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Good News from Africa: Community Transformation Through the Church

by Brian Woolnough, editor

Regnum Resources for Mission, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HR, UK, 125 pages, 2013, £9.99.

Reviewed by Elizabeth C. Parsons, former missionary to Southern Africa; lecturer in Religion, Culture, and Development, Boston University School of Theology.

Africa is often depicted as a land of total disaster or as a lab for global entrepreneurs—either bad news for everyone, or great news for a few. Countering both these continental caricatures, this book refreshingly declares broad-based good news resulting from the everyday work of people in ordinary circumstances. Not that the book’s scope is small—it covers many issues preoccupying high-level professionals in the global development industry. However, by focusing on efforts “with and through the local church,” Good News from Africa illustrates how Christian groups can be far more than vehicles for secular development interventions. They can inspire actions for what it calls “holistic wellbeing.”

The book accomplishes its task by using case studies by Majority World authors, mostly from Eastern and Southern Africa. Complementing their eight cases are thoughtful introductory and concluding chapters by Brian Woolnough, an editor quite experienced in international development. Altogether, the work tells stories of effective initiatives to increase economic security, restore health, and provide education.

What sets the book apart are its confrontations of potential cross-cultural misunderstandings that too frequently escape notice as policies are made and programs planned. The book acknowledges, for instance, radically different notions of “development” itself; the natural resourcefulness of local groups; the ways in which westerners’ hyper-developed lifestyles affect others; and the costs of focusing on institutional programs rather than being with those for whom the institutional programs are designed. Packed with specific organizational names, statistics, and concrete suggestions, these stories also contend with a potentially skeptical development industry that seems preoccupied with counting and measuring.

The one concern worth mentioning has to do with how many Americans might interpret the book’s depiction of development as alleviating material and spiritual poverty. While some of the United States’ most recent international interventions have tempered its citizens’ confidence, a persistent storyline still assumes that our way of doing things remains the best. So, observations in the book about reasons that development initiatives often fail and Africans as having a simple but practical faith, for instance, risk reinforcing our own national narrative. Other statements may be too subtle to jostle even well-intentioned American Christians into genuinely learning from African Christians (e.g., the risks of letting donor priorities dominate and the harm caused by seeing the world through a “prosperity gospel” lens). Direct language might be needed to keep many of us from missing the point.

Regardless, this book could easily serve as a good resource for development studies’ students or congregations considering mission and outreach engagements. It, along with the Spirit’s ability to fill other gaps in understanding, could benefit a variety of caring people wanting to make a difference in the world.

Check these titles:
Gardner, Gary. 2006. Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Krotz, Larry. 2009. The Uncertain Business of Doing Good: Outsiders in Africa. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press.

Parsons, Elizabeth C. 2010. What Price for Privatization? Cultural Encounter with Development Policy on the Zambian Copperbelt. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

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EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 378-379 Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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