Why Do We Assume Western Theology is Superior?

by Tamie Davis

When asked about the value of African theology for Western Christians, the late Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako said, “Well, Christianity is thriving where we are, and it’s waning where you are, so maybe there is something that could be helpful to you all.”1 It’s a gracious invitation with a little sting in the tail, reminding us that for all the seminaries and books and libraries in the West, Western churches are still heavily in decline. Bediako’s point was not that book learning or academic rigor are not valuable – on the contrary, he was a significant contributor to both, teaching at universities for a good part of his career. But the perceived theological riches of the West are not mirrored by growth in the church, which might get one asking how shiny they really are.

Theology fuels the church, and it fuels mission. In 1792 when William Carey wrote his famous essay about the use of means, he was responding to a theology in which God’s sovereignty was so great, a Christian’s obligation to share the gospel was effectively removed. Carey deconstructed this theology, arguing that evangelism has always been part of the church’s witness and that using means – like ships to sail to India and money to fund missionaries – was not at odds with God’s sovereignty but rather an outworking of the Great Commission. He was part of the modern Protestant missionary movement, a tradition in which many of us find ourselves today. Theology matters, and it can contribute either to the decline of the church or to its growth.

My aim here is not to critique Western theology or to start laying blame for the decline of the Western church; it’s to ask if we have the humility to listen to theology from the Global South. After all, as we note the growth of the church in Africa, it would make sense to suppose that theology has played a role in it.

I often hear concern from my fellow missionaries about the kind of theology which has fueled this growth. They say things like, “The church in Africa is a mile-wide and an inch-deep.” The assumption is that the kind of growth we are seeing in Africa is like the seeds sown on the rocky soil without strong roots, or the ones that look good to start with but then get choked by the weeds of the world. I hear that Africans, with all their talk of prosperity, do not have a well-developed theology of suffering or perseverance.

And yet, as Marilyn Gardner reminded us recently, the church in the Global South is well-practiced at suffering, whether it be a result of religious persecution or socio-economic circumstance. Knowing what it is to live without safety and security, Africans may have fewer faulty theological assumptions that need to be unpacked than those of us whose lives are more comfortable and less precarious. As my Tanzanian friends assure me that ‘God is able, just pray and have faith,’ I ask them, ‘But what if it doesn’t work out? Is that a sign that my faith is poor or that God is not able?’ And they laugh. They laugh! Because my question seems ludicrous. They say to me, “Tamie, you know God is still God, right?” How’s that for a theological statement!

And theology is carried out in bodies and practice as well. When someone dies in Tanzania, very little attention is given to blame, but for three days or more everyone gathers and just sits together out of sympathy. And these sympathy visits continue well after that period. I was once visiting an older mentor whose husband had just died, when someone else turned up. Her husband had been a church leader, and the visitor was a pastor who had worked under him. This pastor had driven for two days to sit with her in her grief. He listened, and they cried and prayed. It was a couple of hours. Then he ate a meal and drove the two days back the other way. I can only imagine his weariness, but Sunday was coming and he needed to be back with his congregation. Tanzanians may not have a theological answer to ‘why God?’ – it may not be the question they’re asking – but I think they’ve understood a great deal of the compassion and self-giving of God. We must grapple with the fact that these practices are profoundly theological.

The Holy Spirit is clearly at work in Africa, growing Jesus’ church. Why would we think that as he was doing that, he was focused only on numbers or only on endurance? We can recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in growing his church numerically in Africa; why are we so reluctant to think he might be doing it theologically as well? It doesn’t have to look the same as ours to be true, because it’s responding to a different context.

In championing African theology, Bediako did not think that African theology ought to be transplanted into the West. He spoke of African theology and Western theology as “overlapping circles, sharing in their overlaps certain common elements and features, which . . . give them a ‘family’ air.”2 That makes sense: Western and African Christians share a brother and a Father yet contend for their faith and are grown in very different places. Like a family, there are times when we need each other. The song ‘Waymaker’ became a bit of an anthem for 2020, bringing hope in a global pandemic and becoming a prayer for breakthrough as the US grappled with racial violence. It’s an African song, penned and sung by Nigerian worship superstar Sinach. In 2020, it was African theology that people found they needed.

To come back to the digging analogy—for all our depth, it’s possible those of us who’ve dug a mile deep have somehow found water rising around us. If our African sisters and brothers are standing at the top, offering to hoist us out to see the progress they’ve made on their hole and learn from that, wouldn’t that seem like a good idea?

I am not advocating for an uncritical acceptance of African theologies, or any other theology from the Global South. To be sure, some are faulty, just as there are many false teachers in the West. But those of us who ‘live overseas’ are rarely in danger of uncritical acceptance; many of us are here to give, contribute, teach and train. Indeed, we are used to hearing about poverty and famine in Africa, and it’s easy to assume that this is true theologically as well, that somehow all the ‘good theology’ got concentrated in the West like the world’s capital. We may even be told this by local people who are beholden to our greater monetary wealth or who are used to thinking of that which comes from the West as better. But Jesus spoke time and again of how wealth warps theology, and that ought to give those of us from wealthy countries pause about the quality of our own theology.

