Informal report – UK conference, Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and All Nations Christian College, 31st May to 2nd June 2018

Here is a brief account of our recent conference, held at All Nations Christian College, UK:

UK Conference report – ANCC (All Nations Christian College), Ware, Hertfordshire, 31st May to 2nd June 2018. Conference title: Vulnerable Mission: what it is, and why we need it.

Short summary of conference-content by Jim Harries, prepared on 3rd June 2018.
After a get-to-know-you session, the 12 or so delegates to the conference (that number went up whenever college staff and students attended) discussed the nature and purpose of vulnerable mission: doing mission using local languages and resources in a way that leaves the missionary injurable. Every morning began with a time of worship and sharing of the word, led by ANCC student Andy Connolly.
Frank Paul launched our conference with a graphic and heart-felt description of the course of events from the 1950s into the 21st Century mission by a Mennonite team reaching Toba Indians in northern Argentina. Frank gently presented a very persuasive case for missionaries to hand-over formal institutions, then to stay-around with the people they are reaching. The missionary role becomes one of accompanying indigenous Christians, being an encouragement but not always a guide, so as to allow indigenous people to direct the development of their own new churches.
‘Ignoring advice’ was the main title of the second paper by Jim Harries. Jim pointed out that, aside from the Bible, a missionary wanting to be vulnerable to the people they are reaching unfortunately must reject a lot of well-meaning advice! First, this is because advice given from the West tends to be oriented to empowering and strengthening a missionary to render them robust in the face of cross-cultural challenges. On the field, local people may well advise their missionary to be strong (particularly as a means of trying to maximise donor generosity). They will rarely if ever advise a foreigner to be vulnerable. It is the prerogative of the missionary concerned to aim to be consistently vulnerable, a kind of self-inflicted-weakness. Such vulnerability can result in the greatest long-term resilience.
While Frank (above) referred to a South American context, and Jim to Africa, Jens Bernhard told us about mission in India and Thailand. Jens, from Germany, pointed to the presence of unhelpful mission narratives. These unhelpful narratives, ways of engaging Asia that have become conventional, serve to put missionaries’ message at loggerheads with Buddhists’ and others’ family and community relationships. As a result; becoming a Christian requires leaving one’s tradition. Yet, Jens pointed out, early Christians were not told to leave Judaism. Jens advocated that we see Buddha as a kind of Isaiah figure who foretold the coming of Christ, and New Testament revelation as a fulfilment of Buddhist ideals. For Buddhists, Jens told us, Jesus overcame karma, to enable entry into nirvana.
ANCC staff members Richard and Louisa Evans looked at ways in which vulnerable mission principles could be applied to UK contexts of receiving reverse missionaries. The latter are people from previously missionized-nations who are nowadays coming back to the West, specifically Europe, to encourage Western people to become disciples of Jesus. The Evans’ gave many examples, particularly from central London, of ways in which UK churches were receiving, encouraging, and enabling reverse missionaries. Often, they found, non-Western people who had come to Christ structured their lives in the UK by gathering together to serve God, thus building community.
Marcus Grohman spoke to us by video-link from South Africa. One and a half years into a PhD programme looking at reconciliation in South Africa, Marcus articulated immediate personal experience of the understanding he was gleaning of the post-apartheid-related tensions between Blacks, Whites, and others in South Africa. Marcus showed us ways in which, were some South African Whites adopt them, vulnerable mission could potentially provide fruitful avenues of reconciliation. Even should ‘vulnerable mission’ be unattractive to many, a few practitioners could provide role-models that could later inspire and guide others to real and deep practices of reconciliation.
Deborah Bernhard, together with her husband Jens, expanded on Jens’ previous paper with deep and specific insights into missionary life amongst the Shan people of Thailand. This paper described how vulnerable mission could be used to side-step kinds of superior paternalism that characterises much Western contemporary missionary activity. Instead of insisting that Thai people leave their traditions in order to follow Jesus, Deborah pointed to ways in which they could remain ‘Buddhists’ (not a religion, but a tradition) while getting to know Jesus. Then Buddhism could be transformed from the inside. The term ‘missionary’ should be avoided. The foreigner is there to encourage the emergence of insider-movements.
Two seminars run in parallel, were led by Frank Paul and Jim Harries:
– Frank looked at myriad ways in which helping people can be hurting them. Frank demonstrated that ‘helping’ is not a simple thing bound to work just because intentions are good. Instead, how to help needed careful thought as well as reference to Biblical guidelines.
– Jim succeeded in provoking a lively debate on a radical topic. The nowadays largely hegemonic notion that ‘racism is always bad’ was turned on its head in this debate. Colour-blind behaviour can conceal racial supremacism, that is doing much damage to non-Western countries, this group discovered. Efforts at countering racism in the West have (unwittingly?) become a screen that conceals ways in which non-Western cultural realities are being ignored. This severely hampers the freedom of majority world people to think independently. As a result African and other people are forced to blindly follow the lead of the West, even when such renders their own communities incompetent.
Delegates ended the conference with a time of discussion on the way-forward, and prayer.