Unreached Network

Decolonising Apostolic Ministry: What?

I love Newfrontiers. I am a Newfrontiers boy through and through. And I’m arguing for a process of reflective decolonisation of apostolic ministry.

One of our contributions to the global missions conversation is a robust theology and practice of apostleship. We believe that Biblical language (elder, shepherd, evangelist, apostle, etc.) is more meaningful in a multilingual, global movement than non-Scriptural, culturally-embedded words like leader or missionary. We argue that apostles are still necessary gifts of the ascended Christ, as are the other Ephesians 4 gifts (prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers). If you are new to these ideas, may I recommend David Devenish’s Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission, as a world-class introduction to the theology and practical outworking of apostleship today?

However, I believe that this conversation needs extending further. I believe that both the doctrine and practice of apostleship need decolonising. What does that mean?

Originally, “decolonisation” was the process of cleansing a country from previous colonial infrastructure – government, military, schools, hospitals etc. So, when the English left (were chased out of) an African country to independence, for example, much of the persisting colonial infrastructure took decades to dismantle. Today, this meaning persists, but it is about liberating institutions or discourses from their colonial baggage.

“Decolonising the curriculum” is a move within some Universities, for example the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London. From their website:

“We understand ‘decolonisation’ as the effort to interrogate and transform the institutional, structural and epistemological legacies of colonialism, specifically where these produce injustices within higher education and barriers to knowledge and understanding.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “decolonise” as follows:

“to free from the dominating influence of a colonizing power especiallyto identify, challenge, and revise or replace assumptions, ideas, values, and practices that reflect a colonizer’s dominating influence and especially a Eurocentric dominating influence”

Given this definition, what do I mean by “decolonising apostleship?” I mean that, within many networks of churches, much of the doctrine and practice of apostolic ministry has been taught by white guys. As such, it needs to be interrogated for its “whiteness.” Viz a viz the doctrine, are there blind spots or culturally narrow perspectives that could be challenged or fleshed out by globally informed, power-sensitive perspectives? Viz a viz the practice, are there out workings of this idea that proliferate toxic dependencies, extend Eurocentric hegemony… basically that hurt people and hurt the mission of God? I believe it is the humble thing to answer yes to both questions.

As I always affirm, this does not mean that individuals have extended toxic, sinful practices out of our family of churches. I’m not pointing fingers – you guys know me, and know my love and respect for you (unless, of course, you are toxic and sinful, in which case may the conviction of the Spirit come to you by what I write)!

It is more that the teaching, entrusted to a wider group in the next generation, can be passed on, read, interpreted, developed and implemented in a way that does not confront the colonial mindset, strongholds, assumptions and blind spots present in white culture. Because a lot of the vocabulary is soaked in a set of views that carry the lingering, musty smell of European colonial missionary enterprise, like the stale smell of cigarette smoke on your jacket after a night out (even if you are a non-smoker) we must interrogate the prevailing vocabulary. What is meant, and what is understood by brothers and sisters in post-colonial contexts?

I still hear too much language of ownership/control; “our churches, my leaders.” I still hear too many otherising comments, “why are they like this?” I still see many ways in which people are perpetuating UK-centric paternalism. I still hear people strategising and praying about mission into new countries exactly like Cecil Rhodes might have sounded in wanting to paint Africa pink from Cape Town to Cairo. I often hear people using the term “apostolic sphere” as a concrete organisational rather than an abstract relational concept. I still see unconscionably imperialistic use of financial patronage to control local leaders, “if we pay, we get to say”. I still see recognition bias; we have more recognised Global North apostles than is merited, and fewer than we should from the Global South.

And so I am going to spend a few blog posts over the next few weeks opening up this conversation. Like always, there will be more questions than answers, more deconstruct than reconstruct, and a few sacred cows might get harmed in the making of this idea. I like it when Alison Phipps counts the cost of “what decolonising might require in terms of discomfort, pain, commitment to methodological awkwardness, hesitancy, to a local of control, transparency and fluency.”

You could say, of our current understanding of apostleship, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” a saying arising from the pragmatic mileu of the West. I’m actually not saying it is broken – I’m a huge fan of the doctrine and practice of apostolic ministry across our movement. But the Japanese approach to innovation is one of “strategic accommodation,” or “adaptive persistence,” to keep tweaking and refining in increments. Consider, then, the questions that follow in my subsequent posts my small contribution, in an honouring way, to the incremental adjustment of the restoration of the role and ministry of apostles in the global church today.