by W. Harold Fuller
What will the trends of the past decade mean to the work of the gospel in the coming ten years?
New nations, new flags, new postage stamps, new alliances-and a whole set of new problems to solve. That has been Africa over the past decade since Evangelical Missions Quarterly started publication. And that is the milieu through which the church of Jesus Christ— missions and national churches— has had to find its way.
There was the independence movement. By the end of the sixties, 40 of the continent’s 50 political territories were ruling themselves, forming one-third of the nations in the U.N. General Assembly.
There were coups, civilian and military. The great expectations of instant prosperity on the part of some were replaced by disillusionment in the face of economic problems. Old animosities between ethnic groups flared up. In several instances the precarious structure left by colonial powers collapsed under the stresses, and military governments took over.
W. Harold Fuller is director for Ghana and Nigeria for the Sudan Interior Mission. He has served in West Africa since 1951. He is a graduate of Prairie Bible Institute. His work has included various responsibilities in literature and mission administration. He is the author of Run While the Sun is Hot and African Adventures.
There was a resurgence of traditional values, cultural and religious. Africans reacted against the denigration of their culture by the West, and linked missionaries with this because of their stand against unscriptural customs, and in some cases confusion of Western cultural biases for Christian practice. A nationalist call went out for an "African religion." Professor John Mbiti of Kenya has stated, "African culture must judge Christianity." Some educated men and women returned to animistic practices, insecure in their new fast-moving world.
There was increased activity by ecumenical forces. In Zaire, for instance, liberal elements combined with nationalist sentiment to bring churches into the ecumenical orbit, even though the Protestant Council had been largely evangelical. Legislation made it impossible for evangelical groups to exist legally outside of the state-recognized ecumenical bodies. Rev. Jean Bokoleale, President of the Protestant Church of Christ of Zaire, stated, "We must first of all be Zairians before we are Christians."
There was a hardening of Islam’s opposition. The Arabic nations of the North generally hardened their opposition to Christian activity, in a wave of Islamic nationalism. Some, like Tunisia, outlawed missionary work, while others, like Somalia, passed legislation that made it practically impossible.
THE NEXT TEN YEARS
What will these trends of the past decade mean to the work of the gospel in the coming ten years?
1. National Factors. African governments are conscious of their right to determine whom they allow to enter their countries, and what projects they operate. They naturally want to control their nation’s education and public health policies-two traditional mission ministries. They are concerned about the unemployment of high school and university students who cannot be absorbed by the economy.
So even in countries where there is good will toward missionaries, stricter immigration policies will affect missions as we I as industry. Several nations now require missionaries to have a university degree or documented equivalent in experience. Those who can train nationals and contribute to community development will be given preference.
2. Cultural Factors. The cultural reaction to the gospel varies according to the colonial background of the country. Where there had been a repressive regime, or the frictions of a large white settler bloc, the reaction has been strong, while in lands where the colonial power encouraged traditional culture and systems, attitude to foreigners has remained friendly.
Missionaries will need to be more aware of biculturalism and its effect on spreading the gospel. New understanding of the behavioral sciences should help communication across cultural boundaries.
3. Religious factors. (a) Islam: In spite of official restrictions, individual Muslims are becoming more willing to listen to the gospel as they move out of conservative isolation. Radio ELWA reports that at times, listener response is greatest from Muslim lands.
(b) Animism: Although Christianity’s greatest response has been among animists, spirit and idol worship are by no means dying out. There are still large sectors where there is no knowledge of the living God. Pioneer work must continue, but more important, believers in neighboring areas should- become burdened to reach these sectors. They will need to be trained as specifically as missionaries from overseas.
(c) Christianity: Dr. David B. Barrett’s estimate of a five percent annual growth rate among Christians is encouraging. This is twice the growth rate of Muslims and pagans, and by the end of the seventies should result in 141 million Christians versus 190 million Muslims and 118 million pagans. These figures include Protestants, Roman Catholics, and "independents."
However, there are two dangers. Dr. Edwin Smith, President of the British Anthropological Society, sees the greatest threat to the gospel in Africa as the merging of Christian and pagan beliefs in an untaught African "Christendom." The proliferation of "splinter churches" around 5,000, with a membership of seven million indicates the trend.
The other danger is from nominal Christianity. In some non-Muslim areas, being called a Christian is "progressive." And as in Western lands, children may grow up in Christian communities without being brought to the point of conversion. Added to this is the liberal theological teaching that is infiltrating the churches through ecumenical channels.
The safeguard from the dangers of both syncretism and liberalism is more effective Bible teaching.
"The spiritual battle for Africa in the next ten years will be fought on the theological battlefield, " Dr. Kato warned AEAM delegates at their general assembly last year. "The good work done by missions in the past could easily be swept aside unless Christians are taught God’s Word in depth."
To help safeguard against that, the AEAM has set up a Christian Education Commission, and a Theological Commission conducts workshops on programmed instruction materials for use in Theological Education by Extension. TEE workshops in English and French have been sponsored by IFMA-EFMA’s Committee for Missionary Education Overseas (CAMEO).
FAITH AND FLEXIBILITY
"No condition is permanent" is an African saying that works both ways for missionaries. While Somalia nationalized all missionary work last year, Southern Sudan welcomed missions back to assist in refugee rehabilitation eight years after all missionaries were expelled.
The tragic famine across Africa’s Sahel region (the grassland belt south of the Sahara) provides an opportunity for demonstrating Christian love as missionaries and national Christians distribute food. And sociologists state that life styles may never be the same again, as nomads lose their cattle and settle in communes to find food. This brings them within easier reach of the gospel.
Africa’s natural barriers- deserts, mountain ranges, and raging rivers -will increasingly be overcome in the next ten years, ending the isolation that has hindered progress. Work has started on sections of the cross -continental highway from Mombassa to Monrovia and Algiers. As in the Roman Empire, improved communications should help speed the gospel.
Several missions and churches are planning multi-media programs involving literature, radio, TV, and cassette tapes.
Interchange of national Christians will increase. Already a Ghanaian is pastor of a church in Kenya, an East African evangelical bishop last year ministered to West African pastors, a Nigerian is general secretary of the Kenya-based AEAM, Nigerian missionaries serve in Dahomey, Niger, and Sierra Leone.
While the coming decade may see curtailment or change of traditional mission work in some lands, this by no means signals the end of the missionary era. In fact, the very changes require review of goals and strategy that could place the church in a much healthier position. The problems are a challenge to faith and action.
If missions and churches remain flexible, ready to change methods and move in as new opportunities open up, the coming decade can see Africa’s greatest period of evangelism and church growth. The Holy Spirit will provide the opportunities; it is up to his church to obey.
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