by Andy Johnson
Facing “truth in love” from Dagara Christian leaders
was not easy, yet has proved invaluable to ongoing
ministry for one international worker.
Photo courtesy Andy Johnson
Early in our time in Burkina Faso, missionary colleagues to the south of us prepared to transition out of their mission site. Given that we considered them our mentors, friends, and (more pragmatically) free places to stay while traveling, we questioned them as to why they knew it was time to go. The answer was not as complicated as we anticipated—evidently, the local Christians had told them to leave!
A group of leaders had come to the missionaries and, in love and respect, told them that they believed the Spirit was preparing to move in powerful ways among them and that the missionaries were not to have a part. Essentially, they were told that the Spirit was ready to work through the local church without the missionaries interfering.
Our colleagues believed that their presence, instead of being a blessing, had become a factor in slowing down church growth and leadership development. While originally startled by this revelation, they quickly recognized the blessing of hearing God’s voice so clearly and left that particular field. The intervening years of continued growth in maturity among their African brothers and sisters have resoundingly confirmed this decision.
I do not believe that we have reached that point here among the Dagara, the tribe with whom we work. Since we began teaching in 2004, fifty village churches have been planted (possibly more, depending upon how one defines “church”) with around seven thousand baptized believers scattered among them.
Of these churches, the vast majority have been planted by recently-converted Dagara evangelists. While they are only loosely tied to each other and all are led by independent elderships or committees, these churches have united under one church association, calling themselves “Christ’s churches” in the Dagara language.
Part of this process involved electing an Executive Board (EB) comprised of officers such as president, secretary, treasurer, etc. I was initially quite pleased with the board’s makeup. While a number of the positions went to younger, more educated men, two members of the board were older, steadier Christians (chosen despite their illiteracy). Not until a recent meeting of the EB to which my teammate and I were invited, however, did I realize the godly wisdom shown by electing this particular group of people.
Honestly, my attitude leading up to this meeting was that the group (generously put) had bad missiology that was (possibly) sinful. I am a busy man; I don’t have time to waste on endless meetings that accomplish nothing (as if these farmers had loads of time on their hands at the beginning of planting season!). As a courtesy to them, however, I took some time to come up with a list of suggestions that I could make to these leaders of how to do their jobs better. This, of course, despite the fact that they were prayerfully chosen from among thousands of Christians and are in some cases more than twice my age!
They kindly offered us the floor and listened patiently as we recounted our personal areas of ministry. They even sat gracefully through my suggestions. Finally, they asked if we minded them sharing five things they would like to discuss. What they shared put me on alert that these leaders (and others like them) are coming into their own and will not hesitate to speak into our lives and ministries. My hope is that these five issues will change the way I relate with my Dagara brothers and sisters forever.
#1: The Dagara churches need more leaders trained in biblical interpretation to effectively lead their homes and their churches. On first blush, I internally patted myself on the back for this one. After all, that’s what I do. While I still get to dabble in evangelism and church development, I am basically pouring my life into a small group of men who are in turn pouring themselves into others. My hope is that this leadership formation will, from a mustard-seed start, expand exponentially to reach all corners of Dagara Christendom.
This is exactly the way in which our evangelistic efforts began, and the evangelism ball is now rolling far too quickly for us to hope to keep track. It is a proven, solid plan. And, I was told, it’s not enough.
The way in which we did evangelism was reproducible, to some extent, by almost everyone. It was also, to some extent, applicable to almost everyone. The leadership training in which I am involved on a day-to-day basis is not so. It requires a relatively high level of literacy and is crafted for use by heads of household. Many of our churches have few or no leaders that are both literate and the head of their household. Even if this particular ball gets rolling as the evangelism one did, it will never include everyone.
These leaders encouraged me to be more creative in seeking solutions to reach, teach, and form leaders who cannot (and likely never will) read. They mentioned our efforts in the past working with MP3 players like the Proclaimer offered by Faith Comes through Hearing. I was reminded of a recent seminar we hosted in orality training, geared toward equipping non-literate people both to evangelize and do basic church formation through relatively small story sets (visit oralbible.com for orality resources and information).
