Nothing, really. They do a lot of good. Just like a lot of secular NGOs all over the world. BUT they are not the church.
I recently taught a class at WHRI on missiology and development in which we explored (among many other issues) the tension between the needs present in the world and the fact that Christian mission has to be more than simply another development organization.
We begin with the missio Dei to recognize that, even though the Red Cross or USAID are not religious organizations, where their values and efforts align with God’s intention for the world they can be said to participate in the mission of God. In other words, God’s mission is not bounded by any definitions of the church. It is greater than the church, but clearly the church has a unique and particular role to play in God’s mission.
The question is what the unique and particular role of the church or Christians in development work. This raises lots of questions about the place of Christianity among religions big and small. Now, I have spent plenty of time here critiquing development work and laying out some of my thoughts on what good principles of cross-cultural development work might be. In the final post in the series on “The Role of Extranjeros in Development”, I did try to articulate some of the reasons why it was in the character of Christianity to move cross-culturally. However, in many ways that was somewhat of an apology (in both senses of the word, asking forgiveness and defending my position) for my presence in Bolivia. I would like to attempt a more positive articulation of both Christian mission and its role in development work.
Before I do that, I would like to offer up a final caveat. All of the positives I will mention have a dark side. Christianity has been practiced all over the world and often badly. What I would like to get at here is the inherent potential and positives of the Christian tradition for why cross-culture missions/development is not only necessary, but required by Christianity and a potential force for positive transformation.
Found in Translation
The first thing about the Christian tradition that has potential in cross-cultural development work is that it is what some have called the “ultimate local religion”. From the beginning and at its core, Christianity involves translating a message. Language is the vehicle for something beyond language. Unlike Islam, no one but scholars read the Bible in the original languages. Our tradition says that it is not meant to be read in the original languages, but instead translated to communicate to people in their own languages. This idea is in the text itself at Pentecost (Acts 1) when all the people heard the good news in their own language, not one particularly holy language.
This places an inherent value on diversity of cultures and languages. The message is meant to cross over these borders and be translated. This means that it is an inherently contextual enterprise. This also means that the meaning of the message can be somewhat slippery, difficult and elusive. This requires a lot of faith in the Spirit to lead all of us into all truth, because we cannot control or contain the message in our particular language, culture or context. This also means that those who are in some sense the bearers of this message carry it with great humility and compassion. They know that they only understand in part and that upon translation, they may find new facets and understandings of the gospel as they attempt to translate their understanding across cultural and linguistic barriers.
The rise of liberation theology in Latin America is a great example of this. Catholic priests who had been given a particular understanding of the gospel through their training as priests were forced to re-interpret and re-translate the gospel into their evolving context as they were forced to choose between the people and the violent, deadly powers that threatened them.
Next we’ll discuss the evolutionary nature of the gospel as it moves through history as well as cultures and languages.