Decolonizing Christian Mission
**John Allen Chau was an American adventure blogger and missionary who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He was killed by the people he was trying to reach on in 2018 at the age of 26. This is the third post in a series, if you haven’t read the first two yet, it may be helpful for some context. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.**
Over the past three posts, I have used the story of John Allen Chau as a jumping off point to discuss colonial influence on Christian mission. We have engaged with the ugly history of Christian colonialism and mission and also some of the negatives of a pendulum swing away from not just colonial mission but from mission all together. At the end of it all, I suggested the idea that decolonization of Christian mission is not only possible but actually necessary and in this post I want to briefly discuss what mission devoid of supremicist and colonial thought could look like.
This is an immense topic with all kinds of things to be discussed from unconscious bias to differences in worldview. I have tried to create a list of four simple pieces that must be considered if someone is seeking to share the gospel across cultures.
- Acknowledge Colonial Past
Kaitlin B Curtice writes, “within our institutions, we cannot fix what we won’t admit is broken.” Before being able to decolonize missions, we must acknowledge and admit to the brokenness in the church’s missionary endeavours. If this is something that you’d like to begin doing, there are a number of resources in my annotated bibliography that could be helpful. Click here to check that out.
Discussed in the second post of this series, the assumption of superiority is one of the major issues of colonial thought in christian missions. One positive way to move away from this is to begin with a posture of a learner, understanding that God is always at work in this place long before you have arrived. This will help the listener to build a genuine appreciate and love for the people with whom they are connecting rather than some abstract love removed from the reality of their humanness.
A historical example of a missionary who seems to have done this well is Hudson Taylor. Many people remember how he adopted many of cultural habits of the Chinese people whom he was serving to connect with them. But, a reading of his document China’s Spirital Need and Claims reveals a great respect for the Chinese people and culture. Taylor understood that there was much he could learn from the people to whom he felt sent and he set out to do that learning as a part of his mission. As a result, he did not try to overwrite their culture with western cultural practices but instead sought to see how the gospel might be contextualized within this different setting.
A practice of careful listening and humility lead to missionary efforts that did not carry the same colonial baggage of his contemporaries and modern missionaries could also learn from this practice.
In the example of John Allen Chau, a practice of listening could mean not going to the Sentinelese Island as they have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want visitors.
This could be likened to Jesus’ command to the twelve in Matthew 10:14 to leave and to kick the dust off their sandals as they go. This isn’t to say that all is lost forever but instead to acknowledge that we as people do not change people’s hearts. It leads perfectly into the next piece in this puzzle of decolonizing missions: Trust Holy Spirit.
- Trust the Spirit
I’ve mentioned this passingly through this series of posts but allow me to say it explicitly. Mission in the absence of the Spirit’s work will fail. The colonial church thought itself powerful and thought itself saviour. Humility leads us to understand both that we need help and that the Spirit goes before us, making the way. In Acts 8, God creates opportunity for the gospel to spread through the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch. God had already laid the groundwork and softened the heart of this person in preparation for his encounter with Philip the evangelist. God then used this person to go and spread the gospel through to his own people as one who understands effectively the context into which they would be speaking. This leads us into the final point in my non-exhaustive list for decolonizing Christian mission: context matters.
Darrell Guder writes in his book Called to Witness about the reality of a global church stating that it will, “constantly demonstrate the fundamental translatability of the gospel, its powerful destigmatization of all cultures, and its concomitant relativization of all cultures… From each such passage of gospel translation from one culture to another, the missional theologian learns and is obligated to find out how to pass that learning along in ways helpful to the church in one’s own context.”
Decolonizing christian mission means getting comfortable with contextualization of the gospel. In conservative circles this can be challenging as there is fear that the contextualization may go too far and water down the gospel. I experience discomfort as well as I read Kaitlin Curtice describes remembering her ancestors by lighting tobacco and whispering, “a prayer to Ache Mnedo, to Mamogosnan, creator, who never forgets, who knows the language of every tribe and tongue.” Is this idolatry or just a beautiful ritual of remembrance for the people of her past?
While I don’t have a perfect answer to these questions I’m encouraged by Guder’s challenge to avoid, “the human tendency to reduce the gospel in order to make it controllable.” Here too it seems that one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is allowing people from within cultures to grapple with the gospel, listen to the spirit and discover how it breathes life into their own cultures. This is perhaps not as frightening as it might seem. Paul famously speaks different depending on the cultural background of his hearers, beginning with logic when speaking to greek philosophers and beginning with scripture when speaking to Jewish people. He also is willing to discuss the reality that God is already present in the gentile temple under the name of the unknown God. Perhaps this is similar to the contextualization of Curtice in her prayers. In all these matters, I think we would benefit from the example of the Jerusalem counsel where they considered first the fruit that was being born in a community as a relevant measure of the status of citizen in the family of God.
I’m sure there are many more things to be said and many more things that must be done in order to adequately reckon with the church’s ugly past and present. But hopefully this will provide some insights for you as you think about missions globally but also as you have opportunities to tell your neighbours about Jesus. Before you begin to speak, maybe take a moment to reckon with the wrongs of the past, to listen to where they are, listen for the Spirit, and then allow the expansive beauty of the Gospel speak into their lives without seeking to control how far God’s grace might spread. Perhaps you’ll learn something and hopefully we’ll be able to see what Guder was alluding to in a “powerful destigmatization of all cultures, and its concomitant relativization of all cultures.”
**I understand that you have questions. Before passing judgement and leaving an angry comment, take a look at the rest of the series. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. If you’ve read them all, I suppose the very least that I can do is read and respond to your angry comments should you desire to leave them below. Also, if you’re looking for more resources on the topic you can find my annotated bibliography here. While it’s far from exhaustive, it should be an okay place to start.**