Vulnerable Mission by Jim Harries – Book review

Below is a recent review I did for the Oscar June update (see http://www.oscar.org.uk/index.htm) on this intriguing and challenging book by Dr. Jim Harries, a missionary serving in East Africa.

The title of this book is intriguing. These two words have not always sat comfortably together throughout the history of the modern missionary movement! One of the key issues this book addresses is a thorough critique of the dynamic tension between traditional Western-led missionary work in Africa (the context in this case) and the acceptance (or otherwise) of the same by Africans themselves. Or, in other words, to what extent has Western-led missionary practice been genuinely helpful in being salt and light in East Africa?

Jim Harries is an experienced practitioner and able thinker; one might not agree with all the perspectives and interpretations he shares in this book, but one cannot complain that his message lacks authenticity; he has lived, breathed, (and no doubt debated at length) these personal views and convictions; some might be controversial (e.g. his  insistence on ministry in the local indigenous language, when locals themselves may have opted to use the national language), but many are challenging and persuasive. If we value the ideal of incarnational and contextualised mission (surely indisputable!) then this book has many thought-provoking illustrations as well as helpful correctives to poor missionary presencing and ministry.

One of the remarkable aspects of this book is the breadth of issues that Jim tackles head on; be it the impacts of globalisation, linguistics,  issues of aid, development and dependency, Jim’s experiences, often painfully gained, have contributed to a steely critique of the power dynamic at play in this part of the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the very thorny issue of finance and the funding of projects. My own experiences in Bolivia give credence to the strength of Jim’s argument. I might not go so far as to say that there is no place for any Western money in the two-thirds world, but like Jim, I have witnessed the devastating effects that Western control continues to exert in parts of the two-thirds world thereby perpetuating unhealthy power patterns. This is especially sad for the recipients of Western funding who feel compromised in their assessment of projects for fear that any criticisms levelled at rich Western donors would jeopardise the on-going viability of their projects – this cannot create an atmosphere of trust and honest partnership.

In addition to critiques on aid, development and project-funding, Jim looks at a number of theological issues, not least prosperity theology and the nature of evangelism and evangelistic efforts in East Africa. Jim asserts a link between the affinity and rapid spread of the ‘prosperity gospel’ in Africa and the generosity of well-meaning Westerners (who themselves do not ascribe to these doctrines). Missionary lifestyle (prosperous Western-styled ones that is), he suggests,  might be a contributing factor in leading some Africans to conclude that there is a secret, supernatural /magical cause behind that prosperity.

One cannot but applaud his insistence on local resourcing, the desire to encourage and stimulate locally-contextualised projects and the celebration of indigenous practices and languages. If it is a critique of certain aspects of the forces of globalism, then this book provides an important reminder of God’s love of the creativity and diversity of distinct cultures, and not least, His burden towards the weak and vulnerable who often face the oppression of the powerful.

This is not a light read, and whilst being a specialist book for those engaged in the practice of cross-cultural mission, it also serves as a critical study for scholars. It is provocative and sometimes unconventional in its thesis and as such is an important contribution to the reflective study of Western mission in East Africa. Many would be wise to take careful note of Jim Harries’ thinking as an important contribution to the thinking practitioner who seeks genuine, mutual, and equal partnerships within the global Church. So many of our decisions and the implementation of our projects, are at best naïve, and at worst seriously damaging to the development of the local church as agent of transformative change; nowhere more so than in East Africa.

To read more of Jim’s work, visit the Alliance of Vulnerable Mission website at  (www.vulnerablemission.org ) and for a short article as an introduction to some of Jim’s thinking see the latest Redcliffe encounters journal (edition 40) at http://www.redcliffe.org/Portals/0/Content/Documents/Centres/Encounters/40/Westerners_Involvement_in_Projects_in_Africa_-_Hindrance_Help_or_Necessity_-_Jim_Harries_40.pdf.

Reviewed by Andy Kingston-Smith, Lecturer in Mission, Redcliffe College, Gloucester, UK

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