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Africa and missions

We spent this afternoon in Kenya with Pastor Oscar Muriu who is the Lead Pastor at Nairobi Chapel, one of the most innovative and effective disciple-making churches to which I’ve ever been exposed. Today he gave us an overview of how Africa has historically been the cradle of Christianity throughout its history, and how that legacy is emerging even more forcefully today.

The following is a transcript of a very similar talk that Pastor Muriu gave a couple of years ago at a conference, which is essentially what he told us today. I share it for some context and as a starting point for some of the conversations I’m looking forward to having when I get home. Enjoy:

At the end of the last millennium, Christian History, a popular evangelical magazine, listed the 100 most important events in the history of the church over the last 2,000 years. The only mention Africa received in that article involved the British abolition of the slave trade. While the article was informative, it missed one of the most significant events in the life of the Church.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it is estimated that the African church had nine million converts, but by the end of that century the Church had grown to an amazing 360 million converts. This fact alone is a miracle and it is such that today in the 70 million worldwide, Anglican Episcopal communion, there are more Anglican Christians in the single country of Nigeria alone than in the whole of Europe and America put together.

In my own country of Kenya, 80 percent of the population calls itself Christian, while 34 percent profess to know Jesus Christ as their personal savior. This is nearly equal to the whole of the evangelicals in Europe put together. The largest congregations in London, in Zurich, in Kiev and in several gateway cities in Europe are today led by African pastors. There are now more missionaries today being sent out of the two-thirds world than are being sent out of the Western Church today. The same type of astronomical growth is being experienced in Asia and in South America—so much so, that while in 1900, 80 percent of the Christians in the world lived in the West, today over 75 percent of Protestant Christians are found in the non-Western world, and nearly 70 percent of evangelical Christians live in the non-Western world.

Some scholars say Christianity is dying, but this is only because they are looking at Western Christianity and extrapolating Western church trends and have forgotten to look south and to see that Christianity in the South is thriving and growing phenomenally. In our day and age, Christianity can no longer be said to be a Western religion. The center of Christianity has moved south.
Perhaps few areas in the world demonstrate this dramatic shift more forcibly than Africa—an area experiencing the fastest church growth of any region in the world today. The World Church Christian Encyclopedia of 2001estimated that African Christians are increasing at a rate of 23,000 converts per day. That’s about eight and a half million per year, while the church in Europe and North America loses an average estimated 6,000 church members per day. The center of Christianity is in the two-thirds world, and especially in Africa.

Up until now, when the question was asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian? What do Christians believe?” the answer was given by looking to the West, but now because the center of definition is no longer the West, we must define Christianity from the perspective of the two-thirds world. And Christianity in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America looks markedly different from Christianity in Europe and in North America.

For one, Christians in the two-thirds world are largely more conservative than their Western counterparts—a fact already evidenced in Canada in the Episcopal Church on the matter of conducting same-sex marriages, and in North America on the ordination of homosexual priests. Already the tendency has been labeled by Western liberal theologians as the conservativeness of the two-thirds world that is primitive.

Secondly, two-thirds world-ers read the Bible from a different starting point than Christians in the West do. The story is told of a church in Congo that was going through a transition several decades ago—transition from the missionaries who had planted and established this church, into the hands of the African elders who had grown up as a result of the witness of the missionaries. And the elders felt that the church had been in the hands of missionaries for too long. And they longed for the day when they would be given the reins of authority to govern the church. The conflict became so heated between these two communities, that they invited a mediator to come and to settle this dispute between them. The wise mediator listened to those things that were said by the African elders and listened to those things that were said by the missionaries, and determined that they were speaking two different languages. He then invited the two communities to take the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, and to go and study this text and then to come and preach it in church on separate Sundays. He wanted to see whether they would be able to handle the scriptures well and, hence, to show their maturity.