The kingdom of God is growing in Africa; are we sufficiently poor in spirit to be inheritors of it, together with our African sisters and brothers?

 

References

  1. Quote appears in various places attributed to Kwame Bediako, though the original source is unclear. It can be accessed here.

  2. Bediako, Kwame, “African Theology as a Challenge for Western Theology.” In Christian Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Martin E. Brinkman and Dirk van Keulen, 8:52–67. Studies in Reformed Theology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

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Tamie Davis lives in Tanzania with her family and is doing a PhD looking at the theology of prosperity of a group of Tanzanian women.

I Used to Laugh at Ghosts

by Katherine Seat

“Aren’t you scared while your husband is away?”

“I’ll lock the door at night, and the windows have bars on them.”

“Locked doors can’t keep out ghosts.”

I don’t think I actually rolled my eyes or laughed out loud, but that was my attitude. In my early years in Cambodia, we lived next to a house full of Christian women training for ministry. When my husband was away, they worried about me. They didn’t seem to believe that I was genuinely unafraid, and I could not understand why they were afraid.

I didn’t know if I believed in ghosts or not. But what I did know was that because of Jesus, I had nothing to fear. I told them that the God of the Bible is stronger than any possible evil spirits, ghosts, or demons. He is the creator of all things, and Jesus has already conquered death. I felt satisfied that I’d given them the right reasons for why they didn’t need to fear.

I’m not the only Australian who gives off vibes of disbelief when Cambodians talk about the spirit world. My Cambodian husband Soeun also faced this attitude. When he was in Australia, he tried to explain some of his childhood to an Australian seminary student. Soeun’s friend was asking him about life in Cambodia. They were talking about all sorts of everyday things like rice, fish, and evil spirits. The conversation was progressing normally until he got to the evil spirits. It was surprising for Soeun when his friend’s tone of voice became incredulous.

“So people see a head floating around?”

His friend thought seeing spirits sounded like a crazy idea.

 

The Chasm
A huge chasm lies between Cambodian and Australian culture. The unseen world is part of life for Cambodians. In Australia, ghosts are more at home in a movie or book. As an Aussie married to a Cambodian, I find myself staring across this huge chasm. Even though I’ve lived in Asia for over ten years, I’m realising I haven’t been taking enough notice of this difference.

It’s unbelievable that people actually believe in evil spirits—that was Soeun’s friend’s response. This view might be typical of Westerners. But zooming out, we see that Westerners are actually the odd ones. Many, maybe most, cultures around the globe have an awareness of the spirit world. And if I understand correctly, throughout history most people also considered the unseen as a regular part of their life, including in Biblical times.

Our Western culture only stopped doing so recently, around 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. Since then we have used science to explain everything. Using science is all I’ve ever known, so I felt surprised to realise I’m in the minority from a worldwide and historical point of view.

 

My Current Life in the Chasm
My family and I only moved to a village a few years ago. We are near an area of historical and spiritual significance, and visible reminders of history are everywhere. We are daily surrounded by the local animism that’s mixed with Hinduism and Buddhism.

My husband keeps noticing that people here live under fear more than anywhere else he has lived in Cambodia. For example, they might not go to a peer’s funeral. Some avoid using their own name in phone calls near temples at night, and we know of one family who moved house within 24 hours in response to a dream.

One day two pythons slithered into our yard. I was surprised that the neighbours didn’t want to kill and eat them. Instead they advised us against capturing the snakes as it would anger the Neak Da (territorial spirits). Pythons are believed to be Neak Da’s pets. To keep ourselves safe, we should have honoured the snakes by spraying perfume on them and letting them go free.

Our neighbours were surprised to see that Soeun isn’t afraid of Neak Da. They know we are Christians, but they did not know that would have any bearing on how we interact with the unseen world. Perhaps their knowledge of Christianity came from foreigners who wouldn’t appear to believe in Neak Da anyway.

As far as we know, there were no other Christians in our immediate area before we moved here. So we were very excited when a few neighbours decided to believe in Jesus. In the days and weeks that followed, some strange things happened. People had dreams. Evil spirits were seen flying around our house. People heard strange noises at night. It looked like the new believers had disturbed the spirit world. It was as though the spirits weren’t happy. They had had the place to themselves, and now some people had ruined it by following Jesus.

We, along with our prayer supporters in Australia, had been praying for our neighbours. I couldn’t wait to write a newsletter and tell them the good news! But when I went to write the newsletter, another strange thing happened. I found myself staring across that chasm again. Talking about flying heads had seemed so matter-of-fact when I was talking to my husband. But when I imagined Australians reading about it, it seemed crazy. I toned the news right down so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable seeing the chasm.

 

Living Under Fear
Something else has happened since we moved to the village: my mental health has become worse. Not only do the locals here live under more fear than in other places, I do too. It could be a coincidence, of course, and some might say it’s related to the spirit world. I do know that from a scientific understanding, my brain is tricking me into feeling fear when the rational part of my brain knows there is nothing to fear.

