A reflection by Maria Agonoke MSHR. Maria is a Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary, born in Nigeria and currently on mission in Kenya.


Mission, Give and Take (Paradigm Shift in Mission)




The Church by its nature is missionary. Very recently, a great number of men and women have come to this realization. Consequently, mission is no longer the exclusive reserve of religious men and women. Before now the arrow was from top to bottom but that has changed now.  Many lay faithful today feel called to missionary life.  In the last two centuries missionary outreach was the exclusive reserve of missionaries- Priests and Religious who went beyond the shores of their countries. No doubt these missionaries did exceedingly well. They gave their lives and gave their best. However, a critical analysis and evaluation of some of their activities would score some of them below the margin, perhaps in their method of evangelisation. Hence there is the need for review, for a change, for a shift from the status quo. It would appear that the old understanding of mission probably did not take into consideration that God dwelt in those mission lands long before the advent of the missionaries. The idea was “we are going to bring God to them”. This appeared to be one sided as though the local people had nothing to offer.  It is quite obvious that this notion no longer hold so much energy in the world of today. There seems to be a better understanding of what mission is about.


The Reality


Anthony Gittins outlines the following critical questions that require critical thinking: How, in concrete terms, can we walk to the edges of our cultures and perhaps beyond and into the cultures of others, bringing with us what we truly value and consider to be pearl of great price, but all the time struggling to acknowledge and really respect the riches of local traditions and cultures? What precisely impels us to venture out, and to what extent might our motivations need purifying? How do we prepare to “give,” and at the same time sensitize ourselves to hear what others might to like to receive, or indeed be capable of receiving?[1] Understanding a mission means taking into consideration the questions that may arise as one tries to embark on mission. These are questions that border on Cultures and Peoples. A missioner must be respectful of these. This is because this is what the message of Christ tries to impact on us when we talk of “Inculturation”. It connotes – “Contextualization”, “Adaptation”, “Incarnation” and Accommodation”.[2]

According to Anthony Gittins, “ Inculturation is about what happens when the message of Christ reaches the lives of particular people living in circumstances rather different from those of first century Palestine. More fundamentally, he says that it is about the message itself, about the necessary and the contingent, the eternal and the temporal. It is about the myriad delicate issues relating to respect for the others and yet commitment to Jesus, and about acknowledging where people actually are, existing and morally, yet knowing that they are called to move, to develop, to respond and to grow”.[3] He went further to itemize areas of importance for anyone wishing to respond to the spread of good news:

  • We must never forget that we go to real people living in real situations amidst real problems, but that these people have real wisdom and real aspirations.
  • We cannot believe that the people to whom we go have been forgotten or abandoned by God. God was there before our arrival. We however help them discern other ways of deepening their knowledge of God and the presence of God in their lives (the early missionaries condemned our mode of worship as devilish and evil).
  • Important questions like the following should occupy the mind of a missioner: What do the people value and treasure? What are their customs and ethos – moral ideas and attitudes? How can we help them harmonize these with the gospel values rather than condemn them? A missioner must bear in mind that, every culture has something good in it as well as areas that need transformation. We can however enhance or block this idea by adopting some or all of the following views:

The Ethnocentric Attitude: It is natural sometimes to be ethnocentric at the initial stage, using our own culture as yardstick to judge other cultures or comparing our culture with other cultures but it is always wiser to be aware of this and modify our feelings before it gets out of hand. Every culture has something to offer and everyone has something to receive from others. When we understand this as it should be it reduces prejudice of any kind and opens an avenue for receptivity. For instance, Bishop Shanahan[4] was able to work on his initial impression of the Igbo people of Nigeria and the temptation to dismiss their religion as a mass of superstitions, dominated by idols and maintained by witch-doctors. But when he shared his faith with them and they shared their faith with him he was surprised to find how much they had in common.[5]

