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Cross-Cultural Friendship in the Creation of Twentieth-Century World Christianity

By Robert, Dana L. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Cross-Cultural Friendship in the Creation of Twentieth-Century World Christianity


Robert, Dana L., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


One of the memorable moments during the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 was the heartfelt cry of V. S. Azariah, a young, newly ordained Anglican from South India. (1) In an evening address, Azariah identified racism and missionary paternalism as chief barriers to Christian life. Without all races working together, the full glory of Christ would not be realized. Only cross-racial friendships could reveal the image of the Lord. Speaking to the missionaries present, Azariah said, "Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. 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!" (2)

The traditional reading of Azariah's famous plea has focused on its judgmental and prophetic character: the struggle against racism and paternalism were major themes in twentieth-century ecumenical Protestant missions. But another interpretation of Azariah's speech is to underscore its optimism and hope for change. Azariah believed in cross-cultural friendship because he knew its power firsthand. Although the twentieth-century mission movement has rightly been judged defective when set against the ideals it proclaimed, unless Azariah's glass is seen as half full rather than half empty, it is impossible to understand how Christianity spread across cultures in the twentieth century.

One key that unlocks the history of missions from the 1910 World Missionary Conference to the mid-twentieth century is that of cross-cultural friendships. Christian community depends upon personal relationships, and missionary failures can be traced to their lack. Cross-cultural friendship is a hidden component of twentieth-century missions. Azariah's plea "Give us FRIENDS!" was prophetic because, despite human limitations, friendship made possible Christian community.

This article examines the theme of cross-cultural friendship during the early to mid-twentieth century, a formative period for the growth of Christianity as a multicultural reality. "World friendship" emerged as a mission focus after World War I. Cross-cultural friendships deepened sympathy for multiple cultures and religious practices on the part of missionaries. In turn, their efforts to communicate the richness of Asian and African Christianity back to Western supporters furthered the goal of Christian solidarity across cultural differences. For its practitioners, friendship stood as a bold witness against the racism of the age of Western colonialism.

By mid-century, with the end of European colonialism, organizational trends like "partnership" and "partners in mission" replaced friendship as a suitable ethic for a postcolonial age. Among the questions to consider for further research is whether it is realistic to reemphasize "friendship" as a contemporary framework for relational mission in today's globalized world.

World Friendship as Cross-Cultural Discourse

The 1910 Edinburgh Conference was a milestone in the swelling chorus of appeals for personal relationships as an alternative to the Western superiority complex that accompanied European colonialism. In preparatory papers, for example, missionary Robert Hume noted, "The first word of the Gospel is the word Brother, never the word Sinner, nor even the word Christ, as is sometimes imagined." (3) The youth movements that fed the missionary societies emphasized cross-cultural friendships through the founding of the World's Student Christian Federation (WSCF) in 1895. The egalitarian vision of the younger generation was expressed in the international work of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and its groundbreaking interracialism. The YMCA sent young Westerners to India and China with the express purpose of crossing cultural boundaries and training indigenous leaders. As a parachurch auxiliary to church missions rather than a church-centered mission, youth work was not restricted by colonial traditions such as large mission stations and British class structures.

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