by Solomon Aryeetey
Sebi tafratse (with all due respects): A Word to the West from the Rest
These are indeed very interesting times! Sometimes, I cannot help but incredulously ask, “What is happening in our world these days?!” It seems like the whole world is going through a grand seizure which refuses to end.
First, it was the 2011 earthquake of almost biblical proportions which seemed to have come from nowhere to literally shake the otherwise tranquil and serene island of Japan, wreaking havoc and widespread loss of human life. Then, in rolled an unrelenting, unstoppable tsunami which mercilessly swallowed up anything and everything in its path. Thousands upon thousands lost their lives. Four nuclear reactors were on the verge of meltdown. The fear and panic that ensued was captured in history books.
God Stirring Up the Arab World
Then, the cascade of events in North Africa and the Middle East occurred. This has come to be known as the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening.” It began in Tunisia when a young man set himself ablaze to demonstrate his frustration with the dire economic and social realities in his country.
Before long, all hell broke loose in the streets of Tunis. President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia, and the subsequent euphoria and excitement about the potential freedom which may result was perhaps the tonic that Arabs across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula needed. They felt free to vent their own frustrations on the dictators and despots who had ruled their respective countries. Thus, country after country was embroiled in conflict, protests, and running battles with the police and military in the streets of their cities.
Many demonstrators pitched their tents in the middle of city squares, refusing to budge until their demands were met. Having experienced enough tyranny and oppression, these demonstrators were ready to breathe the fresh air of freedom and opportunity that genuine democracy offers.
From Morocco to Yemen, in virtually every Arab and therefore Muslim country, a battle for freedom and democracy raged—and in many areas, continues to do so. The level of violence in each country has varied from civil war and mayhem in Libya and Syria to shaky, but quiet discontent in Morocco and Jordan.
As an evangelical Christian, I am hopeful that the sequence of events in this part of the Muslim world will end well. No one could have predicted the spontaneous uprising and outburst of widespread discontent—it must be God’s own hand at work. It is as if God himself has taken his big spoon and is deliberately and intentionally stirring the pot called the Arab World.
Their cry for freedom is indeed a heart cry for the Lord Jesus himself—but they do not yet know it. Freedom is Jesus. John 8:32, 36 reads, “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free…..If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” God himself is at work preparing the way for a massive paradigm shift in the Arab World. He is creating a yearning and a thirst for freedom which can only be satisfied by the living water that Jesus alone gives. Indeed the people who sit in darkness are about to see the great light of the world who is Jesus himself!
All of us who name the name of Jesus Christ and worship him as our Lord and our Savior should rejoice at these happenings. Christians throughout the centuries have prayed for this day to come. They have yearned for the time when the eyes of the Arab people are opened to see the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus so that they may turn to him and be saved. If I were a prophet, I would cry aloud, “The time is coming, and indeed now is the time that God has chosen to shine the radiance of the light of his glory on the Arab people. The light indeed shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot resist it.”
Absolutely exciting times! But alas, the Western Church, including mission organizations in the West, have been caught by surprise. Perhaps the greatest precursor to a genuine opportunity to spread the glorious gospel of Jesus throughout the Arab World is here—and we are clueless about what to do with it.
What will our response to these events be? Whatever we decide, please let us not resort to “business as usual.” That will be tragic. Isaiah 43:8-9 reads, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
This article is an attempt to awaken those of us in the global missionary family. What remains to be done as far as the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ is concerned can no longer be achieved by the same modus operandi that the Western Church has employed in many parts of the world. Business as usual will simply not do in the Arab Muslim world.
Proposing a United Approach
With all due respect, and with all the humility I can muster, I want to put an idea on the table for discussion. I write as a member of the family of God around the world and therefore as an integral part of the Body of Christ. I write as one who has lived his adult life as a missionary in a Muslim context. I come to this discussion as someone who has been deeply involved in the growth and development of the indigenous, African missionary movement. By God’s grace, I am a product of the revival that took West Africa by storm in the late 1960s and has left in its wake an army of believers who are passionate about serving the Lord as missionaries.
In 1975, the fateful LOGOS ship, launched by Operation Mobilization, berthed at the Port of Tema in Ghana. A group of us from the University of Ghana Christian Fellowship were on board as guests. What we experienced as we listened to various presentations on the state of the worldwide missionary movement was stunning. When they asked who would commit to praying regularly for the Arab World, my hands went up.
