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 an African, he wanted to hear my thoughts about missions in Africa. He asked what his church should know about the state of the church on our continent. What started as a one on one conversation ended up drawing in a large group of other African Christians. This prompted me to put my thoughts for western missionaries into writing, for the sake of clarity.
Let me offer two caveats before we get to our points below. Firstly, I will primarily draw my thoughts from the Zambian context. Secondly, I will speak in general terms. Therefore there are numerous exceptions to each of my points below.
The Lord has raised voices who herald his word to the lost, and he has built up solid, healthy churches despite the advances of falsehood and error
There are Gospel-Preaching Churches in Africa
There was a point in time in the history of Africa when wherever you stepped, the gospel had not yet reached. Thankfully, through the pioneering work of countless missionaries, the gospel has spread throughout Africa. As a result, gospel-preaching churches can be found all over the continent. Yes, cults are proliferating, the prosperity gospel is flourishing, liberal churches are growing, 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 (see 1 Kings 19). Many 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 voices who herald his word to the lost, and he has built up solid, healthy churches despite the advances of falsehood and error.
There are Church-Planting Churches in Africa
Furthermore, some churches are faithfully, sacrificially and cheerfully planting churches. African Christians are taking the gospel to places the gospel has not reached. These churches are faithful and passionate about missions. We have even seen African missionaries travelling into the spiritually dark West. And while these statistics may not appear on most international missions sites and reports, Western missionaries are not the only missionaries planting churches in the cities, towns and villages of Africa. In some cases, the church planting efforts are made in partnership between local and foreign missionaries.
Western missionaries are not the only missionaries planting churches in the cities, towns and villages of Africa
It is worth noting that the majority of the Evangelical denominations have existed on the continent of Africa for over 100 years. And they have been proclaiming the gospel. Contrary to popular belief, the Lord is building his church in Africa. Yes, there is still plenty of work to be done to proclaim Christ to the estimated 350 million unreached people. But it is essential to be aware of and praying for the churches in Africa carrying out the great commission and planting churches.
Western Worldview is not Equal to a Biblical Worldview
In my conversations with Western missionaries, very few of them adjust to the culture they go to minister in. Many struggle with cross-cultural relationships and ministry. Therefore it is not uncommon to find Western missionaries who serve in Africa living in a Western bubble, insulating themselves from African culture. This fails to develop meaningful, sincere relationships with the local people they minister to and work with. Conversely, their African gospel workers will often not be forthright and vulnerable with their Western counterparts.
An unfortunate result of ignorance about African culture is the tendency to label everything African as evil
This invariably leads to all kinds of relational and ministerial problems, even breakdowns. An unfortunate result of ignorance about African culture is the tendency to label everything African as evil. Consciously, or unconsciously, Western missionaries deem their own culture both superior and biblical. This is not only wrong, for the outcome is ministries and churches in the depths of Africa that appear to have been transplanted from New York or London. Sadly, this encourages the false notion that Christianity is a white man or Western religion. But when Western missionaries are humble enough to listen, learn and build sincere, transparent and healthy relationships amid diversity, they will 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 formalities, asked me what my thoughts were on the King James Version Debate. I responded by asking him if he worked with American missionaries. Unsurprisingly, he said that he did. Some of our American brothers and sisters love a good theological fight, often making mountains out of anthills. You need only visit the blogosphere to find out what the latest arguments are all about. Granted, some battles must be fought with the same vigour across cultures. However, some fights are contextual and should stay that way. Many merely breed division and strife, creating issues out of non-issues. Just because “rumble in the jungle” was a hit does not mean every fight should be brought to Africa.
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 much the African church can learn from the West, and vice versa. Missions is God’s global work. It is his agenda, entrusted to the church universal, not owned by any continent or tradition. There is therefore great potential for healthy mutual partnerships between churches locally and internationally in church planting endeavours. We can learn a lot from the church at Philippi (see Philippians 1:5; Philippians 4:10-20), who supported the proclamation of the gospel. But I worry that too many of us are building little kingdoms for ourselves and are envious when others experience the fruits God grants. What better way to display God’s glorious gospel than partnerships between churches from diverse backgrounds?
Final Thoughts for Western Missionaries in Africa
Unity in diversity is beautiful, and God-glorifying (Ephesians 3:10). However it is hard work. Cross-cultural ministry is both an opportunity and a challenge to display the power, wisdom and glory of God. We will inadvertently make a mess of this because we all have the propensity to make ourselves and our desires the centre. So remember that 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, both in Africa and abroad.