Most people I know who are engaged in missions (overseas or at home) seem to reflect one of two orientations: either they are old-school colonial-era missionaries and the nationals who work with them, or they are postcolonial missionaries and nationals. I suggest that both options are a dead end. My conviction is that the only way forward that honors the whole of biblical theology and authentically Christian mission is post-postcolonial missions.
Colonial-era missions were the way it was when the West served as a New Jerusalem radiating into world missions and the gospel. In this world, the gospel moved from us to them, from old Christians to the world’s unchurched, or from old Christians to new Christians who lived in places other than North America or Europe. Westerners represented the old Reformation-era Protestant denominations, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. Many represented volunteer societies committed to mobilizing members of the visible church when the denominations themselves were resistant or reluctant.
We mustn’t lose the main point here: The flow of missions moved fundamentally from the West. We evangelized, planted churches, and started schools or hospitals. Along the way, we transitioned from doing it ourselves to training nationals to follow our lead in taking over the work we started. One last point: In the colonial era, the intellectual heart of evangelicalism, including missions, remained within the denominational structures of Western churches.
Colonial missions were enormously expansive and extraordinarily successful, and the church’s global footprint grew exponentially as the seeds planted grew into national churches. At the same time, it was an investment that needed outgrowing. Much of it was tangled with American or European colonial expansion and overseas investment. It was, at times, impossible to disentangle these varied identities. The gospel itself sometimes took a back seat to the economic or political interests of nation states. Colonialism often carried with it racial or ethnic bias that was ultimately foreign to the gospel itself. By now, this is a familiar story and extensively recounted by missions historians, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette and Andrew Walls. Postcolonialism still lacks and needs the same degree of scrutiny.
The postcolonial period is generally associated with missions blooming in the aftermath of the Second World War. In this period, we saw enormous shifts in the nature and leadership of global missions. We also saw, however, continuities that were often overlooked. This period saw the utter dominance of parachurch ministries in terms of fielding missions, but more significantly, in the way parachurch organizations took complete control of the innovative aspects of missions. They exercised vast control over the ways we understood missions. Missions departments in seminaries, even the very understanding of the science of missions (missiology), began to reflect the parachurch-influenced definitions that were overwhelmingly shaped by social sciences. Theology itself, when viewed through the grid of missiology, was defined by the same social science grid. Terms such as “contextualization,” “modality,” “sodality,” and even “incarnational” were defined in anthropological terms. Bible translations began conforming to community expectations rather than authorial intent or the historical church’s universal understanding. Missionaries themselves were “revolutionized” in the heady atmosphere of liberation movements and “national theologies.” They, in turn, returned from the mission field and took key positions in the parachurch organizations, seminaries, and missions journals.
The parachurches, schools, and even evangelical denominations formed webs of what I term “gnostic” leadership: enlightened experts united with shared educational background in nondenominational schools inspired by ideas not controlled through or originating in the church. At the same time, leadership and organizations based some of their own prestige on portraying themselves as a vastly better alternative to colonialism. They were anti-colonialists advocating new ways of doing things that would boost the leadership of the national churches. Colonial missions were out of date and hopelessly connected to imperialism. The image of a brave new world of missions, however, was an illusion.
“Postcolonial,” though, is not anti-colonial. In the same sense that modernism was followed by postmodernism and postmodernism is an outgrowth of modernism, not its repudiation, so also postcolonial missiologists and nationals (to some degree)—despite positioning themselves as positive alternatives to the “bad old days”—really continued much of the problems already identified from the colonial period. Missionary innovation remained fueled by Western money and Western academic theory. New national academic leadership was feted, but the reality was that the leading new academics were trained in Western ways. Publishing was overwhelmingly dominated by Western ideas, and some of these were dishonestly presented as ideas merely conveyed by Westerners but which originated indigenously. To the contrary, the truth is that these new ways were the result of Western modernist ideas in national dress. Although parachurch and denominational agencies promoted national leadership, the vast majority of this new crop of leaders was in the employ of Western organizations and paid Western salaries. Postcolonial missions were merely a morphing of colonialism, not an honest reversal.
At the same time, national leaders began to emerge and start their own work, largely independent of Western coercion. These were, by definition, contextual, innovative, and often aggressive. National leaders of church planting efforts were often less afraid and far more willing to take risks than Western missionaries on the ground in the same places. In many ways, however, even national Christians were still defined by colonialism. They often understood themselves as anti-colonial, and many still carry large chips on their shoulders. Although they engage in careful relationships with the West, trust is partial at best, and old resentments often bubble to the surface. For others, Western missionaries and academics are treated with excessive deference. This, however, is not a help in the largest sense, because deference and overshadowing difference are closely related. Deference does not promote unity of vision or work. Deference breeds distance, not proximity.
Here is how Matt Gross, former travel writer for the New York Times, puts it in The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way around the World (Da Capo, 2013):
It’s when you—your personality, your history, the fact of your presence—are finally taken for granted, even ignored, that you’ve truly found your place in a family. When no one notices you coming and going, when they no longer feel responsible for your happiness, when they stop asking if you need a towel or whether you’d like to drink some coffee, that is when they are treating you as their own.
Of course, churches are not literal, biological families. Foreigners will still receive a measure of hospitality and concern for safety. Allowing for all of this, however, I still think Gross reveals a desirable goal for Westerners and non-Westerners engaged in missions. This leads us to the third part of our expedition: a look at a better missions world to come, post-postcolonial missions.
I believe this is the temporal hope for global and biblically faithful missions. If we consider this in terms of generations, it starts with the generation that comes after the loss of the previous generation with their personal memory of colonialism. Some of us, for example, remember a directly colonial world because we are old enough. Others have or had parents who lived through a colonial experience. In this sense, post-postcolonialism is a generation that largely comes of age when colonialism is relegated to history and not personal experience.
There are several components that belong to a description of post-postcolonialism. First, post-postcolonialism will include bypasses to denominational constraints. Partnerships will proliferate, but these will no longer be initiated or controlled by Western denominational or parachurch organizations. Rather, they will emerge from contact between local churches in one place and local churches in another. Agencies will begin to lose their dominance, as churches (and presbyteries) begin to recognize that other organizations no longer have to direct relationships and support.
My point is not that one must eliminate parachurch or denominational missions organizations in order to move toward more productive global missions. Rather, moving the center of gravity from agencies not directly located in the Bible (such as local churches and presbytery-like structures) is essential to aligning contemporary missions with the Bible itself.
Second, aligning contemporary missions with the Bible enables global missions by bypassing the organizational barriers that denominational structures represent. In that way, global churches and clusters of churches take the lead in determining the extent and nature of missions. Creating church-church partnerships also enables Western Christians to more directly learn and help non-Western bodies and do so in a two-way, equitable manner.
In my next article on post-postcolonialism (see the November/December 2019 issue of Modern Reformation), we will explore the significant changes that will be thrust on us if we follow the post-postmodern direction.
Basil Grafas is the pen name for an American missionary working overseas.