A few months ago, I was talking with an American pastor who’s 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—what his church should know about the state of the church on the continent.
The conversation prompted me to put my thoughts into writing. Two caveats are wise at this point. First, I’ll largely draw my thoughts from the Zambia, where I’m from; second, I’m speaking in general terms with the full knowledge that there are exceptions to every point that follows.
There was a point in time when Africa was entirely unreached, no matter where you stepped. Thankfully, through the pioneering work of a legion of missionaries, the gospel has reached and spread in Africa. As a result, there are gospel-preaching churches throughout Africa today. Yes, cults proliferate, the prosperity gospel flourishes, liberal churches are growing, and animistic beliefs are ever rampant.
1. There are gospel-preaching churches in Africa.
But that’s not the whole story. God has his people here in Africa who have not bowed their knees to Baal, those who faithfully believe and preach the true gospel. The 19th century version of paganism and total spiritual darkness is now two centuries behind us. The Lord has raised up African voices who herald his Word to the lost. He has built up solid, healthy churches in the midst of falsehood.
2. There are church-planting churches in Africa.
Furthermore, there are churches who are faithfully, sacrificially, and cheerfully planting churches in places where the gospel hasn’t yet reached. These churches are passionate about missions; they send out missionaries. And while these statistics may not appear on many international missions sites, believe me, Western missionaries aren’t the only ones planting churches throughout Africa.
In some cases, these efforts are in partnership between African and Western missionaries. It’s worth noting that the majority of evangelical denominations have been here for over 100 years, and they’ve been faithfully proclaiming the gospel. Contrary to popular belief, the Lord is building his church in Africa. Yes, there’s still plenty of work to be done to reach the estimated 350 million unreached people on the continent, but it’s important to note there are churches in Africa obeying the Great Commission by planting churches.
3. The Western worldview is not equal to the biblical worldview.
In my interactions with Western missionaries, it seems that very few of them adjust well to their new culture. Because of this, most of them struggle with cross-cultural relationships and ministry. It’s not uncommon to find Western missionaries in Africa who live in a Western bubble. They’ve failed to learn the culture and develop meaningful relationships with the locals they minister to and work with.
Conversely, their African brethren will rarely be forthright with their Western counterparts. This invariably leads to all kinds of relational and ministerial problems. One unfortunate result is that Western missionaries fail to understand the culture and develop the tendency to label everything African as “evil.” At the same time, either consciously or unconsciously, these brothers and sisters brand everything Western as “biblical.”
The outcome of this misunderstanding is obvious. It’s what causes scores of ministries in the depths of Africa to look like and act as if they’re in the West. Sadly, this perpetuates and encourages the false notion that Christianity is a “white man’s religion.” However, Western missionaries who are humble enough to build transparent, diverse, and healthy relationships display the power of the gospel before the watching world.
4. Western fights are not necessarily African fights.
In 2007, I met an African brother who 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!
It seems we that many of our American friends 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 isn’t always wrong. Some fights must be fought with vigor—no matter where you live.
However, many fights are simply contextual, and they should stay that way. It only breeds division and strife to make something an issue in a place where it’s a non-issue. Just because the “rumble in the jungle” (the 1974 boxing fight between Foreman and Ali held in DRC, formerly known as Zaire) was a hit doesn’t mean every fight should be brought to Africa!
5. Mutual partnerships are healthy.
There’s a lot that the church in Africa can learn from our brethren in the West—and vice versa. Missions is God’s global work. It’s an agenda he has entrusted to the church universal. There is, therefore, great potential for healthy partnerships between churches locally and internationally, especially in church planting. We can learn a lot from the church at Philippi’s efforts to support the proclamation of the gospel (Phil. 1:5). I fear that too many of us are too happy to build little kingdoms for ourselves, such that we become sad and envious when others see God’s blessings. What better way to display God’s glory than mutual partnerships between churches from diverse backgrounds—all for the proclamation of the gospel?
Unity in diversity is beautiful and God-glorifying. However, it’s hard work. Similarly, cross-cultural ministry is both an opportunity and a challenge. But when it works, the power, wisdom, and glory of God is displayed before the watching world.
Too often, we mess it up because we make ourselves and our desires the center of missions. But remember: missions is God’s idea; it’s his work. So let us seize the opportunities that our diversity brings by joyfully, graciously, and honestly working together through the challenges of cross-cultural missions.