Listening, Lived Experience, and Mutuality in a Just Mission

Listening, Lived Experience, and Mutuality in a Just Mission February 7, 2023

How do we listen to others' lived experience? What is mutuality?
Admittedly, my review of A Just Mission might be my most provocative post. But it was necessary. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve received encouragement from both men and women, Westerners and Majority-World Christians.

My post raised issues worthy of comment. A few questions I’ll address here include:

  • “Don’t you think ‘dangerous’ was too strong a word?”
  • “As an academic, should you write in the way you did?”
  • “Should you have spoken to her in private rather than in a public forum?”
  • “Aren’t you belittling the author?”
  • “What about listening to people’s lived experiences?”
  • “What did you appreciate about the book?”

I’ll begin with the last two questions.

Positive Aspects of A Just Mission

The author, Mekdes Haddis, rightly calls on Western Christians to decenter themselves when it comes to missions. For the past 20+ years, missiologists have underscored the fact that the “typical” Christian is not a white Western male but an African female. Also, Haddis urges us to embrace mutuality. Other cultures have experiences and wisdom that can better aid us in knowing the Lord and accomplishing his mission. She writes A Just Mission to help Westerners take from their eyes the cultural logs of colonialism and racism.

Furthermore, her appreciation for diverse cultural perspectives helps her to discern the need for contextualization. For example, she writes,

“In my crosscultural evangelism training I talk about the focus fear-based cultures have on the power of God and how the way we share the gospel needs to start with highlighting the power of the resurrected king. Our context needs a rescuer who is not only good but also more powerful than what we’ve experienced, and dogmatic theology doesn’t fit in that context.” (p. 80 Scribd)[1]

Aside from her final statement (which is simply unclear), she shows good instincts. Also, here and at least one other place, she affirms the importance of bearing witness to the resurrected Christ.

I embrace and celebrate every one of these objectives. These are the same goals that have invigorated my own work.

What is Listening?

Haddis is absolutely correct. Listening is essential and critical. As I’ve shared before, I learned this lesson the hard way. But listening does not mean agreeing. And listening is not an end in itself, as she herself says,

“In order to build a collaborative and vibrant missional movement for the next generation, we must move from listening to taking costly action.” (11 Scribd)

Mutuality demands listening, but not just listening. Mutuality requires ongoing conversation where all parties are valued, not absolutized.

A Just Mission cover

We should listen and learn from others as they describe their lived experience. But as soon as someone prescribes solutions, they move beyond lived experience. That move necessarily invites feedback because being an expert on your experience does not make you an expert on what others should do or think about broader dynamics. Basic humility forces us to admit that our experiences and minds are limited.

My being an abuse victim doesn’t give me the authority to demand that others follow my plan for responding to abuse. There are far more things involved that require input from a broader, diverse community.

My being someone who suffered depression likewise doesn’t mean you should accept whatever I prescribe. It doesn’t even mean that my experience typifies the majority of people who’ve suffered from depression.

Yes, listen and learn from my lived experience but not just mine. And certainly, don’t do what I say based merely because they are my feelings and perspectives.

Humility to Disagree, Not Demonize

Even humble conversations involve disagreements, yet they don’t demonize people.

To those who think my previous post did demonize her, go back and read it again. I wrote my longest post ever to carefully explain my points of objection. Not doing so would be unfair and disrespectful. Several times, I even commend her intentions.

Sadly, many people today so identify with their ideas that they can’t distinguish criticism of ideas from the demonizing of a person. This is why we’ve suffered the rise of “cancel culture,” which only seeks to demonize and destroy people.

Someone might ask, “Should you have gone to her in private?” No, her book is not a private affront to me. So, no, there’s no need to “confront” her in private. Moreover, once you publish your ideas in the public domain, you accept responsibility for what you say. Whether you like it or not, you invite criticism. That’s the deal.

If you want your ideas to affect others, if you want others to listen to you, then you must also listen to their concerns and objections. Books should spur conversation and debate, not mere head nods. Defenders of A Just Mission should welcome my review because it gives an opportunity to clarify their ideas so as to be more persuasive.

As an academic very familiar with missions literature, I (of all people) use the word “dangerous” from an informed position. It doesn’t mean I’m right. Plenty of people will disagree with me. But I don’t use the term flippantly.