Several years ago, our mission, Pioneers-Africa, launched a new initiative that we code-named DSI—the Desert Streams Initiative. We invited various segments of the Body of Christ around the world to pray, brainstorm, and forge ahead together to reach North Africa and the Middle East for Christ. We emphasized that the time had come for a Body-of-Christ, multicultural, multi-mission, multi-church, united approach to the Arab World.
Today, the events unraveling in that part of the world make it even more urgent for this idea to become a dominant one in missions today.
What Is Really Thwarting Our Mission?
Before I proceed, allow me to introduce a new phrase to you: “Sebi tafratse.” It has been borrowed from many cultures in the southern part of Ghana, my country of origin. “Sebi tafratse” is a magic phrase. When you have something that desperately needs to be said to hearers who you respect, and you are struggling with being perceived as disrespectful, vulgar, uncouth, or uncivil, precede your speech with “Sebi tafratse.” Even kings are obliged to offer you your first amendment rights to free speech. This article may be a bit troublesome to read, but I intend to heed the advice of scripture that admonishes me to let my words be seasoned with salt.
The conventional wisdom says that the greatest threat to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our day and in this generation is the threat of radical, Jihadhist Islam. Indeed, it is true that the rise of militant Islam with its attendant terrorism and wanton destruction of lives and property is a formidable threat to the modern-day missionary enterprise.
However, it is equally true that when you look back to centuries of the history of the Church, you can see that whenever the Church has been under persecution and threats of this nature, it has come out resilient and strong. Radical Islam cannot thwart God’s ordained plan of redemption for all peoples. The Lord Jesus was unequivocal: “Upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!”
If we were to try to identify the one main thing that stands in our way when it comes to the missionary enterprise, “Sebi tafratse,” it would be this: the overwhelming attitude and complex of superiority with which the vast majority of the Western Church is afflicted, and its twin evil, namely, the complex of inferiority that is so deeply rooted in the Church found in the so-called “Majority World.”
Contrary to what is widely believed in many evangelical circles, and even in many great centers of theological and missiological thought, the end result of all missionary work is not the planting of churches. Neither is it even the establishment of church-planting movements.
The final product is a Bride for a Bridegroom. A Bride without spot or wrinkle; a Bride which is an amalgamation of every identifiable segment of the worldwide Body of Believers in the Lord Jesus. Each segment is given the space and the opportunity to bring its God-ordained unique contribution to the table. And every segment, out of a deep sense of the beauty and ingenuity of our God, wholeheartedly celebrates and embraces this wonderful diversity.
The Bride of Christ is either adorned with a coat of many colors, or she is not his bride at all. Multicultural, multiracial—one body made up of diverse parts, each with its own specific function which the other segments can never bring to the table. And, “Sebi tafratse,” when the tendency in the West is to equate the huge, stunning disparity between them and the rest of the Christian world in terms of wealth and resources, this betrays how utterly worldly these in the West have become.
It is in this biblical context that I dare say, “Sebi tafratse,” in my estimation, the Western Church’s tendency to unwittingly adulterate the glorious gospel with a subtle, unabashed Western nationalism, a blatant assumption of superiority, and a default setting that is so dismissive of the contribution of the Majority World Church is perhaps the most serious threat the Church worldwide has ever faced.
I am not finished. Further, the depressive complex of inferiority that this attitude of superiority has engendered throughout the Majority World segment of the Body of Christ is equally deadly.
These twin complexes feed on each other like the proverbial vicious cycle. Their twin off-springs are paternalism and dependency.
A New Battle Cry of Koinonia
The global missionary enterprise is at a crossroads today. Every Christian missionary agency must step back for a moment of reflection and face itself squarely. Will we listen to what the Spirit of God is seeking to do in this present dispensation, or will we insist on business as usual?
If indeed we are truly focused on Jesus and his glory rather than our various corporate images and mission philosophies, then we cannot but embrace koinonia. This Greek term encapsulates the idea of genuine Christian fellowship and an avowed commitment to the concept of the one body with specialized parts which work together to benefit the whole. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one body—this is the new paradigm which should underscore every new initiative we undertake. Koinonia is part and parcel of the DNA of the Great Commission or it is no commission at all.
I humbly submit that koinonia should be the battle cry of the twenty-first-century missionary enterprise. We can no longer afford the inward-looking parochial tendencies that have been the order of the day in the past century of missionary work. The mission is not about us. We need to operate under a divine mandate which includes a sincere recognition and commitment to a modus operandi that has partnership with the rest of the Body of Christ in view.