A counsellor explained to me that those fears are actually my brain reliving feelings that I’ve had in the past. The “smoke detector” part of my brain is supposed to alert me when there is danger. But mine is sending danger signals even when I am safe. It’s a post-trauma response from events that transpired a decade ago. Somehow it has come to the forefront of our lives since we moved here four years ago.

Psychology has helped me learn about how my brain works, and this awareness has been so helpful. And hearing and reading God’s word is a constant part of my life. But for me in this season, those things have only reached the rational part of my brain. I know the correct answers, but I still feel stranded in yesterday, always in danger.

The right answers haven’t brought me relief from the recurring dread. The only thing that makes me feel safe is God’s people —praying friends and pastors who seem to represent the presence of God.

It makes me think back to the right reasons I gave my concerned neighbours. Did it really help them as I had thought it would?

 

Learning to Listen to the People We Serve
When my family moved into a fearful neighbourhood, I began to experience my own fear. It has debilitated me in some ways, and it definitely makes life harder. But it also helps me to understand the people around me.

I now have some experience of what it is like to live with fear. When I see the people around me changing their behaviour according to the unseen, my thoughts and feelings are totally different from when I saw it in my earlier years. The intensity of their emotions can’t simply be dismissed or argued away.

Locals live with the fear of the spirit world. If I want to have deep connections with them, I need to be aware of what it is like for them to live with evils spirits as a real part of their everyday life. When we minister to people in situations like these, we must have an awareness of their needs and worldview.

For many of us from the West, our church traditions are heavy on studying the Bible with a focus on rational thinking. Sometimes a truth might be applied to correct our thinking, when in fact it’s not a “thinking” issue. While correct thinking is vital, we sometimes miss the role that emotions play in our life with God.

All of this makes me wonder if an emphasis on cognition hinders our ministry to those from the Global South? My husband’s Australian friend just totally dismissed the whole idea as being crazy. If he had wanted to show respect and build rapport with Soeun, he would have needed to take the ideas seriously.

I made the same mistake. I thought I was taking it seriously. I didn’t completely dismiss my neighbours’ fear of ghosts; I explained why we don’t need to fear them. But just because I know different worldviews exist doesn’t mean my “right” answer will fix people’s problems. Curiosity and compassion are a better first response. We should listen before we speak. This is easier said than done, of course. Dismissing an idea because it sounds crazy, or thinking that you have the answer to something you barely understand will be counterproductive to sharing God’s good news.

My own struggle with fear has led me to re-evaluate my response to the neighbour women who were so concerned about my safety. I now regret that I gave them the right answer of why they shouldn’t fear, without stopping to realise that they were afraid. Now I know that even if I have the right answer to counter my own fear, it’s possible to still feel afraid. I know what it’s like to have people try to help me without acknowledging my fear. When that happens, their help feels more like harm.

My prayer is that the next time I’m faced with concerned neighbours, I will seek to connect with them emotionally rather than thinking I can quickly correct their thinking with an out of context Bible verse.

I pray I will stop to listen and seek to understand the other person’s perspective first.

I pray I remember that God was here long before me.

I will pause and ask, “What is God already doing in this person’s life, and can I join in?” rather than “How can I fix this?”

I pray these things for the sake of his Holy Name. Amen.

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Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

Clueless

by Jacqueline Scott

When we head into another culture to live among the local people, our hope is to understand them at least enough to become someone they will listen to. But the reality is that we are clueless, especially when their culture is very different from ours. It’s good to recognize that. It’s where we have to start. After all, we’re the guests in their country. When they look at us like we’re from Mars because they can’t understand a word we’re attempting to say in their language, we need to laugh at ourselves with them. That means getting over any feelings of self-importance. This was time consuming and exhausting for me. I thought I was pretty important.

In his book Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer offers perspective on what it means to serve someone in another culture, then outlines the process of serving others cross-culturally. He suggests six steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving. But it’s easier to rush into someone’s world, do what we think they need most, feel good about ourselves and our sacrifice, then rush home — often having done more damage than good.  So, our first years in Central Asia were largely about being close enough to people to learn about them and build trust so that our serving could be mutual and meaningful.

We shared a courtyard with a young local family. The house was small with two stories and two bedrooms.  Our four kids were in bunkbeds in one bedroom. The small yard was a God-send for our young energetic family, especially when the alternative was a playground strewn with broken glass and questionable characters. Though this yard was a combination driveway, garden, dog pen, storage, and place to dry clothes, it offered ample opportunities for our kids to play.  

One day Zoya, the young wife across the yard, was over and we talked about our kids. Happy that I was finally getting along in Russian, I asked if she thought she would have another child since they only had a little boy the same age as our youngest. She flippantly answered, “Oh, I’ve already thrown so many away.” I looked at her, hoping I misunderstood. But I knew that word. The one that was used when you throw away garbage.

It pierced me. There was no sign of conscience or concern that this practice might be wrong. In the Soviet times it was their method of birth control; they knew nothing else. In that moment I knew I was much farther away from understanding them than I even thought. I had so much to learn about the core of their beliefs.  

