A few months ago I was engaged in a conversation with an American pastor who is slowly becoming a dear friend. His church has sent and supports missions in Europe, South America and Africa. Upon hearing that I am from Africa he wanted to hear my thoughts about missions in Africa and what his church should know about the state of the church on the continent. What started off as a one on one conversation ended up being a group talk with a few other brothers joining in. This prompted me to put my thoughts into writing for the sake of clarity. Two caveats are wise at this point. Firstly, I will largely draw my thoughts from the Zambian scene, and secondly, I will speak in general terms. So, there are exceptions to every point that follows.
There are gospel preaching churches in Africa
There was a point in time in the history of Africa when everywhere you stepped the gospel had not yet reached there. Thankfully, through the pioneering work of a legion of missionaries, the gospel reached and spread in Africa. As a result, there are gospel preaching churches in Africa today. Yes, cults are proliferating, the prosperity gospel in hybrid form is flourishing, liberal churches have their growing masses and animistic beliefs are ever rampant. However, that is not the whole story. God has His remnants who have not bowed their knees to Baal and they faithfully believe, live out and preach the true gospel. The 19th century version of African paganism and spiritual darkness is now two centuries behind us. The Lord has raised up voices who herald his word to the lost and he has built up solid, healthy churches in the midst of falsehood.
There are church planting churches in Africa
Furthermore, there are churches who are faithfully, sacrificially and cheerfully planting churches in places where the gospel has not reached. These churches are faithful and passionate about missions and send out missionaries. And while these statistics may not appear on the international missions sites, believe me, western missionaries are not the only missionaries doing church planting in the cities, towns and villages in Africa. In some cases the church planting efforts are done in partnership between African and western missionaries. It is worth noting that the majority of the evangelical denominations have been in existence for over 100 years on the continent and they have been proclaiming the gospel. Contrary to popular belief, the Lord is building His church in Africa and yes there is still plenty of work to be done to reach the estimated 350 million unreached people on the continent but it is important to note there are churches in Africa obeying the great commission and planting churches.
Western worldview is not equal to a biblical worldview
In my interaction with and conversations with western missionaries, very few of them adjust to the culture they go to minister in and most of them struggle with cross cultural relationships and ministry. It is not uncommon to find western missionaries serving in Africa living in a western bubble, rather than learning the culture and developing meaningful, sincere relationships with the local people they minister to and work with. Conversely their African brethren will often not be forthright with their counterparts as well. This invariably leads to all kinds of relational and ministerial problems. One unfortunate result of this is that they fail to understand the culture and develop the tendency to label everything African as evil and consciously or unconsciously brand everything western as biblical. The outcome then is that you have ministries in the depth of Africa that look like and act as if they are in the west. Sadly, this does is encourage the false notion that Christianity is a white man’s religion. Western missionaries however who are humble enough to listen, learn and build sincere, transparent and healthy relationships in the midst of diversity display the power of the gospel before the watching world.
Western fights are not necessarily African fights
In 2007, I met an African brother who, after the introductions, asked me what my thoughts were on the King James Version debate. I responded by asking him if he worked with American missionaries. I was right! We have some American friends who love a good fight and are more than eager to make a mountain out of an anthill. All you have to do is visit the blogosphere to find out what the latest fight is all about. Granted, this spirit is not always wrong because there some fights that have to be fought with the same vigor cross-culturally. However, some fights are contextual and should be kept that way. It only breeds division and strife to make an issue of something in a place where it is a non-issue. Just because “rumble in the jungle” was a hit does not mean every fight should be brought to Africa!
Mutual partnerships are healthy
There is a lot the church in Africa can learn from the brethren in the West, and vice versa. Missions is God’s global work and agenda that he has entrusted to the church universal. There is therefore great potential for healthy mutual partnerships between churches locally and internationally in church planting endeavors. We can learn a lot from the church at Philippi (1:5) in their efforts to support the proclamation of the gospel. I fear that too many of us are building little kingdoms for ourselves and are sad and envious when others do the work and see God’s blessings. What better way to display God’s glory than mutual partnerships between churches from diverse backgrounds—and all for the proclamation of the gospel?
Unity in diversity is beautiful and God glorifying when achieved. It is, however, hard work. Cross-cultural ministry is both an opportunity and a challenge to display the power, wisdom and glory of God before the watching world. Many times we mess it up because we have the propensity to make ourselves and our desires the center of missions. Remember, missions is God’s idea and it is His work. Let us seize the opportunities that our diversity brings by joyfully, graciously and honestly working together through the challenges of cross-cultural missions.