The Trendy Giant Wounds: Some Lessons from the Church in Africa

by David Ngaruiya

Careful and adequate pre-mission training needs to be done in preparing westerners to engage the cultural context of Africa in short-term missions.

The trendy short-term mission giant has been striding across Africa and leaving some indelible footprints, some of them positive, others negative. On the positive side, people are coming to faith, revival is breaking out in communities, hospitals and schools are being developed, women are becoming economically empowered and there is significant church growth. Short-term missionaries have not only visited, they have given financially, professionally and spiritually. They have founded orphanages and ministered to financially handicapped women, equipping them with skills to improve the quality of their handcrafts for better marketability.

The giant has, however, left some indelible wounds and impressions as well. This is a concern raised by some national leaders. Here I will argue from interwoven data that in an age of growing partnerships between the Western and the African Church, careful and adequate pre-mission training needs to be done in preparing westerners to engage the cultural context of Africa in short-term missions. In this way, the short-term mission giant can be enhanced for greater fruitfulness and effectiveness. Data here comes from formal and informal interviews with ten African hosts to short-term missions: four females and six males. Questions were framed to elicit areas of conflict between short-term missionaries and their hosts in Africa. The interviewees were leaders involved in short-term missions. The location of the interviewees spans across East, Central and West Africa. Below we will look at four sectors of those wounds: missiological, sociological, theological and cultural.


During and after the short-term mission trip, the local pastor and other leaders face challenging missiological issues. These include clarifying the missionaries’ language and etiquette, competence, stewardship of resources and contextualized worship. In one incident, a short-term missionary tried to speak the local language but ended up using a word which insulted the local people. The pastor had to go back to the people to clarify what the missionary had meant. The same missionary also declined to eat food offered to him. This led the local people to say, “He was not prepared well enough to live with us.” The hosts found it very difficult to minister to him.

In another case, a missionary with very little training was sent to serve as a pastor. His preaching was so poor that the local pastor asked him not to teach from the pulpit and to take time to acquire some biblical knowledge.

Unclear financial accountability structures can lead to mistrust and misunderstanding. In one instance, a camp facility was constructed and a responsible African pastor was accountable for the project. Funds were sent and controlled by another Western missionary according to the giver’s plan. When the local pastor later had an opportunity to visit a Western country and happened to meet with one of the short-term mission leaders, the pastor was accused of misusing the camp facility funds. The Western leaders accused him of using the funds to travel to the Western country.

Because they do not understand how nationals socialize, some short-term missionaries have labeled them as “lazy.” A pastor’s wife was shocked when one missionary commented, “People here don’t like to study the Bible; they prefer to dance” and “Your lifestyle is not good. Your songs are not good. This is the way to sing.” This experience gives credibility to the wife’s claim that “they don’t seem to appreciate the way we do things and that it has meaning for us.” The issues she raised illustrate the priority of relationships while going about one’s tasks or chores. In her context, relationships are so critical that a person is considered antisocial for neglecting to take time to interact with others.

In another setting, Christians were believed to be unable to see ghosts. One short-term missionary refuted the claim in a way that showed disrespect for local beliefs. He walked through a forbidden area and shook hands with “someone” the local people believed was a ghost. His action caused him to be rejected as a “Christian.” According to Robert Priest, there needs to be awareness that in the cross-cultural context, the missionaries who attempt to live an exemplary life and “be a good witness” will naturally tend to do so with reference to their own consciences rather than with reference to the conscience of those to whom they speak. The result is that their actions—in areas addressed by native consciences but unaddressed by the missionaries (or differently addressed by theirs)—will tend to be judged immoral. (1994, 301)

The rejection of this man’s gospel was not surprising considering he had ignored the native conscience. Tite Tienou asserts that “the first act of mission is to listen” (2000). Thus, the missiological approach of short-term missionaries should be one that seeks “ways that speak directly to the soul of the African and helps him to respond to the voice of God” (King 1981, 2). The training of the short-term missionaries should be grounded in a missiology sensitive to the local context.