If you truly think the book is as problematic and dangerous as I stated previously, it’s your responsibility to alert people to it. If you thought your friend was doing something truly dangerous, should you be quiet?

Lingering Questions about A Just Mission

Given the incredibly positive feedback I’ve received, it seems her book obviously provokes negative responses and thus closes people’s minds to her arguments.

I hope people will support her underlying concerns but use better arguments than those found in A Just Mission. In my opinion, at least three major concerns need to be addressed.

The first two are well summarized by an Amazon reviewer. First, he writes,

“The book leads one to the conclusion that the world would be better off if there was no western mission involvement. This felt less like embracing mutuality (the stated purpose) and more like a call for the closure of all western mission involvement.” (Amazon Reviewer)

Yes, Haddis does not completely reject Western involvement, but she offers few constructive contributions other than giving raising money for Majority World Christians.

Second, the reviewer states,

“I felt that there was a significant theological error that severely limits the book. This is the stated lack of need for anyone to preach the gospel message. She states that God will reveal himself to non-christian people through natural revelation, therefore why should we send anyone to them? This fails to take into account the full counsel of scripture that commands us to go and make disciples (Mt 28:18-20, Lk 24:46-49, Acts 1:8) and the importance of someone proclaiming the gospel to them (Rm 10:14-15). This lack of balance would lead one to assume that the author is either a hyper-Calvinist or more likely a progressive Christian who leans towards universalism. Under that case, the cross is devoid of its power, and its proclamation unnecessary.”

At the bottom of this post, I list a few quotations that give this impression.

Third, advocates of the ideas in A Just Mission need a more generous and constructive tone. Besides the many texts quoted in my last post, I’ll offer this example:

“The Western mission movement has somehow shifted its focus from sending those who can bear a witness of the resurrected Christ to those who can buy their own legacy through philanthropic effort. It undervalues sacrificial living and overvalues physical comfort, putting an institutional agenda before God’s. We cannot expect to revolutionize the world with the message of the gospel when we’re exporting prosperity gospel in our methods of sending.” (p. 47 Scribd)

Comments like this are irresponsible and divisive. Who says people don’t want to preach the resurrected Christ?! How exactly are people “exporting prosperity gospel”? Making these charges without elaboration only alienates readers.

Quotations Concerning General Revelation

“We have lost the capacity to imagine that God’s general revelation could lead people to Christ. In fact, the main way Christianity has been spreading in Muslim countries is through visions and dreams, with Jesus Christ himself revealing himself to them. Yet the Western approach to sharing the gospel starts from imposing its norms on others rather than asking what’s normal to them.” (55, Scribd)

I can’t help but interject with a question, “Has she read recent missions literature?” This phenomenon is discussed in numerous places. Westerners are well aware that God uses general revelation to lead people to Christ.

(As an aside, I’m not even sure that “dreams” fit within the category of “general revelation,” particularly if they’re genuinely from the Lord. Such dreams are not neatly categorized.)

What evangelicals emphasize is simply this: God uses general revelation but ultimately saves people through special revelation (Christ, Scripture). What normally goes by the name “general revelation” (nature, conscience) is insufficient by itself for salvation.

People and places are not to be “reached” to conform their understanding of God and his Word to our liking. They must be reached so they can be taught his Word in order to continue to worship the God they know in their own context. We must believe God’s Word that says he reveals himself to everyone and that all people are without excuse. Our work in discipling the nations is about finding out how God has already revealed himself in their culture so we can give them access to his written Word if they don’t have it. When we start seeing God’s people as already loved, chosen, and contacted by the Creator, we can unburden ourselves from the heavy weight of reaching the “unreached.” Our role can shift from invading their culture and safety to learning about how they see God and expanding our own worship of him through their eyes. (69-70 Scribd)

This paragraph does not reflect standard ways of talking about “reached” and “unreached.” For anyone familiar with those terms, this paragraph can be heard as a discouragement to preach the gospel to people who don’t know Christ.

“We can never be the ones who introduce God to other people because God has already revealed himself to them.” (91 Scribd)

[1] She doesn’t explain what she means by “dogmatic theology.” Depending on how she defines it, I could either agree or disagree with her statement.

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