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Being a Western Christian in the Global Church, Part 2

Recognize Your Place in the Global Church

From the series Being a Western Christian in the Global Church


Changes taking place in the world and in China in particular are causing many ChinaSource readers to reconsider our China ministries. Publications by Andrew Walls, a British scholar of the African Church who pioneered the study of World Christianity, and Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician known for his statistically grounded global health advocacy, provide much needed perspective for those of us from outside China that are asking questions about our future role in the Chinese Christian community.

In part 1 the current state of world Christianity is presented, while part 2 looks more closely at the place of western Christians within the global church. In part 3 suggestions are offered for how western Christians—in light of all this—should approach their service to the Chinese Christian community.

Recognize Your Place in the Global Church

Once we understand that the world in which we minister has changed significantly, then we are in a position to reassess more accurately what our role ought to be in the global church.

Shortly after our family began working in China we came across an illustration from Tearfund that visually expresses some of the common  assumptions that distort cross-cultural work.

Ill-informed confidence typically leads outside visitors to present their strengths, with little thought or awareness of their own weaknesses. At the same time, cultural differences and unhealthy historic patterns of engagement tend to encourage local people to emphasize their weaknesses, in many cases hiding their strengths to avoid offending or driving the visiting “experts” away.  The assumptions presented in this image have always been unfortunate, and now they are often so far from the reality around the world as to be comical.

For some time now, western Christians have operated on the mission field out of a position of financial strength. Our resource wealth—often symbolized by the passports we carry—has enabled us not just to “help” those less financially blessed, but it has also granted us an authority in other countries that may not be entirely justified. Anyone who has hosted foundation representatives in a cross-cultural context will understand what I am saying. The seat of honor is given to the one with the most money, the opinions of those disbursing funds are solicited first, and projects and plans are adjusted to appeal to the outside donor—even at the expense of local needs and priorities. But, as western giving to missions enters a period of decline, and as churches in other parts of the world see their financial resources grow, there is an opportunity for a change in some of these unhealthy patterns.

Similarly, western missionaries operate in many cross-cultural contexts as religious “experts.” While some western Christians have benefited from lifelong-discipleship and extensive theological education, this does not always translate into “expertise” in cross-cultural situations. How much of our church discipleship or seminary curriculum is designed to equip western Christians—let alone Christians from other parts of the world—to minister outside of a western context? Even in the case of courses specifically designed to equip cross-cultural workers, so much of the theological and historical content assumes that the western church is normative.  As one example, Andrew Walls describes the urgent need to move away from traditional church history curriculums that privilege the western church by presenting its story as if it was the central narrative of the global church:

New church history writing must deal with the interaction between a Christianity formulated in relation to Western needs and conditions and a Christianity formulated by a whole series of other cultures with histories of their own. If church history writing is to recount the whole story of the faith of Christ, it must explore how that story since the sixteenth century has been determined, directly or indirectly, by the worlds that first burst upon Western Christian consciousness at that time.[1]

These kinds of holes in western theological instruction too often produce “experts” whose lack of knowledge about Christianity outside their own context leaves them ill-equipped for cross-cultural ministry.

While historical patterns of church growth mean that the majority of the seminaries and seminary graduates globally remain in the west, patterns here are also shifting dramatically. The rise of independent evangelicals within North America and northern Europe has produced a dramatic decrease in “traditional” (westerners from denominationally affiliated churches) seminary attendance. Increasingly, it is Christian men and women from other parts of the world that are filling the seats (and paying the bills) of theological schools in the west, earning advanced degrees from our finest seminaries and universities. These graduates are increasingly returning home after their studies to expand theological training opportunities outside of the west. All of this is pushing the definition of theological or missional expert away from traditional cultural and national categories, and driving western theological institutions to update their curriculum to better meet the needs of the global church.

If western Christians no longer step onto the mission field as masters of finance or knowledge, then where does that leave us? Far from marking the end of our relevance or a decline in our value to the global Christian community, these shifts present us with an opportunity to be set free from our besetting sin of superiority. As one mission leader from Ghana explains,

If we were to try to identify the one main thing that stands in our way when it comes to the missionary enterprise, “Sebi tafratse (with all due respect),” it would be this: the overwhelming attitude and complex of superiority with which the vast majority of the Western Church is afflicted, and its twin evil, namely, the complex of inferiority that is so deeply rooted in the Church found in the so-called “Majority World.”[2]

There is nothing particularly new about a call for a return to humility in world mission. We know in our heads that all believers stand as equals at the foot of the cross—and yet our actions and words in ministry do not always reflect that truth. Andrew Walls reminds Christians that the gospel advances in serial, from place to place, with no one location or people “owning” the church or God’s truth.[3] Each world Christian has a dual identity, a dual responsibility. As heavenly pilgrims we (and our faith) never fully belong to the cultures in which we are born and live. At the same time, we imitate our master Jesus by seeking to incarnate or indigenize his gospel in those same cultures.[4] These twin truths—the pilgrim principle and the indigenizing principle—apply to all believers, regardless of nationality or vocation. Western missionaries hold no special privileges, wield no extra authority.

A better-informed, humble view of our own place in the global church can open our eyes to new ways of contributing to the mission of God. Longtime China worker Finn Torjesen describes cross-cultural workers as red blood cells, carrying life-giving oxygen to the different parts of the body as they travel around God’s world. As they live out their cross cultural vocation, they carry news of God’s global work from place to place while demonstrating in their own lives what is to live as aliens and strangers on this earth. This is necessarily a cooperative task, predicated on different groups of Christians in different parts of the world living and serving in the true unity of the spirit. In his fascinating study of western short-term missions, Brian Howell recounts Bishop David Zac Niringiye’s suggestion for how western Christians can best “engage” Ugandan Christians:

It is very simple. Come and be with us, with no agenda other than to be with us. One friend of mine by the name of Mark, a pastor of a large [American] church, amazed me when he came to visit. He came for three weeks and he … asked me, “What should I say? What would be appropriate?”

“Just bring greetings,” I said.[5]

By all means, we are still called by God to use the gifts that he has given us—including financial, educational, and other gifts—in ways that bring him glory. But if Christians from the west wish to serve faithfully in the church around the world, then we must set aside any and all sense of entitlement or superiority, and step into cross-cultural ministry as servants rather than “leaders.” Humility has always been part of what God expects from us as Christians. But the world has changed dramatically over the last few decades: perhaps now we need the global church more than they need us.

Notes

  1. ^ Andrew F. Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 24, no. 3 (July 2000): 106.
  2. ^ Solomon Aryeetey, “Sebi tafratse (with all due respects): A Word to the West from the Rest,” EMQ 49, No. 2: 166–74.
  3. ^ Andrew F. Walls, "The Mission of the Church Today in the Light of Global History," Word & World XX, no. 1 (2000): 17–21.
  4. ^ Andrew F. Walls, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture” in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996), 3–15.
  5. ^ Brian M. Howell, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 211.
Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China. View Full Bio


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