I have no plans to abandon my current track of leadership formation. I wholeheartedly believe that this fledgling church movement desperately needs leaders trained in biblical and cultural interpretation, that they need Dagara theologians. The EB, in fact, was not calling me to abandon my formation; they were, however, calling our team to broaden our ministry focus to involve more leaders in more places.
#2: Churches and church leaders need more help addressing the stickier issues of Christian living. Church planting among the Dagara has strengthened my belief in scripture’s claim that God’s word never comes back empty (Isa. 55:11). As the Dagara are presented with the miraculous news that God sent his one and only Son into the world to save them, many have in fact responded with repentance and joy. Entire extended families and even larger village groups have come to Christ together. The light of the gospel’s astonishing message of grace pushes back the animistic darkness in which they have lived their whole lives.
Cold water often splashes on their fire, however, when they are confronted with the day-to-day stuff of regular life. Those ragged edges, those gray areas where what they have always done comes in conflict with what they now believe challenges them. What does a Dagara Christian wedding look like? (see Johnson 2012). What about funerals? Illness? Planting? Harvesting? Dry wells and droughts? Even thoroughly Christian topics like fasting have been sources of confusion for these new churches as they begin their journey along the path of applied theology.
The EB has asked us to help address these issues. For fear of being too paternalistic, judgmental, or ethnocentric (pick your term), we have often bowed out from practical discussions about where the word of God meets traditional practice. We’ve considered it our job to present them with biblical truth and then to get out of the way while they, in conjunction with the Spirit, apply it to their culture.
While this has kept us out of the mud culturally, my hero Paul Hiebert would likely have been upset with me for not having gotten down into the mud of the excluded middle. These brothers and sisters, chosen leaders of this burgeoning movement, are inviting me to join them as they explore the intersection of traditional culture and scripture. I plan on joining them! I look forward to internalizing the truth that God’s word never comes back empty both in evangelism and in the continuing pursuit of holiness as a church body—even if I do get a little muddy.
#3: The leaders would like to remain more informed of what we the missionaries are doing on a regular basis, as well as keep us informed of their activities. Early in our time on the field, our team worked hard to avoid creating our own fiefdoms of churches. If one missionary planted a church, another needed to do the first round of church maturation. While we each had our favorite churches, we purposely strove never to make them one missionary’s personal church.
As our team’s interests have diversified from nothing-but-evangelism into different areas of church work and development, we have become less intentional about avoiding the development of individual kingdoms (or “areas of service,” to put it more kindly). I know that leadership training is my thing, that women’s ministry is my wife’s, that water rehabilitation is my teammate’s, and that orphan care is headed up by his wife. While we pray for each other, we have of late done a poor job of communicating among ourselves, much less actually collaborating.
I believe the EB was calling us not only to communicate better with each other (after all, how could we keep them in the loop when we ourselves are running around each in his or her own loop?), but also to communicate with them. Just as my teammate with almost two decades of ministry experience might actually have something to offer in leadership training, so the Dagara leadership, those actually doing the leading, might have something to offer. They also pointed out that it does the churches little good for me to train these dozen or so leaders and then not let all the churches know who has been trained!
There was also a gentle rebuke on a different level in their call for us to seek to be informed of their activities. Our team speaks often of being co-workers with current Dagara leadership. At other times, we speak of how we are here to be their servants in Jesus’ name. In practice, however, we still convey at times that we are in charge and that they can come alongside us if they choose. These godly men and women were telling us to pay attention to them, to recognize God’s activity through them. They reminded us that it is not about them joining us or us joining them, but about all God’s people joyfully running after the Lord’s leading together.
#4: It is essential to stop helping people financially without involving the local churches. Living in a rural part of Burkina Faso, by some standards the third poorest nation in the world, our team is surrounded by those in desperate poverty. We rarely pass a day without some kind of request for aid. Given that I live down the road from our village’s hospital, I am blessed to get to help many in their times of greatest need.
