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Ten Reflections on Western Christian Missions in Africa in 2017

Africa is very large and very diverse.  So, it is with considerable trepidation that I offer some general reflections on Christian missions in Africa at the present time.  My hope is less to be taken as a last word on any of these points than to stimulate necessary discussion in the right places.  Also, missions in our day is often not from the West; it may be from the East or indigenous missions in Africa.  These points, however, are directed at missionary efforts from the West in Africa.  Over the past 30-50 years, missions from the West has changed considerably, and I would be hard-pressed to say that this change has been good.  Let someone else find where it has been (and we can all celebrate those instances), but here I, at times, cast a more critical eye on the situation.  At other times, I simply want to advocate a particular emphasis that is needed in missions in Africa (always understanding that individual calling is different from missiological analysis).  So, here are my ten reflections in 2017.

1.       Church Growth in Africa Means an Increasing Need for Theological Education.  Those who put out reports on Christian demographics note that the world’s Christian centre is now in Africa.  One statistic has it that, at the current rate, by 2050 40% of the world’s Christians will be in Africa.  This is due to the growth of Christianity in Africa, the population growth, and the decline of population and Christians in many parts of the ‘West’ (i.e., first world countries in Europe or colonized by Europeans).  Can we say that theological education might rise to the top of a list of priorities for mission in such a context?
2.       Missions Minus Church Equals What?  There are many missionaries from the West in Africa.  They often come with non-denominational mission organizations and are sent by non-denominational churches.  Non-denominational churches also exist and even proliferate in parts of Africa.  Would it be fair to say that the question of the ‘Church’ in any sense of the term needs to be asked by non-denominational missions and missionaries?  I’m about as anti-establishment as they come, but we are not simply about the business of mission work to individual believers, are we?  Where are the connections between churches in the West, mission organizations, and churches in Africa?  Where is the Church in the practice of missions?
3.       Missionaries without Training for the Job?  Missionaries are often more poorly trained today than they were in an end-of-the-world theological mission 70 or 80 years ago.  They are sometimes more poorly educated than those in Africa to whom they have come to minister.  This is not always the case, of course, but the dynamics producing under-educated missionaries should be noted.  Non-denominational churches in the West sending missionaries to Africa typically lack standards for theological education and sometimes oppose theological education.  Mega-churches like to train their own with a few classes.  Mission organizations need missionaries to keep the ‘administrative fees’ coming, and they do not want to turn away candidates by requiring too much education before heading to the field.  They may require 6 weeks of varied training—6 weeks!  Seminaries cost so much that nobody in their right mind would go $30,000 into debt in the US and then take on a missionary’s salary.  Missionaries want to get to the field quickly, and after a B.A. degree in, say, psychology, why lay the requirement of an M.A. degree in Bible on the candidate as well?  (Readers in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand may be better trained if their undergraduate degree was focussed on ministry training; Americans often have a liberal arts undergraduate degree with majors in anything other than religion.)  Besides, some will ask, missionaries are often more ‘practical’ than academic—do they really need all that education?  And so go the arguments, mostly unspoken, that support an under-educated missionary force from the West in Africa.  Here’s an idea: why not think of missionaries as the ‘Navy Seals’ of the Church?  Asking that question would both clarify the mission that they need to undertake and the necessary training for the mission.  [If you are somewhere in Africa and skipped the training you should have gotten, don’t leave: get the training you need as you continue your work.]
4.       Western Theological Influences.  All the mainline denominations are declining in the West.  They are all liberal, having given up core Christian beliefs decades ago.  They actually are now part of the mission field in the West, and we should all be discussing rebaptising converts from them should they come to faith.  (And, of course, we can still find many believers in them as their heretical turn is still recent.)  Yet they are wealthy institutions with considerable clout overseas.  Like Western governments, they can inflict their theological transgressions on the African Church—and they do.  How sad it is to watch academics with Western training lay their notions of academic excellence on the African Church—whether it is feminist or queer interpretations of Biblical texts or Western, sexual permissiveness.  African theology needs to resist Western theology not because Africa needs an African theology but because it needs an orthodox theology.  To do so, African churches need to resist the money from these Western, mainline denominations.
5.       Western Academic Influences.  Theological education in the West in the 20th century adopted an academic model.  The Church handed its young people over to academic institutions for training, received them back for vetting (‘ordination exams’), and then placed them in ministry.  This worked surprisingly well for a while, although not without increasingly obvious deficiencies (in theology and preparation for ministry).  In an increasingly post-Christian world, however, this only spells disaster for the Church.  But it is not a good model even if the training is done by an Evangelical or theologically orthodox seminary.  The challenge being faced now—though perhaps not seriously enough—is that the Western academic model for ministerial training still presents itself as the standard for ministerial training.  (A number of scholars in the West are critiquing it, though.)  Africa, however, is still in a position to reevaluate this model and needs to think through what training for the Church really should entail.  It should not just transfer the approach to theological education that the West came to adopt.  To start, why not train people for ministry in ministry, the way Jesus did his disciples, rather than in classrooms?  Core courses in Bible, theology, Church history, and ethics, of course, need to be taught, but many subjects in ministry would surely be better taught in the field.  When those core subjects are taught, they should be taught by committed believers who love God and serve the Church, not by academics who see their role to be to spread doubt, stand proudly above Scripture, and oppose the Church.  Also, why not place a heavier emphasis on spiritual formation?
