by Bob Lupton Relationships. Two teenagers tossing a football. A couple falling in love, getting married, having kids. Business partners launching a new venture. Church friends sharing a meal.
Relationships all. Why do we have them? Fun, intimacy, profit, nurture? For social creatures like us, relationships have a whole range of benefits, all of which add value to our lives.
So when an affluent American church says they are building a relationship with a poor African church, what value are they expecting to gain? Relationship-talk is common among churches these days. It usually means something like: “We are not giving them money, not much anyway, not yet. We want to establish a relationship first, get to know them, build mutual trust. Then perhaps we will find healthy ways to invest together in ministry. But it’s the relationship that’s most important.” This is familiar, politically correct mission-speak that’s currently in vogue.
Something had to change when colonialistic missions fell out of favor. But simply channeling funds to indigenous leadership had its challenges. Long distance partnerships, we found, were difficult to manage.
So the alternative was relationships. If we invest time simply being together, learning from each other, experiencing the distinctives of each others’ cultures, then friendships will grow, trust will deepen, and we may find our way into productive, enduring mission together. We hope.
But how long will this take? How long before we can launch into a productive project together – one that will not end in misunderstandings or unhealthy dependency? And, of course, our African friends are wondering how long it will be before we trust them enough to let loose of our ample reserves.
It’s a delicate dance, this relationship building. We wonder when (or if) our relationships will become strong enough or our agendas align well enough to allow a true partnership.
Genuine liking. Mutual respect. Enjoyment of each others’ company. Appreciation of each others’ uniqueness. All important, yes. But is this all we want? At what cost? Cultural exchange is a pricey process.
Come on. Is cultural exchange really what we want? Don’t we really want to do something? Build something. Help someone? Don’t we really want to effect change, make a difference?
How long do we have to wait around pen-pal-ing and guest-swapping before we actually accomplish something of significance?
So what is it in Africa (or our other favorite place of need) that we are really interested in fixing? Saving souls? Africans are far better evangelists than we are and besides, they speak the local language and know the culture.
Building orphanages and schools? That may be fine so long as we make a heavy commitment to fund on-going scholarships and overhead. But, of course, we are well aware of the problems such dependency creates. We also know that education without a good job at the end is futile.
At the risk of sounding unspiritual and upending our mission-trip methodology, why don’t we just go ahead and invest our mission money in something that will make a lasting difference? Like a profitable business that will create legitimate local employment as well as produce a return that can be re-invested.
When local people are working, the need for subsidized social services decreases. A profitable company can provide health care. A business that shares profits enables employees to educate their children. Workers with disposable income can improve their homes, maintain their water supply, build their own churches.
Decent jobs do all of this. And more. Profitable businesses spawn other businesses that create additional jobs. Isn’t it time for us to admit that what works so well for us in our culture may be the very thing that will allow other cultures to flourish?
Legitimate business relationships – now there’s the kind of relationship that adds value.