Post-Colonial Mission as Gift-Exchange and Reciprocity

Blog Intro Post #3

“The converging streams of mission use and meaning make for highly imprecise, complex, and capricious language… the term contradicts, creates confusion, and can be divisive language.”

  • Michael Stroope Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition (IVP 2017, 8)

Its ironic that Western culture is both enthralled by mission and despises it at the same time. Every corporation expends immense amounts of time, money and energy developing a succinct mission statement, and now self-help books encourage individuals to develop their own personal mission statement. Mission drives Western culture, it seems. But when it comes to Christian mission, the worst crimes are brought to mind and the accompanying strong emotions. Mission is thus a word with dizzying contradictory possibilities.

Missiology is the study of mission—but not relating to private purpose statements. It is a branch of practical theology that examines the mandate, message, and ministry of the church, especially in cross-cultural contexts. Of late, one short phrase has characterized a paradigm change in the field: “Not from the West to the rest, but from everyone to everywhere.” Insofar as colonialism has been associated with missions, including the “white man’s burden,” missiologists are urging the abandonment of paternalism, dependency, and military metaphors and instead advocating for a missiology that emphasizes learning, exchange, and indigenous leadership. This is not a withdrawal from Jesus’ directive to spread the good news, but it’s a deliberate shift to see cross-cultural ministry less as a charitable act and more as a pilgrimage together, deeper into the missio Dei, God’s own mission rather than ours.

This means rebuilding the foundation of mission where it was cracked by use of the wrong materials. Mission is not our burden, and it is certainly not motivated by a felt need to conquer, expand, or occupy. A Christ-centred dream for cross-cultural engagement doesn’t retrench to restore some fabled Christian Golden Age, and neither does it burn all bridges to the Holy Spirit’s previous good work. Mission is ultimately doxology, says Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.[i] Its thanksgiving and praise, an explosion of joy that consummates in service in God’s kingdom out of love for our neighbours.

From Sending to Equipping, Almost

Mission—understood as the church in participation with the missio Dei—can be parsed to include various dimensions: worshiping, equipping, sending, gathering, and discipling. This is not an exhaustive list, but it shows that mission is a broad concept and any mission organization will have strengths and weaknesses and areas of special focus. Global Scholars is shifting its posture from a sending focus to an equipping focus, recognizing that “sending” from the West to  the rest may carry some of the residue of the colonial era. It also recognizes the opportunity that new forms of electronic media provide—making network and exchange models of mission more appropriate. Thus we had the launch of our new web community—The Society of Christian Scholars (www.societyofchristianscholars.org).

Feedback from places like Africa is that they are tired of mostly “receiving” from Western benefactors, as if caught in a paternalistic relationship. Yeh writes “some of the worst mistakes in missionary history have been made when Western theologians have tried to take non-Western Christians and fit them into Western cultural molds” (56).[ii]

Still, we would be remiss to suddenly abandon all “sending.” First of all, Africans and Koreans have been sending to the West for some time now as missionaries, sometimes returning to their home countries. Westerners are going on short-term missions—not just as tourists or to take labour from the locals, but in order to observe, learn, and build relationships. We have Global Scholars who originally came from Africa or Asia, were taught in North America, and then went to some third country to teach. These exchanges build cosmopolitan faith and trust.

Secondly, one must consider the distribution of global resources: if most institutions of higher education are in the West, it behooves them to keep the flows of information, people, and material steady to places that lack such resources.More specifically, if North America has over 100,000 Christian professors and some countries have none, there is an issue of distributive justice to consider. Yeh writes of the “glut of people with PhDs in theology and Biblical studies in the West,” (182) and yet he doesn’t want Western theology imposed without contextualization on the Two-Thirds World.

Besides, the West is no longer the centre of the Christian faith. “The average Christian today is a poor Nigerian or Brazilian woman,” writes Philip Jenkins (quoting Dana L. Robert) in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.[iii] So to say “From the West” as the origin for the heart of Christian witness in the world today is already a presumption that seems dubious. The West has become a mission field rather than the pool of eager missionaries. The global picture has shifted quickly.

Some, like Michael Stroope at Baylor University are questioning whether the idea of “missions” and all their agencies and paradigms is a modern construct—unsupported by the Bible and premodern Christian literature—that needs re-evaluation. This includes the language of “missional” and “mission agency” and “missionary.” He instead proposes the more wordy idea of being “a pilgrim witness to the kingdom.”[iv] Young people today, he writes, see mission as colonization and Western imperialism, belonging to world of regretted history (9). But even the word “kingdom” suggests an imperial force, even if its God and not his Western emissaries who are in question. Nevertheless, the boundaries of divine-human activity are difficult to discern and any cross-cultural encounter will involve some mutual transformation. So we need to be continually vigilant of unintended consequences of our operations.

Giftive Mission, Learning from the Stranger

 If we concur that Christian mission is no longer one-way traffic from the West, especially since the Western church continues in its declension and the “religious nones” continue to increase, then we must see that the Two-Thirds World has become the thriving centre of the Christian church. In David Smith’s Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (2009)he urges the reader not to see cross-cultural interaction in instrumental terms—in order to achieve some missional goal—but as a process that itself involves discipleship and spiritual growth. The interaction itself is part of the journey to spiritual maturity. This personally transformative journey relates not only to the missional academic, but also for the mission agency’s staff and board. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin often said that inter-cultural encounter was necessary not only for the salvation of the those who have not heard the gospel, but also for those who bear witness to it as well.

One approach that considers the interactive exchange that happens in cross-cultural encounters has been called “giftive mission.”[v] This means the primary Biblical metaphor for understanding missions is that of being a bearer of a free gift—and also the receivers of gifts. At its heart is the gospel’s heart—that we have life and a future by grace alone. To see the work of organizations like Global Scholars Canada as a dialogical gift exchange provides an alternative to the frames of confrontation and competition that shadow military or market models of mission. It opens the organization to move beyond the merely “sending” models and shift towards the reciprocity that has been discussed already in various mission consultations. Yet it retains the “mission” language that some are uneasy about, given the history of modern missions.

University research may help. We might see Community-Based Research (CBR) or Participatory Action Research (PAR) as models. They are different labels for basically the same thing: that research must be relevant to a community, that it must include the community it is studying in the decisions about the research program, consulting them along the way.[vi] Finally, it is research that is not shy about its purpose: community transformation. This is a new approach for much academic research—scholarship that is done with the community and not just for the community or even worse, to the community. A fresh approach may find resonance here. An additional resource is ethnography, which has a long history of cross-cultural experience, and seeks to learn from the host culture. Activist forms of ethnography simultaneously seek social transformation and public justice.[vii] But such explorations deserve a separate post.


[i] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Eerdmans, 1989.

[ii] Yeh, Allen. Polycentric Missiology: 21st-Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere. IVP, 2016.

[iii] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. (Oxford, 2002), p. 3.

[iv] Michael Stroope. Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition (IVP, 2017).

[v] Terry Muck and Frances Adeney. Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the 21st Century (Baker, 2009).

[vi] Stringer, Ernest T. Action Research. 4th ed. Sage 2014.

[vii] The writings of Christian B. Scharen and Pete Ward are instructive on this in the Western congregational setting. See Scharen Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography. Eerdmans, 2012.


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