Great Article on Missions

Written By: Daniel Gregory - Aug• 18•11

This is a wonderful article concerning mission’s written by the son of one of our church members who is a missionary in Africa – originally published in Christian Ethics Today.

“Keystone Species” and the Mission Ecosystem
by Sam Harrell


I am privileged to live very close to one of the earth’s great wonders, the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Spanning a chunk of eastern Tanzania, spilling over into western Kenya, this vast savannah region hosts one of the most bio-diverse regions on planet earth. If you are a fan of National Geographic or The Nature Channel, you have seen glimpses of the great Wildebeest migration that is reenacted each year, the awesome sight of 2 million ungulates in their incessant quest for green pasture.


I periodically visit the Mara where my work as a missionary includes development projects initiated together with Masai communities. The Masai inhabit most of the areas around the Mara and coexist with this ecosystem in a beautiful way. Also, I need a periodic dose of nature-wonder to keep things in proper perspective.


Each time I sit in my pickup on the edge of some hill overlooking this vast expanse, I am struck by the intricate web of life. From the dung beetle to the king of beasts, each of the thousands of species plays a particular role in maintaining this balance. While certain of these species might be more famous (the “big five” – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, cape buffalo) or attractive (cheetah, lilac breasted roller, zebra), all have unique and important roles to play in the system as a whole.


If one species, particularly a “keystone” species, is threatened, the entire ecology of the system is compromised. The elephant and the wildebeest play keystone roles in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The elephant’s voracious appetite consumes 300 pounds of vegetation per day, primarily browsed from tree limbs, bark, seed pods and the like. This opens up dense acacia woodland to create grasslands that serve as grazing and hunting areas for many other species. Large herds of wildebeest keep the grass low and fertile enough for many other grazing species to thrive. Where these thrive, the predators thrive and so on down the line, all the way to dung beetles and tiny insects.


What does any of this have to do with missions and missionaries? The ecosystem described above provides a useful metaphor for describing the effect of different kinds (species) of mission workers carrying out their work in the context of the divine habitat (missio dei). I find this metaphor provides a useful opportunity for critical reflection.


First, we begin with an affirmation of diversity. Indeed, it takes all types to make up a dynamic system. Generally, the more diverse the system, the healthier the system. Creativity and innovation are encouraged and embraced. Participant “species” are oriented toward the greater good, aware that they are indeed a small part of a much greater whole. The diverse system remains healthy and life-giving. My contention is that diversity is a greater signal of overall health than any single particular element of a given system.


The mission enterprise has become much more diverse in my lifetime. Much has changed and, indeed, continues to change. The world is smaller, the mission traffic has begun to go both ways, and the global church has become energized. The northern, western hegemony has been appropriately challenged and ameliorated. Nevertheless, people of faith continue to exercise their God-given mandate to be salt and light, engaging with others of all kinds and callings to be a blessing and a neighbor to people everywhere.


Second, the healthy system has its “keystone species.” The counterpart to the elephant, described in the ecosystem outlined above, is the “career missionary.” This is not a perfect analogy however, because the term, “career” can now mean as little as four years, barely enough time for sufficient language and culture acquisition, the absolute minimum basis for most sustainable cross-cultural engagement. And, the term “missionary,” has become ambiguous and overused. The word has been applied to any Christian who travels to work overseas for whatever reason or duration, whether to proselytize or do community development or both.


I would posit that long-term, inculturated agents of gospel transformation are the “keystone species” in the mission eco-system. Long-term in that sufficient time is devoted to listening, learning, suffering, struggling, and communicating so as to understand and be understood deeply; inculturated, meaning beyond simple translation and contextualization to a level that embraces a deeper knowing that springs from within the root culture or ground of meaning rather than a simple overlay from an alternative world view; gospel transformation meaning a resulting reorientation and actualization of abundant life that accompanies an encounter with truth as a result of a commitment to follow after the example of Jesus. Such “agents,” could be church planters, community developers, doctors, teachers, and a great deal more. They could be of local or foreign origin and from many different cultural backgrounds and exposure. A general assumption is that they are “sent” to work outside of their culture of origin.


