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.
Traditional histories of missionaries often cast them in hagiographic light as those coming to save the lost and benighted. Post-colonial critiques have pointed out the ways in which such images of missionaries degrade those among whom they are in mission. This raises a question: If we should not depict missionaries as hero-saviors, what other images can we use to understand them?
One surprising example comes from the medieval European system of fosterage. Although the details varied among times and places, in general, the fosterage system involved children being raised for a time by families other than their own. Unlike in the modern foster care system, this arrangement did not indicate that the children's parents were deceased or unable to care for the children. Instead, fosterage was a way of providing children with opportunities to learn important skills and a way of forging connections between families. Sometimes families would even exchange children.
Fosterage usually lasted for a set amount of time, after which children would return to their families of origin. The system of fosterage did not intend to cut ties between children and their families of origin, but rather to transform them in ways not possible if they had stayed home. It would then reconnect them so that what they learned might benefit them and through them, their family of origin.
In many ways, the role of missionaries parallels the role of children in the fosterage system, with culture (or country) of origin and host culture standing in for the family of origin and host family.
Viewing the sending of missionaries as a form of fosterage emphasizes that the goal of mission is not to impart the benefits of one superior culture to another inferior culture, as mission was often previously understood to entail. Indeed, if anything, the fostering family was usually the more socially and economically advanced. Instead, seeing sending missionaries as fosterage emphasizes the goal of mission as establishing connections between cultures.
It therefore also makes sense of the possibility of bilateral sending of missionaries. It is perfectly reasonable to send missionaries from Country A to Country B and from Country B to Country A because, if the goal of mission is connection, then exchanges in both directions facilitate more connection.
Seeing missionaries as children in the fosterage system also emphasizes the importance of learning for missionaries. Missionaries are not primarily those who are sent to impart truth or technique, but those who are sent to learn from their hosts. Of course, mission does involve sharing one's understanding of God and mutual learning, but the image of missionary as teacher is so deeply ingrained that an emphasis on missionary as learner is a useful counterbalance.
Finally, just as the goal of fosterage was not to separate children from families of origin but to return them transformed in ways that could benefit their families of origin, so too the goal of mission is not to separate missionaries from their cultures (and countries) of origin, but to transform them in ways that will allow them to benefit their cultures (and countries) of origin with what they have learned (of God and people) through their mission experience.
As with all metaphors, this image of mission is not perfect, but it is provocative in the ways it differs from traditional concepts of mission. Ultimately, the more images we have at hand to think about mission and missionaries, the better we can understand all facets of the missio Dei.