by Richard L. Starcher
Collaboration in intercultural ministry can be improved by considering three relational realities. The author uses a case study from Africa as an example.
Photo courtesy SIM
I recall vividly a typically sunny June day in Nairobi when I brought together a group of Sudanese leaders to discuss strategies for equipping church leaders in the refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda. I was armed with my “Western” task orientation: (1) define the need, (2) inventory resources, (3) apply resources to the need, (4) evaluate effectiveness, (5) rinse and repeat.
I was sure I could lead the group into a discussion of strategies for collaboration on the task at hand. What happened at that meeting caused me to reflect deeply on what it means to do collaborative ministry.
As I see an increasing number of local North American churches engaging in collaborative ministry with African (and other Majority World) churches, and as I watch (with considerable excitement) younger national churches zealously join the global missionary force, I can’t help but notice many new participants in intercultural ministry are making some old mistakes. This article shares lessons learned from my own mistakes in doing collaborative ministry in Africa. I pray those beginning to engage in collaborative, cross-cultural ministry will find these lessons helpful.
From 1993 to 2001, I was the Africa director of a North American denominational mission (hereafter called CDE). During that time, we entered into partnerships with several African-initiated churches. One such church was a small Sudanese denomination comprised mostly of refugee churches in northern Kenya and Uganda. CDE had been involved with this Sudanese church on some level since 1993, but we undertook our first, long-term, collaborative project in 1996.
It seemed apparent to both CDE and the church that local congregations in the refugee camps needed leaders. I wanted the June 1997 meeting to be a strategy session for drafting a plan of action for equipping leaders.
To my surprise, the Sudanese leaders did not want to discuss strategy, at least not yet. They wanted to talk about who they were, who I was, and how we were going to relate to one another.
Reflecting on this meeting, I wondered where I had gone wrong. The short answer was that I had neglected relationship. I had failed to consider at least three important relational realities: (1) mission is about relationship, (2) worldviews are really important, and (3) godly relationships require give and take. An awareness of these three realities is vital to navigating the rocky shoals of intercultural collaboration.
Mission Is about Relationship
In working with the Sudanese church, a task-orientation approach to collaboration proved not merely inadequate, but counter-productive. For purely pragmatic reasons, I needed to focus on relationship. But a more compelling reason for focusing on relationship was its centrality to the biblical story, the story of God’s interaction with the human race.
The more I reflected on the Sudanese leaders’ desire to put relationship first, the more I realized their thinking was more in line with my own theological beliefs than mine was. Mission is about relationship.
Relationship Finds Its Source in the Trinity
The very fact that God exists eternally as three distinct persons underscores the importance of relationship. God, the creator of all that is, was three divine Persons before anything else existed. As Millard Erickson writes, “There have always been three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (1985, 338). Relationship, therefore, predates creation. We cannot fully understand God without some understanding of the Trinity:
Affirming the doctrine of the Trinity… forms the heart of the Christian understanding of God. God’s triune nature means that God is social or relational—God is the “social Trinity.” And for this reason, we can say that God is “community”. God is the community of the Father, Son, and Spirit, who enjoy perfect and eternal fellowship. (Grenz 1996, 51)
Community or relationship, then, is central to who God is. It is not surprising, therefore, that relationship is also central within his created order.
God Created Humankind for Relationship
Our relational God desires fellowship with the whole of his created order (Grenz 1996, 51). But he especially desires fellowship with humankind—the pinnacle of his creation.
The creation narratives present humans as relational beings. They were created first to relate to God himself—a relationship of obedience (Gen. 1:28; 2:15-17) and of fellowship (3:8-9). God also designed humans to relate to others of their kind. The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Relationship, therefore, is fundamental to our very nature.
The “Rupture” (or Fall) Distorted Relationship
Unfortunately, God’s good creation, characterized by unspoiled relationships, did not last long. Relationship, along with all creation, was disfigured by the entry of sin into the world. When Adam and Eve crossed the line drawn by God himself, relationship was disrupted (Blocher 1988).
Communion with God was broken (Gen. 3:8). Division now characterized the divinely established relationship between the first couple (Gen. 3:7, 12). The relationship between humans and the created order was disrupted (Gen. 3:17-19).
Finally, Adam found himself alienated from himself. “The sinful ambition to know good and evil separates a human being from himself” (Blocher 1988, 171). Adam was no longer an integral being; he was at war within himself.
Unfortunately, these four aspects of broken relationship (with God, with others, with nature, within oneself) affected not only the first couple. They continue to affect the entire human race. People are estranged from God, hostile toward one another, abusive of their planet, and filled with intra-personal conflict. Indeed, all forms of discord and human injustice can be understood in terms of estrangement or distorted relationships.