The Pessimistic Attitude: This is a situation where an incomer takes a pessimistic stance that it is impossible to make sense of the code (a set of moral principles or rules of behavior that are generally accepted by society or a social group) of another cultures behavior. We all have a bit of this. “Those people”. “That ethnic group”. “They are like that! “You can never understand them”.  Beware of such statements and make effort to desist from using them especially to the hearing of your hosts else it will mar your relationship with them. Do not judge by “Through the looking glass”. No! Go close to them, live with them, experience them before evaluating them. Perhaps one can discover beautiful treasures if only one is hopeful and patient enough. A sure way of achieving this is by adopting the positive stance. Shanahan’s openness and positive stance towards the Igbos revealed to him that they have an anima naturaliter Christiana, a naturally Christian soul.[6] Consequently, he began to see his black neighbours in a new way, different from the way his fellow missionaries saw them. The French missionaries loved the people they preached to, they sacrificed themselves gladly for their sakes, but they could not get rid of a certain patronizing attitude towards them. They spoke of them as the chers noirs, the dear blacks, lovable children who had to be guided with a firm hand for their own good. It never occurred to them that there could be anything of value in African culture or religion.[7]

The Participant Observant Attitude:  A Participant Observer missionary is one who believes that he/she is vulnerable and needs people, for services and information, for hospitality and relationships. He/she believes that the way to understand people is to experience them and their way of life in all its ramifications – eat their food, learn and speak their language.  A Participant Observer believes that things can work out for the people even though it may take some time and can be difficult as it can be. Again we can borrow a leaf from Bishop Shanahan:

Shanahan grappled with the culture of the Indigenous Peoples of Igbo land which includes their language, laws, music, pictures, art, spirituality, wisdom, proverbs, dress code, community living and politics. He was never discouraged even when he experienced the local people use the weapon of their language and proverbs to make fun of him whenever they did not want to take his message seriously or turn down his request for land or conversion. They must have hidden under the illusion that majority carries the vote but Shanahan must have remained patient, knowing that the majority will not always carry the truth.[8]

Belief System: Every culture is unique and so is their belief system. A missionary must take into cognizance of this uniqueness. A lot of things mean different things to different people and different cultures. A missionary must therefore be careful not to translate and interpret what he hears from the perspective of his/her own culture as this may conflict with the meaning and the interpretation of the new culture (personal experience taught me this). I was a victim of this in one of my missions in using the following phrases/words: workman for food flask; slippers for halfback; handkerchief for pocket hand; to love means to have sex; to befriend means to make love etc.  I found myself misinterpreted and misunderstood whenever I used any of the phrases. Yet I thought I had communicated. Do not judge the new culture with your lens of what is morally wrong or right in your culture. You must observe and study the new culture and try to meet the people where they are at. From here you can gradually lead them to begin to understand their culture better in relation to the gospel values and perhaps begin to see from another angle what needs to be transformed.

Do not condemn or allow bias over rule your actions and emotions. Bias comes about because we are often ethnocentric in nature. It manifests itself in different forms: Religious bias, cultural bias, racial bias, academic bias and even personal bias, etc. Bias leads to prejudice and prejudice if not checked can bring about being judgmental. Do not try to change the people to whom you are sent or try to impose your own culture and values on them. This was the mistake made by many missionaries in the past. They came with superiority complex that tried to suppress the cultures of the indigenous people. In Shanahan’s life we see a missionary with a difference even in those days. He achieved what he achieved because he entered into the world of the people. He did not work for the people. No! He worked with them. When you work with the people you learn more about them and about yourself. You collaborate with them, you encourage and empower them. Mission becomes a give-and –take.

Yes, Bishop Shanahan, was a man of vision, a man who was ahead of his time. Be women of vision but do not impose because “without a vision, the people perish” (Pro.29:18). An effective vision is “right to the times, right for the organization (Congregation) and right for the people who are working in it” The genius of a leader (a missionary) in articulating a vision is to make it simple enough to be accepted as realistic and attainable.[9]  Be open to other people’s opinions and share their views. Use dialogue in any project and venture you wish to embark on. Do not presume you know what the people want. No! Lead them instead, to discover this themselves and guide them on how to go about getting it done. On the other hand, when you work for the people you estrange yourself and only work like a paid laborer without touching the lives of the people.

