Africa and Our Philosophy of Missions

Several weeks ago, I attended a Bible study, the speaker at which had just returned from a mission trip. The study took the form of a mission report, and the woman who led the study had a number of inspiring anecdotes to share as well as some gut-wrenching ones about the rural conditions there (which to my frustration, she seemed more curious about than moved by). Throughout the entire presentation, however, I couldn’t help but wonder why she went at all. Her explanation, predictably, focused on issues like her calling and the personal faith journey it represented for her, as well as obligatory references to winning souls for the Lord.

Here’s the problem. Zambia is a Christian nation. Not in the way America is a Christian nation but actually, constitutionally Christian. More than 85% of Zambians self-identify as Christians, a number significantly higher than the number of Americans who so self-identify. And while Zambia is notable, it is by no means exceptional among African nations. There are more Christians in Africa than there are Americans. Note, that was “Americans” not “American Christians.” More critically, the African church is now being evangelized more successfully and more rapidly by Africans and increasingly Africans are being brought in under denominational headings that are non-existent and often unknown in the West.

In other words, the missionaries claim that while the people of Zambia had been “evangelized” they still hadn’t been “discipled,” came across more like American (or perhaps Baptist) chauvinism than evangelistic concern. African Christianity is thriving and growing in ways that Western Christianity have long sensed even dared to dream of. Long gone are the days of sixteenth century Ethiopian scholar Tasfa Seyvon, quoted by David Northrup as writing:

I am an Ethiopian pilgrim…from the land of the infidels to the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Rome I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

I grew up, as so many of us did, with the missionary work to Africa taking center stage, and perhaps then there was a time for it. I don’t know that I ever attended a church in my childhood that wasn’t sponsoring a missionary to Africa. In truth, though, what the African church needs from Western Christianity is not another round of affluent white people to tell them the Gospel. They have the Gospel and they are taking the commission to preach it to all nations very seriously. Instead of evangelistic missions, they desperately need benevolence missions. Missions bringing doctors, food, the means to access clean water, plans for developing local infrastructure, and modern agricultural techniques.

In other words, don’t tell me about going to a country where more than two thirds of the people live in poverty and expect me to be excited that you taught the local preachers to preach more mature sermons. Don’t show me pictures of a village of people who lack the hygienic facilities and the understanding of disease to wash themselves regularly and expect me to be in awe that you saw a man healed miraculously of his sores. I don’t want to hear the song that the children taught you in their native tongue, not those illiterate, naked children who were as hungry when you left as when you arrived. Callous as it may sound, and perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, the next missionary to Africa looking for support or accolade from me better have iodine tablets in one hand, Flintstones vitamins in the other, and these words on his lips: I am an American pilgrim from the land of the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Africa, I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

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