by David A. Baer
The kind of Christian vision that insists upon measurable results and invests only in “grassroots” training may enjoy admirable motivation. However, it also may depend on simplistic assumptions about “the other” that, once brought into the open, wither in the light of day.
After serving for sixteen years as a missionary in Latin America, I now find myself thriving back in my native land. “I bet the readjustment has been hard,” friends say. “No, not really,” I respond. “In fact, the change has been remarkably smooth.”
Only one repeated jolt unsettles my balance in this new/old culture: missiological pragmatism. By this I do not mean the urge to get things done or to engage sacrificially in partnership with God’s people around the world. This is all good stuff and—frankly speaking—I rejoice that my culture of origin encourages its sons and daughters to see the future as malleable rather than encased in a solid block of fatalistic destiny.
Indeed, this is one of our cultural gifts to the wider cause.
When I write of missiological pragmatism, I imagine the monocultural brother or sister in Christ who looks across the lunch table at me and says with considerable passion, “They [the people we are trying to reach cross-culturally] don’t need all this education and all these complicated institutions. That takes too long and we don’t have that long to be at it. What they really need are grassroots evangelists and church planters!”
The intentions expressed in conversations like this one are always positive; however, I suspect that a misguided tribalism—I fear to call it anything worse—lurks behind such sentiments. The pretension to intuit “what they really need” can perhaps be forgiven on the grounds of lack of information or opportunities to know the human beings whom we so easily round up into the pronoun “they.” What should not be left unchallenged is the monochrome, untextured life that we aspire to insist upon and even to provide for when it comes to brothers and sisters in far away places whose language we do not speak and whose hearts we have not glimpsed.
When I take a step back and observe the elements that make my own life deeply satisfying, I see institutions, the fruits of culture and the stimulation and broadening that comes from access to good books. I see a life that flourishes in the sun and rain that the creator has lavished upon my historical place and time. My life without education, music, literature, friendship, a life of the mind and of the heart, would be unrecognizable if laid beside a life whose warp and woof was limited to “finding Christ” and “getting involved in a church.” As important as those moments were and are in redeeming and anchoring the multi-tasked life to which the Lord has called me, they do not stand on their own. I suspect they would appear somewhat thin and pale if they were deprived of the context in which God’s redemptive acts are worked out from day to day.
So what of “they,” the citizens of cultures and nations to which my cultural peers desire to bring the gospel? Do they long for anything less than the richness God has mercifully woven into my life? Should they settle for pastors less educated than the one whose preaching and care has drawn my family and me to our church? Should they settle only for quick-and-easy evangelism and church planting that teaches them a pragmatic chain of actions that will produce a church that is registerable on our project planning software? Should they be instructed not to engage the richness of their own culture, and others, because the time is short and the real task involves getting others into the lifeboat?
I have come to believe that behind such pragmatic missiology there may lie a humanistic theology and a—dare I say it?—racist assumption that their lives simply have fewer layers than our own, that their emotional, intellectual and aesthetic needs are less robust than ours. I do not want to accuse; rather, I want to bring the question to the conversation table, for I do not hear this possibility being addressed in the circles in which I move.
The kind of Christian vision that insists upon measurable results and that invests only in “grassroots” training may enjoy admirable motivation. It may even be the fruit of strategic analysis. However, it also may depend on simplistic assumptions about “the other” that, once brought into the open, wither in the light of day.
David A. Baer is president of Overseas Council International, an organization committed to connecting people, expertise and resources in order to train leadership for the global Church.
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