Until very recently, many missionaries worked in many African countries and other mission lands as professionals – paid labourers, as messiahs, as providers of the people’s needs. When they leave they close the chapter and they are only remembered for those things they used to provide them with.  They become philanthropists and yet are far away from them that they dare not want to take after the missionary or join them. The Jews were looking for Jesus not because what he preached made any sense to them but because of the free food he gave them (cf. Jn.6:24-27). Jesus warned them to desist from working for food that would not lead them to eternity. In our mission, no matter what the ministry is and the duration, it should touch the people to whom we are sent. If it does not we are just wasting our time.

In sum, the new face of mission according to Gittins suggests that as missionaries “we need to work constantly to accept our margins and ambiguous status”. We need to understand that we are not primary movers, but collaborators and assistant servants, etc. The primary mover and agent of mission is the Spirit of God while the primary respondents to God’s call are the people.[10]  This view was also shared by Timothy and Patricia when they suggested that paradigm shift in mission today calls for renewal of mind, of spirit, of intention and understanding of mission.[11] We are called today to take the bold step to transform and renew mission, to challenge what is not life-giving and all that has been crippling us.

Pope John XXIII was reckoned for his greatness for his risk-taking behavior, imagination, and creativity. He called the Church “to open its windows and let the fresh air in.” As young missionaries of today’s Church how can we be instruments of renewal for those we work with or to ourselves? A renewed spirit calls for a conversion of heart and mind. It means being open to the Spirit within oneself and in others who hold different perspectives. It means opening to the Spirit in changing times. It means surviving on the strength of the Spirit in a controversial or political environment. It means empowering others to contribute to the success of Congregational renewal[12] As missionaries in the new millennium we must make a difference because there are many lay missionaries today who do exactly what we do. So what is so special about us? What special impact are we making? Are we reading the signs of time? What are the challenges before us today? How do we hope to survive in the present reality that is before us because Missionaries are no longer and should not be seen as messiahs.

The days of “the missionaries know it all and have all the initiatives” are over. The days of dominance are over. If we patronize and dominate the interaction with other people, they may never gain access to the light so necessary for their own personal growth. Therefore Gittin suggests that it is good for us to be on the edges, at the margins. He says, not only does that place us in a position where we may truly co-llaborate or co-operate with others, but it allows us to speak directly, to converse, co-lloquially, together, with others where they are.[13] This is the shift in role, the paradigm shift in mission. We are in the dawn of “collaborative ministry” with the local people, with other religious missionaries and clergies alike. Let us then wake up to the challenges of our time. Let rise up and be alive and active, knowing that mission is a give-and-take venture.


[1] Gittins Anthony J. Gift and Strangers, “Meeting the Challenge of Inculturation, (New York: Paulist Press and Mahwah, 1989), 9

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gittins. J. Gifts and Strangers “Meeting the Challenge of Inculturation”, 10.

[4] Bishop Shanahan, CSSp was an Irish, Apostle of Southern Nigeria and the Founder of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. He worked passionately and assiduously among the Igbos of Southern Nigeria.

[5] Desmond Forristal,  The Second Burial of Bishop Shanahan, (Dublin: Veritas, 1990), 50.

[6] Ibid, 51.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Uko Fidelis OkeChukwu F. Onwudufor  “Bishop Shanahan And Respect For Local Culture”, A Lecture Given on Shanahan’s Day Celebration at the Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity, Onitsha, on 11th June, 201.

[9] Brown Timothy, SJ and Sullivan Patricia, Setting Hearts on Fire,  A Spirituality for Leaders, (New York: St. Pauls, 1997), 73.

[10] Gittins,  Gifts and Strangers, “Meeting the Challenge of Inculturation, 132.

[11] Brown and Sullivan, Setting Heart on Fire, A“Spirituality for Leaders, 64.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gittins  Gifts and Strangers, “Meeting the Challenge of Inculturation,  132.