Nothing pleases God more than when we demonstrate through koinonia our love for one another and our willingness to hold hands with brothers and sisters who name the name of Christ around the world. Psalm 133 says,
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
This is not a call to cheap ecumenism. It is a reminder that all of us within the family of God are under obligation to allow his Spirit to work in us so that the various segments of this one Body of Christ fit together to actually function like the Bride of Christ. This proposition is non-negotiable. It is not enough to be aware of our commitment to the mission of Christ. That mission cannot be achieved unless we are equally committed to koinonia.
A Culture in Need of Interdependence
At the heart of Western culture is a tendency to presume that there is little that can originate from a culture outside of the West that could be described as better than what the West offers. “Sebi tafratse,” this is baloney! It is insulting to the creativity, ingenuity, and sovereignty of the God who so delicately made the other cultures for his glory. Unwittingly, Christians in the West have believed this lie that makes them feel a sense of entitlement to a biblically untenable position of first-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. The result is that they then expect all other cultures to automatically assume the subservient and inferior role of second-class citizens. This is heresy.
Enough is enough! This is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room every time groups of Christians in the Majority World sit around the table with their Western counterparts to talk about partnership. It is time to call a spade a spade, and not a big spoon!
A dear friend of mine stated it this way: “As a representative of the non-Western segment of the Body of Christ, I refuse to be a second-class citizen in my own Father’s house!”
Often, the Majority World Church is very much aware of their need of the rest of the Body; however, when Christians in the West are reminded that they desperately need the churches in other parts of the world, they are often dismissed. American culture, for one, teaches that being independent is desirable, and thus the thought of the American Church needing the African Church, for example, sounds alien. Much of the Church in America appears to have no clue about the scriptural principle of interdependence. And if it does, it seems this truth has not seeped deep enough to become part of their DNA.
The culture in America teaches people to be organized so that they do not need anybody else. Over the past twenty-eight years, I have traveled widely throughout America and have had occasion to interact with all kinds of churches, mission groups, and colleges. Indeed, for the past five years, I have lived in Atlanta, Georgia, where I own a business and actually pay both federal and state taxes every year.
So in a sense, I can truly say with all humility that I do know a little bit of what the Church in America looks like. Many individual churches are organized in such a way that they cannot need each other. It is in fact rare to see churches working together in biblical fellowship to undertake a common project.
On the other hand, African churches are wired to reach out to other churches. This is due to the culture of communalism that is at the heart of being an African. “I am because WE ARE!”
Let me suggest that the various cultures found within the Majority World are much closer to the ideals that 1 Corinthians 12 discusses with regard to the one Body of Christ than what prevails in the West. Even the unbelieving world in Africa lives out the reality of that amazing truth. We bring that reality to every relationship we have. We expect the other party to be aware that they cannot go it alone. They need us as much as we need them.
Upending Who Leads
In light of the anthropological difference that I have just alluded to, when it comes to who is better suited to chair the discussion on koinonia, whom should we select? The westerner who is wired to be individualistic—or the Asian, African, or South American Christian whose roots are grounded firm and deep in the soil of communalism?
And yet the Western Church continues to insist on leading. Again, let me plead with our brethren in the West:
Don’t you still get it? We have been waiting for you all these years. Why are you asking us to draw closer to you and your culture, language, way of dressing, Western ways—and yet you are so unwilling to take even one step toward us? Do you really love us? Then why are you not opening your hearts to also take in what we bring to you? Why is being Western so important to the extent that you are unwilling to open your arms and embrace the rest of us wholeheartedly? You have a right to celebrate what you have. But God is supremely glorified when we too celebrate what he has done in us!
It is not yours to dictate what product we bring to the table. That remains a sacred transaction between God and us and it is strictly non-negotiable. This is not something you can manipulate. We insist on bringing what we have to the table.
The Holy Spirit has been cultivating eternity in our hearts long before your missionaries came to us. And God knows we are eternally grateful to these gallant heroes, many of whom literally laid down their lives for Jesus and for his gospel, and have fertilized our soils with their blood, sweat, and tears to create the soil that we have become for the gospel. We owe them a debt of gratitude that only eternity can repay! These men died not so that the Western mindset may prevail all over the globe. They died so that Christ may receive glory out of the tribes and nations of the earth, as each brings out of their own treasure stores their unique praise and their particular brand of worship. This is at the heart of the principle called koinonia.