In some instances of cross-cultural gospel partnership, sociological issues such as marks of partiality, a patronizing attitude, bad Christian witness and loss of face of the local pastor resulted from the short-term team work. A local medical student recalled how short-term medical missionaries showed significant partiality for medical students from their home country. Local students were invited for dinner only as an afterthought when arrangements had already been made for the expatriate students. While one may acknowledge the need for bonding social capital of the short-term team, inflexibility to a spontaneous growth of relationships with local believers erodes the bridging social capital of the team with the hosts. Social capital is the “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity” (Putnam 2000, 21-24).

A pastor’s wife and community leader shares this about her time with some short-term missionaries:

They come as superior to me. They come as those who have been told what I am and who I am…I became a Christian before many of them were born. The team members were not willing to learn. They would quote an expert in their country who gave them the orientation and it got to a point where I gave them what they wanted to hear.

Pervasive stereotyping by the short-term team hindered a fruitful encounter. This woman is involved in a church denomination comprising about six million believers where she is one of the key leaders of about four million women. Another African female professor narrated how some short-term missionaries patronized her department. They appointed themselves as supervisors in teaching but did not expect to be held accountable by the nationals.

One host pastor complained that the efforts of short-term missionaries caused his work to be sneered at. In terms of evangelism, they accomplished in two weeks what he had not done in all his years at the local church. The comparison left a dented image of the local pastor; his congregation no longer appreciated the enormous work he had done for them. He lamented that short-termers merely “come, hit and run.” His comment raises the question of what mission models might have suited his context so as not to overlook the fact that his work also included weddings, baptisms, burials and hidden ministries such as counseling. The short-term missionaries were involved only in evangelistic outreach. A good mission model would have left both the pastor and the congregation united over their goals.

In a case study of two churches, one in Kenya and another in Thailand, three models of missions are worth noting (Zehner 2005, 7).

1. The “self directed model” in which the short-term missionary just “goes,” an example advocated by Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life.

2. The “mission directed” model, where an agency does the training of the person who goes.

3. The “host directed” model, in which the host has a primary role in the control and direction of the mission task.

The Kenyan church was said to be encouraging long-term mission approaches as opposed to the “Delta Force” approach where short-term missionaries go in, quickly do their “mission” and get out. Three months, according to the Kenyan church, would be considered not as a mission, but as an experience focused on learning about mission. Edwin Zehner introduces some metaphors that refer to the short-term mission trip as “friendship journey,” “shalom journey,” “partners in the vision” and “short-term experiences,” as suggested by the Kenyan church (Zehner 2005).

Some members of a short-term team visited a local disco hall seeking entertainment. They took alcohol in public—a scandal for the local community. In another case, two members of the short-term team were smoking—an embarrassment to local believers and the host pastor. The two were also seen with local girls who made their living from prostitution. The host of this team said that with few exceptions, “they do not build relationships; they come for projects.” A pastor’s wife was puzzled that the short-term mission often turns out to be a vacation, which raises questions about the sincerity of some short-term missionaries. She asked, “Do they come here to do the holiday thing or do they come here to minister?” Lack of listening to the local leaders led one pastor’s wife to say, “They have an agenda. They want to get that agenda so that they will have enough information to bring back with them. They are not patient enough to stay and listen.” In her context, respectable nationals will not open up to a short-term missionary who is just “coming and going.”

Hosts faced a number of theological issues in their encounter with short-term missionaries: fundamentalism, perception of demons, “who is a missionary” and glossolalia (speaking in tongues). A team to Central Africa comprised of members of a fundamentalist persuasion of Christianity that did not want the local people to worship “God in their identity” and termed the local worship as “carnal” for using drums and clapping. Eventually, the local believers gave in to the demands of the short-term team and stopped this “carnal” worship. The team then provided some hymnals for the people to use; unfortunately, many of the local believers could not read, sing like the short-term team or follow the unfamiliar rhythm. Good cross-cultural training would have prepared the team to appreciate that “music mirrors the soul of the African, and it is an essential part of his inmost being; it has power to liberate, and it is in the music and dance that the African can best be himself” (Weman 1960, 20). Thus, mutual edification would have been experienced.

