|Date||1 January, 2011|
Paul Bendor Samuel, the Interserve International Director, looks at the changing face of suffering in mission.
I recently heard from a friend working with a mission in Africa. An Ethiopian missionary friend of his recently died from cerebral malaria. He and his wife had fled their work three times due to warfare and constant attacks, but always felt called to return.
It is humbling to see the sacrifice of people working with these young national mission movements. They ask us difficult questions: What is our view of risk? How do we assess it? How do we decide when to go, or not go; to stay or to leave?
Cross-cultural mission has always involved elevated risks. Here are a few:
Health and personal security: occasionally leading to death, generally the risks are greater for our national brothers and sisters.
Impact on our children: yes, children are resilient but they are vulnerable to emotional traumas at various stages of the mission life cycle.
Ministry cut short through forced exit: the destabilising effect of not knowing when you will be asked to leave, sometimes at such short notice there is no time for proper closure.
Professional deskilling: This is a particular risk in today’s fast moving world. Nor is there guarantee of getting suitable employment on return to the passport country.
Financial insecurity in older age: long term service will likely mean little savings and limited pension.
In recent years mission agencies have had to grapple with the realities of risk and suffering in a fresh way. At least two factors have brought this about.
Firstly, mission is being done in a context of increased hostility. For most of the twentieth century, western missions operated in a relatively protected context. Colonial governments provided security. Emerging nationalism was as yet not generally allied to religious ideology. The past twenty years have seen that change. The search for identity in a globalised world has fed the rise of fundamentalist expressions of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, matching the totalitarianism of communism. This change has come largely as a surprise to the Western mission movement, used to ministry from the privileged position of power.
This leads to the second reason why mission agencies are thinking about risk and suffering. Increased risk in mission come as a stark contrast to the prevailing church culture: ease, comfort and security. This culture is not simply a western church phenomenon. It dominates wherever the church is experiencing the affluence generated by capitalism. Present in many parts of the world, it is the dominant culture in the church in the West. Attitudes to life expectancy are a reflection of this. Today, life expectancy in richer nations is around 80 years. Long life is the expected norm in those countries that have provided most of the mission work force until recently. Long life is seen as our ‘right’.
Contrast this with those missionaries that left carrying their possessions in wooden boxes that could also double as coffins. Britains in the 18th and 19th centuries generally did not expect to live past the age of 40.
Our view of risk is so culturally conditioned. Many in the mission force from the global south do not come from cultures where ease, comfort and security are taken for granted. Does this in part help explain the bravery and boldness of some of our colleagues in the newer mission nations? Views of what constitutes ‘acceptable risk’ will be challenged in agencies like Interserve as we open ourselves up to partnership with those who come with very different cultural assumptions.
How, then, are we to hold together obedient, sacrificial discipleship with appropriate risk taking, recognising our cultural conditioning? For us in Interserve it means at least three things.
1. Recognise and own the risks: Jesus warns his followers of setting out in discipleship without recognising the cost. As we recruit and select mission Partners, it is our responsibility to discuss the cost of cross-cultural mission. Selection and preparation must involve the church family and, where possible, the family of the person going. Orientation must involve reflection on the Partner’s theology of risk and suffering in the light of scriptural teaching.
2. Identify and reduce unnecessary risks: At times we bring problems on ourselves through our lack of planning or unwise behaviour. Those who join Interserve join a missional community with much collected wisdom. We cannot eliminate risk, nor should we attempt to do so. However, there is now a mass of understanding about how to reduce the kinds of risks mentioned at the beginning of this article. Much of this wisdom is what is now known as good ‘member care’. This should now include training in personal security, given the contexts in which most Partners work in Asia and the Arab World.
3. Reflect on the cost of taking the risks: When considering the questions of risk and suffering, we focus on the risks that occur because we go.
If we do not take the risks, on the other hand, there will be those who continue to live with a distorted view of Christ, prejudiced against the gospel because they have never seen or experienced the transforming love of Christ in action.
If we do not take the risks, there may be individuals, families and communities that never have the opportunity to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
If we do not take the risks, there will be those who continue to lack community development, employment, health care, discipleship, theological education and who will live in environments that continue to suffer degradation.
If we do not take the risks, there will be those who continue to live under unjust and oppressive structures with no one to advocate for them.
But the risks of not going are not simply borne by the peoples we have been called to serve. It is we who will suffer. We will miss out in joining God in His redemptive, reconciling and recreating mission. Our churches will miss out on the renewing work of the Spirit that occurs when we step out in faith and obedience in mission. By not taking the risks now, we will risk our life’s work perishing in fire of God’s judgement as we settle for security and comfort now. (1 Cor 3:12-15).
We recognise risk. We work to reduce risk. Yet the question remains:
Do we embrace the security risk, or has security become our greatest risk?