Rev. 22 April, 2009
I would like to give a partial feedback to Peter Dunn’s post, “A challenge to African Seminaries and their Financial Partners“. Thank you, Dr. Dunn, for your thoughtful ideas.
First, part of the problem is, as many would say, that people trained in the West find it difficult to live at the standard of the average person in their home country. I agree with them in part; the time spent in the West does increase the living expectations of the scholars and their families. But I also believe that there are alternatives which scholars and their supporters could explore in order to ease the difficulty facing the returnees.
Some suggest that the solution to the problem of scholars struggling to readjust to their home context is to promote programs of training in-context only. But this is only a partial solution. Contextual issues related to war, various forms of instability, poor educational opportunities for the children of the scholars, poor health care system, lack of vision for serious research in the gospel and local realities, crumbling infrastructure, poor management, etc., are not solved by a training in-context. Ph.D. training demands an environment conducive to such work, whether it is done in the West or in a non-Western context: fairly stable social and political environment, reasonable material and financial resources, availability of educational and health services. Therefore, even when the training takes place in the scholars’ home context, the problems they face could persist; the only difference may be, perhaps, that they will experience them with less intensity. So the mere promotion of contextual trainings per se is not the solution.
Second, the nature and goals of Ph.D. training almost automatically lead people to seek a relatively stable and secure environment for their profession or ministry. If we need to develop evangelism and pastoral ministry, we must train people as evangelists and pastors, but usually a Ph.D. is not required for that. As a rule a Ph.D. degree leads to a scholarly profession. I have done evangelism and pastoral ministry, and I will continue to carry on such duties. But I must emphasize that they are not the same as academic teaching and research. And since the center of gravity of Christianity is shifting to the South, it will take, among other people, committed scholars to prepare the church for the future. Academic teaching and research that critically engage with the realities which face the church are essential to its mission, but they require certain basic conditions.
Third, I believe that even after we have developed strong in-context theological programs, we will do well to stay in touch with the global church, for the subject of theological education is, ultimately, universal by nature. For a long time the church in the West has done its contextual theology with a label of universality, and imposed it to the rest of the world. Part of the reason is that most western theologians failed to take into account the reality and the diversity of the global church, a failure which has resulted in hermeneutical pedantry and theological domination. We do not want the church in the Majority World to repeat the same errors in their own way. Theology is de facto a contextual endeavor and in a globalizing theological conversation, a particular theology must be checked by the rest of the church for the distinctive ingredients which make it universal beyond its local expression. We must keep in mind that the theology developed in the West in the past few centuries has been quite influenced, as would one expect, by the Western culture, and it has been taught in non-Western schools, with imported curricula carrying at times up to two-fifths of irrelevant and unhelpful content. Conversely, many non-Western theologies have so focused on their context that the core of the Christian message is lost. Sometimes, this is done in order to please Western theological mentors or publishers seeking exotic theological material to meet the need of “theological tourists.” I find it a contradiction that we speak more and more of a global church with a global mission but, still, with local mindsets. We need serious theological reflection from the non-Western world; but we also need critical engagement with works produced by all sides as we pursue relevance to context, faithfulness to the Scripture, and universality in the core of our expression of the Christian message.
Finally, I want to point to the fact that as the pursuit of sound and relevant theological reflection becomes a global agenda, the need to embrace our common task more and more evident, we need to overcome some very local approaches to the mobilization of the resources of the church for its global mission. Biblical mission, by nature, operates with the principle of interdependency, and I am afraid that the growing campaign to slow down financial and material investment in non-Western theological institution and their related ministries, supposedly advocated to promote the independence of these ministries vis-à-vis the West, has little biblical ground. Rather, it reflects a particular approach to mission which sees non-Western ministries so foreign and so other that one would want, then, to simply invest as for others. What is needed is not to cut off support coming from outside “local ministries” (apparently people have no trouble when an African church, for example, supports endlessly and countlessly another African church, which makes one think that support from the West is the problem) and let the so-called “foreign ministries” figure out their own way. Rather, in each case the parties in collaboration need to discuss and agree on the support process and the use of the resources.
Let us follow the logic of the independence approach to the end: if I view a ministry so other and so foreign to me, and as a result make it my principle to not commit financial and material resources to such a ministry for fear of creating dependency, I should also refrain from supporting any missionary from my church who is serving the foreign ministry; I should refrain from committing my prayer support to this ministry as well. But in general people do not want to go this far; most of those in the West who do not want to commit their resources to national ministries are happy to support, say, Western missionaries serving the same ministries they refuse to support directly, and so they continue to recognize and promote some sort of dependency in mission. Of course, a form of unhealthy dependency can result from foreign support, but the attitude of most people suggests that dependency itself is not the real problem. Rather, unhealthy relationships resulting from repeated disappointments are in cause. This is why a new approach to support to foreign mission, rather than the elimination of support itself, must be favored. I admit that a lot must be done here on the part of those who receive “missionary support” (I am using the phrase in a very broad sense rather than in the traditional way), wherever it comes from. This is especially true with those who, increasingly, are known as “national missionaries,” as well as church leaders in non-Western countries, when it comes to their view, approach, and use of the support they receive for ministry, whether this support comes from the church in the West or from “local sources.” Often in the name of cultural differences and local “insurmountable” realities many have simply failed to show accountability in the use of their support, which reveals no more than a lack of conduct worthy of the ministers of the Word. Church leaders are called to be model in the handling of their finances, and there are a lot of competent people in our churches who are willing to take this responsibility if the leaders of the church would simply invite them to do so. Opacity in financial management can only favor deception and the love of money, which the Bible says is a root for all kinds of evil. While a refusal to support foreign ministries as a way to fight dependency seems a wrong approach to mission, the abuse of support in mission out of greed is a worst approach to ministry.
To return to the growing campaign of less or no support from the West to non-Western ministries, I want to mention that the support coming from non-Western churches for mission in the West has often been overlooked. Yet, we need to emphasize what is already happening, to seek to mobilize resources from the church all over the world to do mission all over the world, wherever, whenever, and however God leads us to do so. The church is one and is becoming more global than ever; its mission is the one and global mission of God, so let its resources also be used for the same and one global mission. The approach based on the fear of dependency does not do a better job than the one that could be considered its counterpart, the approach of those who use western support to control foreign ministries. In either case the mission of the church is certainly misunderstood, probably misappropriated, possibly slowed down, and it would remain unfulfilled if God, in his grace, were not carrying it on despite our weaknesses. If we favor a healthy interdependency approach to mission, perhaps we will also increase our chance to find more viable solutions to the challenges facing, say, African seminaries and their financial partners.