The Mission of God in the World Is to Restore Relationship
Since the four-fold rupture of relationship in the Garden of Eden, God has been pursuing a mission. That mission is the story of the Christian Bible. The God of love is seeking to reconcile the world to himself (John 3:16-17).
There is a growing consensus among contemporary missiologists that mission must be viewed first and foremost as belonging to God rather than to the Church. David Bosch clearly explained this understanding of mission.
Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world…. Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; there is mission because God loves people. (1991, 392)
In essence, this mission is relational. It is God’s mission. It encompasses the whole of creation, yet its focus is people. God’s love for people and his desire to reestablish fellowship with them defines His mission.
The Mission of the Church Is to Participate in the Mission of God
While it is important to understand that the mission belongs to God and not to the Church, the Church does have a mission. Its mission is to advance God’s. Hence, its mission must remain subservient to, and be constantly reevaluated in light of, God’s mission.
Mission is not competition with other religions, not a conversion activity, not expanding the faith, not building up the Kingdom of God; neither is it social, economic, or political activity. And yet, there is merit in all these projects. So, the church’s concern is conversion, church growth, the reign of God, economy, society, and politics—but in a different manner. The missio Dei (the mission of God) purifies the Church. It sets it under the cross—the only place where it is ever safe. The cross is the place of humiliation and judgment, but also the place of refreshment and new birth…Looked at from this perspective mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world. (Bosch 1991, 519, italics mine)
Bosch’s definition of mission is simultaneously large and precise. Mission encompasses evangelism, church growth, social involvement, even kingdom themes such as righteousness and justice.
Yet it has one defining focus: participation in God’s mission. Bosch understood the mission of God to be living out the eschatological tension in an incarnational fashion. We live as subjects of a kingdom that is but is not yet. We enter into partnership with Jesus to accomplish his purposes for humankind. We incarnate, in Christ-like fashion, God’s love for the world. We involve ourselves deeply in this world (which is passing away) motivated by values that are not of this world.
A return to God’s mission as our starting point is a safeguard against cultural arrogance. More importantly, it is a reminder that God’s love for people is fundamental to mission. Our missions must reflect the relational character of our God and his mission.
Worldviews Are Really Important
As I look back over what I have just written concerning the importance of relationship in mission, I find it almost startling how linear and “Western” my thoughts are. However, the Western-ness of my thinking is unavoidable. My worldview permeates my being. The best I can hope for is to recognize my own cultural bias and take it into consideration.
Bosch warned against the “human-centered” pitfalls endangering those from cultures heavily influenced by the “Enlightenment.” These are the pitfalls of nearly all Western missionaries, myself included: (1) the indisputable primacy of human reason, (2) a dichotomy between subject and object (which results in treating people of other cultures as simple objects rather than brothers and sisters), (3) the “elimination of purpose” (replaced by a system of cause and effect), (4) a belief in the assured victory of progress, (5) the incontrovertible opposition of “facts” and “values”, (6) the assurance that every problem is solvable, (7) the “doctrine that individuals” are to be “emancipated and autonomous” (1991, 342-343).
Awareness of these tendencies and others like them is essential to success in collaborative mission. While I should not beat myself up for having a worldview (everybody has one), I must strive to get rid of all expressions of cultural superiority. At the same time, I must admit I minister on behalf of a community of faith that has its own unique culture and priorities.
The mission agency (CDE) I served prioritized launching church-planting movements internationally and placed a high value on church leadership development. Our work was guided by missiological principles hammered out over a hundred years of hands-on experience. For example, indigenous churches are to be self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating, and self-theologizing, but ultimately “our” mission was (or should have been) guided not first and foremost by abstract missiological principles, but by practical reflection on the purposes of God applied to a given situation. Let me give a real-life example.
Sometime after the June 1997 meeting, the head of the Sudanese denomination (let’s call him Charles) was due to take a trip from Nairobi (where he was living at the time) to visit local congregations in refugee camps in northern Uganda.
The trip represented a shared church/CDE priority, so CDE agreed to finance his travel. However, at a meeting of denominational and CDE leaders, it was decided that Charles would make the first leg of the journey with a colleague and me so that we might meet together with another denominational leader to plan together the next year’s budget.
A few days before the trip, Charles notified me that he had decided to travel by another route and would not be accompanying us to his colleague’s home, effectively rendering the budget meetings useless. Now, I saw the budget meetings as very important to the collaborative work of our two organizations. Charles evidently viewed things differently.
I could easily have imposed my will by withholding the travel funds unless Charles complied with the original plan. However, this act of power would have represented a denial of genuine relationship. We decided that if Charles could not be persuaded to attend the budget meetings, he would be given the travel funds nonetheless.