In one teaching context, a short-term missionary was said to use the culture “to filter what to teach” about demons. In avoiding teaching about demons, the short-term missionary’s cultural influence was evident; this may eventually affect how pastors trained by him will teach or handle issues of spiritual warfare in church. The avoidance could have also been a reflection of his ecclesiastical tradition, which may need to be addressed if he is to minister effectively in a new context. According to Rene Padilla, “The interpreter’s attitude toward God, his ecclesiastical tradition and his culture” affect teaching of scripture (1979, 289).

A female community leader recalled that when short-term team members visited her country, “for a short time” they were considered missionaries. Having visited and served in different ministries in the West, she says she was not considered a missionary. This raises the question, “Who is a missionary?” In the same incident, the visiting team members were speaking in tongues, without any interpreter, in their public ministry. When the local believers raised that issue, the short-term team accused the local believers of “not being in the Spirit.” Aylward Shorter asserts that “a truly multicultural church is one in which the local solutions to pastoral problems and the local formulations of doctrine and worship are favored” (1988, 259), an important perspective to keep in view as Christians engage cross-culturally.


Cultural issues such as perception of time, privacy, dressing and relating raised some conflicts between hosts and short-term missionaries. While Africans generally engage in many social transactions, this interferes with the privacy of short-term missionaries. In one community, the local believers could not just drop in to see the missionaries as a cultural norm. The missionaries felt disrespected if people visited without appointments. The local people were not able to interact with people they regarded as their guests, which created frustration on their part. This interaction reflects the assertion that man is “suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” and that culture is those webs (Geertz 1973, 5).

One pastor recalled how the short-term missionaries felt dishonored when their hosts did not schedule every moment of their time. The team felt they were left idle when an event was not occurring. The host team planned around the events. A sharp disagreement arose after debriefing and, although they were invited to return, the team never came back. The implied self ascription of the short-termers as “the achievers” and the host as offering “idleness” created a conflict between the two groups who were actually committed to the good of each other.

A local senior pastor, commenting on the manner of dress of the short-term team, said, “They come with their culture, not minding about the people they are ministering to have their own culture.” The team wore hats while evangelizing and when approaching local elders; this was understood locally as a sign of disrespect. The senior pastor also complained that the team “hooked up with younger people,” which made the locals suspect the team of having their own agenda. In that culture, the missionaries were expected to approach older people for guidance in the culture. The conduct of some short-term missionaries fell short of the ideal that culture matters and that “cultural flexibility, a willingness to learn and participate and to signal strong appreciation and affirmation of others and their practices” is needed if we are to meaningfully engage with others (Priest and Priest 2007, 288).

The question of how the gospel relates to culture is as old as the Christian faith. Five typical answers are helpful in appreciating the diversity of responses to this question: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture (Niebuhr 1951, 39-44). There is need for patience and understanding if mission partners recognize that growth toward Christ-likeness is a process and that the worldwide Church is a hermeneutical community.

According to Lamin Sanneh, “Our very cultural differences should help us appreciate the richness of our common cultural heritage, so that we may claim our particular roots as the strands in an interconnected universal fellowship, not as trophies of national exclusiveness” (1993, 85-86). We should have gratitude for the past work of missionaries on account of the fact that “the dry bones of many of these missionaries, rising from their unmarked graves, gave voices to our ancestors” (Danquah 1944, 186ff, quoted in Sanneh 1993, 91). The Nairobi Chapel is an example of a church seeking to build relationships that are witnesses of the Christian faith glocally. It is an example of a church planting movement and an emerging mission model of a Kenyan church involved in both short-term and long-term mission partnerships with some Western churches. They are guided by three commitments: incarnational ministry, servanthood and partnership.

• Incarnational ministry. In its commitment to incarnational ministries, the Nairobi Chapel acknowledges that God himself grew up in a human culture, learned and spoke a human language, lived in a human home and experienced human problems from a human perspective. It was not until Jesus was thirty years old that he began to teach, having learned from the local Hebrew culture before he began to minister publicly.

• Servanthood. As a servant, Jesus did what the Father was doing according to John 5:19 and served in light of succession. He entrusted the work to the disciples at the end of three years, confident that because this was the Father’s work, the Father would see it accomplished through the disciples.

