by Sharon E. Mumper
Reports from around the world.
Shedding the dark continent image
No longer the "dark continent" of the missionary recruitment world, Africa is moving with dignity into a place of respect in the world community. It is a populous continent, and with one of the highest growth rates in the world-some 3 percent-its population is expected to double every 25 years, according to a report by James Kraakevik, director of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, III.
The continent boasts most of the world’s diamonds and chromium, half of its gold, 90 percent of its cobalt, 40 percent of its platinum, much of its uranium, and millions of acres of untilled farmland. Africa is literally sitting on a gold mine.
Yet in many ways Africa is like a miner without tools, desperately clawing with his fingers at a lode that will yield its wealth only to the pick.
In 1983, the per capita income in Africa was $365-the lowest in the world. According to the United Nations Council on Africa, the economies of 30 of the 46 sub-Saharan countries have actually gone backwards since gaining independence. Life expectancy is only 49 years. More than two-thirds of all Africans are illiterate.
In 1960, Africa produced 95 percent of its own food. Today, every country but South Africa imports at least some of its food, according to Kraakevik. Sixty percent of Africans are malnourished, and the imminent possibility of starvation faces hundreds of thousands.
Yet, despite its difficulty in grappling with its serious economic problems, Africa’s reputation as a spiritual "dark continent" is long out of date.
"Africa has been transformed into a continent of light," Siman A. Ibrahim, former general secretary, Evangelical Churches of West Africa (ECWA), recently told delegates at an "Africa Update" conference sponsored by the Evangelical Committee for Africa, a joint committee of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) and the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association (IFMA).
The church is growing at a phenomenal rate in many countries, and Bible schools and seminaries are springing up in nearly every country of Africa’s sub-Sahara. Huge majorities in many countries claim to be Christian, and hundreds of new churches are born every week.
Despite its glowing successes, however, the church must grapple with the same stresses that challenge every other African institution. Tossed about by wholesale social change, Christians-with other Africans-grapple with an identity crisis. Urbanization, militant Islam, nationalism, and political exploitation of tribal divisions challenge both the faith and methods of Christians.
"There is no such thing as a single Africa," Ted Ward, dean of International Studies and Programs at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, told Africa Update conferees. "Africa is more complex as a continent than North America. The generalization of a single Africa comes out of a colonial mindset," he said.
Africa’s complexity presents a challenge to evangelism. "How do you contextualize the gospel among a people who are in the process of becoming?" asked a delegate from Uganda. "There is no static African culture, nor even a single Ugandan culture. In Uganda, there are 50 tribal cultures," he said.
Many African Christian leaders are firm in stating that though Western missionaries are welcome to work with the church, the primary force responsible for completing the task of evangelism is the African church.
Ibrahim noted a recent upsurge in missionary interest among African young people. But he cautioned that because of tribal prejudices and centuries-old animosities, discretion is needed in sending Africans as missionaries from one ethnic group to another.
But making new converts is only part of the task in Africa. Today the church is desperately marshalling its forces to train new leaders for a church that is growing perhaps too rapidly.
"Do we focus on the frontiers or on the undiscipled Christians of Africa?" asked Ibrahim. "Should we keep adding to the number of weak Christians? It is time to strengthen the church."
Whether evangelizing a diverse population, discipling new converts, or responding to the demands of a rapidly-changing society, the church faces complex challenges. Africa indeed is no longer a dark continent. The church has come into the light. Now the task is to walk in the light as a witness not only to Africa, but to the rest of the world.
Identity crisis in Taiwan
What does it mean to be Chinese? Many young people in Taiwan are asking themselves-and their churches- whether they can be both a Christian and Chinese. The question is the result of a campaign by the government of Taiwan for a return to Chinese traditional culture.
Part and parcel of Chinese traditional culture, according to the government, is participation in one or more of the traditional religions.
While the government is not forcing Christians to recant, they are nonetheless pouring millions of dollars into cultural programs including the construction of temples. More significant, as far as the young people are concerned, is the concerted promotion of traditional religions in the public schools.
"The government is saying, if you are Chinese this is the way," said Bong Rin Ro, executive secretary, Asia Theological Association. "They tell them that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are the Chinese religions."
To the casual observer of the Taiwan scene, it would certainly appear to be true. Only 4 percent of Taiwan’s 20 million people claim to be Christian. The Protestant and Roman Catholic populations are about equally divided, with some 400,000 each.
But while the Christian population is small, they can point to some influential Chinese who have been among their number. "The church has been emphasizing that two main leaders of the Republic of China-Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen-were Christians," said Ro. Taiwan’s current vice-president, Lee Deng Hui, is a Christian, as are some other top government officials.
Traditional religions are enjoying a resurgence of popularity in Taiwan, but they have always been widely practiced. A key element in all of the traditional religions is the practice of what missionaries and the church for 100 years have called "ancestor worship." Pervasive in Taiwan society, it is a major sticking point for Chinese who consider becoming Christians.
By and large Protestants-and especially evangelicals-have continued to forbid the practice of ancestor-related rituals. The inflexibility regarding ancestor practices is changing, however.
"There is a new emphasis among some of the evangelical leaders who are trying to contextualize ancestor practices," said Ro. They are questioning whether the traditonal view is justified.
It is a sticky issue. The view of most Chinese Christians regarding ancestor practices is based on 100 years of biblical interpretation. While one cries "Contextualize!" another decries syncretism. Those exploring the issue expect to see no wholesale changes in the near future.