I was somewhat surprised, therefore, when these leaders (most of whom I have helped financially in the past!) suggested that I put a stop to that benevolence. They continued on, however, to describe a better solution. When a person comes asking for help (Christian or not), direct him or her to his or her local church. The leaders of the church will hear the request, decide if it is a valid one, and determine whether or not they can meet the need. If they are able to do so, they will. If they are unable to, but consider the request a valid one, the church leaders will bring it to us to see what we can do to help.
The EB explained that this brings several benefits. First, it allows the church to minister to its own community whenever possible. Second, it increases the church’s standing, putting them (rightly) above the missionaries. Third, it provides them with a new opportunity for evangelism, as these Dagara Christians consider every interaction with non-Christians an opportunity to spread the good news about Jesus. Finally, it will help to keep us, the oft-deceived outsiders, out of trouble and from trying to help the wrong people.
Over the last several months, my teammate and I have taken turns helping a Christian with a legitimate (at least at the outset) need. I helped until I finally felt taken advantage of, at which time this man went to my teammate. When that well dried up, he returned to me. Had we followed this new path of sending him back to his home congregation, we would likely have found out much earlier that the money he kept asking for was rarely used for what he told us and even more rarely made its way back to his family.
#5: When new teammates arrive, present them to the EB and to the churches as a whole.
Every time a recalcitrant, unclean sinner is saved, it is a miracle. That said, when I think back to those early days of church planting among the Dagara and the fact that a few people actually came to know God through our green, oft-befuddled efforts at evangelism, I can do nothing but shake my head and marvel at God’s gracious action. With missionaries as immature as we were, it is only by the grace of God that this church movement ever got off the ground!
During those early years, we often bemoaned the fact that we had no “boss”, someone to whom we could look for guidance. We had each other, and we had our overseeing churches, but we had no one person who could make a final decision or provide the “right” answers. We claimed Jesus as the head of our mission team; many were the days when we wished he would speak up at a contentious team meeting!
While they certainly are not infallible, these Dagara brothers and sisters are offering to fill in part of that leadership gap we experienced. They are eager to come alongside new co-workers, to offer what expertise and life experience they have to make their transition easier. They are offering, even asking, to walk with new missionaries as they strive to get their ministries started. Just a few years ago I might have traded years of my life for that gift; newly-arrived co-workers are being offered that gift free of charge. Paraphrasing David, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters work together in unity (Ps. 133:1)!
On my initial hearing I was struck by the wisdom of these leaders. Upon further reflection, I’ve slipped into constant praise of God for the good work he’s begun and is carrying to completion in the hearts and minds of these leaders.
Having been a part of this work among the Dagara from the beginning (fully cognizant, of course, that God has been at work among them in various ways long before our team’s arrival), I am constantly watching for those indicators that I’ve overstayed my welcome. My greatest desire is to be a useful servant in my Father’s house; if I have outlasted my window of effectiveness, I want to be convicted of that and move on.
I began by referencing my colleagues who were clearly told when it was time for them to leave. Fortunately for me, I have yet to experience trusted leaders asking me to leave. I thoroughly enjoy my life here in Burkina Faso. I delight in having transitioned from church planting to training the leaders who now boldly lead God’s people deeper and wider. I love my job.
Even with all that, I know a day is on the horizon, a day when God’s plan for my family no longer includes service among the Dagara. Signs abound: some, like these five jewels of wisdom, present with me as I write; some only appearing as clouds the size of a man’s hand on the horizon. I pray that God will bless me with ears to hear his gentle voice and, if not, with good friends willing to speak loudly enough for my nearly-deaf ears to hear.
Johnson, Andy. 2012. “Applied Theology: A Case Study of the Dagara & Polygamy.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 48(3):350-354.
Along with his teammates, Andy Johnson has been planting churches among the Dagara of Burkina Faso since 2002. He is married with three children. He received his MA in missions from Abilene Christian University.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 204-210. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.