by Jim Reapsome
Like a catastrophic earthquake, tiny Rwanda has shaken the world missions community to its roots.
Like a catastrophic earthquake, tiny Rwanda has shaken the world missions community to its roots. Catholics as well as Protestants. I’m not talking about the massive intervetion of relief agencies, but rather the headaches and heartaches caused by Christians wantonly killing Christians. According to our textbooks, and or missionary publicity, things like this are not supposed to happen. Suddendly, all of our triumphalistic shouting about Africa’s becoming a Christian continent came to a screeching halt. If Rwanda is what Christian Africa is supposed to look like, we face some agonizing choices.
One of the "facts" we loudly proclaimed was that 20,000 or so Africans were becoming Christians every day. Of course, no one denies the phenomenal turning to Christ in recent decades all across sub-Saharan Africa. But in the midst of this great ingathering of souls, apparently we have not stopped to consider our long-term biblical mandate, which is not simply to gather converts but to assimilate them into churches where their character will be shaped by biblical values and standards. We have not paid sufficient attention to serious warnings about the high risk of a truncated understanding of our mission.
These warnings have been amply substantiated by the news out of Rwanda. (Interestingly enough, our evangelical distress signals are now being picked up by Catholic missiologists as well, because they have been deeply shaken by the tragedy that has overtaken one of their prime showcases of successful Catholic mission work.)
How difficult it has been for all of us to ask and answer the question, What kind of people do our converts turn out to be? But there is a prior question that is even harder to ask, What kind of a gospel are we preaching? We have to confess that if we preach a gospel of a comparatively easy road to salvation, or cheap grace, we will never produce biblically shaped converts. Many segments of more recent missionary intervention in Africa have simply copied what we do well in America — preach a simple gospel sermon and ask people to raise their hands to show they believe it. Some missionaries think conversion means raising your hand or walking down the aisle of a church or tent. That may be how some of them were converted, but we have to be careful how we interpret such responses, especially when the message-bearer also carries cultural superiority.
Much significant fruit has remained all across Africa. Africa’s churches are filled with thousands of Christians whose dedication and sacrifice — and joyful enthusiasm in worship — put us to shame. Despite a lack of widespread theological training, pastors faithfully carry out their duties. Some African churches now have their own missionary sending agencies. African missionaries serve in Europe and America.
The bloodshed in Rwanda does not negate this fruit. But it drives us back to our roots to examine our current philosophies and strategies. How much of what we export is the genuinely biblical gospel as opposed to a superficial American one? The tragedy in Rwanda laid bare our shallow theology of mission and evangelism. It revealed yet again the terrible price we pay for shortchanging both missionaries and converts in basic theology and biblical knowledge.
Rwanda also forces us to go much deeper than counting, and bragging about, our converts. It forces us to invest much more time in discipleship training, church leadership and pastoral training. Most importantly, Rwanda forces us to ask if we are willing to keep on investing in the livs of African believers once the initial work of evangelism as been done.
If a country with such a high percentage of Christians (50 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant) can drown in its own blood, we have to go back to our drawing boards. "What went wrong in Rwanda?" can have a salutary effect on missionary work everywhere. We must not close the book on the tragedy without facing the hard questions — biblical and theological questions most of all. Otherwise, we will continue to follow the line of least resistance and assume we really are accomplishing something lasting when we are not. We cannot be content with storming the beaches, so to speak. We cannot leave untouched the interior strongholds of unbelief. Something much better must come out of our work — not just in Africa, by the way — so we will not have to face the tragic spectacle of pastors killing people and justifying their deeds by saying they would have been killed if they had not followed orders to kill.
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