We would always be anomalies to them. Somehow though, it didn’t keep us from loving them or them from loving us, or from them wanting to hear why we came and what kept us there. They were so hungry for meaning, yet they were trapped in a convoluted belief system that denied God. Our neighbors had grown up in that belief system. It takes time to unravel long-entrenched falsehoods in order to see Truth. 

Too often we are clueless as to what assumptions we bring to life. We aren’t really aware of the bottom lines that we hold as self-evident, the axioms. And sometimes the people we serve aren’t aware of their assumptions, either. As one of our Soviet friends considered faith, she came to realize that she readily accepted axioms or “givens” in math.  An axiom is a basic proposition of a system that, although unproven, is used to prove the other propositions in the system. Every belief system has to start with a basic proposition. Once she accepted God as the “given,” she was free to really believe Him. And her life was lifted.

Becoming part of a different country takes you far from your old world. You are challenged and changed beyond anything you expected.  Your view of yourself and God morphs. Then, when you head back into your home culture, you feel clueless all over again. At times you even feel like a social martyr; you are always a stranger, an anomaly. You’re left out of the plans because you won’t be there, or you’re held at a distance since you’re not in on what they’re talking about. Some cross-cultural workers face this more than others. Though I love our times in our home culture, there’s an underlying feeling of “it’s not mine anymore.” So, we’re an anomaly here and an anomaly there. Where’s our home? That is a struggle for us and even more so for our kids when they navigate their passport countries. 

But I find comfort in Hebrews 11 where it actually says “God was not ashamed to be called their God” because they were looking for a heavenly city. Their hope was in a heavenly home. I find myself wrestling with this regularly. I’m working on putting my hope in a heavenly home while using my earthly home for heavenly purposes.

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Jacqueline Scott is author of Your Life is Re-markable! She was captivated by God at age 12, became an RN, got a BS in Bible, and then a Masters in Leadership Studies. While in university she met Dan, and in 1986 they both headed to Bolivia, South America to save the world. She had four kids instead. They moved to Central Asia in 1994 in leadership with a non-profit agency. Currently credentialed as a personal and leader development coach, she works with individuals and groups in person and on-line. You can find her online at SoulFit.

If “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” will they know we are missionaries by our listening?

by Alyson Rockhold

The brooms in Tanzania start early each day. A familiar “swish, swish, swish” emanates from every house. When I moved here, I was shocked that most women sweep their houses daily and mop the floors three times a week. At first, that routine seemed kind of ridiculous to me. So, I made the most basic mistake warned about in Missionary 101: Judging instead of Listening. I didn’t ask anyone why they swept every day. I didn’t stop to remember that Tanzanians are experts at living in Tanzania. I just stubbornly clung to what I knew to be true of housekeeping in America and tried to apply it here.

Then for weeks I complained that there was always grit in the bed. I bemoaned the fact that my husband’s allergies were getting worse. And I was dismayed to find that spiders were literally living in every corner of the house! When I grabbed a broom to knock down all the spiderwebs, I finally realized my folly. I could’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation and annoyance if I had started by listening to the people who live in this place.

As I was mulling over this lesson, I started re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, a fictional account of one family’s failed mission to the Congo. The first time I read this book, I was dreaming of the mission field. From that distance and without any experience, it was easy to stand in judgement on all the decisions that led to their downfall. Yet today, with plenty of my own cultural missteps fresh in my mind, I found this book to be a compelling reminder of the importance of being a missionary who opens my ears far more often than I do my mouth.

The book has a poignant example of the value of listening that begins when the father decides to dig a garden. His Congolese housekeeper tries to help him, but he ignores her every suggestion. He is convinced that he knows best, and he lets her broken English and lack of education be an excuse to cast aside her insights. The result is crop failure and a nasty rash from the poisonwood tree. Throughout the story, every time the father refuses to listen to his neighbors, his heart grows more hardened and his mistakes become more disastrous. Ultimately, his mission is ruined by his closed ears and hardened heart.

It makes me wonder if our ears and heart are somehow linked: Is our willingness to listen connected to our ability to love? The story of Isaiah’s call to missions has a lot to teach us about this. When God calls Isaiah to missionary service, he famously replies, “Here am I. Send me!” Years ago, as a new missionary, I used to love the thrill that came with claiming Isaiah’s words as my own. Now I wish I had paid more attention to what God says next. In Isaiah 6:10, God instructs the prophet to tell the Israelites that He will punish them by hardening their hearts and making their ears dull. This chapter has an important message for young missionaries: After your eager “Yes!” to God, continue in His service by keeping your hearts and ears open.

I’ve had to learn the hard way, through dust and spiders (and examples too embarrassing to enumerate here!), that my ears are two of the most important tools I have for cultural adaptation. I need them to learn a new language, to hear the stories of the people, to honor customs and experiences. I’m starting to see that there is a mysterious connection between my ears and heart, a powerful link between my ability to listen and my capacity to love. If the old hymn is true that They will know we are Christians by our love, perhaps also They will know we are missionaries by our listening.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church of his generation that “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener.” I wonder if the same can be said of our generation. When I open social media, I see so much shouting, so many multiplications of messages, so many voices desperate to be heard. Is anyone truly listening?

