Earlier this year I listened to Prof. Nico Botha at the Roger Schroeder conference in Pretoria. It was a fantastic day of learning and exploring missiology in South Africa. During his talk he referred to an article by Joerg Rieger entitled, “Theology and Mission between Neocolonialism and Colonialism”. It is an excellent essay that has stimulated a lot of thought in the past few months. I would like to share some of my thoughts about the essay and offer a reflection about South Africa in the light of this essay.

The gist of the article is that postcolonial mission has not rid itself of the modes of mission used under colonialism. Rieger notes that,

Talk about neocolonialism serves as a reminder that, even in a postcolonial age, colonial mentalities have not disappeared; many have simply been pushed under ground and have adapted in other ways, frequently taking more vicious shapes than ever before.

In the essay he explores three modes of mission that shows the contours of a colonial mindset within a postcolonial time. The first is, “mission as outreach”. Then, “mission as relationship”. Lastly, “mission as inreach”.

Rieger notes that a postcolonial age does not mean, “… the end of economic dependencies, reflected now in growing capitalist networks that mainly benefit one side.” Throughout this essay he refers time and again to the power dynamics involved in mission(s) that usually merges with economics and “intellectual claims”.

These three aspects: economics, intellectual capabilities and power have a specific influence,

Mission is now shaped by these neocolonial realities, whose dark side is often overlooked. Economic networks distribute power unevenly, intellectual concerns for the other end in affirmation of tolerance rather than equality, and issues of multiculturalism or “inculturation” often do not challenge cultural power.

Mission as outreach

I have noted before that I’m increasingly becoming uncomfortable with the word “outreach”. It strikes me as one-sided. Rieger describes outreach as “soup kitchens” and “blanket drives” as well as short term mission trips or going into a squatter camp During these outreaches people “easily project their own ideas and values on other people”. Those reaching out give and the ‘other’ receives. Those reaching out feel good about themselves without any critical awareness of how they themselves are contributing to the oppression of those they are ‘helping’. To use a basic image it would be like someone who hits a person with the right hand and then bandaging them with the left. This is what Paulo Freire called “false generosity”. A few years ago I recalled my experience with Miguel, this was a classic case of mission as outreach.

Rieger summarizes that,

What is missing in the mission as outreach model is the ability to learn from the other in ways that lead to self-knowledge. What if the question is not first of all, What can we do? but, What is going on? and, How might we be part of the problem? Unless these questions are raised in the encounter with people on the mission field, nothing will change.

In a country like ours where a large group have been benefited from the systemic oppression of others “mission as outreach” can become a band-aid if it is held up as the ultimate mode of mission for the beneficiaries of Apartheid (mainly the white church). It is better than nothing but a far away from the restitutive rhythms of love Jesus invites us into.

In “mission as outreach” we do unto the other. Give a blanket, feed the hungry, build a house – “we” do, “they” receive and then we go back to our comfortable surroundings tapping ourselves on the back. Rieger hits hard when he says that it “performs a much needed service to the system”. Because we are so preoccupied with how we can help the other and shaping them to become made in our image and conform to our world, “we will not raise nosy questions about ourselves. As long as we continue to celebrate our own generosity, nothing can really challenge us.”

The dilemma I see in our country is that “mission as outreach” is seen as the end goal instead of a hesitant but necessary start. A very dangerous place to stay at.

In the next post we will look at “mission as relationship”. What are your thoughts on “mission as outreach”?