As the elephants do their job of opening up dense woodland to the formation of grasslands, the other keystone species, the wildebeest, is able to thrive and increase. These eventually far outnumber the elephant and become a much more significant indicator of the efficacy of the ecosystem. Likewise, the initial missionary efforts clear the way for the growth of the other “species” who then maintain, nurture, expand and direct the work in question, urging the keystone species to search out new horizons.


Beyond “keystone” species, there are those who are able to contribute their essential skill for a brief period or in a less paradigmatic fashion. These “species” contribute greatly to the system by filling unique roles, providing needed diversity of experience and perspective, impacting the system in very positive ways. They are known by many names – short term professionals, volunteers, interns and the like. I think of the multitude of zebra, topi and impala that are interspersed among the wildebeest, essential in their own right, each grazing or browsing on different layers of pasture, providing the diversity that causes ecosystems to thrive.


Also present are “migratory species,” usually non-indigenous, appearing for short periods of time on their way to somewhere else. Their impact is less essential, however the ecosystem provides them with an essential venue for nourishment and is indeed a part of a much larger global/cosmic whole. Service learning, educational or immersion programs and properly conceived and executed “mission trips” come to mind. These cater more specifically to the growth and expansion of the “migrant” participants than they do to the welfare or essential functioning of the endemic species and system. Nevertheless, where they are oriented toward education, genuine discovery, spiritual formation, mutuality and sharing, they do more good than harm.


Unfortunately, a number of invasive species threaten ecosystems globally. These are characterized by their pervasive parasitic nature, thriving at the expense of the system as a whole, taking but not giving, or by their particular inability to coexist with the more natural local order. Such species occur in microbial, plant and animal life. They lack “accountability,” multiplying unchecked and smothering without regard to the beauty and fragility of the system they consume. Devil’s weed and verroa mite are some examples among many others. Ill-conceived, arrogant evangelistic exploits often proffered sensationally through television media are one such systemic equivalent. The “big hair” prosperity gospel beamed via satellite to the slums of Kibera in Nairobi has devastating effect.


“Mission tourism” also comes to mind. Popping in and out briefly uninvited, not staying long enough to get more than a sensational perspective or to reinforce stereotypes, and with no particular commitment other than to satiate a voyeuristic appetite or to be seen by the uninformed to be doing good. “Mission as business” also suffers mixed motives. It would seem preferable to drop the term “mission” altogether from these last two entities allowing each to exist happily and with more integrity in their own right. Certainly good Christian people can be involved in both tourism and business without the need to (mis)use the term “mission” as some form of sanctifying adjective.


So has this description merely been an attempt to stratify and appraise the various levels of mission engagement? Well, sort of. What I’m not trying to do is to ascribe intrinsic value to participants at whichever “level.” Is a teacher “better” than a nurse? Absolutely not, each chosen vocation has unique and essential value. If the missional church movement has taught us one thing, it is that the work of the Kingdom of God on earth is the work of all who follow after Christ. It is not to be left to a few “professionals” selected by the ecclesial order.


What is strongly being suggested is that for the health of the “ecosystem” as a whole, focus and purpose in the context of diversity need to be maintained in order to avoid collapse. Further, I believe “keystone” species have a unique and enabling role in creating this focus and maintaining this diversity.


The “keystone species” in this day and age are persons who find themselves in the midst of a call to live out their lives in service to others in a land or culture other than that of their birth. What separates these from the many who make brief faith sharing forays abroad is that they are more substantially equipped and committed to live among, learn from and work with the people they serve.


For several reasons, such practitioners are becoming an endangered species. This is a cause for alarm. It is a threat to the entire mission ecosystem. ᅠ


Sam Harrell is appointed career field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He also directs the non profit organization Africa Exchange ( ) and facilitates a number of cross-cultural engagement opportunities for a variety of groups through the “KUTANA” program. Sam is adjunct faculty of Practical Mission for BTSR and adjunct faculty of Service Learning for Mercer University. Sam and his wife Melody were both born in East Africa of missionary parents.


Harrell, Sam. “Keystone Species and the Mission Ecosystem” ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Spring 2111 (Issue 82 Page 3)

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