Well, the missionary community had the opportunity to study the text and to come on Sunday and to preach from it, answering the question, “What is the central message of the story of Joseph?” And their reply or response was that the story of Joseph teaches us that no matter what happens in life, no matter the hardships that come your way, no matter who betrays you, no matter how powerless you become, if you remain faithful to the Lord, he will raise you up and he will watch over you. And yes, they were correct. This is the message of the story of Joseph.

The following week, the African church elders had an opportunity to come and preach from the same text. And they spoke and said that the central message of the story of Joseph is that no matter what happens to you, no matter how high you rise in authority, no matter how deeply your family betrays you, you must never forget your extended family. And yes, this too is the central message of the passage, of the story of Joseph.

You see, our context gives us our interpretive glasses. And the context of theology in the two-thirds world is a context of famine, of poverty, of HIV/AIDS, of disease, of hunger and of oppression. Christian theology is being rewritten from this context. And African interpreters do not ask the same question that Western interpreters do. New theologies of liberation from oppression, of health and healing, of powerlessness, of survival, of suffering and of hope, will take center stage as the concerns of the two-thirds world find increasing expression. The tendency, however, might be for the Western theologians to dismiss African theology as shallow.

Thirdly, and as a result, our homegrown faith in the South is marked by a more charismatic flavor as compared to the West: prophetic pronouncements against the principalities and powers (whether they be governmental or demonic), maximal participation in prayer and worship, faith healing and intense search for self-worth, an embrace of God’s promise of wealth and material blessing, as well as literal interpretations and applications of the Word of God. The tendency might be to dismiss African Christianity as emotionalism with little substance.

Fourth, the focal point of Western missions in the last century was the unreached people groups of the world and the 10/40 Muslim window. But the focal point of African missions is different. Africa is more concerned with going back to its old colonial masters—going back to Britain, and to Belgium, and to Portugal, and to Spain and to France—and with colonizing the colonization of secularized centers of economic power like America and Canada, than it is with the unreached people groups of the world or the 10/40 window.

My own church has a vision to plant 300 new churches by the year 2020. Thirty of these are to be off the continent of Africa in the gateway cities of the world like Sydney, London, New York, Washington and Los Angeles. But if mission agendas are rewritten by the majority church, the focus of missions will change. And what we call ‘reverse missions’ will take center stage. The tendency might be for the church in the West to dismiss Africa’s missionary effort as misdirected and wasteful.

In addition, it used to be that missionaries were sent from the mission center to the world ‘out there’ – the unevangelized mission field around the world. But did you know that America is the third largest mission field in the world today? Leonard Sweet, in his book, Soul Tsunami, says, “There are more pagans in some Western nations than there are in many two-thirds world nations today.” America ranks as the third largest pagan country in the world, following only after India and China.
Furthermore, the growing realization in the two-thirds world – that the Church in the West is on the decline, unable to engage and evangelize its own people, and that 200 years of church history on this continent have not bridged the racial divide – raises uncomfortable questions for the two-thirds world church today. If Western models of Church are not working in the West, and the Church is in decline, then should the Church in the two-thirds world copy the models of the West, or embrace Western theology? If we do, will we not end up in the same problem? Could it be that to drink from the cup of Western theology is to drink from a poisoned chalice?

This is a changing world in which you must go out in missions. Of necessity, because our world is changing, our models for mission must change. The mission industry of the last 200 years was hugely successful. And the phenomenal growth of the Church in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America bows in honor of the Western Church that gave it birth. We who come from Africa will always be eternally grateful to your forefathers who sent out their very best, their own sons and daughters, and resourced them to bring the Gospel to us in the two-thirds world.

But the world has changed. And the church in the two-thirds world is alive and robust. And the Spirit of God is blowing in a new direction. How will this change the way the Western church conceptualizes missions today? As you today sense a call of God into missions, what is he calling you to? Are Western missionaries needed around the world anymore?
Paul answers that question for us, in I Corinthians 12:14-27. And I read: Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the American church should say, ‘Because I am not African, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the Canadian church should say, ‘Because I am not Asian, I do not belong to the body’, it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were European, where would the sense of joy be? And if the whole body were African, where would the sense of order be?
But in fact, God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The Canadian church cannot say to the Asian church, I don’t need you. And the American church cannot say to the African church, I don’t need you. On the contrary, the Asian parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable. And the African parts that we think are less honorable, should be treated with special honor. And the Latin American parts, that seem unpresentable, are [to be] treated with special modesty.

