RECENTLY, while visiting friends in a neighbouring country, we took time to drink coffee at an open café located on the top of a six-storey building. This building stood at a busy intersection of two major roads.
There were buses, cars, bicycles and motorcycles pouring in from all directions into this road junction with no traffic lights to direct them.
Despite the regular near misses, such as when a motorcyclist drove straight into the path of a moving car with not a care or fear, the regular flow of traffic was not disrupted and vehicles got to where they wanted.
My host, a Singaporean, who has worked and lived there for more than a decade, said that he learnt his first lesson about working in that country as a foreigner, at that unwieldy but flowing traffic junction without traffic lights.
He had arrived with well-seasoned knowledge and a wealth of work experience from Singapore and other countries.
One day he sat at the café and observed with amazement at how chaotic the traffic appeared and yet the traffic flowed uninterrupted.
He then realised that if he wanted to work and live there, he had to set aside his “Singapore way of doing and thinking” so that he could understand and appreciate the people he works with and how they work in their country. That first lesson must have gone deep because he has since built up a very successful business in the country.
Unlike some of his counterparts, I have not heard him grumble about the ills of “these people” he works with.
His excellent relationship with his staff and his active participation in community work attest to a genuine love and respect for a people who have become his friends and the community he identifies with.
It is a temptation to presume that a poorer society needs to be straightened out by the skills and capacities of a more developed economy. We may be genuinely keen to share tried methods from our own contexts that we believe are beneficial for a financially challenged economy.
The congested but flowing traffic at the busy road junction reminds us, however, that such presumptions can be a danger and hindrance to Christian ministry.
As we come with our ideas and our technology, we need to be careful that we do not also believe, within ourselves, that we are therefore, a better people with a more “developed” culture.
Reflecting on differences in mission activities and missionaries in the Early Church and during the 18th century and 19th century colonial era, Walbert Buhlmann, a noted thinker in mission studies, wrote:
“Perhaps more dangerous, psychologically they [the missionaries] worked amongst peoples whose material culture most Europeans and North Americans looked down upon and whose spiritual culture few Westerners appreciated. … Instead of sharing totally as equals in the life of their people … modern missionaries created mini-European and American “stations” in exotic lands …”
In many ways, European and American missionaries of the colonial period were captives to the prevalent thinking of their time when it was believed that Western civilisation was superior to all other cultures.
Many missionaries believed their God-given task was to bring their “superior” civilisations to the people in other lands. As a result, Buhlmann notes, some sought to recreate an oasis of Western culture and life in the lands that they sought to bring the Good News to.
We in Asia today, including Singapore, are in danger of repeating that same “civilising” error when we visit developing countries with an assumed position of power, influence and affluence.
Missions and mission activities are about participating in a fellowship that changes everyone involved in the partnership. Such fellowship and partnership are concerned with mutual learning rather than one-way teaching, and orientated to mutual discovery rather than control by the richer.
At its core, missions must evolve more from relationships and less from the dictates of programmes or seminars. Such relationships are built on friendships and nurtured through participating in the life of the people we work with.
So as we participate in mission activities, we ask, “What have we learnt from the people we have interacted and lived with? How have we changed? How has our cross-cultural
experience challenged our long-held understanding of God, of myself, of life, of mission?”
Does this mean there is no room in mission practice to share financial resources and provide training?
No, there is certainly a great need to share skills and resources but our effectiveness does not lie in the technology we have, nor in the finances we bring, nor in the comprehensive training programmes we offer.
Our most critical preparation and resource for ministry is in cultivating a heart that is willing to listen, and willing to learn, for indeed, here lies our first task in fulfilling God’s mission.