Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
In recent posts, I have argued that the church should explore more asset-based approaches to mission to help address the problem of money in mission, that peacemaking is a hallmark of African-led United Methodist mission, and that peacemaking and solidarity with the suffering is a key to United Methodist membership growth in the Congo.
In this piece, I want to build on all three of these insights to suggest that American United Methodists should shift their mission thinking from the question of "How can we give charity to suffering Africans?" to "How can we support African-led initiatives to minister in solidarity with those who suffer?"
In the charity-giving understanding of mission, the problem is suffering, and the solution is American money. Yet, as multiple books have shown, this understanding of the problem and solution is both theologically problematic and ineffective for a variety of reasons.
Yet there is effective ministry being done by United Methodists to spread the gospel and to alleviate suffering in Africa. It's largely being done by Africans themselves, drawing on the assets of local communities, not by Americans showing up and giving handouts. In this model, the problem is separation from others and God and the solution is relationship and solidarity.
Americans showing up and giving handouts is a transaction, and one that is too often understood through the lens of patronage and not religion. It is the antithesis of suffering with those who suffer. African church leaders being in solidarity with their people amidst suffering is a relationship and one that testifies in an authentic way to the gospel.
The importance of African leadership in such missional efforts, however, does not mean that there are no roles for Americans in this type of mission. African leadership can use support. Without assistance from and connection to the outside world, there are grave dangers of pastors dying from disease or malnutrition or of entering into despair at having been forgotten about by the broader church. Connection and the right type of assistance can be very important.
To offer that connection and the right type of assistance, Americans must be willing to take a supportive role. That means not having to be the stars or the centers of the narrative. Such an attitude is challenging to American cultural presuppositions, but it follows the humble self-sacrifice to which Christ calls us. Moreover, it is essential to effective ministry work. Africa will be saved neither religiously nor economically through Western charity. It must be saved by Africans, who can call on the support of Westerners at times they choose in ways that they determine to be helpful.
In addition to being willing to take a supportive instead of a leading role, Americans must also be willing to form solid and equitable relationships with African partners and allow for mutual learning between Africans and Americans. Americans should not presume they have all the answers to African problems. Africans are already tackling their own problems. Yet there is value in having one's own problems reflected back to oneself through the eyes of an outsider. Africans can learn to better engage their own problems, not by learning from American expertise, but by being prompted by American question-asking, observation checking, and mutual discussion. Such mutual learning also allows Americans to learn how best to support African leaders.
Such a model of mission is a significant shift from how a lot of mission currently happens in the UMC. Yet there are good examples of such work going on. Monday's post highlighted one - Friendly Planet Missiology. The ZOE Project has also gotten a lot of attention as an example of the right type of Methodist mission in Africa. The United Methodist Radio Network is an example of a ministry that began with African initiative and has been enhanced by connectional resources. The Congo Women Arise campaign has combined leadership by African women and other church officials with support by American donors and media resources. Global Ministries' practice of mission roundtables seeks to facilitate mutual learning, relationship, and appropriate support. This list is by no means exhaustive, either. The models are out there. I challenge Americans to find them and support them.