Unreached Network

Decolonising Apostolic Ministry 3: Bias

Part One

Part Two

In this series of blog posts I am asking the question, “what would it take to decolonise the doctrine and practice of apostolic ministry today? In today’s post, I look at two reasons why apostolic ministry as it is currently taught and practiced needs decolonising. Let’s remind ourselves of Merriam-Webster’s definition of “decolonise:”

“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.”

Both reasons discussed below arise from Unconscious, or Implicit Bias. Our brains receive 11 million pieces of information per second, but our conscious brains are only able to process 40. Our subconscious is designed to process and sift all this information efficiently. Some of these efficiency shortcuts mean that we subconsciously or implicitly discount those who don’t look or behave or organise in the same way as us. Organisations that are serious about decolonisation must address these biases. To watch a useful short video on this topic from the Royal Society, click here.

  1. Recognition bias

In Newfrontiers, apostles are recognised retrospectively not prospectively; following Galatians 2:9; Paul and Barnabas, after at least 14 years of church planting ministry, are given the right hand of fellowship by the other apostles. I love this, and think it is highly Biblical. If a ministry is bearing apostolic fruit, including breaking new ground, planting new churches, building those churches together into a family on a common doctrinal foundation, catching churches up into mission to among the unreached, expressing real concern for the poor, this work at some point merits recognition.

But why does our “global” movement have a disproportionately high number of global north people recognised as apostles? And why are so few recognised apostles from the global south? Why does a white person who plants 1 church get called apostolic, whilst an African sister or brother planting and serving dozens of churches across several nations does not?

Perhaps it is because our definitions and expectations render it easier to recognise this gift in global north men. There are certainly English people who think they are apostolic who probably are not, and majority world brothers who are definitely apostolic but unrecognised, within our family. Just as the death of one white person will make the BBC news, while the deaths of thousands in Yemen or Bangladesh rarely does, there is an injustice at work here.

Affinity bias is a form of unconscious bias. It is easier to recognise “leadership” in others if you can see yourself in them. For example, less than 15% of American men are over six feet tall, yet almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over six feet tall (Malcolm Gladwell – Blink).

Is it possible that this bias is at work in both including those who do not merit it, and excluding those who do, in our perception of who is apostolic? Could this bias even be colouring how we read and teach about Paul, and therefore our definitions and expectations of authentic apostolic ministry? As an example, suffering for the gospel is clearly, in Paul’s mind, an evidence of authentic apostolic grace, but this does not usually get taught as an essential apostolic characteristic (and perhaps if it did, we would have even fewer recognised white apostles)!

  1. Organisational bias

There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that apostles lead organisations. In the European brain, “apostle” is a kind of “leader” and “leaders” have organisations, but this is a Western, not necessarily a Biblical set of connections. In the European brain, if a “sphere” is an area of activity or influence (II Cor 10:13), then it must necessarily be a bounded set (you are either in our sphere or not) with exclusive membership (you cannot be “in” two different spheres). This organisational default of the Western brain was warned against by David Devenish in Succession or Multiplication:

The terminology which described the ‘helpful way forward’ has unintentionally changed in meaning and been used to describe a different concept from what was originally meant. This happened very quickly, within three to four years, for us as Newfrontiers. Instead of its original biblical meaning of ‘an area of influence and activity,’ the term ‘sphere’ (just one possible translation of 2 Cor. 10:13) had come to mean, in many people’s eyes, an organisation with a name to which churches and leaders belonged. ‘Which sphere are you in?’ became a frequent question, which could easily have reduced the concept of being served by apostolic ministry to merely being a matter of belonging to an organisation. It also ran the risk of discounting some recognised apostles because they ‘didn’t lead a sphere’; yet according to that Scripture, part of the definition of apostolic ministry is that they have an ‘area of influence’ (sphere) given by God.

In his Master’s degree dissertation on Newfrontiers’ transition, Maurice Nightingale… argues that a sphere ‘might be a growing family of planted and adopted churches that align with their apostolic authority, or a recognised and extraordinary authority exercised in a particular arena of church practice.’ This broader definition is important.

Having realised that some apostles’ ‘sphere of influence’ does not involve leading a ‘sphere’ of churches, we have found, nevertheless, that we tend to refer to ‘spheres’ in the organizational sense of being a ‘group of churches’ served by an apostolic team. It is probably unavoidable… But our hope would still be that ‘sphere’ is understood primarily to refer to an apostle’s ‘sphere of influence’, whether that is in leading a group of churches or in some other area of mission and ministry. (David Devenish, Succession or Multiplication, 122-123).

Why this default to the organizational, this disconnect between a nuanced understanding of the Biblical term, and a structural or functional application? I would like to suggest three reasons.

Firstly, a Western mindset necessitates taxonomic categorisation, rather than a relational principle of organisation (there is a section on this in my book, Global Humility). So, although we have worked so hard, and so laudably, to see the multiplication of apostolic ministry within Newfrontiers as “relational, not geographic,” our primary source is a Middle Eastern book written about the lives of Middle Eastern men and women who could handle, perhaps, multiple allegiances and overlapping spheres of influence, whether through the dynamics of non-exclusive patron-client circles of reciprocity, or through seeing the world through a lens of relational loyalty rather than taxonomic belonging. Since the engine room of the Newfrontiers transition from Terry Virgo’s leadership into multiplied spheres was located in the West, the outcome has been a principle of organisation which has really struggled, at times, to survive translation for our Global South brothers and sisters.

Secondly, I think that there is a Westen mindset issue that cannot handle dialectical logic: “this is true and that is also true!” Many brothers I know are much happier with a view of the world wherein one does not always have to choose between influences, and where keeping one’s options broad is wisdom. So, rather than being told to choose between “fathers” (I Cor 4:15), some friends have told me that if we want to pursue the family metaphor, family is less nuclear and more extended in many parts of the world. And it is perfectly acceptable to love, respect and receive from many uncles. Hence the discomfort arising from being asked to choose one “father” or “belong” to one “sphere.”

Thirdly, at its most damaging, the carving up of churches into spheres looks and smells (to postcolonial people) just like colonialism. Let me explain: whenever you see a straight line border on a world map it is usually because someone in a colonial office in London or Paris drew the borders of countries with a ruler. Famously, the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 drew a straight line between Palestine and Mesopotamia, with countries north of the line (Syria, Lebanon) falling into the French sphere of influence, and those to the south (Palestine, Iraq, Jordan) into the British – creating tensions and divisions which persist today, a century later. Or the controversial 1849 Treaty of Lahore, from which generations of ongoing conflict over Kashmir have arisen. There is a fear amongst many postcolonial friends that history is repeating itself. Although English friends may be blissfully unaware of these tensions, for those with an acute sense of memory, this process has felt, at times, highly colonial; managed from offices in London, lines drawn for the sake of efficiency or tidiness, local voices not being heard, on-the-ground contextual realities not being considered: it all feels dreadfully familiar.

I believe that Newfrontiers’ transition into multiplied apostolic spheres was a wonderfully Spirit-instigated, prophetically-driven, Scripturally-informed moment. I believe that these multiple interdependent spheres position us wonderfully to be a truly global, polycentric movement in the next generation. However, I do believe that some of the colonial mindset, as discussed in the two areas of bias above, has caused pain and, unless addressed, will continue to cause pain into the future. That’s why I’m arguing for a process of reflective decolonisation.