Category Archives: Christian Leadership

The Process of Missional Engagement – Part 4

“White Man’s Burden” – Mission as North American Takeover

After a little hiatus, we’ll resume our Process of Missional Engagement series.The idea up-and-running is that, as pastors, we need a better way of leading people to engage the mission of God.

In my experience, there seems to be an observable path in which Christians involve themselves and fairly consistent frameworks of thinking brought to the table.

People begin with an awakening of compassion (I noted that here), and proceed to travel on a trip as somewhat of a Christian adventure (and wrote about this here), and move to a new tier in their Christian discipleship. Both paradigms have serious weaknesses, short-comings and dangerous assumptions. However, these thought-processes are often necessary steps. As pastors/leaders, we need to be aware of these frameworks and push further.

After going on a Christian mission trip adventure, a strange thing happens. God legitimately burdens hearts with the pressing needs of the world. Going to broken places can serve to jostle us out of our slumbering, comfortable and sleepy existences. There is a world — some would call the real or majority world — out there. When this happens, we can become saddened, burdened, broken, shaken, indignant, etc. This is often good and right.

However, a stranger thing can happen. From these experiences, our inner handy-man is awakened, too. There are so many things to fix. We’ve got so many ideas, methods and resources that no one has ever thought of, right?. Get resource A to place B. How simple is that?

Surely we can tinker, adjust, provide, accomplish and rescue. Just give us control and we’ll take it over and fix it. North Americans are the total solution to the difficult problems there, right?


I want to be clear. Very few people would think of it in these terms. Very few people are conscious of this thought process. I know it creeps up in my head all the time. I’m a learner here. These instincts are well-intentioned. As leaders, we have to push further.

I’m also not saying that North Americans cannot offer anything in the work of mission, or any that attempt to do so is necessarily unhealthy, dangerous and wrong. But, we have to be careful.

“White Man’s Burden” is a loaded phrase. I know. Originally, “White Man’s Burden” was a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Lots of different interpretations have been proposed in an attempt to analyze Kipling’s thought. In this post, I’m not attempting to delve into the baggage of the colonial/post-colonial debacle. I’m not trying to push it to that level.

Instead, I’m using it more in the sense of William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin Books: 2007).

North American/Western takeover in the field of international mission doesn’t have a very good track record. North American takeover in the field of Christian Mission doesn’t have a very good track record, either.

It may seem as simple as “fixing,” but I can promise you things are much, much, more complicated than that. As one example, I’ve heard stories of how well-intentioned North American Christians nearly put a solid, healthy, employing-locals, Christian-owned Haitian business out of business.

We need to take the right and healthy sense of burden and channel it in a different direction. A proposed way-forward will be our final two posts.

For now, a quick set of thoughts:

1. When we’re burdened, try to be burdened for the right reasons. For example, spending hours hand-washing clothes is often considered to be a rich community-building cultural practice in certain cultures. Don’t offer to supply washing machines. Don’t be burdened about that. We must distinguish legitimate needs from developed world conveniences.
Try to buy local goods or hire locally in ministry/mission projects. If a building needs to be built, what makes more sense? To bring a North American team, or hire locals? The answer may be different in different places. Ask the questions.

2. Let local Christians lead and set the terms of engagement and set the agenda. Let’s clearly position ourselves in service of local Christians. Let’s really mean this. Then, let’s demonstrate that we mean this in our actions. Further, set things up so that local Christians get the credit for anything accomplished.Building on this, try to accomplish what they ask you to do, rather than what you think will be a meaningful experience for your team.

3. Think carefully about how we should define efficiency and accomplishment. Make sure we are thinking concretely and locally in our decisions. What is needed here? What is efficient, here? What will fly in one place/culture, does not in another place/culture. (As a side note, we need a better theology of place anyway, don’t we?)

4. First, visit a location, culture or ministry. Build relationships and friendships before you try to accomplish something.

5. In your reporting back to your congregation, embody a healthy sense of Jesus’ “don’t let your right hand know what you’re left hand is doing…” principle (Matthew 6:3). Perhaps, Jesus meant for this principle to be lived quite tangibly. This will be hard, by the way. So many difficult tensions to hold in how we go about doing this.

Let’s shepherd, lead, push, and prompt.

Richard Hays as “Dean,” not “Interim Dean” at Duke Divinity School

Duke Divinity School has a new Dean.  Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament, has accepted the job.  He certainly has an idea as to what the post entails.  For almost two years he has served in that post as an interim.

In many ways, the acceptance of an administrative post can distract from one’s research, writing and teaching interests.  My guess is that the weighty managerial duties demanding a dean’s careful attention will at times prove difficult to balance alongside the tasks of theology and biblical studies.

But here is what excites me: at the helm of one of the world’s foremost divinity school’s is someone willing to un-think and rethink traditional and contemporary models of theological education.  I do not envision Dean Hays as an academic iconoclast eager to tear up charters and wipe all slates clean—I just believe him to be ever at work assessing, critiquing, and envisioning the way pastor-theologians are being formed and shaped in academic halls for service within and beyond the ecclesial walls.  His scholarship has caused many of us to stop and reconsider.  In spite of the bold challenges he has offered to certain axioms in hermeneutics and New Testament theology, he has instructed us carefully, thoughtfully, and humbly.  His leadership in theological education is sure to have similar effects in similar fashion.

I think often about what it means to “do” theology.  Specifically, I am wondering how context shapes the theologian and her work.  Is a fine office with a view of the well-kept university quad the only place a theologian can ply his trade?  Is a classroom in view of a magisterial stone chapel the only place the biblical scholar can work her craft?  “Doing theology” most certainly means more than reading, writing, and teaching in a formal setting.  We now have the chance to watch a world-class exegete “do” theology from a vocational appointment that may permit writing and research but demands budgeting, staffing, fundraising, and the signing of document after document.  With a monumental project on Gospel-shaped hermeneutics in the works, Dean Hays will continue to add to his legacy as a New Testament scholar.  That legacy will now be extended to include the influence of pastor-scholars formed by his visionary leadership and sent out to serve and nurture the church.