Towards Genuine Partnerships

A Response to “Challenges of Partnerships between Foreign Mission Agencies and the Filipino Church”

Melba Padilla Maggay

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a sought-after international speaker and consultant on culture and social development issues. A specialist in intercultural communication, she was research fellow on the subject at the University of Cambridge, applying it to the question of culture and theology. As part of her lifelong concern for the poor, she has accompanied many development organizations in their journey towards social transformation. She is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, which engages in development, missiology, and cross-cultural studies aimed at social transformation.


Towards Genuine Partnerships

Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 44–45

Part of the problem of the Western missionary movement is that it has come to the shores of recipient cultures from a position of power. Missions had been a handmaiden to colonization and, in recent times, conduits of theological and cultural influence from the countries where they came from, facilitated by having in their possession money and other resources.

Whether they are aware of it or not, Western missionaries come with a paradigm like that of the multinational—selling a pre-packaged gospel by promising resources and technology transfer.

There is much talk these days about contextualization, but I wonder if we have fully grasped what this means in the way we do “mission.”

The incarnation tells us that we cannot McDonaldize the gospel: same ingredients, same size, same way of cooking anywhere in the world. The God of the universe came to a particular culture and a particular time. Unlike the Indian avatars whose fleeting appearances are lost in the mist of legends, Jesus can be pinned down on a calendar; he had a history and lived in a small-town community and a particular geography.

Have we ever thought what the gospel could look like in the places where we have been sent? Have we ever asked the locals what good news means to them? Has our interaction with them brought us to what Latin Americans call a “hermeneutical suspicion”—making us aware that our reading of the culture and even of the Bible may not be all that accurate nor universal?

Also, the incarnation means we come as servants, emptying ourselves of what power or privilege might look like in those places. It is not an accident that Jesus was born and lived among the lower classes; he was not seen as being loaded with resources. The entry of a foreign missionary in a community, by the mere artifacts he brings in—a car or motorcycle, appliances, camera, computer, and other gadgets—signals to the people that there is plenty more where he comes from and so raises undue expectations.

Jesus, as a human being, had to grow in his own self-understanding; his temptations in the wilderness was a testing of his self-identity, what he truly was and how he understood his mission to be. He spent thirty years of his brief life just becoming a Jew; he was not over-eager to get out there and preach.

Similarly, the paper’s suggestion of not starting a project until after we have understood the people’s context of needs is sound. To know what will truly transform, we are to, first of all, be deeply embedded in where people are.  

My impression of the way Jesus went about doing good was that he simply responded to whatever need there was in front of him. He was not programmatic, that is, he did not come to a village with a pre-set intervention, whether a feeding or a health program, not even an unduly universalized, one-size-fits-all kind of message. Apart from the Sermon on the Mount, his teachings were specific responses to people and events he encountered. He refused to be cornered into either/or propositions, like whether to pay taxes or not, or, in our day, the debate over whether evangelism or social action is priority. He simply responded where it hurt and raised people’s questions and concerns to a new level of awareness as to what truly matters, opening a window to new arrangements of reality that the kingdom brings.

It is interesting that when faced with scarcity, Jesus asked, “What do you have?” And often, even if he knew what people needed, he would ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” Poor people need to be made aware of what they have, that they do have a contribution to make towards their own well-being. Those needing help will have to define for themselves and articulate what they really want, and not simply follow the agenda of those who happen to have the funds.

What all this means is that partnerships must begin with local people who have a vision of what their church or community can be. Outsiders can only serve as an enabling environment, and accompany them towards their dreams. This way, the relationship is founded on a shared concern, and there are local champions to sustain the initiative long after the missionary is gone.

Work that belongs to the kingdom usually begins with a relationship, with some bond or connection with local people that soon develops into a shared vision and collaboration on what needs doing.

But often, what people call “partnership” is simply transactional. A mission agency offers a local church funds to do its works of mercy. The church, in turn, does the work prescribed, but soon a patron-client relationship develops. As a disillusioned pastor told me, “The mission hires us as their employees and we do the work for them; all they do is to send in our reports to the funders and take pictures.” As a result, the work is done only for as long as the funds last.

Exit strategies often fail when projects do not begin and end with the local people. The reality is that whether it is an NGO or a mission agency, it will always at some point terminate its presence. It is the people who will remain, and it is an index of the work of the Spirit in their lives that whatever work of the kingdom has begun will continue as the Spirit enables them.



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