Modeled after the Trinity, our relationships must be characterized by authenticity, empowerment, and respect. There is no place for manipulation or denigration. An attitude of cultural superiority is excluded.
Frankly, I never did understand Charles’ reasons for “blowing off” the budget meetings. What I did understand was the need to foster a relationship I had previously neglected and continued to neglect. I had called the budget meetings unilaterally, assuming their importance would be universally understood and appreciated! Charles’ decision not to attend actually represented an opportunity to build trust. By supporting his decision, I not only affirmed his status as a colleague rather than a subordinate but also demonstrated respect for his culturally -conditioned values and priorities.
Godly Relationships Require Give and Take
The choice to focus on relationship (rather than on ministry outcomes, for example) puts missio Dei in its rightful place. God-like, incarnational ministry is by definition relational. The Sudanese cultural fabric also favors this focus. While my cultural heritage pushes me toward fixing problems and achieving results, theirs invites me to interaction, to mutuality. “A fundamental African proverb says: I am because we are; we are because I am. … Another African proverb says: We are our relationships” (Healey and Sybertz 1996, 107).
A refusal on my part to meet the Sudanese on their ground would be to stumble into the pitfall of treating people as “objects of ministry.” However, simply defining the focus as relational is insufficient. The relationship itself must be based on the Trinitarian model, which is defined by mutuality. Allow me to illustrate this point using a conversation about paternalism.
Eventually, the above-mentioned budget meetings did take place and proved to be an intense, yet positive experience for all involved. These meetings were the first of their kind ever to be held with this young, indigenous church.
Previously, CDE had helped fund church activities on an “as-needed, as-requested” basis. CDE would decide which projects to fund, based largely on the availability of funds and on its own priorities. The new plan was to involve the church leaders completely in the budget process. Together we would decide how all contributions to the church would be spent.
While there was hesitation on the part of some church leaders to assume (at least tacit) responsibility for projects that inevitably would not be subsidized (due to a lack of CDE funds), the new approach represented to me a giant step away from paternalism and toward partnership.
Interestingly, while a parent-child relationship struck me as belittling the strengths and accomplishments of the Sudanese church, the church leaders were not particularly uncomfortable with the parental paradigm. One of the lead pastors explained,
I think there is a time very much there that our partnership would be adoption.… We have been born. We need to start walking, to grow, and to reach up to certain levels where we can, you know, fend for ourselves. But right now, it is still too early for us.
At this point, I wondered if my insistence on not allowing our relationship to be described in paternalistic terms was actually an instance of my acting in a self-contradictory, paternalistic manner.
However, as we continued to hash out our respective understandings of the relationship between the national church and CDE, the conversation began to generate a healthy sense of mutuality. The church and CDE needed each other to accomplish God’s mission among the Sudanese.
As we dialogued, it not only became clear that the paternal paradigm did not square well with the true level of maturity of the church (apart from finances), but we also grew in our appreciation for the church’s unique contributions to our mutual mission.
A relationship of mission purified by the cross implies mutual love and respect. We must steer clear of simplistic understandings of complex relationships. To conclude (cynically) that the primary motivation on the part of the church for desiring a relationship with CDE is financial is not only simplistic, it also ignores the cultural importance of community.
As Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz write, “The ‘person in community’ is a very important reality in African society. A person is first and foremost a member of the community and secondly an individual” (1996, 106). An African invitation to relationship should never discount the cultural value of belonging. The way forward in collaboration is mature dialogue based on mutual respect resulting in a relationship that represents co-submission to God’s mission.
The conclusion of the matter is that no conclusion is possible. Relationships are, by nature, dynamic. One never “arrives” in a relationship. Nevertheless, collaboration in intercultural ministry can be improved by considering the three relational realities discussed above.
First, mission is relational. Relationship is the very substance of God’s mission on earth. Second, intercultural ministry demands an appreciation of the other’s worldview. Mission must be characterized by a desire to understand the other, which is the foundation of an empowering relationship. Third, deep understanding must contribute to mutual respect and appreciation that allows both parties in a relationship to leverage its strengths to fulfill God’s mission for his global Church.
Blocher, Henri. 1988 Révélation des Origines (2e édition). Lausanne, Switzerland: Presses Bibliques Universitaires.
Bosch, David J. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Erickson, Millard J. 1985. Christian Theology (unabridged, one-volume edition). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Grenz, Stanley J. 1996. Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
Healey, Joseph and Donald Sybertz. 1996. Towards an African Narrative Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Rich Starcher, PhD, lived and worked for twenty years in three African countries, where he and his wife, Marcia, raised their three children. He is associate professor of Intercultural Education in Biola University’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies and editor of Missiology: An International Review.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 416-423. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.