I met him for the first time in 1994, in Oradea, at a theological consultation. Hew was the person I was most impressed with at that event. He appeared to me as a passionate, imaginative and prophetic type of missions theologian.
Years later, I had the honour of working under his leadership in World Vision.
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Valdir Steuernagel says we need to learn how to serve in a fellowship of rich and poor, Africans and Asians, subsistence farmers and tech professionals.
The realities of world missions require partnership—across national boundaries, spanning different cultures, and between rich and poor. How do we work together in ways that respect our differences yet bring tangible effects? How do we partner so that the rich and powerful do not overwhelm the weak? How do we partner so as to give honor to God through loving “family” relations? Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford interviewed Valdir Steuernagel, a Brazilian pastor and theologian, and vice president of Christian commitments at World Vision International. His roles expose him to the church in scores of countries around the world.
Why does partnership matter?
Jesus tells us very clearly that the gospel message is a message of community. Paul says the same in his letters. The gospel is never an individual enterprise. In the same way in which we are called to preach the gospel and serve the poor, we are called to build community. To be a community of the gospel is never an option but always a mandate. Jesus tells us clearly that this is so important, he is praying heartily for it.
Something I have been trying to learn is that God himself is community. It’s beautiful, and I am fascinated by it. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are a community, and they model community for us. The prayers of Jesus to his Father are amazing. What the Father tells the Son is deep and loving: “You are my beloved Son.” The way Jesus talks about the Spirit coming is warm and intense: “I’m leaving but the Spirit is coming.” The Trinity is a community that 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 simply talking about a pragmatic modus operandi. We are talking about a deep core of the gospel that we need to obey. And I would say that we evangelicals are not very good at that. We look at it through the lenses of pragmatists. We use the word cooperation more than community or family.
Cooperation is a word that suggests a high level of individual autonomy. It’s a contractual word.
And it’s more pragmatic. You put on the table what you have, and we’ll see how we can work together. We should start with the challenge of being a community in order to arrive well at the level of cooperation.
What are the unique challenges of partnering today?
In the past when we sat around the table, our eyes would have been focused on the European missionaries. What will they bring? Last century our eyes would have been focused on the North Americans. We thought only about what they brought to the table. Today when we sit at the table there are many more players. One comes from Brazil, another comes from Africa, and one comes from Korea. They bring their own particularity; they bring their own experience and discernment to the table. It’s important for us to listen to each other. If we don’t listen we don’t discern well, and if we don’t discern well we serve poorly.
Can I tell you a story? I am a Lutheran, and I went to theological school in Brazil where some of the professors were Germans. I remember trying to take notes as a first-year student in systematic theology. The professor was teaching in German. I was taking notes in Portuguese. In German, the verbs come at the end. In Portuguese the verbs come at the beginning. So to start writing I was waiting for the guy to give me the verb so it would make sense, but it took so long for the verb to come, I lost the second sentence. Sometimes when we try to communicate through our different languages and cultures we miss the second sentence.
Not that long ago, as missions historian Andrew Walls points out, every missionary was a white, blue-eyed person. When they came to the table, they brought tremendous gifts. North Americans came out of an experience of church growth. You had experienced revival in your own country. You brought optimism: “We can do it.” The church growth movement and the unreached peoples movement intensified that. “How many unreached peoples do we have? Let’s map it out. a.d. 2000. Let’s do it; let’s do it now. Yes we can.”
It wasn’t only theory; it was also experience. You came to the table with a lot of positive stories and ministry experiences that you could share. Pentecostalism! Azusa Street. World Vision. Campus Crusade. Youth for Christ. Billy Graham. You could sit at the table and say, “Here it is; you do this, this, and this. You can follow the process. We know how to do it.”
And you brought money. You could write checks. Money is a powerful tool.
Today when you sit at the table, it’s no longer like that. One of the key questions is, How does the North American missions enterprise sit at the table while no longer calling the shots? When you come to the table today and you have the Koreans, they will say, “We do it our way.”
They won’t even say that; they will just do it.
Exactly. When you have some of the Brazilians at the table, they will say, “Look, we do it our way.” This is both good and bad. Some years ago when I was a young guy, we could say that everything was the fault of the Americans. Yanqui, go home—all that kind of stuff. I cannot say this any longer, because Brazil has developed its own empires, and we have made our own mistakes. So have the Koreans and the Nigerians, and so will the Chinese.
