How do we serve one another in a diverse global church? World mission needs partnership—across national boundaries, between different cultures, and between rich and poor. How do we work together effectively in ways that respect our differences? How do we partner so the rich and powerful don’t overwhelm the weak? How do we partner to give honor to God through loving ‘family’ relations? Tim Stafford talks with Valdir Steuernagel, a Brazilian pastor and theologian whose role in World Vision gives him wide exposure to the global church.
Q: Why does partnership matter?
Both Jesus and Paul tell us clearly that the gospel message is a message of community. It’s never an individual enterprise. We are called to preach the gospel and do good, and we are called to be a community of the gospel. Something beautiful is that God himself is community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And Jesus prayed for us to be a community. The Trinity models for us how to get along, how to be interdependent, how to keep our own specificity without the sense of competition. We are not talking about a pragmatic modus operandi. Partnership is a gospel mandate, which must be expressed in how we relate to each other in a global community. Evangelicals are not very good at that. We look at it through the lenses of pragmatists. We use the word ‘cooperation’ more than ‘community’.
Q: ‘Cooperation’ suggests a high level of individual autonomy.
It’s pragmatism: you put on the table what you have, and we’ll see how we can work together. Instead, we should start with being family.
Q: Are there unique challenges to partnership today?
Certainly. In the past our eyes were focused on the European and American missionaries. Today there are many more players at the table, each with their own particularity. It’s important for us to discern our own experiences, to understand each other, so we serve well together. Western missionaries brought tremendous gifts. North Americans came out of an experience of church growth and revival, with positive stories to share. They brought optimism and a can-do spirit. They could say here it is, you do this. And they brought money. Today it’s no longer like that. One key question is how the North American mission enterprise serves in mission while no longer calling the shots. When you come to the table today, you have for example the Koreans, and they will say ‘We do it our way.’
Q: Or they will just do it.
Exactly. Then we have Brazilians who will say, ‘Look, we can do our own thing.’ This is both good and bad. When I was a young guy, we could say everything is the fault of the Americans: ‘Yankee go home.’ Today I cannot say this, because Brazil too has developed its own empires. This is good, because today we can point to Pueblos Musulmanes International, a Latin American mission that works in Islamic cultures with great ability and years of experience. They don’t ask the North Americans how to do it, they just do it. That’s good. It’s also bad. My wife and I visited Zambia, and our hosts took us to see the huge Faith Cathedral. It was due for inauguration in a few days. We were driving by and saw youths throwing stones against the cathedral. Our hosts told us the church shouldn’t have this land. It was for someone else, but the church had some contact with the government minister and got the land. As a Brazilian I think I know how they got it. We realized it’s a Brazilian church, part of a well-known made-in-Latin-America Brazilian denomination that is working in 100 countries. The front page of the Zambian newspapers told how some of the Brazilian pastors were being kicked out of the country.
Q: ‘Brazilians go home.’
Exactly. We come to the table bringing our own successful experiences, but also bringing our own shortcomings, our disasters, our errors. When we come to the table today we need to come much more vulnerable. I hope the Third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town will be this kind of table. That’s what some of us are dreaming of—a place where we start talking about our own journeys, our histories, our struggles and shortcomings, our painful experiences. When we do that we come much closer together. It’s this table that brings us together, calling each other to fulfill our call to gospel ministry, calling each other to be good stewards of our possibilities and resources, but also calling each other to repentance.
Q: What do you do with those who aren’t ready for that kind of engagement?
There are two voices in me. First, I believe in the gospel. I believe in a continuous call into a new experience with the gospel. I believe in community because I believe in the gospel. I still get excited about the community that the Trinity is modeling to me. We need to continue to read the gospel, and talk to each other about that. Second, I believe in the need for repentance. There are things in my life that I can understand only through pain. So as an older person I need to have patience that allows for younger generations to make their mistakes, and go through pain. We should all be ready to listen to the gospel and repent. Also, you don’t change systems just by talking to them. Don’t be naïve that if you have a good sermon and you pray well together everything will change.
Q: We need to be hardheaded about the difficulties of change.
And not only individually. Corporately. For good and bad you are a product of yourself. Last time I went to Senegal I met Brazilian missionaries starting a simple restaurant, serving churrasco—Brazilian barbecue. In India, a Brazilian missionary working with Afghan refugees runs a soccer school with her Argentinean husband. It’s crazy. It’s beautiful. It’s natural that we take our experience to other people: you take with you what you enjoy. I would say it is much better to take soccer than to take baseball. But I’m a Brazilian! We need to be aware of what we bring, but also to laugh about it, and hold it lightly.
Q: How have you worked through these issues in World Vision? You’re a global organization, with staff and money from many countries. What lessons about partnership have you learned?
The most remarkable lesson was to see World Vision US give up power. Every entity has one vote in the governing council: we in Brazil have one vote; the US that has 40% of the revenue has one vote. I think that was a powerful witness.
Q: How do you see partnership apply to churches which bypass agencies and make direct contact with people in other countries and send teams and funds directly. They just want to build a church or spend a week running a clinic. How do you help them see that they need to make time and space to listen?
If you don’t listen, you will die alone.
Q: Is there a way to listen? A structure? An approach?
I am not much of a believer in listening techniques. I am more of a believer in a gospel that shapes you. The most important piece is where your heart is. Are you willing to listen? If you go on a trip and encounter suffering and poverty and you don’t cry, something is wrong. We should stress that. When you feel strong and powerful, you do not listen. But there are moments of vulnerability. For example, if you are part of a rich middle class church in Brazil, and you encounter the poor in a favela, you ask why we have much and they don’t. Why do they suffer and we don’t? If you have the gospel in your mind and heart, you will be hurt by the suffering of others. We must also recognize that we dominate those in a vulnerable state who cannot say no to us when we offer all our programs and resources. We must listen first. Try to find partners who critique you. It’s so dangerous only to have partners who want your resources and will do everything possible to make you happy while you are there. You also need partners who engage you and raise difficult questions, so that you establish real conversations. Try to establish long-term relationships. Short-term missions should, if possible, be aligned to some kind of long-term commitment. In our mission history, the missionaries I really value are those who went for life.
Valdir Steuernagel is a senior statesman in Latin America and provides counsel to the Lausanne Global Executive Director / CEO, with discerning eyes on Latin American issues in global mission. Most recently, he was World Vision International’s Theologian at Large, after having also served as the Chair of World Vision’s Board and Vice-President of Christian Commitments. He is a member of the International Council of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and has served with IFES in Brazil. Today Valdir is pastoring a local Lutheran church while continuing his ministry within and outside of Brazil. Valdir is also a former Lausanne Board member.