God made sure that without the Majority World Church bringing their unique contributions to missions, the Western Church, with all its resources, would be nowhere near finishing the task of evangelization around the world.
The mission belongs to God and not to us. And for the sake of his glory, he has deliberately spread the pieces of the puzzle in all the Christian cultures of the world. We cannot dismiss any culture’s contribution, no matter how highly we think of our own. All the pieces of the puzzle which have been deposited within the various Christian cultural entities around the world must be brought to the table.
A Call to True Koinonia
The ball is in the court of the Church and missionary movements operating in the West. They are at a crossroads. If they are willing to, “Sebi tafratse,” repent of the pride of a feeling of superiority over other people made in God’s own image, and truly embrace the rest of us in a real Spirit of koinonia and godly partnership, then they will be opening a door to unleash an era of unprecedented growth, development, anointing, power, and victory in the global evangelical movement.
However, if the Western Church and its myriads of mission agencies insist on business as usual, before they know it, the Lord himself will render them irrelevant in the coming revolution in the global missionary movement. Not only that. Their continued inward-looking tendency will lead to spiritual atrophy and they will become only a pale, anemic shadow of their once glorious self.
As I write, I believe that indeed the train is already out of the station. Thanks to the amazing exploits of the Western missionary enterprise, God has raised up numerous indigenous missionary movements throughout the Majority World. Indeed, the sheer vitality and energy within the ranks of these movements should cause all of us who love the Lord Jesus with a passion to rejoice. I liken it to a volcano that is begging to explode with red-hot lava.
All of us within the Body of Christ should be celebrating and exclaiming with excitement, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” But alas, in some ill-advised Christian circles, mission leaders see this as competition, and are most unwilling to embrace it, let alone celebrate it.
However, in the Spirit of genuine koinonia, every child of God must feel a sense of ownership of anything and everything that the Spirit of God is doing across the length and breadth of the globe. It is all ours to own and celebrate. And when we see it as competition and as an “us vs. them” situation, we only betray how carnal and immature we are. We are obligated to discern the Body of Christ in situations like this according to 1 Corinthians 11.
Our One-ness as the New Modus Operandi
We are in the last days. The Lord Jesus is coming again sooner than we think. And he is coming for his Bride—the product of millennia of faithful missionary service which began with the apostles and the early Church who turned the world upside down for Jesus. Then came William Carey et al, pioneers of the modern-day missionary movement which has been largely a product of several centuries of heroism and devotion to God.
Now we are in the midst of a shifting paradigm. God is raising the Body of Christ around the world to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He is urging us by his Spirit to go as one Bride. Together, arm-in-arm, in the power of the one Spirit, let us embrace who we really are: the Body of Christ. Then, the sovereign Lord will, through the grace of koinonia, multiply our individual efforts exponentially and usher in a glorious new era of anointing and synergy like this world has never seen.
God is stirring up the Muslim world and making her ready for the gospel in a fresh new way. God has graciously given us, his people, a new modus operandi to reach them with the gospel. It is found in the Lord Jesus’ prayer in John 17: 20-23:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
True, the Roman Road method of evangelism is powerful enough. And God knows that the “Four Spiritual Laws” has been a most wonderful tool. Open air crusades, the door-to-door approach, the use of the Jesus film, friendship evangelism, the evangelistic Bible Study method, radio, television, Internet, gospel recordings, tracts, and more have shown their worth in the explosion of the gospel of Jesus Christ that we have witnessed over the past half century throughout the world. However, I want to suggest yet another method, namely, the method that the Lord himself specifically recommended to us: our one-ness.
If we can will ourselves to stand together as one body, and let true brotherly love flow freely among us…
If we are all resolved to allow the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to become the enabling environment in which all missionary work is carried out…
If we begin to practice the principles of mutual respect and sharing that biblical partnership demands…
Then, no religion, no human philosophy can resist us and our message.
They will be forced by our love for one another to reconsider and believe our glorious gospel. This is a promise from God himself. It is not about us and our pride in our cultural heritage. It is about Jesus and his glory. And unto him alone shall the gathering of the people be. Amen!
Solomon Aryeetey, MD, studied medicine in his home country of Ghana and became a missionary with Pioneers in Mali. He worked among the Fulani from 1989-1997. He and his wife are founders of Pioneer-Africa, which now has more than one hundred missionaries working among unreached peoples throughout Africa.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 166-174. 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.