In these divisive times, the ministry of listening can sometimes be misconstrued as a weakness. Yet, I believe that God is calling His people to have the courage to listen well and the grace to keep our hearts malleable to the wisdom of others. Sometimes listening involves sacrifice. I must lay down my privilege and pride to enter into dialogues willing to truly hear voices that may challenge and chafe me. Listening is a confession that “I don’t know it all,” and I need your words to guide and teach me.

I am begging God for the grace to cultivate the skill of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality that by “paying full attention to others and welcoming them into (my) very being…(I can) invite strangers to become friends” (Henri Nouwen).

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Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.

How Should We Measure “Success” in Missions?

by Tamie Davis

We’re probably in the back half of our life overseas, and we’ve started asking ourselves what we hope to accomplish before we leave. What will be achieved by the tremendous muster of financial, emotional and spiritual resources that keep us here?

We know the stories of those who did not see the fruit they had hoped for. There are the missionaries who spent 10 years mentoring people in local language to become very fine leaders themselves, and are now dismayed to see that these people have no idea how to pass the baton of leadership to the next generation. There are the others who raised up a successor who would be exceptional, but the Board installed a lesser leader who trashed everything they’d worked for. There are the ministries that were super fruitful 20 years ago, but as urban life and education have exploded in Tanzania, have simply not been able to keep up, and now have significant quality control issues that grieve their pioneers and builders.

Our story could end up like these. No one can say what their legacy will be. The Holy Spirit’s plan is big and mysterious, and way more complex than we can see. It’s hard to judge what is ‘successful’ and what’s not. Something that looks good today may fall tomorrow, and something that looks very humble now may bear great fruit in a different season. So what will we say if we get to the end of our time and something like this happens? Was the money our supporters put to good use? What about the connections our children now may never have with our families and culture? Could we have been doing something more fruitful with these years we have spent in Tanzania?

In the face of these kinds of questions, it’s commonplace to encourage us to pursue ‘faithfulness, not success’. It’s not your job to bring fruit, but the Holy Spirit’s, we’re told. Your job is to love your spouse if you have one, be good to your kids if you have them, be kind to those you meet, pray, read your Bible, confess your personal sin, keep a positive attitude, seek personal holiness, work hard at your (ministry) job. You have no control over what God will do with your efforts, but you can remain close to Him.

It’s meant to help us to persevere when we are tempted to despair, though even this list seems kind of a big ask to me who knows herself to be unfaithful, self-seeking, unloving, unprayerful, unholy and negative. I take it that I am not the only one whose life falls short (Rom 3:23)! If fruitfulness as a measure of ministry success is replaced with the spiritual vitality of the minister, I don’t find that very encouraging at all!

But the question that really haunts me is this: even if I was that super-Christian, wouldn’t it be possible to have that wonderful spiritual life and still misstep on ministry practice? I could be a super loving parent and working really hard in a ministry, and still be in a role that a local person could also do. Or I can be very kind to those I am working amongst, but ignore the structures and institutions of Christ’s local body instead of honouring and working with them. The faithfulness paradigm ends up being too individual and personal. It misses that there are more overarching ways in which we can love one another. If we are to remain in Christ and in His love (John 16:9-10), this must involve more than just how I interact with my family and my ministry, and take into account the broader body of Christ. The faithfulness paradigm needs to be amended to include the honouring of Jesus’ people in my location.

And I find myself reluctant to abandon the measure of fruitfulness. After all, Jesus had quite a bit to say about fruitfulness. In fact, in the same passage where Jesus talks about remaining in his love and loving one another, he comes out with pearlers like, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (16:5) and “I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (16:6).

A lack of fruit, or not receiving what we ask from the Father is not a sign of not remaining in the Father’s love. Remember that Jesus asks for the cup to be taken from Him (Luke 22:42) and that is not granted, and it’s in that moment that He is dwelling squarely in the Father’s will! Those who are in really difficult or pioneering contexts may find that an encouragement.

The Father is the one who brings the fruit, but his chosen way of doing so is as we love each other and remain in His love. Without love, there can be no fruit. This gives us reason to consider good ministry practice as part of the faithfulness paradigm alongside personal holiness, because honouring Jesus’ people in my location is essential to the Father’s bringing of fruit.

Placing ourselves under local leadership may not be the most efficient way to get something done, but the Father’s fruit comes from love, not speed.

As I listen to a Tanzanian preacher, the sophistication of what he says may escape me, and not because of my Swahili! But as I allow his words to infiltrate me, I come to appreciate further how this branch of the vine has been lovingly tended by the Father for his good purposes in this place.

As I accept the care and concern of local people though it is uncomfortable for me, I find that this is how I know and remain in the Father’s love as well.

I don’t know whether our time here in Tanzania will accomplish what we hope. The fruit is God’s to bring, when and how He chooses, if at all. As I consider my part, yes I’ll be heartened to come out knowing I’ve loved my kids and have an in-tact marriage, but incorporated into my self-reflection will be questions of how I’ve loved my Tanzanian brothers and sisters, not only in the one-on-one interactions, but in the broader dignifying sense as well. I want to be faithful in that way too.

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Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com.

 

 

 

 

Should we send “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? What I’ve learned from the Ugandan church.

