What led you to the role you currently serve with OMF?
I was always interested in the China Inland Mission and particularly in the work of its founder, James Hudson Taylor. The CIM later became the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and then OMF. Three people from my home city joined OMF in the 1970s and 80s and I attended the OMF prayer meeting that met each month to pray for them. After some years of work and studies, my wife, Christine, joined OMF and ended up in Malaysia where I taught missiology and other subjects in a local seminary for about 10 years. We were asked to consider leading OMF’s UK Centre and sensing that God was leading us to something different, we took up this role in 2010. OMF (UK) has about 200 mission partners serving in various ministries among East Asia’s peoples and sent out from UK churches.
Can you tell us a bit about OMF.
OMF traces its history back to Hudson Taylor and the founding of the China Inland Mission in 1865. Originally we were focused only on China, but when communist rule took over it was impossible for missionary work to continue there, and this lead the organization to rethink it’s purpose and rediscover what it was that God had called it to do. The CIM became the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and along with a focus on Chinese peoples, ministries developed across East Asia. Today we’re a global fellowship of Christians with a heart for East Asia. We endeavor to serve the church and share the gospel so that it is seen and heard in all we do and say. Our work is as diverse as the communities and cities we live in. From planting churches to running businesses. From practicing medicine to training Sunday school teachers. In every area of life, we aim to present the good news of Jesus – in a way that’s right for the culture, and for the long term.
Paternalism and Colonialism in Mission.
“There is an unfinished (perhaps scarcely begun) agenda here for churches in the rich Western world, involving the acknowledgement of previously unrecognized compromises, a genuine penitence at the loss of a critical and prophetic perspective on the culture of modernity, and a serious quest for the recovery of the liberating message of Christ and for models of the church and its calling appropriate for witness in the age of globalization.” From David Smith, Liberating the Gospel.
Why do we need to talk about paternalism and colonialism in missions?
Simply because it hasn’t been talked about enough within those organisations and church networks that engage in cross-cultural mission. The mission movement has been very much about the powerful going to the powerless, from the West to the rest. This is all changing in light of the demographic changes in the world church, but the attitudes of paternalism remain among many of those who are part of the evangelical western mission movement.
I was struck by something Amos Yong said last year in an interview with the publishers Wipf and Stock: “The gospel calls us and sends us out… The Colonial enterprise put us in charge of God’s sending rather than allowing us to be carried by the sending God. The latter involves our really attending to the voice of the ‘other’, attending to the ‘other’ as ‘other’, allowing ourselves as people of mission to be invited into the space of the ‘other’.”
Do you believe it is crucial to the spread of the gospel to be aware of the intertwining (whether historically or currently) of missions and colonialism?
Yes, I do. I think this is part of what David Smith addresses in his book – the need to liberate the gospel from the various wrappers that we have allowed the gospel to be packaged in and then shipped around the world.
Paternalism can often come from us thinking that our western package of theology is the correct one, and that our understanding of the gospel and how it should be communicated and applied is the correct way. And this can mean we go to other cultures not really attending to the ‘other’, as Amos Yong says. We end up thinking of ourselves as the benefactor, the one in control, and who is giving ‘these people’ the theology they need. The idea of us “being invited into the space of the ‘other’”, about us being guests, is absent. We tend to see ourselves as the hosts – us being in charge!
When we become aware of these attitudes we become open to transformation. I love the account in Acts 10 & 11 of Cornelius and Peter because it tells the story of two conversions. Cornelius comes to a living faith in the Lord Jesus, and Peter realizes that God doesn’t show favouritism, his theological paradigm of segregation is blown apart. And the combined result of these conversions takes the church to a new place. In the following chapters we see how the center of gravity in the Christian movement moves geographically - from Jerusalem to Antioch; and moves missiologically - so the Antioch church becomes multiethnic and multicultural.
We have so much to learn from the majority world. Becoming aware of the intertwining of colonialism and mission opens up avenues to learn and be transformed and for the good news to be seen as well heard from our lives.
