The danger of taking shortcuts in urban mission

I’ve suggested that the first step in “urban mission” is to step into and live in the culture. JH Bavinck writes about this stage in “The Science of Missions”

He is of course writing about traditional cross-cultural mission and he is writing 60 years ago but in that context, he says about the missionary:

“as soon as he sets foot in the place where he is going to work, he must face the question as to how he should approach the people. How must he win their confidence? How can he understand their inner life?” [1]

One of the biggest challenges is that the missionary is so completely different to the people he is going to witness to.

“The missionary is himself accustomed to a completely different mode of life. He dresses differently, desires a better house, and sleeps under a mosquito net. He will possibly eat different food and follow certain types of hygiene to escape many illnesses. And if he is married it will soon appear that he sustains a completely different relation to his wife from that of those around him. Moreover, he speaks a different language and disregards all sorts of religious rules considered necessary by the populace. In case of illness he does not call for the witch doctor, he does not work with charms and the like, but he uses medicine which he has brought with him, and which he carefully guards. In short, those to whom he would speak very quickly understand that this missionary lives in a manner which is in every respect different from theirs. He is different from them in everything. Everything that they regard as holy and necessary, he disregards. With amazement they notice that he tramples the old tribal morality under foot. In their eyes this missionary is a terribly dangerous person, a person who disregards the most holy precepts, a thoroughly ill bred man, and above all a thoroughly stupid man.”[2]

You will realise that some of those things require that he genuinely must draw a line. He cannot enter into superstition. However, others are culturally are neutral. The, there are things that may be well and good, in this case better medicine, provision of a mosquito net but set him apart as better off but maybe also as fussy or a coward.

Bavinck also points out that the missionary is a learner about the culture, environment and the language.

“The missionary has to learn everything. He has to learn how to speak the language, and in this respect he is more stupid than the smallest child. He must in this strange world also learn what fruits are edible and what are no. He appears as the very picture or epitome of a grown up child, as one who literally knows nothing, yet is so conceited that he does not live according to the rules prescribed by their divine forefathers.”[3]

So he isn’t able to preach, he is likely viewed with suspicion. He is vulnerable, and with little to offer. Yet, Bavinck insists that this stage is crucial because:

“The manner in which he lives during this entire period is of extreme importance. It is during this period that it is decided whether or not he will be able to break through the wall of misunderstanding and fear and win the confidence of the tribe, or whether he will be regarded as an extremely unwelcome intruder.”[4]

Now, this strikes me as important because if the “stepping in stage” is important to building relationships, gaining trust, earning a hearing, then we cannot afford to miss or rush it. The traditional missionary is slowed down by the things they have to learn, most obviously the language.

The risk is that we step into urban contexts and because we already know the language and we think that we know the culture too that we skip all of that. We risk turning up with our own cultural baggage. We may look down on the equivalent superstitions and weaknesses of the culture. We may also be quick to preach but not realise that we haven’t earned an audience. It’s not just that people are suspicious of us. They think we are idiots.

This is maybe a little bit more obvious when a middle class person steps into a working class area or a white English person into a different ethnic neighbourhood. However, I wonder whether there are challenges too for the person who originally comes from that context -especially but not only if they have left to go to University/find a job and return. We can believe that we know the context and already have a hearing when in fact we don’t.

This is another good reason for in context vocational training. If you have spent 3-4 years away from the mission field then you want to hit the ground running from the off. However, if we are in a missionary context in the UK then Bavinck’s advice would be that there is still much to learn. Why not give the time to learning about your cultural context and allowing unbelievers to observe your life whilst at the same time getting equipped theologically too.

[1] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 88.

[2] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 88.

[3] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 88.

[4] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 89.