogma”, “theology” etc.) of the Bible and church and a low Christology tend to construct Christology from the historical reconstructions on the life of Jesus, a Christology from the side focus on how the contemporaries of Jesus would have seen Jesus (I’ve typed this from memory after reading the book almost a year ago, so I hope I got it somewhat right).

The relation Christology-Missiology-Ecclesiology seem to come from a high view of theology, I think. Where some worked out idea on Christology (whether high or low) should give rise to our understanding of mission (which if you read the work of David Bosch, is quite difficult to do without an idea about who is doing this mission, but I’ll leave that part for now), understood very broadly, which should then form our thinking on church. Looking from the side, tracing the narrative of the Jesus-movement and early church, I have some doubts whether we will come to the same conclusion:

From the side we see the this guy Jesus, a sort-off Rabbi who calls those who didn’t make the usual Rabbi cut to follow him. This group was formed by the words and actions of Jesus, the way in which Jesus interacted with the culture within which he found himself. The events surrounding Easter round-about 27AD or so happened, and we then find this already formed community of Jesus-followers remaining in community. If we follow the Acts-narrative, it is within this community that the implications of being a community living in the way of Jesus is then worked out. Acts 6 – If we are community, how do we care for those of other ethnic backgrounds? Acts 13 – How do we create similar communities in other places? And later in Acts the implication of being in this community in a time of famine is also worked out.

From the side I see a not-so-average-Rabbi calling not-so-average-disciples, teaching them his anything-but-average-ways. These not-so-average-disciples continue the community, not because the community should perform some strategic function within the strategic plan which the Rabbi (didn’t?) lay out for the world, but because this community continues to seek for the ways of this Rabbi, which was recognized as Jesus the Lord.

Looking from the side, I doubt whether we see an early Christian community getting together because this is seen as the implication of the message of Jesus. I doubt whether a number of scared disciples get together after the crucifixion because the preaching on the kingdom of God had as implication that communities should be formed. Rather, a shared experience surrounding Jesus bring these people together, and the words and actions of Jesus in relation to his culture force them to consider their own words and actions.

If our task is to write a systematic treatise on theology we might end up with mission being primary, forming a centerpiece of the puzzle. If we tell the story of how it came to be, then, looking from the side, mission could be almost missing, the centre pieces rather being occupied by Jesus and the community who gathered around him and because of him. Rather, what we consider as mission today then seems to ooze out everywhere.

Well, OK, late-night ramblings after some heavy theological discussions earlier… but such is the nature of a blog