John Perkins suggests that three types of people are needed in order to see real transformation of an urban neighborhood:
- The “relocators” are those people who were not born in the neighborhood, but who move into the area to tie their well-being to that of their neighbors.
- The “returners” were born and raised in the community and then left for a better life. They are no longer trapped by the poverty of their neighborhood, yet they choose to return and live in the community they once tried to escape.
- The “remainers” are the ones who could have fled the problems of the neighborhood, but who have chosen to stay and be part of the solution to the problems surrounding them.
Although Perkins was talking about inner-city USA, this is a helpful framework within which to think about international missions. Over the last few years, however, as the Church has gained a deeper appreciation for the contribution the poor can make in reaching their own people and rebuilding their own communities as “remainers,” I have observed the Church losing confidence in what we as westerners might have to offer as long-term international “relocators” among the poor.
The roots of this insecurity are complex. Partly it is a natural reaction against wrong emphases in the past. Yet somehow we must avoid the theological equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So I want to briefly survey four reasons why we might have lost some of our confidence in long-term, cross-cultural missions.
1. We have rightly recognized the importance of language and cultural understanding. We cringe today at the colonial excesses carried out under the banner of “king and country,” yoking missions with imperialism, crushing local cultures condescendingly, and sneering at local customs and tongues. The correction of this sinful attitude was a long time coming. But to lovingly lift up one culture, it is not necessary to devalue everything that outsiders have to offer. The answer is to approach missions with humility and grace, seeking to learn first and serve rather than overpower.
2. We confuse empowerment with disengagement. The concept of empowering people is central to good mission work. But it takes wisdom to discern the difference between empowerment and disengagement. Just as a good manager of people will know just how much to delegate and how much support to provide, so a foreign missionary needs to learn how to empower rather than overpower. However, not showing up at all is not empowerment; it is apathy.
3. We have only partially embraced a theology of “from every nation to every nation.” It is a beautiful and exciting thing to see African, Asian, and Latino missionaries spreading out across the globe, and there is much more that can be done to assist and support them. But when Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples, he wasn’t letting any nation off the hook as though their contribution was not worthy or useful. We must come alongside our brothers and sisters from around the world and joyfully do our part in the Great Commission.
My pastor, Emmanuel, came to North America eight years ago as a refugee fleeing war in Burundi. Emmanuel was so poor when he arrived that he faced homelessness. But God brought him to one of our church ministries—a transition home which provides space for refugees to find their feet.
Before long, Emmanuel became an integral part of our church. And the rest is history. Does Emmanuel, as an outsider, have an important role to play in building God’s kingdom in North America? Yes! In fact, while local believers will always be central to God’s kingdom purposes, every place on earth desperately needs prophetic outsiders who will bring an alternative perspective.1 Every culture and society (including North America) has its major blind spots that can only be identified and challenged by outsiders, who, called by God, will come in humility and courage.
4. We have been seduced by corporate thinking about return on investment. A common pitfall is to base our arguments solely on pragmatic or economic concerns, rather than theological ones. In our relentless drive to get more “bang for our buck,” we realize we can “get” ten local evangelists for the price of one Western missionary. Jonathan Bonk, in his challenging book Missions and Money,2 correctly points out that Western missionaries have for too long lived at a level above the local people, so there is some truth in this critique.
For this reason and others, missionaries sent out to the megacities of Asia by Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (Servants) live simply in the slums alongside local people. But we must be careful not to reinterpret God’s call to missions through a simplistic financial lens. This way of prioritizing economics above calling is a uniquely Western bias and an unbiblical one at that.
Toward a Theological Perspective
For these reasons and many more, the mission pendulum has swung heavily toward resourcing local people (remainers)—supplemented by short-term missionaries who focus on transferring their skills without learning the language and culture. But we must strive to find balance by remembering the rich biblical tradition of prophetic outsiders—which includes both relocators and returners. Throughout biblical and recent history, God has used outsiders to bring about his purposes in foreign nations.
Does God Call Returners?
Moses was a “returner”; although ethnically the same as the people he was leading, he was in every other way a complete outsider. His name was foreign (it comes from the Egyptian word “mos,” which means child), he couldn’t speak their language well (Aaron was his interpreter), he dressed funny, and he looked different (Exodus 2:19). Sounds like a few missionaries I know! Yet God chose to use Moses to lead the Hebrews to their promised place.
Other returners in the Bible include: Nehemiah, the high-powered government-sanctioned returner; Naomi, the low-powered refugee returner; and Ezra, the theologian-returner.
The Moses narrative echoes in the story of my wife. Nay was born in Cambodia; however, at a tender age, her mother was forced to flee the Khmer Rouge. The family came to New Zealand without Nay’s father, who was killed by Pol Pot. When Nay returned later to live in the slums of Phnom Penh as a member of the Servants Cambodia team, her language was rusty and our neighbors thought she must be Japanese or Korean. But God used Nay to befriend and lead young women out of prostitution into his promised place for them.
Imagine if Chinese-American, Korean-American, or Indo-Canadian returners answered God’s call in droves to serve God in the nation of their ancestors. They could move right into the slums, under the radar of local authorities, and model the kind of downward mobility Jesus taught. In the words of Isaiah: “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)
Does God Call Relocators?
Ruth was another outsider, a relocator whom God used to accomplish his kingdom purposes in a foreign land. She turned up in Israel so poor that her first year in town she was forced to scavenge leftovers. The point stressed most frequently in the story is that Ruth was a foreigner (1:4, 22; 2:2, 6, 10-13, 21; 4:5, 10). Still, Ruth the outsider comes to share in the salvation and heritage of Israel.
Other relocators in the Bible include: Jonah, the reluctant relocator; Paul, the serial relocator; Daniel, the youthful relocator; Joseph, the upwardly-mobile relocator; and Esther, the beauty queen relocator.
Of the thousands of missionary examples I could give, perhaps the most well known is a young Englishman named Patrick, who God used to spread the gospel throughout Ireland. St. Patrick’s methods were incarnational and highly creative as he sought to contextualize the gospel (e.g., he described the Trinity by referring to a shamrock—the 3-leafed clover so beloved by the local people).
From Moses (a cultural outsider with poor language skills who led the people of Israel to freedom) to Ruth (an economic refugee who shared in the heritage and salvation of Israel) to Jonah (who saw the conversion of an entire city) to Patrick (who helped in the conversion of an entire nation), there is no doubt that God uses outsiders.
In fact, Jesus chose to model this way himself, by relocating from the most exclusive gated community in the universe to live among us, embracing the culture of the time, and walking alongside us in all our messiness. And he prayed that we would follow his footsteps into the world (John 17:18). This call to imitate Christ in his incarnational approach to mission comes home to me every time I see Emmanuel, whose name means, “God with us.”
It is time for the Church to regain our confidence in all three approaches to transformational mission: to encourage and support the remainers, mobilize the returners, and to celebrate the relocators.
1. In some ways, the biblical role of the prophet is always to be an “outsider” rejected by the community (Luke 4:24). These two roles are intricately bound up together.
2. 2007. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books.