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Questions about Missions
A Review of
From the Inside Out:
Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Allen Stanton
When I was a child, my father ran a homeless ministry in a deeply impoverished part of North Carolina. When a new family shelter and community development center opened in a former school building several miles from the original shelter and soup kitchen, my father recognized that he needed to visit with the members of his new community. My dad, who is white, asked several of his close partners, mostly African American pastors, to introduce him to voices that he would not hear on his own. They decided to take him to a crack house, just a few doors down from the family shelter.
“What is it you want to see in the community?” my dad asked the drug dealers.
“Honestly, we want a safer place for our kids,” they said with earnestness.
At different points in my education and my ministry, I’ve wrestled with the seeming incoherence of that story. What did I not understand about the lives of the people in that house? What history, what systemic issues, led this community to have a family shelter and a crack house a few doors apart? What role do I – or should I? – have when it comes to the development of that community? Is there a responsible way to approach justice and mission?
As I read Ryan Kuja’s From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, I recognized that he is asking the same questions. Kuja, whose focus and experience is more intertwined with international missions, is rightfully critical of much of the conventional wisdom of missions.
The strength of this book is twofold. First, Kuja does a masterful job of providing a concise analysis of colonialistic missions. In the first three chapters, Kuja explores how history and theology have intertwined to create problematic missional endeavors. While it is not groundbreaking or new, it is a highly readable and compact survey which should be helpful to readers who are beginning to ask questions about evangelism and missions.
The second strength of this book is in Kuja’s exploration of psychology and mission. Kuja admits to being a broken person, and he wants readers to recognize their own brokenness. Part of the issue with the way we do missions, the author contends, is that we in the West use it as a way of correcting issues within our own egos. These issues might be diverse: we want to be needed, to feel like we have given something back, or we want to make ourselves feel more important. In Kuja’s own example, his missional work was a way of avoiding a prior psychologically scarring event. Whatever the psychological motivation, our inability to deal with these issues ends up harming both us and the people we seek to serve.
As I read these chapters, I thought back to my time in South Africa, and the nights I spent serving homeless on the streets. Each Wednesday night, I sat with a man named Gerald. Gerald had lost a leg to diabetes, and our doctors told us that he would soon lose the other one, likely along with his arm.
We started to arrange medical transportation for Gerald, who flatly refused. “No,” he said, “If I lose my other leg, if I lose my arm, I will already be dead. You might as well cut off my neck.”
If Gerald was going to die, I reasoned, we should at least not let him die on the street. I offered to call his daughters, who lived not far away. We could take him home. “No,” Gerald was adamant. “I will die here in these streets with my dignity. I will not be a leech. It is dishonorable.”
I wrote back home to my father, who had a piece of advice for me. “Seems to me,” he said, “that you imagine a triumphant homecoming, where the family will be reunited because of your work. That is not your job. Your job, as a pastor on those streets, is to allow him the dignity he deserves.”
This book highlighted my own ego, my own lack of psychological awareness, in my necessarily blunt terms. My perception of dignity was not Gerald’s, and my ego prevented me from appreciating Gerald’s dignity.
But while the book’s strength is twofold, it is also carries some significant faults.
First, and perhaps most importantly, Kuja writes a with an unnecessarily broad brush. He is passionate about his subject, and his passion leads to some moments of anger and brashness, He often unnecessarily names individuals whose work is neither high profile or current, which feels antagonistic rather than developmental.
At times, this is broad brush leads to some interesting theological conclusions. In one instance, writing about the ongoing debate between charity and justice, Kuja writes that charity is akin to Santa Claus handing out presents. “Biblical justice has to do with Jesus. Charity has to do with Santa Claus. And there is no such thing as charity in the Kingdom of God” (55).
While charity can in fact be dangerous, it is also true that charity is sometimes necessary, and even a path towards justice. As I write this, I am flying back to visit my home state of North Carolina, with whole towns destroyed by the rivers overflowing from Hurricane Florence’s rain. I can well remember those waters in my own town from a similar catastrophe in 1999, and the people who came to help us rebuild. It was charity that we needed and received with gratitude. At times it could be misguided, which is why this conversation is of the utmost importance. Kuja seems to leave little room for such nuance and has avoided large swaths of the contemporary scholarship in the field.
The second flaw is that, as I finished reading the book, I could not determine who is well suited to do missions, or even what that mission resembles. His ideal missionary, Paul, is described as coming from an urban core with a great cosmopolitan education (104). While cultural competency is clearly necessary in any mission field, the implication seems that only those privileged enough to be formed in urban cores and receive excellent formal educations be allowed to serve in missions, which seems misaligned from the broader conversation about justice. And, what is the point of the missions? Is it to build relationships and increase fellowship? Is it to heal the sick? Eradicate poverty? Kuja is unclear as to what meaningful missions is, while remaining critical of most missional endeavors that he has encountered.
Perhaps the appropriate way to end this review is by saying that this book is passionate. Passion prevents it from being the great book that it could be, the vital contribution that the field of missiology really does need. But that passion also sustains it. It is passionate about a subject that frankly needs more passion. In that sense, it is a worthwhile book, and I hope that it sparks some much-needed conversations.
Allen T. Stanton is a pastor in the United Methodist, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College. His work on economic and community development has appeared in numerous places, including Faith and Leadership and Practical Matters.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com