The expanded table is good, because today we can point to Pueblos Musulmanes International, a Latin American mission that works with great ability in Islamic cultures. They have found ways to do missions with much less money and more simplicity. They have 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 arrived in an African country, and our hosts took us to see a new cathedral. It was due for inauguration a few days later. It’s a huge cathedral. We were driving by and saw youths running, picking up stones and throwing them against the cathedral. Our hosts told us the church shouldn’t have this land. It was meant for something else, but the church had some contact with the government and they got the land. As a Brazilian, I think I know how they got the land.
Later that day, we realized it was a Brazilian church, part of a well-known, made-in-Latin-America Brazilian denomination that is working in 100 countries. The first page of the Zambian newspapers told about some of the Brazilian pastors being kicked out of the country.
“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 with much more vulnerability.
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. That’s a beautiful table. I celebrate that table.
What do you do with those who aren’t ready for that kind of engagement?
There are two voices in me. One, I believe in the gospel. I believe in a continuous call into a new experience with the gospel. We need to continue to read the gospel and talk to each other about that.
Second, I believe in the experience of repentance. There are things in my life that I understand only through pain. So as an older person, I need to have historical patience that allows for younger generations to make their mistakes.
We all should be ready to listen to the gospel and repent.
Beware of the power of the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. The reality is that the North American and European missions enterprise still has a lot of money, while many other players have much less. It’s not easy to have money and still listen. We need to value what each other brings and learn to partner within that frame.
And also, you don’t change systems and regimes just by talking to them. Bureaucracies don’t change easily. Don’t be naÏve, thinking that if you have a good sermon and you pray well together, everything will change. It usually isn’t like that. I can see a lot of tension, conversation, and repentance at today’s table of partnership for missions.
We need to be hardheaded about the difficulties of change.
And not only individually. Corporately as well.
For good and bad you are a victim of yourself, a product of yourself. Last time I went to Senegal, I said that I wanted to meet the Brazilian missionaries in Senegal. And there were several. We had a meeting at the home of one family who was starting a very simple restaurant. The people serving were former street children. What do you think they were serving? Churrasco, Brazilian barbecue. What do we bring with us? Barbecue. It’s a gift.
And how many Brazilian missionaries are working with soccer schools? Priscilla is a Brazilian missionary in India. She’s been there since she was 19 years old, and meanwhile she married an Argentinean. They are working with Afghan refugees. What do they have? A soccer school. A Brazilian married to an Argentinean teaching soccer to Afghanis in India. It’s crazy. It’s beautiful.
Just like North Americans took baseball schools to Latin America.
It’s natural that we take our experience to other people, because we think it’s important. We love it. You take with you what you enjoy. I would say that it is much better to take soccer than to take baseball—I’m a Brazilian [laughs]. We need to be aware of what we bring, but also to laugh about it, and thus relativize what we bring.
How have you worked through these issues in World Vision? You’re a very international organization, and your staff come from all over. The money comes in from many countries. What lessons have you learned about partnership?
The most remarkable lesson I remember was seeing World Vision U.S. give up power. We came up with a proposal that every entity should have one vote. They were part of that decision. When it comes to the governing council, we in Brazil have one vote; the U.S., with 40 percent of the revenue, has one vote. I think that is a powerful witness.
How does partnership apply to the huge numbers of churches that aren’t going through established structures to do missions, but are making direct contact with people in other countries and sending teams and funds directly? How do you help them see the need to make time and space to listen?
The first thing that comes to my mind is that if you don’t listen, you will die alone.
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?
I would say that 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 [slum], you realize something is wrong. Why do we have it and they don’t? Why do they suffer and we don’t? If you are a gospel reader, you will be hurt by the suffering of others.
One of the principles I’m trying to follow is this: Don’t expect them to say no to us when we offer our programs and resources. They have been in such a vulnerable state that they cannot say no. It’s not fair. You put all of your resources on the table and then you say, “Tell me if you don’t want it.” Don’t do that. Listen first.
Try to find partners who critique you. It’s so dangerous to have only 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 relations, because long-term relationships will bring more reality to the table. I am afraid of short-term missions. I know they are a reality, but they need to be put into a context and, if possible, aligned with some kind of long-term commitment. In our missions history, I really value those missionaries who went for life.