Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra said of the late John Stott, Rector of All Souls in London: ‘He actually listened to us, unlike so many others who only came to propagate their views and to ‘train’ us.’1
For the Japanese missionary theologian, Kosuke Koyama, an unwillingness to listen has too often characterised Christianity in Asia,. It has been: ‘most interested in teaching people, but not interested in being taught by people … I do not think Christianity in Asia for the last 400 years has really listened to the people.’2
Koyama’s assessment can leave us feeling very uncomfortable, but we need to think hard about whether we truly listen.
So here are six reasons it’s essential to heed global voices outside the West:
- Demonstrating connection
All seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 end with the instruction to ‘hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22). Each letter is addressing the specific context of each congregation, but each church must also hear ‘what the Spirit says’ to the other churches as well.
This involves an attentiveness to the work of the Spirit and each church having a reciprocal connection with other churches. A posture of openness to learning from one another opens our ears to what the Spirit is saying to the wider body of Christ.
Different churches around the globe have something important to contribute to the
- Identifying blind-spots
Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is about listening, not just proclaiming. Listening to people’s stories, spending time to be attentive to our neighbour, listening for the work of God in the lives of others.
We see this in Acts 10-11 where the apostle Peter was on a journey of listening and having his theological furniture rearranged. Mission isn’t just about sharing our knowledge, it’s also about learning – about other cultures and languages, and discovering our own blind spots, and about what we need to unlearn and relearn so that together we can grow in worship, discipleship and mission.
- Facing realities
Taking time to truly listen will, reveal to us the realities faced by Christ followers on the margins and the communities they serve.
These could include:
- Ukrainians fleeing war, or trapped in their cities;
- The growing number of people with disabilities in Southeast Asia3
- Families fleeing climate hot-spots in Central America;
- Chinese diaspora around the world facing increased racial abuse since the pandemic;
- The loneliness of following Christ as a minority in Southeast Asia.
As theologian and author Soong-Chan Rah says, ‘we need to be learning the stories of the have-nots and learn from those who dwell in the theology of suffering.’
- Encouraging humility
This applies across the board but there’s one area in particular where we need to be extra careful: our desire to export our theological systems and education to the majority world must be accompanied by a willingness to receive and learn from the theological reflection being done in majority world churches.
- Expanding Christology
In 1910 a major missionary conference took place in Edinburgh. There were 1,215 delegates, including V.S. Azariah – one of only 19 from the Majority World.
Azariah gave what is probably the most famous speech of the conference. Reflecting on Ephesians 3:14-21, he emphasised:
‘It is only “with all the saints” that we can “comphrehend the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fulness of God”… We ought to be willing to learn from one another and to help one another.’ He concluded by telling the missionaries: ‘You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.’
We know Jesus more fully as we allow ourselves ‘to be changed by real, intimate, brotherly and sisterly fellowship with believers from other countries.’5
- Re-imagining mission
In OMF we value listening to global voices because it is an essential ingredient for discerning the future of mission and to our joining together with followers of Jesus from across the global Church to share the good news in all its fullness.
Today, we have an incredible opportunity as a UK Church to re-imagine mission as we welcome, listen to and co-create gospel witness with sisters and brothers coming to the UK from Hong Kong and elsewhere. Let’s hope Ramachandra’s experience with Stott will be replicated in their experience of us: ‘They actually listened to us!’
Dr. Peter Rowan
OMF (UK) Co-National Director
1 Vinoth Ramachandra blogpost: https://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2021/02/28/true-leadership/ Accessed 27 May 2022.
2 Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God (London: SCM, 1979), 52.
3 In the next 20 years, internationally, Southeast Asia is expected to see the largest growth in the number of people with disabilities.
4 Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 155.
5 Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Kindle Loc 1662.