by Doris Gomez
By entering into a kenotic relationship with the stranger, we extend a true welcome. A better model for doing mission.
Whether globalization and cross-cultural Christian engagement is considered good or bad, evidence pointing to the inevitability of such engagements is all around us. Globalization is more than McDonalds in Dubai, wi-fi in New Delhi, iPhones in Kigali, or BMWs in Shanghai. The Internet is driving a plethora of new communication technologies and global distribution of knowledge, ideas, and values pushing people from diverse cultures, faiths, and geographies closer together, making us all aware of just how interconnected we truly are.
Embracing this global trend, over one million North American Christians travel internationally each year on some sort of mission trip.
The possibilities for establishing the Kingdom of God and engaging in his Great Commission are nothing if not inspirational and overwhelming in our current era of global connectedness. The time has come to shift our discussions and questions from “if we should engage cross-culturally” to, “How should we engage cross-culturally?”
How do we best live out our faith and love our neighbor as ourselves if our neighbor now lives ten thousand miles away and doesn’t speak our language? How can we make sure our mission trips and global partnerships have lasting impact?
I am reminded of a recent meeting with representatives of a well-known worldwide ministry. At one point, those in the audience posed the question to the representative from Africa as to “how they [the Africans] perceive short-term visits from overseas mission teams.” His answer was nothing short of enlightening, humbling, and deeply convicting.
The gist was that while people in Africa are excited to welcome mission teams, the effort that goes into such endeavors is often too much for those who lack so much. In addition, the greatest disappointment is that mission teams come in, build a house, a well, or whatever else, but fail to build relationships by getting to know the “stranger”.
Taking a Relational View
“Location, location, location” is a common phrase in real estate; similarly, at the forefront of our thinking and interactions when engaging cross-culturally should be “relationship, relationship, relationship.” However, in order to foster positive relationships in a cross-cultural setting, it is imperative to gain the trust and confidence of the “other” first and foremost. Cultural knowledge and relationship building are critical in cross-cultural work.
Regardless of our vocational context, as Christians we are all called into the missio Dei, God’s mission. The expression “missio Dei” arose in the days and weeks following a July 1952 meeting of the International Missionary Council in Willingen, Germany. In his report following the meeting, prelate and former director of the Basel Mission Karl Hartenstein summarized the main finding of the conference:
The missionary movement, of which we are a part, has its source in the Triune God Himself. Out of the depths of His love for us, the Father has sent forth His own beloved Son to reconcile all things to Himself, that we and all men might, through the Spirit, be made one in Him with the Father in that perfect love which is the very nature of God…We who have been chosen in Christ, … are by these very facts committed to full participation in His redeeming mission. There is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission to the world. (Richebächer 2003, 589)
This relational view of the Trinity is the foundation for understanding the mission of God. As Christians, we cannot not be missionary. Mission is the sign of the life of a church which is sure of its source in the Spirit of God, and is, for this very reason, ready to open itself up to and turn toward the other—the stranger. So what is required of us who teach, lead, serve, and travel to distant shores to meet with this stranger?
Three Models for Missions
In the context of missions, Christians have used a variety of models for relating to people of other cultures and faiths: models of expansion, diakonia, and presence.
Expansion. The model of expansion seeks the geographical and/or numerical extension of Christianity. Although it needs to be underlined that the spread of Christianity to a worldwide religion owes much to the model of expansion, some critical remarks must be made. First, its close association with power, coercion, and abuse throughout much of Christian history has tainted the model. Second, it can be criticized for its concept of communication as it is based on a unilateral communication perception. The messenger has a preconceived message for the other and the other is a person who is to be evangelized. Third, it leaves no room for a real encounter with the other as a person who might already have a religion and grasp of God. Conversations with the other about his or her religion are mainly polemical.
Diakonia. The model of diakonia stands for the fundamental choice of the Church to identify itself with God’s ministry of reconciliation with the world, in word, deed, and attitude. In this model, the “other”, Christian and non-Christian, is first of all conceived as a person, who is included in God’s mission of reconciliation. Therefore, he or she is a fellow human being to be served. Even this model enjoys a rather ambiguous reputation. First, although recipients of this ministry appreciate the aspect of service this approach brings, and enjoy receiving all its benefits (such as education or medical assistance), the ultimate motive—conversion—still lurks in the background. Second, it divides the world into “givers” and “receivers”, into “people who have” and “people who have not.” This brings with it an inequality between those pursuing diakonia as service to society, making true communication and exchange difficult.
