Vulnerable Mission – A Normalisation of Christian Mission Practices in Anticipation of a Post-colonial Situation

Scholars and laypeople alike often accuse Christian missions of being a child of colonialism. The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (AVM) proposes a bold strategy to counter neocolonialism in mission by advocating that some Western missionaries to the Majority World follow two simple principles to “de-power” themselves:

  1. using the language of the people being reached in ministry and
  2. conducting ministry using only locally available resources.

1. Using the Language of the People Being Reached in Ministry
Language learning (ideally done in community) is a humbling experience. It includes being laughed at and corrected, even by children. It forces the foreign missionary to reconsider his or her message in a new linguistic/cultural context. It forces a healthy delay between entry to the field and serious ministry engagement. Engaging in ministry using the language of the people being reached also places the foreign missionary on a lifelong learning curve, builds appreciation and trust with locals, and leads to contextually appropriate ways of sharing the gospel. Furthermore, it boosts the pride and self-respect of the people being reached. Through avoiding translation gaffes and fine tuning with the local context, the missionary engaging in ministry can put down deep local roots.

2. Conducting Ministry Using Only Locally Available Resources
Enormous present-day, interregional, global, economic imbalance, combined with the communications and technological revolution, greatly empower Western people. Many of these are the traditionally Christian people of the world.

Should such economic domination embarrass westerners into apologising for the gospel that contributed to who they are today? The association of white skin or a Western accent with wealth and ignorance of local conditions certainly troubles many westerners working in the Majority World. As Christians, do we presume to use all the earthly power we have in our service to God, or is there a place for choosing to de-power in order to reach people? Can God use the weak? Is there a case for becoming vulnerable to be more useful to God?

The AVM believes there is such a case and finds support in the Bible. Again and again, God chooses to use that which is weak to confound the strong:

  • Moses was an outcast for forty years before being used to redeem Israel (Exodus 2:11-3:10).

  • Gideon reduced his army to a fraction of its original size before overcoming the Midianites (Judges 7:1-8).
  • David, a young man armed only with a slingshot, beat the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17).
  • Old Testament prophets were beaten and killed (Matthew 23:31).
  • At the time of his temptations in the desert, Jesus chose to reject the way of power—either to win followers by always amazing them with miracles or by using force to dominate them (Matthew 4:1-11). He emptied himself (Philippians 2:7).
  • In my weakness is strength, shared Paul (2 Corinthians 12:10).

When ministers are vulnerable, the glory goes to God. Because it is hard to be vulnerable when one is controlling the funds, vulnerable missionaries opt out of this role in their ministry. That is not to say, necessarily, that their ministry is not subsidised from the West, but that they are not controlling that subsidy. They may be dependent upon outside support for their livelihood; however, they may see this as a problem that reduces their legitimacy for working in the local community, rather than a means to get a head-start over locals. They lead by example and not by paying people to follow. Instead of expanding their ministry by winning over foreign donors (thus putting them out of the reach of most locals where they are working and creating donor dependency and an orientation that links success with pleasing the westerner), they choose to confine themselves to what is available to other local people. Thus, by default as well as design, their ministry comes to be sustainable under indigenous economic conditions.

I teach part time in a conventional theological seminary in Kenya and see my key ministry to be that which is unsubsidised, rooted in the locality in which I live, and conducted in African languages. I have ministered in this vulnerable way for fifteen years (see www.jim-mission.org.uk) and have observed the frustrations of westerners who come determined to utilise their superior linguistic and financial resources in the interests of the Kenyan people. Now, however, I seek to share the advantages of vulnerable ministry with others through the AVM. The AVM will hold a series of conferences in the U.S. and Europe in early 2009. For details, go to: www.vulnerablemission.com.

The Difficulties and Freedoms of Vulnerability
The vulnerable mission method, akin to that advocated by Jesus in Mark 6:8-11, is not simple, uncontroversial, or politically naïve. As was the case for Old Testament prophets in their day, vulnerable missionaries are likely to face opposition. Some find that vulnerable mission threatens their more comfortable strategies. It challenges armchair missiology and can intimidate ministries which are heavily rooted in financial subsidy and European languages.

Many people, including missionaries, prefer not to be vulnerable. Yet many in the Majority World would prefer that a missionary come loaded with money instead of trying to level with them. Many African countries, especially, have invested heavily in European languages at the expense of local languages. Some people consider globalisation to be such that a vulnerable missionary’s task is impossible. Unprotected by a cocoon of linguistic and financial superiority, vulnerable missionaries can find themselves under attack from many quarters.

On the other hand, by avoiding the political clout that comes through foreign subsidy (wealthy missionaries by the nature of their impact can make more enemies faster than can poor missionaries), vulnerable missionaries are less likely to offend through their actions than those using foreign finance and languages in their ministry. So a vulnerable missionary can survive better in an foreign environment!

Vulnerable mission means freedom: minimising one's power means that fewer people may get upset over the actions of a vulnerable missionary. Instead, ministries can be practised and honed to local conditions. The offence caused by a vulnerable missionary comes to be that of the gospel, not his or her blundering like an elephant in a china shop through someone else’s culture.

Vulnerable mission need not be an alternative to more conventional mission strategies. Instead, it can run in parallel with them, given sufficient care to the relationship between the two.

Vulnerable mission is a normalisation: it is the way mission has been done for centuries, and continues to be done in much of the world. The current globalising scene makes vulnerable mission a necessity for the sake of the future of the worldwide Church. And in the end, it is a part of God’s plan.


Dr. Jim Harries is chair of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, which seeks to encourage mission using the language of people being reached through non-subsidised ministries. He is also a missionary to the Luo people of Western Kenya.