6.       Africa Needs Biblical Scholars and Historical Theologians.  There are forces at work in Africa that lead to a preference for higher degrees in ministry and missions, not in Bible, theology, and Church history (and I prefer the combination ‘historical theology’).  Africans have more languages under their belts than do most Westerners, and this gives them an edge on studying their own contexts in higher level degrees.  Study that requires more language preparation (Greek, Hebrew, Latin) is something of a luxury, if not also a burden.  Moreover, the felt needs of the Church are largely the felt needs of the context: war, poverty, violence, theft, unstable governments, corruption, education, etc.  Biblical studies and historical theology seem like ivory tower fields of study in the face of so many felt needs.  Yet this is a mistake.  If the Church is to be built on a firm foundation, it needs Biblical scholarship and a connection to the historical Church, not just studies in African realities.
7.       The Church in Africa Faces Four Major Religious Challenges or Threats.  The first major challenge is from Western mainline denominations, spreading their non-Biblical and anti-orthodox theology in Africa and rewarding those who receive them with very attractive monetary sums, if not also flights to conferences in the West, and the prestige of being welcomed in halls of power.  Second, the Church in Africa faces the threat of traditional religion and practices in a post-colonial era.  With the resurgence of African nationalism has come a resurgence in African traditional religion.  Third, the Church in Africa faces the threat of Islam—as always—but increasingly so.  Since the 1970s, Islam has engaged in mission (dawa) using Middle Eastern wealth.  It has asserted itself into the food industry, education, and government in the process of attracting people to its faith and establishing itself as a social force.  It has also, in a number of areas, used violence to conquer others.  It has no concept of the separation of religion and state, and its victory in an area means domination of all people in that area.  (‘Islam’ means ‘submission’.)  Fourth, the Church in Africa faces the threat of the Prosperity Gospel.  Poor people are easily attracted to a theology that holds out the false hope of health and wealth, and they are easily persuaded by some fast talking evangelist who demonstrates in his own life that religion pays well.
8.       The Largest Protestant Denomination in Africa Needs Foreign Missionary Help.  The Anglican Church has grown exponentially in many parts of Africa over the past forty to fifty hears.  Over the same period, the Western wings of Anglicanism have increasingly self-destructed theologically and numerically as unbelievers took control of institutional power (this situation includes Southern Africa).  This has left orthodox Anglicans in the West trying to reestablish themselves, but they are often self-focussed in the process.  That is understandable, but this also means that the concept of a new Anglican network or denomination is being built around ‘orthodox’ theology and liturgy, not foreign missions.  Yet the Church needs to have foreign missions in its DNA else it ossifies rather than continues as an organism.  Moreover, some of the Anglican work from orthodox Anglicans in the West is ill-conceived, such as seed-funding properties to produce income.  This is ‘financial institution building’, and it all too often results in corruption or institutional maintenance, or both.  Of course, such financing does not have to end up this way, but be certain of this: this is not missions.  The Anglican Church in Africa, in many places, is in need of theological educators, but the Anglican Church in the West is not organized properly to fund and send theological educators.
9.       Southern Africa is in Particular Need.  Reports of Islamic attacks in West and East Africa are not in the news in Southern Africa.  Famine tends to be in the news in East Africa.  Yet there are unique problems and needs in Southern Africa.  First and foremost, the end of Apartheid in South Africa did not bring the end of political abuse; it just changed the persons in charge and, frankly, introduced corruption and reverse discrimination.  Some see only doom ahead, others remain hopeful, but almost everyone not in power seems to acknowledge that South Africa has deep-seated problems.  This situation has had its effect on the Church.  To overcome Apartheid, some denominations latched on to liberation and post-colonial theologies.  These lack Biblical and historical depth and are easily led rather by political and economic theories, by ideology not theology proper.  The result is that champions of the case against Apartheid are at times also champions of the newer, perverse teachings that advocate homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and the like.  On the other hand, mainline Churches that defended Apartheid have, quite simply, lost the argument.  This leaves them adrift as to their theological moorings, and some now seem to reduce theology to political and social activism—‘public’ theology. (Being relevant to the situation is good, but the situation is not what defines theology.)  In consequence, the Church in South Africa is deeply wounded.  Christians wonder when the requirements for ‘forgiveness’ or ‘restitution’ will finally be met to satisfy the new lords of religion and society who want to extract a higher price for contrition.  For mission work, this all means that Southern Africa, especially South Africa, needs missionaries, but they will not necessarily be well received and will struggle to build any Church infrastructure.  The social instability also expresses itself in a lack of Church unity that is needed to build strong programmes, including and especially for orthodox, theological education.  The inter-denomination unity among Evangelicals in the West is simply not to be found, by and large, in South Africa.  Namibia is in a similar situation, Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho are small populations not in focus here, and Zimbabwe is a miracle in that it has not completely imploded by now under its self-destructive leadership.  Southern Africa needs help, and it needs missionaries with the highest qualifications.
10.   Mission Work in Africa Does Not Necessarily Need Service Over Long Periods in One Place.  Africa has often been spared the short-term mission phenomenon in some parts of the world, since it is more than a hop away by air and four times more expensive than the trip to Haiti from North America.  Africa has been a place where missionaries came to die, whether within weeks of arrival due to diseases in the 19th century or due to the needs on the field calling them to give their whole lives to missions.  In the 21st century, however, if missions were to be conceived as highly specialized persons coming in to offer what they can in various places, then missionaries would not come with the old notion of bringing the kitchen sink.  Especially if the great need in missions is quality teaching, then teachers will do well to move about to places where their courses may be taught—and the missionary educators need not imbed themselves in committees on local faculties.  There is long-term work to do in Bible translation, but much missionary work can be done with missionaries prepared to be on the move to where they can be most effective.  If this argument is not strong enough to persuade someone, then it may be helpful to know that a number of countries are tightening their visa policies such that missionaries will not have the choice to move on or stay—they will be told to move on!  Any supporters, especially supporting churches, in the West need to understand this: they should encourage missionary expertise and movement, not missionaries doing multiple tasks over a lifetime in one place.