I’ve been following, with a little bemusement, Eddie’s recent series of posts reflecting on Onesimus’ post about dependence and toxicity in mission. Bemusement for two reasons: first, because the mission community has had exactly this discussion, up to and including the calls for moratorium, many times before; (“Whither Mission?”, in Bosch chapter 13, lists a number of them.) it may be that we need these old discussions again because the problems have not been solved, but that leads my to my second reason for bemusement: because—and maybe I am particularly blessed here—I simply don’t recognise Onesimus’ concerns in my own experience of mission. Just as I am sure there are some broken and crooked mission paradigms out there, I am equally sure there are mission agencies which do work in genuine, healthy partnership of mutual challenge and support with local believers, where managerial and business ideas are not swallowed wholesale, and where decisions are made locally to their consequences and not at some global head office; I know, because I’m part of one. But there is something in the old debate which has been tugging at my brain; it’s a very practical one, and it’s probably going to get me into trouble.
A question that seems to be coming up a lot in the mission circles I’m part of in Japan is, “how do we meet people?” On the face of it, this is a sensible question, especially for men; Japanese men work very long hours and then spend a little time with their family, so opportunities for points of contact are limited. But in another respect, it just reminds me that missionaries make the worst missionaries. What I mean by that is that to become a missionary, you generally have to have been a Christian for a considerable time, generally extremely involved with churchy stuff, often with teaching or other responsibilities within the local church—in fact, giving almost all of your non-work time to the church, which often means that you forget how to socialize outside of a church context. Making new friends isn’t particularly easy; all of your friends are Christians, because what your whole social sphere is the church. Talking to people outside the church just doesn’t come naturally any more. In fact, surveys have shown that the majority of missionaries are introverts, so maybe it never came naturally in the first place.
So you have to do it in an unnatural way. You take hold of the two things you have in your favour: first, you’re used to getting up in front of people and being in the role of a teacher; and second, you’re a foreigner. Great. You can teach English, you can teach Korean, you can teach cookery, culture, you can teach lots of things, none of which are even faintly related to what you’re here for which is presumably to teach the Bible, but hey, if that’s the only way you can think of to actually get to know new people then, well, whatever floats your boat. I mean this from the bottom of my heart: if it works for you, do it. I won’t be doing it, because I have certain reservations about it, but if it’s the only thing that works for you, do it.
Most of my reservations have so far come from the strategic angle: it doesn’t actually work particularly well. It might feel like you’re doing something useful, which is a very important feeling to find in a country where mission activity can be slow and tiresome, but in reality you end up spending most of your working life preparing lessons which barely mention your religion, for the benefit of people who aren’t particularly interested in your religion, and once you’ve started, you can’t easily stop. Meanwhile Jesus says that you should lift up your eyes because the fields are ripe for harvest, but every week you’re inside teaching an English conversation class to people who couldn’t care less. So that’s kind of why I don’t do that.
But reading the discussion between Eddie and Onesimus has suggested two more angles from which to critique cultural-teaching-as-mission: the postmodern aspect and the postcolonial aspect.
Postmodernism began, at least for Foucault, with an investigation into the nature of power; any message that someone gives is also a statement about who has power over whom. And while we love to talk about leadership in churches and in mission, we really don’t like to talk about power. Jesus’ whole life and death was a demonstration that the power of God is made perfect in weakness. The Devil tempted him to accomplish his mission through asserting power, and he resisted. And yet how often in mission do we succumb to the same temptation. So we teach, because it puts us in a position of control, where we can determine the curriculum and decide when we whip out the Bibles, because that way we can ask the questions and decide the correct answers and the students have no choice in the matter. Oh, we might do it very gently at the time, because power often doesn’t look like power. But if I’m the teacher and you’re the student, you bet that in many ways I’m the one with the power.
Would it kill us, just once in a while, to do mission from a position of weakness? You know, like Jesus did? To walk into a room and not be the one in charge? Would that be OK? Could we give it a try?
And then of course there is the postcolonial aspect. We are recovering from an era, say in Africa, where missionaries came to spread “Christianity and civilization”—English civilization, of course. Is that something that we want to do again? That may sound like I’m overstating the problem a bit, but let’s put it another way: is it really a smart idea to use our cultural identity to spread the Gospel? OK, sure, use every means necessarily and become all things to all people so that you may save some. I get that. But once again, do we really want to muddle the Gospel and our cultural advantage? Especially if we’re linking that cultural advantage to attaining a position of power? It may just be me, but many things seem wrong with this.
To start with, it confuses our identity. What are we actually doing here? A friend of mine is a pastor in a rural church in Japan. He told me once of a conversation with a neighbour. “What do you do in that church?” his neighbour asked. “I mean, obviously I know you do English lessons, but what else?” What did this man, who had lived next to the church for many years but had never been inside, know about what Christians do? Not that they worshiped or read the Bible, not that they loved God or loved one another, but that they taught English! Is that what we want our missionary legacy to be?
Second it implies that we believe that the Gospel is not enough and so we need to bring it in via the side door, and I believe that the Gospel is enough. I think the Gospel has stuff to say directly to Japanese society such that we don’t need to introduce it via irrelevant and unconnected gimmicks. But even worse, I don’t think those gimmicks are neutral, I think they’re actively harmful. They reinforce the stereotype that Christianity is a foreign religion; they relate Christianity to academic learning; they confuse the appeal of the Gospel with the appeal of a (perceived) cultural superiority, which is precisely what was happening in 19th Century Africa; and they make us hitch our wagon to national forces which are beyond our control. The lessons of history teach us that this is a strategy which has never worked well.
I can think of lots of good reasons why it’s not particularly wise to slip into the teacher role as a missionary, and I avoid it as much as I can. For others, it seems like becoming a teacher is the only way that they can find to make friends. I don’t think that reflects well on them; I don’t think it reflects well on the Gospel; but hey, if it works, do it.