While the presentable parts, like the big wealthy American church, need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.

We often read I Corinthians 12 as it relates to spiritual gifts within the local church. But I suggest to you that it relates equally to the global church and to global partnerships within the one body of Christ, the worldwide church. So in I Corinthians 12, Paul gives us a new paradigm of partnership. If you come from Africa, the analogy we draw of partnerships is that of relationships. We understand partnerships to be like a marriage. It is for life. It requires a total self-giving. And once it begins, it has no end.
Here in the West, the analogy of partnership is often times a business analogy: two organizations working together. A partnership is goal-focused. It has specific terms of engagement. It has a desired outcome. It is time-limited and has a definite endpoint. But in I Corinthians12, Paul uses a different analogy altogether. The African relational analogy is insufficient in and of itself, and the Western business analogy is inadequate to define what partnerships must be in the Church of Jesus Christ. Instead, Paul calls us to something deeper and richer and yet more difficult – the paradigm of mission partnerships as the body of Christ, with each organ playing its unique role.

What does Paul’s analogy teach us? Allow me to draw four principles from it.
Firstly, is that the purpose of maturity is not independence, but interdependence. Verse 21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, I don’t need you, and the head cannot say to the feet, I don’t need you.” The liver never says to itself, I am all grown up now and I can cut loose from the body because I don’t need the lungs anymore and I don’t need the heart anymore. Any body that functions in that way is a sign of sickness and impeding death. The mature healthy body consists of many different organs all working in harmony, all interdependent on one another for the well-being of the whole body. The liver, in its fullest state of maturity will always be dependent on the rest of the body. And such dependence is not bad or wrong. And a mature organ does not eventually become independent.
So, too, it is in the Church of Jesus Christ. When the local Church or the national Church or the continental Church is mature, it will be interdependent, not independent. When the African church is mature, it cannot stand apart, brush off the North American church and say, “We no longer need you now, we are independent now, thank you very much.” This would not be the body of Christ. Our ultimate goal is interdependence, not independence.

So here is a question for you – the African church knows it desperately needs the American church. But how does a church in North America need the African Church? How does a church in Canada need the Asian Church? I have spoken with pastors on this continent who cannot answer that question. They cannot imagine why the Church in North America would ever need the African Church: “What does Africa have to give? You are so poor. You have so little. You have no technology. What in the world could the African church ever give to the church in North America?” My dear friends, this is not the body of Jesus Christ.
But secondly, every organ in the body gives and takes from other organs in the body. The lungs contribute oxygen to the organs and the kidneys clean out the toxins in the body. The stomach digests energy-giving raw material and passes it on to the heart to circulate. Every part gives to the other and every part receives from the others. This is what we call reciprocity. The old model of missions in the last century was sometimes caricatured as “From the West to the rest.” Missions under this model was a one-way traffic—us going to them—but not so in the body of Jesus Christ. As we develop partnerships between the western Church and the two-thirds world church, such partnerships must work hard at developing and enabling reciprocity. Every time the West sends out a missionary to Asia, it should work just as hard to bring one back to the Americas.
Mission organizations need to retool and re-strategize themselves not just to send out missionaries, but to enable the budding missionary movement in the two-thirds world church and to facilitate “reverse missions,” bringing in Africans, and Asians and Latin Americans into Canada, and Europe and North America. When you send out short-term teams over to Latin America, work equally hard to bring in short term teams the following year from Latin America, that they may come into your context and that they may enrich your faith. Do not allow missions to be one-sided. Build in reciprocity, for this is the nature of the body of Christ.
But the converse is also true. There is such a thing as unhealthy dependence. No part of the body only ever receives and receives and receives and never gives anything back. That would be unhealthy dependence. Each part contributes. A lot has been said about unhealthy dependence in missions today. But the key to unhealthy dependence is not to cut off support, but to build up reciprocity. After all, it may well be that the African church will always be dependent on the North American church, for the liver will always be dependent on the lungs. This will never change. And it may well be that God in his wisdom has ordained that the relationship of the two-thirds world Church with the western Church will always be a relationship of dependence upon you for the gifts that God has given you. But no part only ever receives and never gives back. The answer from unhealthy dependency is to move towards reciprocity within the body.