By Anthony Sytsma

Should churches send out “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? That is the question that came to my mind when I read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:

Missions aren’t just for superstars. A missionary is just like you. Ordinary folks through whom God does the extraordinary.”

On the one hand, I agree with this statement. I, as a missionary, know my own sins and weaknesses.  I am regularly astounded at how God has used me. It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person. A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.

But on the other hand, Swindoll’s comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my discussions with them in When Helping Hurts trainings. I think Ugandans are frustrated with “ordinary missionaries.” Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren’t prepared. And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character.

One Ugandan asked, “Are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?” Another said, “If they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?” They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.

How do we synthesize both Swindoll’s comment and the quotes from the Ugandan leaders? Both perspectives seem to be true and important. Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries? My answer is a qualified “yes.” Missionaries are indeed ordinary Christians in one sense, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary Christians. God can use anybody for his work, even if they are not prepared or even sinful. But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared or irresponsible in our mission work.

I think a historical shift has taken place in the North American Church. In the recent past, I’m sure that emphasizing this theme of Swindoll’s was helpful. It was a corrective to churches that idealized missionaries too much, making them out to be abnormal super Christians, the examples of whom we could not possibly hope to live up to. But it seems the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme side. Now we view missionaries as a little bit too ordinary. In the rest of this post, I’d like to analyze this historical shift.

The consequences of this historical shift

Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift. People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us. Our fears were largely taken away. This shift has also helped church members in sending churches to better relate to, understand, befriend, and be more patient with missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.

But there have been some negative consequences from this historical shift as well:

  • While before some people felt too inadequate to become a missionary, now it seems that people do not have enough feelings of humble inadequacy.
  • Some missionaries are not being adequately prepared and trained before going to other countries. They are told God can use them just as they are, in their weaknesses. So they rush off to try to change the world with scant theological and mission education, very little reading of theology and mission books, and little practical ministry experience in their home country.
  • Perhaps some people are becoming missionaries because they are told repeatedly, “anyone can be a missionary” but they are not truly called by God to do it. Sending churches may not be testing the personal callings of missionaries enough today.
  • Many missionaries have had to go home because of falling into sin, having mental breakdowns, or having unfruitful ministries. These tragic missionary stories are common. We need to show compassion and mercy to such missionaries, but some of these tragedies could have been avoided had the missionaries been adequately prepared and received counseling before going overseas.
  • Many missionaries in developing countries are doing as much harm as good as they try to reach out to the poor (see the book When Helping Hurts). Many missionaries jump in the airplane and go without ever having read any books on poverty alleviation. If all you have is a compassionate heart and you haven’t been taught about how to effectively help the poor, or how to counsel alcoholics, or how to work with the homeless, or how to work against corruption, (you name the issue), then you can’t really expect to make much of a positive impact.
  • Since the message is that “any ordinary person can be a missionary overseas,” churches have severely downplayed some biblical passages:
    • Passages about each person having different gifts and abilities, and therefore different roles. Not everyone is supposed to be a missionary in another country just like not everyone is supposed to be a pastor or elder.
    • Passages about the importance of teaching, being taught, and training up new leaders. We need to be prepared.  1 Peter 3:15 – But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
    • Passages about special qualifications and ordination to positions such as Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3, and the powerful James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.” Logically and biblically, those we ordain as leaders, such as elders, deacons, or pastors, should be people of excellent character, knowledge, and leadership skills. They should be more spiritually mature than other Christians.  In other words, though this is a bit crass, they should be “the best of the best.” Why do we think it should be any different for those we ordain as missionaries? If we are to choose “the best” as elders and overseers of the church, why wouldn’t we also choose “the best” to be sent out to new cultures to start new churches, as representatives of the churches that send them? I don’t understand why American Christians still look up to pastors as being more spiritually mature leaders of God’s people, but then they say we should not look up to missionaries as spiritually mature Christian leaders because they are just ordinary Christians?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don’t want to be legalistic about the following items. I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade. But we should try to make sure our missionaries are as spiritually mature and prepared as they can be.

  • Why do some denominations have vigorous standards for ordination to pastoral ministry, but not for missionaries? In my denomination, for a person to become ordained as a pastor, it takes years of education, training, psychological evaluations, internships, difficult exams, and a local church affirming your calling. I think this is good and fitting for the difficult calling that being a pastor is. Why don’t mission agencies and denominations have as vigorous standards for people to become missionaries? Especially consider that they are also doing difficult ministry, but with the added challenge of doing it in a foreign culture.
  • Why is it that we send people to start new churches, who have not pastored a church in their passport country first?
  • Why is it that we send missionaries to preach who have never preached in their passport country?
  • Why do we send people overseas to help the poor if they have not done any poverty alleviation work in their passport country first?
  • Why do we send people to evangelize who have never led someone to Christ in their passport country?
  • Why is it that we send people to teach others theology who have not had theological education themselves first?
  • If you would not be comfortable with your missionary as an elder or pastor of your church in your own country, then should you really be comfortable with them representing your church to a new culture in another country?

Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go.  Let’s embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us.  But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel.  It is important.  Let us take the missionary calling seriously.

