We Need to Rethink

A Response to Valdir Steuernagel’s ‘More Partners at the Table

In your role as bishop, you see both problems and joys when different cultures work together for mission. Did you find Valdir Steuernagel helpful?

I greatly appreciated his starting point on the nature of God and on the nature of the gospel progressing in community. However, I thought he was not able to sustain that thought to the end. He gravitated back to the traditional understanding of partnership in mission.

I think we have to question deeply the assumptions with which that discussion proceeds. One of the assumptions is that the mission is ours. We do it. That assumption is defective. We don’t do mission, we live in God’s mission.  It’s a definition of our life. We live in God. Mission is life in God.

The way we read Matthew 28, the Great Commission, is not completely biblical. We think mission depends on our fulfillment of the Great Commission? No, no, absolutely not. That plays into our power paradigms. We love the idea of Go and Make, because it is in our charge and our control. The 10/40 window, and the emphasis on mapping unreached peoples, may assume that nothing is happening there. No! God is there! He has been at work there all these years. The problem has to do with a defective doctrine of God. He is the Creator. There is not a space beyond his reach and claim.

I think we have to go back to the fact that God calls us to be his. Jesus’ first personal words to Peter were, “Follow me.” And his last personal words, after the resurrection, were “follow me.” It is his mission.

Are you suggesting that American pragmatism is a cultural imposition on the gospel?

It’s not just American. It has to do with the dominance of European and American empire over the last century. For me the sad fact is that there was not enough reading of the Scriptures together. Praise be to God there are contrary movements. I’m sure you know the East Africa Revival. It was not a Great Commission movement. It was a renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Those simple East Africans took the gospel everywhere, without any maps. Without any resources that we speak of today. Without anyone sending them.

Can we take this down to a practical level? I’m the pastor of a church that sends a mission team to Uganda. They run an AIDS clinic, or they build a church. They’re trying to do good, they’re learning about Africa. What are you telling me? What do I need to do?

I would say, first find a brother pastor in the place where you want to connect. Appreciate that pastor as a brother in Christ, a fellow disciple walking with Jesus. Find ways in which he hears Jesus as you hear Jesus. Expand your horizons, so that his discipleship connects with yours.

Secondly, recognize that the AIDS clinic or whatever is simply an excuse to find out what God is doing in this place. Honestly, simply an excuse. So we go into all the world not to do anything, but to check what God is doing that we can be part of. This is God’s world.God, what are you doing with the Somalis? Not, let us go and rescue them. Who told you to do that? It’s, God, what are you doing with them?

The story of Peter is powerful.  He doesn’t go to Cornelius. He is invited. The initiative comes from God. The thing is, Peter is listening. He is trying to understand. When he goes to Cornelius, he asks Cornelius, “Why did you invite me?” In other words, what is God doing in this place?

Philip and the eunuch is another such story. Philip is shocked by what God is doing. The eunuch is reading a passage from Isaiah that is about Jesus. Philip asks, “Do you understand?” He is not asking this question strategically. He is shocked! “Do you get it, this thing you are reading?” Philip wants to know, what are you hearing? There is a wow factor.

We must believe that God is at work in the world, and that we are being drawn together into what God is doing. Then our fellowship will be deeper.

But I go to a rural African church with dollar signs painted on my forehead. The pastor I meet faces terrible problems and has few financial resources. There is such a power disparity. How can we really be partners?

I don’t want you to be partners. You should be brethren first. The two are different.

You have a family. There are younger and older siblings, there are tall and short. Do they fail to be family?

The problem is that the typical Euro-American goes to Africa and feels that Africa is a place that has problems. But you come to Africa bearing a bundle of problems of your own. Share your problems. Share your tears. Confess your sins to one another. We are parents, and parenting is not a European thing or an African thing. We have wives and husbands. We all have difficult relatives. Talk about those things.

We will not hide that we have money. But money is the last thing the world needs.

Let me tell you about my American friend. When two people don’t know each other, they operate on stereotypes. He feared I wanted some of his money. And honestly, I did. Because Americans have money. Something remarkable happened in our relationship when we both had to confess our fears about each other. My friend told me, “Zac, I hope it’s not for my money.” I said, “Let me be honest with you. We can’t be in this relationship if there is no money in it. But I’ll go further and say, it’s not your money I want.”

We then ask, what things need money? And when we agree about it, we know where the money will come from. But we have mutually agreed what the need is. It’s not me who needs money. It’s us together.

So many people we meet in Kampala, all we discuss is mission. And we get nowhere, because we do not get to know each other as brothers and sisters. I believe that what the world wants to see, the witness of the gospel, is not what we do. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

David Zac Niringiye is Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kampala, Uganda, and a Langham scholar. He was interviewed by Tim Stafford.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)

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