• Partnership. In partnerships, Nairobi Chapel is very sensitive to creating unity with and among believers in a given context. It does not begin to plant a church before first finding out if there is a similar work and possibly a similar philosophy of ministry that already exists in the context.

Reciprocity is central to mission partnerships and Nairobi Chapel exchanges ideas, ministry and travel. God reveals himself to the world, and the Church can learn much from other people and their cultures. This helps avoid the pitfalls of ethnocentrism that may create blindness to the potential lessons one may learn as he or she engages with other cultures. It can lead to fruitful ministry to orphans, church planting, leadership development through church planting and a contextualized worship.

Some Africans such as the Kikuyu are oblivious to time and distractions when working. According to Gerald Wanjohi, “’You are to cultivate without looking at the sun’ means that an industrious person should be more concerned with his or her work rather than the passage of time” (1997, 241). Thus, the short-term missionary needs to be aware that looking at his or her watch may convey a sense of impatience or a lack of persevering in a given task.

One African host was very disappointed that a short-term missionary brought some fruit salad for her meals. This conveyed to the host that he was not generous or able to feed the guest well. Such conflict may be related to ethnicity because “the ethnic identity of a group consists of its subjective, symbolic or emblematic use of a culture, or a separate origin and continuity in order to differentiate themselves from other groups” (Romanucci-Ross and DeVos 1995, 24). Food for this missionary and for the host was an emblem to assert one’s identity and thus loyalty. Reciprocity calls for guests not to come entirely empty-handed. It is wise to buy food items as a treat rather than a necessity.

The hosting church needs to take the short-term team through pre-field training to some degree. At a minimum, the local church should provide guidelines and training in how the missionaries can socialize and minister in culturally appropriate ways which dispel the notion that they are paternalistic. According to Christine Pohl, westerners are socialized to “more personal space” and should be granted opportunities to be by themselves for “recognition of dignity as well as need” (1999, 69). Hospitality has fragility identifiable in three difficulties: (1) limited resources, (2) boundaries of the community and (3) the human propensity to take or gain advantage (1999, 127-130). Pohl asserts,

In a paradoxical way, hospitality is simultaneously mundane and sturdy, mysterious and fragile. As a practice, it always involves soup and bread, blankets and beds. But it always involves more than these, and certain tensions internal to hospitality make it fragile—vulnerable to distortion and misuse. (1999, 127)

Sensitivity to personal space can therefore help to reduce conflict in hospitality. Form and meaning need to be addressed in training short-term missionaries. The missionaries need to recognize that “God’s message is a message of meaning, not a message of forms” (Kraft 1996, 140). Missionaries must look at local cultural forms to effectively convey the meaning of the passage or message they desire the locals to understand. This is one of the greatest issues cross-cultural missionaries face. Where a certain concept does not exist, it is better to borrow the intended concept from a nearby society that nationals are more familiar with than to bring a very Western concept.

Two questions critical to the discussion on form and meaning can be raised. First, “What shall we do with the existing cultural practices, particularly those related to the people’s religion?” Second, “How can we best express the gospel in the new culture?” Paul Hiebert proposes four linkages of form and meaning: arbitrary linkage, loose linkage, tight linkage and forms equating meanings. He cautions that contextualization is “a long process, not an instant achievement” (1989, 101-118). Any cross-cultural communication calls for a good understanding of the forms and meanings in the receiving culture and entail a study of the local culture with patience, diligence and accuracy. History of previous experiences, evaluations and debriefings aid this process.

Conflict is inevitable as short-term missionaries seek to engage others. For fruitfulness and effectiveness, the Church needs to prepare the short-term missionary missiologically, sociologically, theologically and culturally. This calls for both the hosts and the short-term missionaries to begin at the first act of mission: to listen to each other and move in concert, resulting in the “conversion” of the two cultures. As Anthony Gittins notes, “It is in the role of the outsider, recipient, listener and itinerant, quite as much as from the position of the insider, donor, speaker and settler, that Jesus creates and undertakes his ministry, and commissions others to do likewise” (1994, 400). The African and the Western Church can reshape the striding giant to be a strengthening giant.

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__________. 2005. Conversation with author. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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David Ngaruiya is a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is on faculty at the Nairobi International School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya.

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