Mulling Weakness Missions

I am considering writing a book— or maybe only an article, we will see— on a model of missions that embraces Weak, Small, and Poor as positive, even defining, characteristics. In line with that, I was looking a bit at Mission from a Position of Weakness by Paul Jeong (American University Studies Series 7— Theology and Religion Vol. 269, New York, Peter Lang, 2007). It looks at Missions from a position of weakness rather than power as consistent with the model given us by Jesus, continued by the early Apostles, and modeled by many missionaries and mission movements since then. I hope soon to read Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry by Timothy G. Gombis. The title of this second one sounds interesting even if I am not convinced the vision is in any way original to Paul. But one can not know a book by either its cover or its title.

Back to Jeong’s book for now, Ed Schroeder wrote a review of the book for the journal “Missiology.” In it he gave a critique of the book where he suggested that it lacked an underlying theological foundation (not unusual in Missions writings). Jeong suggested that there are different ways to do missions, but Weakness is best because it is consistent with the example of Christ. While this Biblical argument may be good, it is incomplete. Jesus did not use satellite communication for spreading His message, but that is not enough to throw out all electronic technology in mission work. Schroeder suggests that Weakness Missions is not only the most Biblical form of Missions, it is the most theologically sound. He suggests that Weakness Missions aligns with Theology of the Cross, while Power Missions aligns with Glory Theology. Glory Theology is oriented towards power and success— seeing the Christian life as progressive towards accumulation of authority and blessing. The Theology of the Cross (consider the writings of Martin Luther) sees ourselves as weak and suffering but in a state of Grace due to what Christ has done on the cross. I will have to look into it a bit more. I am not an expert on any of this, but am aware that Glory Theology is a bit of a “straw man” to contrast Theology of the Cross. It is, however, a straw man that many take as their Christian worldview.

At this time, it seems to me that there are three pretty good arguments for Weakness Missions over Power (money, social control and political coercion, for example) Missions:

  • Biblical (Jesus gave us the example that we are suppose to follow, as well as the example of the apostles that followed the example of Christ.)
  • Theological (God’s Word leads us to an understanding of our living in a state of weakness and suffering that compels us to live and minister in complete dependence on God, rather than on utilizing strategies and forms of influence to coerce others to align with our goals and faith.)
  • Historical/Practical (History has shown that many of the most successful mission movements have followed a model of weakness, not power, and those that successfully utilize power missions often create problems that undermine their short-term success.)

An area that I struggle with is the area of divine power. If we are to rely on God, to what extent is Weakness Missions consistent with things like Power Encounter. There are many who support some form of “Vulnerable Missions” who still also promote miracles/signs as part of the ministry. Biblically, this appears to be sound. Jesus did use miracles— sometimes as an act of compassion, and sometimes as a sign of His authority to give a message. The early Apostles did the same. A look in the Gospels and the Book of Acts shows that (1) there is some ambivalence as to the results of such work, and (2) it seems as if miracles were used more at the start of ministry work and less as time went on.

But my question is whether these should be considered to work against the idea of Weakness Missions. My short-term answer (that may change) is SOMETIMES. I feel that in Missions, promoters of Power Encounter such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner clearly embraced Power Missions. (It is interesting that Jeong’s book was originally a dissertation at Fuller, a seminary that has had such a major role in promoting Power Missions (in my opinion at least).) I come from a faith tradition that is pretty skeptical of miracles in the present era. While I do believe that a somewhat open-minded skepticism is probably for the best, that doesn’t really answer the question here. If Weakness means demonstrating dependence on the power of God rather than on the power of man, when does the use of God’s power drift from dependence to exploitation and abuse. From New Apostolic Reformation, to preachers in Africa calling down curses on their competition, there is a place where what should be seen as good becomes toxic.

Still mulling this. Hopefully I will have a good tentative answer by the time I am ready to publish something.

Praying for WEAK Christian Missions

Missions tends to reflect the mindset of the missionaries, and the mindset of the missionaries tends to reflect the mindset of the churches they come from, and the mindset of these churches tend to reflect the surrounding culture.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants o...
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, circa 1516–1517 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since missionaries during the “Great Century” of Missions and into the 1900s, Christianity has had a triumphalistic edge to it. Going back a bit to Constantine, and far more so to Charlemagne (PERHAPS picking up some ideas from his grandfather and Islamic interaction),
  • Christianity has often been tied to powergovernmentally and militarally.
  • With the “Enlightenment” it became tied to power educationally.
  • With the Industrial era and the colonial expansion of Western powers, it became tied to power economically, and technologically.
It is hardly surprising that the dominant church culture and associated missions culture became fascinated with such power and often used these powers to carry out its work. Christendom seemed more than an abstract concept but a workable goal.
Is this always wrong. Is it always wrong to utilize resources one has to carry out work for the Kingdom of God? I believe the answer is “NO.” However, as useful as power is… it is also dangerous. Christian Community Development has shown that internal assets in communities are more important for meaningful transformation than pumping in support from outside (Christian) communities.
An interesting quote from Stan Nussbaum is from his article: “Vulnerable Mission Strategies.” It is to be found in Global Missiology (January 2013). For the PDF, Click Here.
When we try to use money as our strength in so-called partnerships, are we not overlooking 1 Cor. 1 as the default setting for mission—God using the weak to confound the strong? Are we not relegating that “weak” and vulnerable method of mission to those who are too poor to be able to afford to do mission the way we do it? Are we not assuming that people do mission from a position of strength if they can and from a position of weakness if they must?
There is a very difficult choice for the next generation of Western Christians. I see no easy answer. Should we complement the “weak” vulnerable mission of the Majority World church with our strength, or should we forego our strength and copy the vulnerable mission that the Majority World uses by necessity? If missionaries and mission agencies are so interested in bringing more glory to God, why would we not cut back on the mission methods that are failing to bring much glory to him? Why not replace them with a more vulnerable strategy, one that for its inspiration harks back to the cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost instead of the conquest of the Promised Land?
Why not pay the prices of vulnerable mission and bring to God the glory that vulnerable mission in his name brings?