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Rev. Anthony Sytsma works in Kenya and Uganda with World Renew, a Christian development organization affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA).  He is passionate about equipping local churches, and his main work is to teach and encourage church leaders. He is married to Sara who works with farmers in agricultural development and other livelihood projects. They blog jointly at Word and Seed in Kenya.

When Your Extended Family is Made Up of 101 Million People

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We sat down in church. The pastor found a seat next to us, looked pointedly at us, and started rubbing my son Daniel’s bare feet. I could read it in his eyes: Why does this child not have socks? (Answer: Because when said child has socks, they are somehow pulled off and thrown into unknown locations within approximately 2 minutes.).

Without a word spoken, I began to feel guilty, a failure as a mom in Ethiopian culture. That’s it. I’m going to do the thing that is right in the eyes of society, I thought. I want to fit in, so I will obey “the rules.”

The rules, it seemed to me, were mostly about the fact that children need to be bundled up at all times. We must act as if we live in the Arctic, though we actually live in a place that never gets below 60 degrees and usually hovers around 75. When in Rome…right?

The next week, a sunny day dawned, warm and bright. Nevertheless, I bundled Daniel up in a sweatshirt and socks and put him on my back, feeling righteous and politically correct. We set out for the fruit stand to buy some bananas, and I congratulated myself on living up to this society’s standards.

As we walked down the uneven cobblestone path, a large, imposing lady passed us. Then she whirled around in shock, almost hitting us with her umbrella. She began a dramatic tirade, shaking her umbrella at me and pointing at Daniel, asking me what in the world I was thinking letting my baby be out in the sun.

Eshi…eshi…eshi…(ok…ok…ok…) I said meekly for a while, then turned and continued on my way, her words ringing in my ears. Ethiopian mom fail. Again.

My cultural sensitivity was in conflict with my nerdy health research habits, which told me that it was essential for Daniel to get vitamin D from sunlight at least a few times a week, even if I have to brave the umbrella preachers and flout their advice.

On another day I was similarly walking in the sun, a sleeping baby on my back, through one of the most crowded areas of town. A woman saw me from afar and started yelling as she came towards me, berating me for not putting a hat on my child, etc. This time I didn’t even stop as I said a single, curt Eshi, and kept walking, head high, emboldened by my anger.

Everyone has opinions. Everyone has advice. Everyone judges everyone else. Americans judge people all the time. But the difference between Americans and Ethiopians is that Americans will judge you and talk bad about you behind your back, in private, but Ethiopians will judge you and talk bad about you to your face, in public (and loudly). This is a little hard to get used to.

This tendency to give advice freely to strangers is a corollary to the fact that here, everyone is all up in everyone else’s business, all of the time. There are not many boundaries, not a lot of personal space, not an abundance of privacy. What we do, we do together. What we think, we share.

I was having a grouchy day after being given one too many pieces of advice (on other topics, in addition to the baby lectures), and I stewed on how much I disliked “busybodies” as I lugged my cranky baby to the minibus stop near my house. I gave a stink-eye at anyone who looked as if they might lecture me, punishing them for their countrymen and countrywomen’s actions.

When I arrived at the hotel restaurant to meet a fellow cross-cultural worker who was leaving town that week, Daniel lost it. Not enough nap plus (in hindsight) starting to get sick meant screaming. In the restaurant. And arching his back and flailing his arms and doing all those things I used to judge other parents about before I had children.

It was the first time I had met this fellow worker (and my only opportunity to meet up), so I had no option to ask for a rain-check. I tried to swallow my mortification and my tea while being cool and listening attentively to her story of how she ended up here, etc., while wrestling a child who resembled a (cute) rabid monkey. I’ve gotten better at multitasking since becoming a mom, but not that much better.

Suddenly, our waitress appeared at my elbow. I wondered if she was going to ask me to calm my child down because the other patrons were disturbed or something. But she held out her arms and said sweetly in Amharic, “Let me take him.”

Speechless, I handed him to her, and watched him relax and enjoy himself as she carried him around the whole restaurant, introducing him to all her coworkers, showing him his reflection in a mirror, looking out the window with him, etc. He changed hands several times for 20 or 30 minutes and eventually the host brought him back to me, happy and smiling.

As I took him back, it hit me. The waitress was sent to remind me that living in a very tight-knit community is a coin with two sides. Yes, living in this kind of community means putting up with daily well-meaning lectures and having to deal with a lot of flack if I decide to go against the norm.

But it also means being noticed, empathized with, and helped even when I don’t say a word. I live in a community that views all kids as their own. The idea of a village being needed to raise a child was lived out here before it was trendy.

I live in a community who sees me, for better or for worse. A community that cares. I’m learning to love it. Learning to experience lectures as love. Learning to love living in an extended family of 101 million, a gigantic network of “relatives” in all their bossy, compassionate, quirky, dysfunctional, wise and beautiful glory. It’s a gift, and I choose to receive it today.

