My friend and I were driving when we saw a field covered in kudzu – “the vine that ate the South.” Without warning he said suddenly, “Kudzu! It’s amazing the power of the non-native species.”
Taken aback by his highly technical assessment, the next words out of his mouth were, “Have you heard about the northern snakehead? It’s this fish that’s destroying the Potomac River basin. It comes from Asia and is an aggressive predator; it can even breathe out of water.” He made the toothy, carnivorous fish sound like the piranha of the B-grade horror movies of my youth.
Then on NPR recently there was the tale of the Burmese python. Biologists have discovered that there is now a breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. They are going so far as to recruit trained python hunters to identify and remove the non-native species. Not long ago at Lake Okeechobee a 17-foot, 200-pound python was found and summarily put down.
Clearly, I am horrified and fascinated by the lurking Burmese python. The gators deterred me from taking the air-boat Everglades tour before; now there’s a whole new danger. My fascination isn’t just with the Burmese python, or for that matter the northern snakehead or the comparatively more innocuous kudzu. It’s genuinely with the idea of non-native species – something that doesn’t quite look right in the picture, environment or ecosystem before me.
Much has been said by denominational leaders and missiologists about the contextualization of the gospel in missional efforts. Scholars and visionaries like David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin rightly remind the church that when the gospel is carried by colonialism, there is no hope of a people finding Christ in their midst – only the Western Jesus with all its cultural trappings.
I was first introduced to Bosch and Newbigin in a seminary class in which the professor recounted seeing a picture in the ’70s of a Baptist pastor in Africa in front of the white-clapboard church that could just have easily been found across the rural South.
In front of the church stood the proud pastor in a solid white suit, face beaming. He had a new building that looked like nothing else in all of Africa. He thought he was getting a building, but what he got was a kind of evangelical colonialism that wouldn’t translate to the people of his village.
In his magnum opus, “Transforming Mission,” Bosch says: “Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world.”
A few years after that fateful seminary class, a friend and mentor recounted a story of being at an assembly when a pastor from Egypt stood up and passionately said, “We do not need your people or your trips. We do not need your money or your missionaries. We need your churches.”
The arrogance of imperialistic mission, be it American or otherwise, is to presume that one is “taking” something somewhere – as if it were not there in the first place. Taking the cue from Paul on Mars Hill, some congregations have embraced a missiology that is more “tour guide” than conquistador – the goal isn’t conversion, it’s observation – pointing to the places where God is already at work and saying with a smile and a sense of genuine humility, “See that right there? That’s God working in and through us – irrespective of time or geography.”
The same is true of “domestic” mission. My suburban church walking coolly into the center of the city to pass out sandwiches, water, caps and coats does little more than momentarily assuage our collectively guilty conscience. But when “we” identify ourselves with the Body at Christ already at work in the indigenous community, then we have set about the sacred task of enabling, supporting and building up the body of Christ as a whole.
In a few weeks we will make our fourth trip to Bulgaria to partner with indigenous churches. I will be preaching in a modest church in a Roma village just outside the city limits built five years ago by churches in Texas and Arkansas.
When you sit among the open windows, you sit on pews from Texas and the Netherlands. There are songs sung in Roma, Bulgarian and English. I remember thinking American Christianity suddenly seemed so small, merely one part of the church playing a role in helping another part of God’s church.
I am convinced that this is what it means to rethink mission, to find the work of the church in all contexts and to support them and to help them grow into the fullness of Christ.
To swap recipes and pulpits, checks and materials.
To find the same wideness of God’s mercy in the wideness of God’s Kingdom.
To avoid the sin of becoming a non-native species that chokes out the grass-roots work of the indigenous community.
To partner and to labor faithfully to the whole gospel – physical, social and spiritual – in God’s back yard as we would in our own.