While the church’s antipathy toward ancestor practices may keep out many who would otherwise explore the Christian option, the church in Taiwan faces an equally distressing problem-that of keeping those who do convert.
Five out of six converts in Mandarin-speaking churches eventually drop out of the church. Two out of three in Taiwanese churches drop out, according to Ro.
The church in Taiwan is growing fastest among young people, especially high school age students. Once they marry and begin a family, however, they tend to fall away from the church. Because the Christian population is so small, Christians often marry non-Christians. Predictably, those people rarely stay with the church.
Partly to blame is a lack of emphasis on discipleship training, said Ro. For another, churches seldom have strong leadership and solid, lay-supported programs. In fact, nearly a quarter of Taiwan’s Protestant churches don’t even have pastors.
The pastorate in Taiwan is a low-salaried job with little prestige. Neither Chinese young people-nor their parents-are attracted to church leadership. Capable seminary graduates are often snapped up by parachurch organizations or North American churches.
The uncertainty of Taiwan’s future, especially in relation to China, feeds the hemorrhage of Christian leaders to the West. The leadership problem may lay at the root of the church’s difficulty in getting-and keeping-converts.
Can a person be both Chinese and Christian? Yes, most certainly. But many young people may look in vain for those strong leaders who will show them how.
A vast reservoir of power
How do you forge a new society? Faced with the need to implement wholesale social change, Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru turned to the women of India.
To awaken the people, you must first awaken the women, Nehru proclaimed. Once she is on the move, the family, village, and nation moves.
Despite the proclamations of India’s first post-colonial leaders, however, the "vast reservoir of woman power has not been tapped," said Juliet Thomas, secretary for Women’s Ministries of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
If women have not been fully utilized by the government, their potential has been even less recognized by the church, Thomas said.
Although the first missionaries are believed to have come to India in the first century A.D., today Christians comprise only 2.7 percent of India’s 750 million people. As small as this percentage is, evangelical Protestants comprise an even smaller minority.
Surely a church facing such a large task would mobilize every resource available. But the church has been influenced by the cultural attitudes that for centuries have dominated Indian society.
The Indian culture has lacked recognition of the personhood and dignity of women as individuals, Thomas said.
Believed to be incapable of taking care of themselves, women are regarded as chattel. When they are young, they belong to their fathers, and when married, to their husbands. The Hindu husband, in fact, is considered to be a god to be worshipped and obeyed unquestioningly.
When a woman comes into her husband’s home, she may be expected to bring with her a dowry, an often exorbitant amount of money, jewels, household items- perhaps even a car or house. If the dowry is not large enough, or if the bride’s parents are unable to fulfill the full financial commitment agreed upon, the young bride faces torment, and sometimes even death, at the hands of her in-laws.
Although the dowry system was outlawed 25 years ago, it continues to prevail. It is especially strong in South India, where it is practiced as a matter of course, especially in low- and middle-income families.
Recently, the government has taken some steps to close loopholes in the law. Despite this, the church has largely remained silent on the issue.
"We have not learned that what is unchristian in our culture we should give up. We have thought of it as our way of life and have brought it into our Christianity," Thomas said. "Until very recently, nearly all Christians practiced dowry. In fact, in Kerala State, some churches teach that a percentage of the dowry should go to the church. So, the church encourages dowry."
Wife-beating is widely practiced, and is common even in Christian families, where women suffer in silence.
Prostitution is epidemic, with a majority of women sold as young girls into the trade. Some 70 percent of Indian women are illiterate; 65 percent suffer malnutrition; 45 percent live below the poverty line.
"Churches and missions are unaware of the deep problems of women, because they have not spoken out," said Thomas. "The Indian woman on the whole is a silent woman."
Although the facts may be depressing, Thomas is far from discouraged. "I feel a deep spiritual awakening is coming among women in India," she said. "They are restless; they have not found fulfillment. So, when you present Jesus Christ …it is an open field."
"I have a great burden, now that the door is opening, to mobilize and harness the women of India, that there will be more of those uniting together to teach the Word of God."
"We have had enough!"
Opponents of the Protestant church in Greece may think that evangelical zeal will subside now that three prominent evangelicals have been acquitted on charges of proselytism.
If so, they will be bitterly disappointed.
"We have come to the place where we believe maybe from now on we should be a little more active in defending the rights of our minority, and make them (the Greek Orthodox Church) understand that from now on, we will not be pushed around," said Costas Macris, director of the Hellenic Missionary Union.
Macris, a former RBMU missionary, was tried along with two Youth With a Mission missionaries, on charges of proselytizing a 16-year-old boy. Although they were acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence, the law under which they were charged was declared by the judge to be constitutional.
Many Protestants, however, believe the law, which was added during the Metaxas regime in 1938, is actually unconstitutional.
The law prohibits anyone from taking advantage of the age or poverty of a person in the course of convincing them to change their religion. Although this sounds reasonable, said Macris, the effect is to abridge the right of a Protestant to witness to the poor, or to establish a hospital or other ministry of mercy.
The reaction of the Orthodox Church to the acquittal was "almost violent. They feel they have lost this round," said Macris. "But this is a new day. They thought we would be acquitted and the noise would die down and things would be back to normal. But there is no more ‘normal’ for us. From now on, we have had enough. I am not resting …we will work until these laws are abolished."
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