1.  Jim Harries’ Mission. This page was recommended to me (Thanks, Jonathan). Jim is a missionary in Africa and has done a lot of work and writing on Vulnerable Missions. He has some interesting thoughts including the (very interesting idea in my opinion) that the proliferation of “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa came, mostly inadvertantly, from missionaries not utilizing vulnerable missions. That kind of makes sense. Using sender-based communication rather than receptor-based communication can lead to miscommunication… including miscommunication of doctrine. Missionaries coming to an impoverished people from a position of (relative) wealth and power can easily add to the confusion of message.  http://www.jim-mission.org.uk/

The Power of Weakness: Part 2

Terminology and Classifications

I planned to get to Missions Theory. But the topic got me thinking about terminology and classifications. “Weakness Missions”  is not a satisfying term. After all, there are a lot of ways to be weak… many of them are unproductive.

I considered “Subversion Missions.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of definitions for subversion, some of which are completely inappropriate. Subversion may mean undermining the beliefs and power structures in a society from a position of weakness. Sometimes, it can be used more broadly of overthrowing, regardless of method. It also can involve overturning moral constraints regardless of whether the moral structure is good or bad.

So I started looking at non-violence theory. I have never really studied that topic much. I was in the military so I know more about power projection, and control. My problem is that nonviolence theorists often start from a belief that utilizing nonviolent means is more likely to lead to success than utilizing violent means. While nonviolence has had its share of successes, its failures have been equally legendary. Many changes, even positive changes, have occurred through violence.

I found, however, a lot of interesting thoughts in nonviolence theory as it pertains to missions. But there is the question of power as well. Power, after all, is not necessarily related to violence or non-violence.

NonviolenceOn the violent side, things are pretty clear… some types of violence are used from a position of power and some types are used from a position of weakness. We sometimes forget that terrorism is used because the individuals conducting terrorism are weak. Of course, their use of violence is meant to pressure change while masking the underlying weakness.

Okay, but what about the other two? Well, looking at the various types of non-violent response, some seem to have merit and some don’t (at least as it pertains to missions). Two that fit well into the graph above are types described by Mahatma Gandhi.

Satygraha (I am pulling from Wikipedia here under Nonviolence) literally translates as “insistently holding to the truth.”  Gandhi described it as a position of the strong, but not necessarily utilizing “power tactics.” As such it is a matter of choice rather than necessity. The focus is on utilizing truth and love, working through patience and willingness to suffer.

Duragraha literally translates as “holding on by force.” It is also nonviolent, but may use forms of non-violent harassment, and may not be focused on the truth. A lot of non-violent protest (PETA, Greenpeace, anti-abortion movement) utilizes this one.

As such, Satyagraha seems quite similar to what (in my opinion) is best in Christian missions. I would like to suggest that Jesus worked from a position of non-power and non-violence. As noted above, such a position does not mean lacking in strength or potential to act on power, but a conscious choice to not utilize power… focusing on love and truth with a willingness to suffer to the end to cause change. I could describe good Christian Missions as Christian Satyagraha Missions. Some might be offended by this because it may sound a bit Indian or Hindu. But that is a Western prejudice. The term Missions has its roots in pagan Roman terminology. It is just that people in the West have gotten use to Latin and Greek and German and English, but haven’t gotten used to Asian terms.

Frankly, I am unconvinced that nonviolence is more effective than violence in creating change. I am unconvinced that operation from a position of non-power is more effective than operating from a position of power. However, I believe as Christians we are called to operate from a position of meekness (having power but  acting with loving constraint). And in missions, this position has been extremely successful in causing change. Personally, I think that this fact comes more from the work of the Holy Spirit than it does from the inherent strength of such a strategy.    …. but I could be wrong.

Next post, I will look at some Christian mission work from this view.

The Power of Weakness: Part 1

I am teaching a History of Missions class at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. Again, I have been struck at two streams of missions work. The first might be called “Power Missions.” The other might be called “Weakness Missions.” Others have written on this (at least one that I know of), but I feel that not enough has been focused on this issue.

English: Medieval miniature painting of the Si...
English: Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I am teaching on the Crusades. Most don’t consider it a missions activity. However, it did spring, in part, from a missional zeal, motivated in part by the desire, and missional activities of  pilgrimages (peregrination pro Christo (“wandering for the sake of Christ”)) and martyrdom. It  also was guided by doubtful missional innovations of Charlemagne centuries earlier. These include “the cross and sword” missions method, and missions work as an arm of the State. The Crusades were, in part, a method for the Church and ‘Christendom” to deal with people outside the faith (be they “infidels” or “heretics” or pagans).

I am also talking about St. Francis of Assisi and his attempt to reach out to those not of the faith. He was not hugely successful, but arguably far more successful in overall missionary impact than the Crusades. He was carrying out missions from a position of weakness.

When I speak of Weakness missions… I am directly referring to the following:

  • Missions carried out without military or governmental support.
  • Missions carried out in places where the missionary is exposed to danger rather than being a source of danger.

Less directly, I would include::

  • Missions is done “incarnationally.” In this, the missionary joins the people as a fellow citizen and fellow struggler.
  • Missions is focused on loving encounters more than power encounters.

I think I will do a couple of more posts on this topic. It is not fully developed in my mind yet… but that is part of the reason for writing it down.