by Pius Wakatama
How are Africans best going to participate in the evangelization of Africa and the rest of the world?
We in Africa are indeed thankful to the missionaries who brought Christianity, education, and medicine to our people when no one else cared about us, except as commodities for their own gain. The fate of Africans at the hands of colonizers would have been far worse, had it not been for the protests of many missionaries, some of whom were beaten and killed as a result.
However, post-World War II independence for the former European colonies has forever changed Africa. Consequently, the role of missionaries is vastly different. The missionary enterprise must reorder its priorities and restructure its methods. (In this article, "missionaries" refers only to church planters and evangelists, not to doctors, teachers, and development specialists. Neither does it include support people who help in evangelism, for example, Bible translators and radio and television producers.)
The question is: How are Africans best going to participate in the evangelization of Africa and the rest of the world?
Some Western missiologists say that the answer is for Africans to start their own American-style independent mission agencies. They encourage Africans to do this. We now have in Africa more than 350 indigenous mission organizations, some of which are little more than crude clones of some Western agencies. While some may applaud this development as an indicator of the Africans’ fervor to reach the unreached, we should be aware that the number of agencies alone does not necessarily mean that there is more evangelism being done.
The independent missions in the West were raised up because some of the denominations were largely apathetic toward world evangelization. Their success in Africa is beyond question; in fact, most African Christians today are the fruit of the independent missionary movement.
However, it is simplistic to conclude that Africans should start similar organizations, just because of the past successes of the Western agencies. Just because some of the European and American denominations failed to exercise a strong commitment to world missions does not mean the same thing will happen elsewhere.
By now, in Africa, we have reached the point where our continuing church growth is no longer as much the result of Western independent missionary work as it is the result of our local churches multiplying themselves. In fact, the continued existence of these missionaries alongside the churches their predecessors founded is now a hindrance to the growth and well-being of those churches.
In the New Testament, we find no examples of the apostles, or "sent ones," settling in the places where they founded churches, in order to train their converts to take responsibilities and then grant them independence after they became self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. Rather, they stayed only a few months and then left for other unreached areas. They gave their instructions and exhortations through letters, by apostolic messengers, or on return visits.
The presence of settled missions next door to local African churches caused church-mission conflicts to the extent Africans called for a moratorium on missionaries in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the ensuing debate did not adequately analyze the nature and causes of these conflicts. Instead, it centered on whether or not any person or group had the right to prevent God’s servants from going anywhere they wanted to with the gospel. That was not the real issue.
The debate focused more on the need for missionaries and local believers to understand one another and get along as good Christian brothers and sisters than it did on the need for mission organizations to move on. The symptoms were treated, but the problem remained. So we still have church-mission conflicts more than a decade later.
Of course, some African church leaders feared a moratorium because of serious ramifications. For example, at the first International Congress on World Evangelization, at Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974, S.O. Odunaike said in a panel discussion: "We completely resist the idea of a moratorium on missionaries in Africa. How can we talk like this when our own governments are actively soliciting economic, technical, and educational aid from overseas? If people are willing to take a plunge into a river to rescue a drowning people, I don’t see why we need to refer to a committee to decide whether they should." His rejection of a moratorium was not based on an analysis of the reasons for it, but on a fear of possible financial, technical, and other repercussions.
However, the Lausanne Covenant produced at that historic 1974 congress squarely addressed the valid reasons for a moratorium: "A reduction of foreign missionaries and money may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national church’s growth in self-reliance and to release resources for unevangelized areas."
Unfortunately, it seems that no mission working in Africa has seriously considered this option. And so church-mission conflicts continue to boil, and in some instances take up so much of the energy of both churches and missions that the primary purpose of preaching the gospel is lost.
I am not actually advocating a moratorium. I signed the Lausanne Covenant, which states, "Missionaries should flow ever more freely and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service. The goal should be, by all available means, and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have opportunity to hear, understand, and receive the good news." However, my main point is that I do not feel that such a conviction necessitates the continuance of missionary colonialism.
In evangelized parts of Africa, foreign mission organizations should move on. They should keep on sending their missionariesâ€”not as an arm of the foreign agency in Africaâ€”but to the existing African churches. This is what the late Philip Armstrong proposed in 1982 (Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April, 1982, pp. 69-76):
Reverse the picture. Would you tolerate a mission board next door to the church in your town? Particularly if they had unlimited facilities, professionally trained personnel, and a budget that would make the budget of your church look like it was playing sandlot baseball beside a major league team?
Let’s look for some answers. How can we make the mission as unobtrusive as possible? Are we willing to structure the mission so that authority does not rest in North America? Would we consider such complete decentralization of authority that all work overseas is directed by the workers? Is the mission willing, to function in complete harmony and fellowship with the church?
True, some mission agencies have decentralized and their missionaries now work harmoniously with the church. But there are still many whose authority comes from the home board and field headquarters, with no reference to the local church. Some of them are not even members of the African church; some of them pastor their own denominational churches; some have no relationship whatsoever with the churches founded by their own missions.
We are sending out many missionaries from Africa today and I hope we are avoiding these mistakes. To my knowledge, we do not have Zimbabwean missionaries to America, for example, with a Zimbabwean field chairman ensconced in field headquarters in Wheaton, III., directed by a field council composed of older Zimbabwean missionaries who receive their authority from their home board in Zimbabwe. Rather, our missionaries are working in full fellowship with local churches in the countries to which they have been called.
Very simply, whether we are Western or African missionaries, we must return to the New Testament pattern. Our churches must send them out as they obey the Holy Spirit’s call. They must have a singular goal to preach the gospel and to plant churches, with no other considerations to distract them from the ministry to which they are consecrated.
Once they plant a church, these pioneers should appoint elders and then leave the churches to be guided by the Holy Spirit. These missionaries can then either return or go to other areas. The new churches will be aided in growth by their fellowship and association with older churches. There will be no need for teams of missionaries from outside staying with them for years "to train the nationals." By following the biblical model, we will avoid church-mission conflicts like those bedeviling us now.
It is time to realize that, although the Western missionary movement has had a glorious past in Africa and has accomplished much, we have reached the end of an era and are seeing the dawn of a new one. There is much Africans can learn from the experiences of their Western missionary forebears. However, our situation is drastically different from the days of the pioneer missionaries, and we cannot just ape what they did. We need to listen to what God is telling us in our own age and in our own situation.
New concepts and methods created to ease our conflicts must be based on the centrality of the local church, and not on agencies organized by professionals. As in Acts 1:8, the African initiative must be preceded by revival and renewal in our churches. The Holy Spirit will then lead us into new and more dynamic pathways as we go out as witnesses.
Copyright © 1990 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.