Posted on February 7, 2016
Posted on February 7, 2016
One of the fine folks we get to interact with every now and again is Brandon Jones. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya and is from the US originally. He is a deep thinker, but also very much a practitioner in helping ignite movements of people to follow Jesus. One of the difficult dynamics of working in Africa as an outsider is that every action feels like it carrys the possibility of colonial or oppressive shadow sides. Brandon helps de-stigmatise and articulate the role of an outsider in a way that can contribute to kingdom activity while working in someone else’s native land – Liam
In our church planting work it’s not uncommon for people to question our role as outsiders, in terms of the important shift towards recognizing the great need to empower strong local leadership, particularly where sustainability and long term transformation is desired. Where this isn’t a priority you often see colonialism rehashed and projects that fall apart as soon as outsiders leave.
I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t just be better if people like us left the fields we work in; what if we just hoped that local people would establish and run with everything? This way it would look indigenous and hopefully would last. But – I’ve never been able to shake the sense that we are actually called into this church planting work – that we should be doing what we are doing (just making sure that what we are doing is responsible and sustainable).
To back this up, I once had the opportunity to hear a strong local African leader speak to this very point. Trying to be provocative, another American friend, asked this African leader if westerners should even be here or if we should just pack up and go home. His response was quite helpful and I thought I’d expand upon it here for those that might be wondering the same thing (whether you work in Asia, Europe, the Americas or Africa, as we do). He speaks out of the church planting context and is involved in many projects and partners with many groups in western Africa.
In his response, he pinpoints 7 clear ways that describe partnership. In these 7 points he details why we, as outsiders, shouldn’t just pack up and leave.
When we partner through vision, we help to identify what local leaders are called to lead into. This doesn’t mean we necessarily provide the vision wholesale. Rather, it’s an identification process. It means we take time to listen and tease out the perceived needs and desired direction a particular community is moving in. Often we are able to aid in articulating and casting the particulars of vision. Often we are able to paint a picture of what could be and point others directly to it. Often as outsiders we might see the fuller picture just a bit more clearly. Vision is quite important, as you cannot gain what you cannot see. Further more, where vision is not clear human nature tends to dictate that we wander, mostly aimlessly, in directions that distract from what is actually important.
You can’t really understate the importance of training. With the right knowledge and training people can go much further than they could without it. Often an outside perspective is able to discern the type and depth of training needed to move a leader or community from point A to point B. Training also insures that we are working ourselves out of positions, particularly positions of power, as we train local leaders to fill said positions. It’s an important “high impact / low visibility” thing we can do. If we are doing our jobs well, we should be giving our best away so that we remain invisible and locals step into the forefront. If we are doing it exceedingly well, we are actively training ourselves out of jobs so that others might step into them.
It is important to let the world know what is going on. As an example, the Syrian refugee crisis started several years ago but is just now capturing the world’s attention. While we may have talked about it back then, not everyone did and many people across the globe were surprised at the magnitude of the problem. As outsiders we can help clue the rest of the world into what’s going on by capturing information and events in order to make them known to the world outside. This is however, a sensitive process and not always acceptable and permissible to share. It’s also a process where we need to be careful not to fall into slacktivism (activism from our lazy boys that doesn’t actually do anything, like simply changing a profile picture) or even worse, exploitation. We must always tell the story out of relationship and with permission and only where it will bring positive impact. Where we share the story for our own gain we are not helping but hurting, often tremendously. We can aid significantly through the marketing and awareness process but only where it’s done sensitively in partnership with local leadership.
Developing the proper administrative efforts for supporting, empowering and encouraging work can be quite a challenge, specifically where it’s never been done before. It is definitely not a glamorous role (most people don’t want to be stuck in an office) but it is a vital role in many circumstances. This is something we can teach locals to do and succeed at easily as we do it alongside them. It’s important to keep in mind that, more often than not, administrative efforts do not have to be incredibly elaborate and complex: just simple structure to aid the effort.
If we, as outsiders, are able to successful identify emerging local leaders it becomes a real gift to the community as we encourage and empower them to take an active role in the work at hand. Often we will see and encourage potential where many will ignore it, especially those within a community. Looking from the outside in we carry a different perspective that might be a boon in this area (connecting potential leaders with appropriate positions).
It’s not about making people look like us. In the context of church planting work, it’s about focusing on the Gospel and not my preferred American version of church. In development work it’s about identifying solutions desired by indigenous culture rather than acting as colonial overseers. By separating our own culture (that means for me my “American-ness”) from the desired message itself, we enable the message to flourish locally. Where we don’t do that we create weird hybrid people that take on aspects of our culture that just aren’t reproducible and limit long-term sustainability. If we as outsiders can successfully model this ability to identify what matters, local leadership, as they seek to take the next step in helping neighboring communities as they’ve helped there own, will carry this notion with them.
We can help identify what a community already has that they might be overlooking. And where there might be lack – we can help find the necessary resources to compensate for it. Often through looking from the outside in we are able to see the hidden strengths that locals might overlook when examining their own community. The flip side of this might be true as well: we can perceive potential needs that locals might also miss. We should be helping them identify these things. An important note: this doesn’t mean we always bring in the money. Resource can mean a lot of different things and is very dependent on the community, project and task. When the focus is solely on money, particularly in the context of what can be brought in, we often hurt communities more than we help them (through creating dependency, creating false expectations, limiting sustainability and local reproducibility, etc).
These are the 7 important roles outsiders can play according to my friend from Western Africa. It’s his perspective on the importance of insiders partnering with outsiders like us. We’ve seen the strength in this in our work and it drives us to keep walking in this direction.
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