Any practical steps we can take in the Western world of missions in a) acknowledging the previously unrecognized compromises and 2) offering genuine penitence for the horrible effects this has had on the non-Western world?
I was talking with a retired-but-still-active professor of history last night. He has spent most of his academic life researching and writing on colonial and post-colonial themes, and he supervises a good number of PhD students - Christians researching various aspects of these themes in relation to mission. He said to me that although he sees individual Christians, often missionaries, researching and writing theses on colonialism, he thinks the mission organisations and the activists to do mission, haven’t really engaged with the research and with where the academic conversation has got to. I think he’s correct. That’s why some of us in the UK are trying promote initiatives that bring together academics and practioners in the world of mission.
I also believe we need to open up the conversation with majority world Christian leaders and missionaries. Too many of us spend our time in our western mission movement bubbles – discussing our mission strategies in rooms filled with most white, middle-aged men (and I’m one of them!). We need to extend the diversity, bringing other voices into the room and inviting honest perspectives. I was attended a wonderful conference a few months ago organized by a UK based organization called Missio Africanus. The multi-ethnic contributors shared a diverse range of case-studies. And for the first time in a long time, the topic of colonialism was raised. It is interesting to me that this topic is never raised in a predominantly white, evangelical missionary gatherings.
But here’s a story which I think illustrates the attitudes and actions we need, in order to bring reconciliation in many contexts. This one happens to be from Hong Kong…
At midnight on June 30-July 1, 1997 and after 156 years of British rule, the crown colony of Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty. The formal ceremony was full of pomp and pageantry, with dignitaries from all over the world in attendance to witness the hand-over ceremony.
In complete contrast to what was happening on the political stage, the pastors of six evangelical churches invited their congregations to an English / Chinese service. Altogether about a thousand Christians, Chinese and expatriate, gathered in St. Andrew’s Church, Kowloon, to participate in a foot-washing ceremony of reconciliation.
Rev. John Aldis, senior pastor of St. Andrew’s Church – the largest English-speaking congregation in Hong Kong – wept as he read a statement of repentance to Chinese pastor Jonathan Chan. Speaking as a representative of Britain to the Hong Kong Chinese people, Aldis asked forgiveness for “our injustice, our pride and our isolation.”
He confessed, “The foundations of this colony were unjust, seized by war and violence… and we gave back your land and your people without asking you. As a race we have a sense of racial superiority which has been patronising and hurtful to you. We often lived in ghettos of exclusiveness and hid ourselves from your culture. We have not listened to you.” Aldis wept as he said, “Forgive us as a nation and a church. Release us from this bondage of guilt.”
Mr. Jonathan Chan, in his capacity as the Chairman of the South Kowloon Pastors Prayer Fellowship, made all Hong Kong Chinese in the church stand and say, “We forgive you.” Chan confessed the sin of racial pride on the Chinese side, and Rev. Aldis asked the English-speaking members to return the forgiveness. Then he first washed the feet of the Rev. Sam Lai, senior pastor of the Shepherd Community Church, and Lai in turn washed his feet “as a symbol of thanksgiving for what your nation has done for the past 150 years to bring blessing to Hong Kong, especially full freedom of religion.”
The issues of repenting of past sins and atrocities became a political issue in the run-up to the handover, with Chinese officials pressuring British diplomats and ministers to apologise unequivocally for the Opium Wars. However, Robin Cook, British Foreign Secretary at the time said, “If I had to apologise for the actions of colonial Britain over a hundred years ago I would have no time to do anything else.”
Here is another reminder that church’s commitment to biblical peace-making raises important questions about the relationship between reconciliation, justice, and forgiveness, especially where the church is seeking to build peace in a context of division and historical injustice. What the politicians are not prepared to do, the churches can address and look for imaginative and radical ways to demonstrate reconciliation.
In the highly-charged atmospheres of politics, community relations and inter-faith tensions, followers of Jesus are called to take courageous steps in so becoming the gospel that our actions send ripples across the wider socio-political landscape, resulting in missional connections and spiritual breakthroughs and social reconciliation.