I’ve been guilty of this rhetoric: “What they need is …”, followed by, “and I can provide that.” Have you? Our talk about mission sometimes comes across this way. Yet, from our time in St Andrews Hall, we’ve been persuaded to adopt a different approach – vulnerable mission. I’m not sure where the term originated, but Jim Harries uses it and so I suspect it is his.
The vulnerable missionary functions in the local language, rather than English; even if English is becoming more common. Over time, the vulnerable missionary attempts to think and behave in local ways rather than the way of their home country. The vulnerable missionary doesn’t seek to hold power over locals through their resources – whether financial or intellectual or otherwise. In a sense, the picture of a vulnerable missionary is one who gives over more and more power and control to those around them.
The vulnerable missionary lives in two worlds. They don’t live as though they were locals (because they never can be), nor do they live as though they were still in their home of origin. What they do is live in two worlds. Harries describes it in this way, ‘A VM [vulnerable missionary] must be ready to move between two lifestyles, and to accept them both (essentially) as they are’.1
I’m attracted to this approach and think it has many advantages. For starters, it seems to tie in well with recent missiology, where it is less about importing external resources and more about discovering internal resources. It also matches well with changes in descriptions of poverty (another gem from our time at St Andrews), where poverty is less about lack and more like a web of entanglement.
What this means for us in Cambodia is that we won’t seek to be fully Cambodian as though we didn’t have any western roots. But on the other hand we will attempt to function in local ways and with local resources, thus stripping ourselves of power in order to empower those around us. I think this will be particularly important in theology as I teach, making sure I constantly give over control to my students, in different ways.
To round this post off, what I think vulnerable mission does to the rhetoric that I began with (this is what they need and I’ve got just the thing…) is not remove it. Obviously, there is a need of some sort. What vulnerable mission does is shape how we offer ourselves: as those with vulnerability, not as those to the vulnerable.
To discuss or ponder: What might vulnerable mission look like in an Aussie context?
- Harries, Jim Theory to Practice Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (2012), pg. 102. ↩