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2016-06-06 09.56.55Jessica A. Udall is a culture-crosser who makes sense of her experience by writing it down. She lives with her husband in his native Ethiopia, and is raising one rambunctious toddler. She blogs at www.jessicaudall.wordpress.com and is the author of Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus. Her favorites include having conversations with interesting people and drinking strong Ethiopian coffee, preferably at the same time.

That time I accidentally told someone to go to a witch doctor

By Tamie Davis

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“Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

What does this statement sound like to you? A statement used to guilt a person who is sick? The beginning of an attempt to manipulate God? A formula for something we humans can’t guarantee?

Once I was teaching a seminar to Christian university students in Tanzania. We were talking about how to help someone who is suffering, and I said that you should never say “Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

To me, that statement is destructive in a myriad of ways. It’s theologically unsound for a start: it sounds like God is holding out on you, a tease who refuses to heal you until you are good enough. Perhaps he is just like the animist powers, able to be manipulated, but just as capricious. On a human level, it’s also just cruel: it suggests to sick and vulnerable people that their suffering is their own fault. After all, if they had more faith they would be well.

So in this seminar, I said you should never tell someone who was suffering, “Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

Every single person in the room objected vehemently. None of them viewed it as a manipulative or insensitive statement. They all said they would be happy for someone to say it to them.  I was astounded.

Later on, a Tanzanian friend and cultural mentor illuminated the situation for me.  She said, “If they don’t go to God for healing, they will go to the witchdoctor.” She helped me to see that in the Tanzanian worldview, healing is available. The question is: where will you go for it? To God or to the witchdoctor?

The reason the students objected so strongly to my statement that you shouldn’t say “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” was because it sounded like I was taking getting your healing from God off the table. It sounded like I was saying the only option was to go to the witchdoctor.

To these students, the statement “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” wasn’t a formula, and it wasn’t a quick fix: it was a statement of Christian perseverance! Filling in the blanks, I think the meaning of that statement for them was something more like, “Even when it seems like it would be better to go to the witchdoctor, stick with God and trust Him for your healing.”

I found this whole experience deeply humbling. In some contexts, even African contexts, “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” is a manipulative and cruel statement. Such false teaching must be combatted. But for these particular students in this particular culture, the statement “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” was a call to discipleship. I needed to hear that statement as they heard it. What I read as a sign of Christian immaturity was in fact a sophisticated weapon for combatting the desire to seek out evil forces. How thankful I am for my cultural mentor who helped me to make sense of all this!

The life overseas is one of choosing to leave many things behind: family, friends, familiarity, competence, a particular lifestyle. But this experience brought home for me that it must also be one of choosing to leave behind our superiority, of not assuming that my way of seeing things is right, or even that my theology will be the right fit for this context. It’s choosing to believe that the people I’m among may have a better sense of where God is at work in their world than I do, and that I have a lot to learn from that.

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1Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com

On Offending and Mending – The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Living

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Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

At one point while living in Cairo, we were hunting for a flat (apartment) on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching in the heat and walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. When the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it, my husband looked at him and said clearly “No. This flat is the ugliest flat we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that we had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host, but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

The city we love

The reality of living cross culturally is that there are times when, despite our best intentions, we offend.  Sometimes it’s pure ignorance, other times it’s because we are tired, and still other times we are in a cultural conflict and don’t even care that we are offending. If we have never offended, then I would suggest that we have not crossed over those important relationship boundaries and are spending too much time with those who are exactly like us, rather than boldly engaging those who are different.

These moments of offense can be great for a couple of reasons.  One is that we learn from them — they are teachable moments in cross-cultural living and communication.  The other is that once we heal from the discomfort and sometimes painful residual effects, they make for great stories and we can learn to laugh at our mistakes.

I think it’s about offending and mending. We will offend. But one of the things we learn in the process is the culturally appropriate way to mend the offense in order to move forward in relationship.

Mending is often as simple as being willing to admit I am wrong and taking extra care and effort with the relationship in the future.  Other times it’s as complicated and lengthy as paying a visit and sitting in discomfort until the atmosphere thaws and we suddenly feel like all is made right. Still other times mending seems to take forever, or not happen at all.

I believe cross cultural adjustment is analogous to language learning. There are supposedly two types of language learners: those who, despite making mistakes, immediately begin practicing with the little they know, and those who wait until they have the perfect sentence structure and then go and say that perfect sentence, even if it’s just “Look at the big, green carpet!” when there is no green carpet in sight. Supposedly the first group learns far quicker because in their willingness to make mistakes and try, their language skills are sharpened. I would say the same is true in cross-cultural living and communication. There are those who go out and build relationships without knowing everything, who make mistakes and learn in the process; and those who study until they think they have it all correct, determined to make no mistakes.

But here’s the thing – there is no way we will get it right all the time. In fact, culture is so complex that it can take a long time to reflect, let alone understand, the cultures of our adopted countries. But if we don’t engage from the beginning, we will miss out on a lot of relationship building. And engaging with those around us means offending and mending, putting ourselves into postures of cultural humility.

So what does cultural humility mean? 

It means being a student of the community — not an expert.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity.

“Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react. It requires that we recognize our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture. It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.” From Between Worlds

What do you think? What are your stories of offending and mending? This is a great topic to learn from each other, so please share your stories!