Presence. The model of presence interprets being a witness of and for Christ as the silent testimony of living and working with and among people in the name of Christ, as a sign of Christ’s involvement with and presence in the world. In this model, “the other” is respected for who and what they are, as witness to Christ takes place in a non-confrontational way by simply sharing the ups and downs of life. It seems to be an effective model of relating to people of other cultures and faiths, since it is non-confrontational and contextual.
However, by seeking to live out the gospel rather than preaching it, the model of presence can result in no proclamation, thus not clearly communicating the gospel message, and not extending an invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and the grace of his salvation. Therefore, the model of presence, with its “silent” witness, might not serve well those who have no Christian framing as a result of non-Christian or post-Christian contexts.
A Better Model: Kenosis
While all these approaches have their rightful place, there is yet another way that may prove to be even closer to the heart of God. All too often, mission is explained in terms of projects and plans. If we are to take seriously the missio Dei of full participation in God’s redeeming mission, we must look for a different model that embraces an even deeper motivation for mission.
Jesus provides us with a model of this deeper motivation in Philippians 2:5-11: kenosis. The word is derived from the Greek ekenosen, meaning “to empty.” Jesus, in his mission of reconciliation, emptied himself by sharing our humanity and by living among us in order to show the love of God for humankind. His act of self-emptying, while upholding one’s own identity, models for us the starting point for establishing relationship.
In the model of kenosis, the other person is taken seriously, both as a fellow human being and as a religious individual, while at the same time offering the possibility for being authentically different in religion, culture, or personality from the person to whom one relates. It is this voluntary act of self-emptying that enables people to cross boundaries of power, caste, class, culture, and religion.
Without a doubt, kenosis requires an attitude of profound and authentic humility. It involves the risk of rejection, suffering, and having to give up pre-conceived ideas about what it means to be a Christian or to be a Christian community. But taking the risk is necessary in order to be truly with the other. In his book on missionary spirituality, Yves Raguin refers to kenosis this way:
Kenosis, then, places us in a state of receptivity. We develop an instinctive attitude of listening, trying to understand, letting ourselves be permeated with the atmosphere of our surroundings, passing beyond what is merely heard and seen to reach the personality of the people with whom we live, or those we may meet. In this way we learn to know others from within. (1973, 111)
As such, the concept of kenosis can easily be understood as another model for cross-cultural encounter. Being both radically open toward the other and showing respect for the stranger, while at the same time preserving one’s own identity can, in fact, serve as a basis for cross-cultural engagement. Kenosis represents the risk of being rejected and the willingness to take the courageous journey to be challenged and changed by the other in order to be with the other. Is this not what Christ has modeled for us?
The model of kenosis is a relational model. In its willingness to seek the other, to respect the other in his or her culture and religion, it offers a vision of a pilgrimage toward God as community. The model sees radical self-emptying as necessary to establishing meaningful relationships with people of other faiths and cultures. Thus, the model of kenosis combines many of the positive aspects of the models of diakonia (service and the strife for justice and human rights) as well as presence (the silent witness of life). It is, however, only in true and radical openness to the other that the witness of God’s love for all people can be shared.
It is there, in our shared lives, that the love of God for human beings becomes visible and credible.. Or as the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, expressed so beautifully:
Suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking up from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation. (1966, 156)
Entering into cross-cultural relationships with such understanding does not allow us to superimpose our own views; instead, it asks that we be changed by the very encounter with the other person.
By entering into a kenotic relationship with the stranger, we extend a true welcome. The missio Dei that calls for a new humanity and Kingdom of God which is gathered from all nations seems impossible without such welcome. By failing to engage and welcome the other, we risk losing sight of Christ, who came into this world as the ultimate stranger. The Great Commission is God’s life-altering call to reflect his love to the stranger at home and ten thousand miles away.
Merton, Thomas. 1966. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday
Raguin, Yves. 1973. I Am Sending You: Spirituality of the Missioner. Manila: East Asian Pastoral Institute.
Richebächer, Wilhelm. 2003. “Missio Dei: The Basis of Mission Theology or a Wrong Path?” International Review of Mission 92(367): 588-600.
Doris Gomez is assistant professor and director of the MA in Organizational Leadership program at Regent University’s School of Business & Leadership in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Together with her husband, she attends Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Norfolk.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 306-311. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.