Thirdly, very few of us live with any awareness of our pituitary gland. In case you don’t know what it is, it’s a small gland that lies in your cranium under the brain and it is about the size of a pea, a green pea. But it is an organ that exerts a huge influence on the body as it gives out, secretes out, maybe ten to 12 different essential hormones that the body needs to operate well. It is therefore called the master endocrine gland in the body: small, seemingly insignificant, and yet vital.
As Paul says in verse 22, “The parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable should be treated with special honor, while the presentable parts need no special treatment.” First impressions are deceptive. Those parts of the church that seem unimpressive in their structures, and their numbers and their theology might in fact be the most vital parts of the body.
What this means is that we must always, therefore, approach each other and especially those who seem small, and fragile, and unrefined and underdeveloped. We must approach them with an attitude of humility and mutual respect as we recognize that they too have a vital role within the body of Jesus Christ. No part of the body is dispensable and useless, and equally, no part is indispensable. All contribute to the well-being of the body. And therefore, the sometimes patronizing cultural arrogance that seems to say, “Our way is the only way and the right way” is not the attitude of the body of Christ.

And then finally—and this draws to our last point—God has given greater honor to the parts that seem to lack it. We must always take up, therefore, the position or the posture of learning and discovery as we approach other parts of the worldwide Church that are unlike us. If you take away nothing today from this message that I bring, take away at least this one thing: you must always enter another culture with the posture of learning. Why do you think Jesus lived in Palestine for 30 years and never said anything? Listen and learn before you speak.

If there is anything I admire about North America, it is your innovativeness. I love, in coming over to your continent, to take a visit to Wal-Mart or to Myers or one of these big stores and I walk along the aisles and I look at the products that are being set out for sale. And I pick them up and I ask myself the question. “What is this, and why was it ever even created?” You see, one of the gifts that North Americans have is the ability to solve problems. And as I hold up these different things in the stores, I say, “Ah, I think I know what it is and I can see what problem it solves.”

One of the great things about your educational system here is that when you are going through the educational system, and especially in university, one of the things they work hard to teach you is to solve problems. When your children are young and in school, they are actually graded positively when they respond in class and they share what they think and they are encouraged to give expression to the things that are going on in their minds.
Great educational system, and if there are two qualities that mark North Americans, it is your ability to solve problems, and your assertiveness. You are quick to speak your mind. But your greatest blessing may be your greatest curse. Because when you come to Africa, you want to fix Africa. Well, you can’t fix Africa. You must learn to come as listeners and as learners. I often say to American missionaries on the continent of Africa, “When we go into this meeting, please do not say anything. You see, the reason is that you come from a dominant culture. And when the American speaks, the conversation is over. So do not say anything. Instead, listen and learn.”
Four things, then, that I say:
The world has changed. The center of Christianity has moved to the southern hemisphere. Our definition of what it means to be Christian is going to be increasingly defined from the two-thirds world. And our paradigm of missions must of necessity, therefore, change.
You, Urbana, are the next generation of missionaries. Does the church in the southern hemisphere still need Western missionaries? The answer is a resounding yes. We still need you. And we will always need you, because our goal is not independence—no matter how big we grow or how mature we become—our goal is not independence. Our goal is interdependence, for this is the body of Christ.

But as you come, come as a new-paradigm missionary. Come as a people who seek to develop bridges of healthy interdependence. Come as a people who build reciprocity into the task of missions. Come as a people who approach the cultures of the world with respect and with humility. Come as a people who are learners and not cowboys. For this century must be the century of genuine partnerships and nothing else.

Africa and missions