Mission from Below

North Americans in Missions, Part 2

Leslie Newbigin wisely suggests that the North American Church must “learn afresh what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength but of weakness.”[1]

In 2010, I took part in leading a Global Reinvention process for a worldwide linguistics organization with the focused mission of Bible translation. At that time, the bulk of the organization’s workforce and practices were overwhelmingly Western and in the English language—as they had been since the organization’s birth in the 1940s. Inadvertently, it was erecting walls toward participation in God’s mission by an increasingly non-Western workforce. Consequently, it was now looking for ways to break down walls, and better empower all peoples of the earth to participate in Bible translation work.

As a result of the Reinvention, they began shifting toward structures and models that mobilize more indigenous translators and leaders. Non-expat country directors for the organization are now being appointed all over the world. The organization is transitioning North Americans away from being drivers of the global Bible translation enterprise, to being servants and consultants that bring value when “invited in” by indigenous communities around the world. North American translators and leaders still play an important role and provide a much needed workforce for missions—we are still players on the field—but we play with a spirit of humility and partnership with the rest of the team!

At Urbana 06, Oscar Muriu summarized this required change for the North American Church when he said, “The purpose of maturity is not independence, but interdependence.”

Samuel Escobar describes the change for North Americans as learning how to empower “mission from below” (below the radar in society), in contrast to the pattern of the old Christendom that could be described as “mission from above”—from a position of military, financial, or technological power.[2] Escobar cites Christ’s example of engaging missions as a suffering servant who was immersed in what the poor, broken, and hurting were experiencing. Mission historian Andrew Walls conceptualizes this as “ministry from the margins.”

 

 

[1] Newbigin 1995, 5.

[2] Samuel Escobar, Latin American Theology.

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