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Mission in humility: Revisiting our methods

CMS missionaries Arthur & Tamie Davis support and encourage Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES) staff, who help Tanzanian students meet Jesus and follow him beyond university. Here Tamie and Arthur share how approaching mission in humility means learning to think differently. 

Humility in mission is about revisiting our methods in cross-cultural ministry, and aspiring to use local languages, local resources, and local thinking styles. Sounds simplethe reality is complex!  

Questioning our language 

CMS has long emphasised in-depth language learning, and ensured that its cross-cultural workers get plenty of time for that, without being rushed into mission work.  

We completed a four months’ language intensive with a tutor when we first arrived in Tanzania, and soon after were able to begin preaching in Swahili. Yet we see local language as more than just a medium for a predetermined message. Tamie had the experience of going to the market and having mtundu! (naughty!) yelled as she passed by with our son. Months later, it dawned on her that she was not being criticised, but offered sympathy as she attempted to keep up with a lively two-year-old. This is what vulnerability feels likebeing unable to grasp why you are being set upon by others, because you opt to operate in their language. 

And yet, these days, Arthur mostly uses English within TAFESPeople in TAFES now see English as going hand in hand with academic and professional excellence, and part of belonging to a wider world.  

Yet, learning Swahili is not a waste of time, because it opens up a thought world which informs how Tanzanians use English as well. For example, the word ‘success’ in English has a sense of finality, of having reached the endpoint on a line. However, the Swahili word Tanzanians translate as ‘success’ (mafanikio) is the high point in a cycle of growth. A preacher speaking about ‘success’ in this context is likely calling for perseverance, rather than a solution-oriented, get-rich-quick messageThe ability to recognise this ‘new’ English usage, and the ways in which it reflects underlying Swahili thinking, is vital for ministry here.  

In this way, local language remains an indispensable part of the picture even in spite of how much English is used. It is inadequate to say, English is used here, so it is not really necessary for me to use the local language. We learn language in order to listen, to make ourselves vulnerable, to have our mindset altered by a different vantage point. 

Questioning our resources 

In CMS circles it has been said, ‘We are for people, not projects.’ The temptation to ‘fix’ poverty or mismanagement with money is real, but in the end this often creates bigger problems, as local people come to depend on foreign backers and interests, rather than growing in their own capacity. For this reason, we limit ourselves to ‘human resources’ 

The tension here is that financial and material resources are the very thing Tanzanians often call for. It can be confusing for Tanzanians when CMS only sends people, not money, because authentic relationships normally have a strong economic component here. When Tanzanians ask for money, it is a way of asking for relationship. If we only send people, are we forcing the relationship to take place on our own terms? 

The question persists even when we limit ourselves to sending people. TAFES has a great need for more staff workers in university and college campuses. We have chosen to resist recruiting any from Australia, which would tip the ratio of foreign workers to Tanzanian workers, and subtly shift TAFES away from being an indigenous organisation. Our aim is to minimise our footprint in TAFES—not that we can’t contribute, but to do so in a way that recognises, honours, and promotes local structures and resources. This means putting aside concerns about efficiency and pragmatism, and focusing instead on indigeneity: what’s going to the be the most Tanzanian thing? Let us honour the local context—and in the end that will be the more sustainable path too. 

Questioning our thinking 

CMS missionaries are encouraged not to assume that everyone thinks like an Australian, and to be open to other styles of thinking. Tamie remembers asking a Tanzanian pastor, “What would you say the kernel of the gospel is?” He was aghast: “Why would you want the smallest part of the gospel?” He saw her question as reflecting not gospel priority, but immaturity. This is typical of oral thinkers, who tend to see the whole rather than the parts, and think beyond hierarchies, bullet lists and flow charts. While it may look muddy to us with our Australian preference for precision, being vulnerable means being open to the suggestion that our ways of talking about the gospel are inadequate, and perhaps even incomplete. 

Hear more from Arthur & Tamie in their 2019 article, Training not Downloading. 

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