by Jim Lo
South African pastors share reasons why they feel continued missionary presence in Africa has a negative effect.
I had been invited to spend time with South African pastors who were part of the African Independent Church. For one week I was involved in acquainting them with the benefits of using Theological Education by Extension. At nights, when we were not involved in the classroom situation, we would relax by sitting in the cafeteria, sipping tea and talking with one another. One evening our conversation focused on the subject of missionaries and their presence in Africa. Out of curiosity I asked, "Do you think that the missionary presence has had a positive effect on the work in Africa or a negative effect?"
Without any hesitation one African pastor answered, "Mostly negative!" The others, though verbally silent, affirmed his answer by nodding their heads.
I was stunned. For twelve years I had given my life to minister in southern Africa. I was deeply hurt, but decided to probe deeper to try to understand why they felt the way they did.
Late into the night we talked, and these are the reasons they gave.
1. "Missionaries seem not to trust us." One African pastor commented, "When missionaries stay too long in an area we get the feeling that we are not trusted. When we feel that we are not trusted we tend to sit back and do nothing, waiting for the missionary to do his or her thing."
Though I did not like what I was hearing, as I reflected on my own ministry I had to admit that perhaps there was some truth in what they were saying. I was involved in church planting in Zimbabwe and within a span of six years a total of four churches had been planted in the city of Bulawayo, plus one church in the northern town of Victoria Falls.
One would assume that the churches in the Bulawayo area would have been stronger than the church in Victoria Falls because we missionaries lived in Bulawayo. Those churches had greater opportunity to be exposed to our example, expertise and teachings. Since the beginning, though, the churches in Bulawayo have been weak and struggling. The opposite has been true for the church planted in Victoria Falls. There could be many reasons for this difference. But one reason that I could not avoid looking at is the reality that perhaps my presence as a missionary in Bulawayo was a hindrance and not an asset to the maturation of those churches. Because of my location, I was able to "check up" on "my" new churches anytime I wanted. In fact, as I looked at the schedule book that I kept during those church planting years, I observed that each one of the Bulawayo churches was visited at least four times a week. On top of that, on Sundays I would attend two of the four churches. When I saw the pastors, I tended to question them to see how things were going. If I felt they were not doing something correctly, I would tell them how I thought it should be done.
Even though there was much enthusiasm by the church attenders in doing ministry when the churches were first getting started, as time went on ministry was no longer being done by the local congregation.
Rather, it was being done by missionaries. Even the pastor stopped giving himself in ministry. When I tried to find out what was happening, one Bulawayo pastor bitterly shared with me, "We are not the real pastors here. You are!"
The opposite was happening with the church in Victoria Falls. Since Victoria Falls was over six hours from where I lived, I was only able to visit the church once a month. From its beginning, the people of the church were very involved in ministry. They were active in inviting their neighbors to church services, teaching Sunday school classes, organizing evangelistic events for the community and comforting those who had lost loved ones. Ten years later, the people of the church are still highly involved in doing ministry and they identify their pastor as being the leader. Never have I heard any one in Victoria Falls refer to the church as "Umfundisi Jim’s church;" but this was something I commonly heard when I was in Bulawayo.
2. "Missionaries push their Western styles of Christianity on us." The pastors I was speaking to also indicated that when missionaries stay too long in an area they tend to "dominate" the church. "We get tired of hearing how the Americans worship," or "how Americans do evangelism," or "how Americans do church administration."
"Some missionaries have made us feel inferior. They have made us feel as though we Africans are not capable of developing our own church. They come off as being know-it-alls."
When my family and I first got to Zimbabwe we made a decision to make one particular church our church home. Our rationale was that our young sons needed a church where they would feel comfortable and could get plugged in. Once we had made our decision as to which church would be "our" church, my wife and I bought a small piano. Since we were used to having a piano in the church we attended in America, we thought that it would be nice to have one in our African "home" church. We were sure that it was going to enhance worship for us.
Without asking anyone we moved the piano into the church and on Sunday my wife proceeded to play "good" Western Christian hymns. It was so wonderful to have the sounds of a piano accompany our congregational singing.
But even though I was enjoying the sounds of the piano, the African worshippers were reacting in a different manner. At first the piano and the singing of Western hymns was a novelty for them. They were excited. But before long I noticed that their style of singing was changing. The rhythmic African beat that they used to sing with was no longer there. Their singing style was becoming Western. Whereas before they would sing songs with African lyrics, they began to limit their songs only to those that had English lyrics. The freedom they once demonstrated in their worship had become restrictive.
At a church board meeting I asked some of the African church leaders why their worship style was changing. They answered, "Because of the piano."
As the meeting proceeded on into the late hours of the night I discovered that the church leaders were not very happy with the change. They were not happy with the piano any more. When I asked why they didn’t just tell me that they did not want the piano in the church, one person answered, "We did not want to hurt your feelings. We were scared that if we said something you would get upset, leave our church to attend some other church and take away your missionary assistance and finances."
Another person, bravely, stated, "What could we do? Though you keep telling us that this is our church, your actions showed us that you were only talking. You act as though you are the chief of this church. If you really wanted us to take ownership of this church you would not have brought in your piano without asking us first."
3. "Missionaries, by their example, teach us not to reach out into new areas." "Though we read about the Great Commission in the Bible, the example that some missionaries have conveyed is that it is better to ‘stay and be comfortable’ than to ‘go and reach new areas for Christ.’"
Again, I took great offense with this statement. As a missionary I had left my home in America to work in Africa. That was quite a sacrifice to make. Therefore, defensively I wanted to know why they would say what they were saying.
The explanation they gave to me centered around two missionary practices. The first practice had to do with how more and more missionaries were buying mission homes to live in. Often the homes bought were more expensive than the homes that the national Africans were able to afford. Africans would hear missionaries talking about the sacrifices they were making but were asking themselves the question, "What sacrifice are they making when they have such nice homes, furniture, cars and office equipment?" Their comfortable lifestyles were preventing them from seeing the lost to whom they still needed to minister.
The second practice they referred to was how missionaries would buy their homes and then stay in one location for many years. "If there really is an urgency of reaching the lost with the Gospel, why are missionaries just staying in one location?" The purchasing of homes is not conducive to mobility. When discussing strategies for reaching into new areas, missionaries have been heard to say, "We can’t move now. Our children need to finish high school first," or "It would be too hard for us to sell the mission home and too expensive to buy another one in a new location. Therefore we had better stay where we are."
As I reflect back on that night, I do not think that those African pastors were saying that they did not appreciate missionaries. Neither were they saying that missionaries are no longer needed. What I gleaned from this encounter is that missionaries can hurt national churches when they stay too long in one area. One participant of our evening fellowship stated, "It’s not natural for a father and mother to continually hover over their children. In the natural course of things, parents will eventually allow their children to grow up by giving them their space. That is why we cannot understand why missionaries think that they have to always be with us. It’s almost as if they are not willing for us to ‘stretch our arms and grow up"
Jim Lo is an associate professor of Intercultural Stuides and the Coordinator of Intercultural Programming at Indiana Weslyan University.
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