In my article “Learning How to Live and Thrive with Post-Postcolonial Missions” in the last issue of Modern Reformation (September/October 2019), we started a new topic that I would like to finish off now. I proposed that evangelical missions works according to one of two paradigms, colonial missions and postcolonial missions, with a third paradigm emerging recently from the batter’s box: post-postcolonial missions. My premise is that in the case of either colonial or postcolonial missions, we continue to address missions with colonialism still in the foreground. Beyond that, postcolonial missions—like colonial missions before it—still frames missions in a colonial way. I stated that this was analogous to the relationship between modernism and post-modernism. Postmodernism is not “after” modernism but rather the late stages of modernism. It is, in a way, when all of the modernist chickens come home to roost. So, if my comparison is apt, then postcolonial missions is a late stage of colonialism.
Where colonial missions revolved around Western church planting, involving denominations and voluntary societies, postcolonial missions are still controlled by Western money, Western academic perspectives, Western marketing through trade publications, and Western missions organizations, whether denominational or parachurch. While stabs are made at breaking the modernist colonial mold by promoting national leaders and international partnerships, it is all still within the grasp of Western partners.
One of the clearest ways we can see this dysfunction is in the relatively recent proliferation of Muslim-idiom translations of the Bible. These are nearly all created and promoted by Westerners. The constant drumbeat of national Christian opposition to them has done almost nothing to eliminate their presence in Muslim cultures. Rather, the response to this criticism, particularly by non-Western Christians, has been damage control in the West to convince donors that nothing wrong is taking place, but they still do not repudiate the translations themselves or remove them from circulation. It is all about marketing.
Perhaps just as devastatingly, nationals exercise their freedom by using these Western approaches rather than inventing their own, which forces Western Christians to adjust their own participation in that new world. The adoption of Western paradigms ensures that nationals continue to receive Western funding, whether or not the money actually funds the stated ministries designated. Make no mistake about it, colonial missions has not yet faded from view.
There is one more thing to say about postcolonial missions: While it is absolutely true that Western missiologists and missionaries remain in the grip of old ideas, so do nationals. This can be seen in one of two ways. In the first case, nationals go along with Western approaches and then resent the Westerners they use—but perhaps this turnabout is fair play. After all, a case can be made for the self-serving nature of missions. In other words, it is about what you receive, not just what you give. The other iteration of postcolonial missions from the nationals’ perspective is that as nationals begin to exercise freedom from control, they still do so with a bias against the Westerners interested in serving them. Old feelings die hard. This reflexive response, however, carries its own dangers. For example, the assumption of personal control over a nation’s missions can make them more vulnerable to a hunger for control. It can, on the other hand, make it harder to receive wisdom.
To finish this introductory thought, I am not saying that colonialism was an unqualified failure. It was manifestly not that, as millions of new Christians around the world can testify. It did, however, leave some damaging effects that still play themselves out in contemporary missions, whether in naked colonial fashion or in postcolonial camouflage. But all this will pass. It is changing right under our noses, although most of us cannot see it.
Let’s look at a broad outline of the differences and then consider specific examples of the difference that changes will make. A post-postcolonial missions paradigm will engage in missions without the looming presence of colonialism. Of course, we need young leadership to fully realize something that new. I can see it coming, but I am probably too old to fully embrace it. Following are a few characteristics that I see emerging from this new world.
The trend against strict denominationalism will continue but with a great twist. Postcolonial missions championed missions unchained from denominational control. The ubiquitous writing of Ralph Winter, Bob Blincoe, Dudley Woodberry, and to some degree, Andrew Walls testified to neo-evangelicalism’s fascination with missions freed from historical organizational constraint. For them, the future of missions was bright, but only as it proceeded farther away from the lights of the denominational city.
The post-postcolonial twist will also move away from Western leadership altogether, including that of the parachurch, but it will move back toward the myriad clustered lights of local churches and perhaps, if they have them, presbyteries or evangelical dioceses. Despite the assertions of missionary journals and books, the explosion of Christianity outside the West is not taking place through paradigms established and fuelled by parachurch ministries. Trips to Asia and Africa belie these self-promoting stories. The truth is that the growth of Christianity is taking place fundamentally the way it always has: through visible, confessing, suffering churches. This is what works, and the reason it works is that it aligns our methods with Christ and his ministry.
I anticipate yet another significant shift. I see a growing proliferation of partnerships between local churches in the nations and in the West. Although these started in earnest over twenty years ago, their constitution is changing. The first partnerships in which I participated were initiated by missionaries who gathered churches in a cluster around their work. So, whether the missionary was part of a denominational or parachurch organisation, these entities continued to dominate the pursuit of the gospel in the nations. There was a certain logic to it. After all, the missionaries were the logical go-between as cross-cultural ministry experts. The costs, however, far outran the benefits. It meant, ultimately, that foreign missionaries were still driving, and not simply serving, missions and churches among the nations. In a third sense, it was a safe option. Nationals were no longer invisible to Western churches, and that smelled like progress. It also meant that missionaries, with one foot each in two different cultures, could ensure that everyone got along. But as I alluded to in my last article, this urgency to get along indicates that they are not yet part of the family.
When I read my Bible (our church is working through Ephesians, and I preached before that in 1 John), I see that the church is a living, single organism—a body with Christ as its head. A complementary picture has God’s people, the church, as one family that encircles the earth. These believers are not autonomous individuals but rather a cluster in local churches. In the colonial world, it made sense to send out evangelists and church planters who carried the word to cultures that had never heard or read it before. Bible translations in these situations also had to bear a great deal of weight. In the total absence of local preachers and teachers of the word, their translations had to serve as a means of communicating what the Bible said and meant. In such a world, we often saw the creation of translations that did nothing more than tell us what some bright translator thought the Bible meant, rather than what it said.
We do not need that. The non-Western, young church vastly outnumbers us already. There are pastors, teachers, evangelists already here. They need Bibles. They do not need postmodern interpretations. Likewise, when local churches in the new Christian world partner with churches representing older Christianity, roles have to change. The West is no longer driving the expansion of the church. Rather, it should fuel it through service to the national leadership. The change also has to be reciprocal. Nationals have to go into these new relationships expecting God to work a miracle through them. When I started thinking about partnerships nineteen years ago, I remembered the description of the church I learned in my Greek Orthodox youth: Church is the place where heaven and earth come together; it is the gathering of believers who meet God there. That implies to me now that partnerships should be places where God changes all of us.
To be honest, I see only shadows of that now. Yet I yearn for this, and I hope to live long enough to experience the joy and chaos of it all. It will take hold, however, as we learn to embrace this new one holy catholic and apostolic world. There are many speed bumps and diversions along the way. The key one—the one that God will have to level—is the lack of trust, which is the silent witness to missions. I still see it. My prayer is that God will deal with all of our hearts, and in so doing, infuse his people with a trust for him that overflows toward one another.
Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.