By Tamie Davis
Recently a church from another state in Australia decided to do a church plant into my home city of Adelaide. In their fundraising video, they described the church situation in Adelaide as rough, desperate, and crying for help from outside, because there was no church in Adelaide that could viably look outside of itself enough to plant another church. They, on the other hand, had a ‘bold new plan’, and under their leadership the church in Adelaide had started to realise that it has a future.
Watching the video I felt quite taken aback: Christianity in the Adelaide I know may be small, but it is vibrant, and has seen the establishment of several thriving church planting movements in the last 10 years!
Now, at one level when they speak of the weakness of the church in Adelaide, they were just talking about their own denomination, but it felt like they were overlooking the gospel efforts of so many in my home city who have been faithfully serving Jesus and proclaiming him there.
I get that they need to raise money, and to do so they need to make the need clear. I’ve been there; no doubt all missionaries have. But I wondered, ‘If they can’t raise the money, is that it for gospel-centred churches in Adelaide? Is all lost?’
And then I read 1 Kings 19. It’s the famous ‘still small voice’ passage, where God appeals to Elijah who has fled into the desert in fear for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah says:
“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (v.14)
Sounds desperate, right? Rough. In need of a bold new leader who can re-direct people from their apostasy and their apathy.
Except Elijah is not actually the only one left. There’s Elisha who will be come his successor, and 7000 other Israelites “who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (v.18) Whether this is a literal 7000, or symbolic of a body of Israelites is beside the point. It tells us that there has been resistance and faithfulness, and Elijah in his fear and his self-importance has missed it. Though it was not apparent to Elijah, God had been at work in Israel. After all, he was the one who has preserved these faithful ones (v.18).
Whether from self-importance or lack of research, Elijah overlooked this. Watching the video I wanted to say, “We are the 7000 Elijah ignores!”
I think it’s very healthy for me as a missionary to have this kind of experience. I have been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but possibly misguided people coming from outside to help and do God’s work. Yet, I am normally the outsider, and we are here in Tanzania because we have answered a need. So how will this experience shape my own mission practice?
First, I must assume that God is already at work in my context. This is particularly true in contexts with churches that are already established. But even in places without, if we believe in a missionary and creator God, we will be looking for how he has preceded us, and where the people of peace are. Where there is an established church, it is often easy to see its shortcomings, and be tempted to ‘fix’ them. Yet, whatever work is still to be done, it is the Holy Spirit’s work, in his time and in his ways, not ours. And so we must seek to slow down and delay judgement, to ask whether there’s another angle on the thing that seems so corrupt or superfluous or shallow or wizened.
Second, I choose to communicate God’s work apart from me to my supporters even when fundraising. I don’t want our co-workers or other Christians in Tanzania to be invisible when we speak to our Australian partners. There’s more money in sounding like we’re the answer to the Tanzanian church’s problems. And I don’t want to give the impression that we’re wasting people’s money by being here. But I want to communicate that we are one part of a puzzle. If we are to honour God’s people here – to honour God, really – we must acknowledge the whole body, not just the foot or the lips or the elbow that we happen to be.
Elijah ends up looking ignorant or naive at best, and foolish and self-important at worst. None of those seem like good options to me. But I’m not only concerned for my own integrity or reputation. And I’m not only concerned about being fair to those who have come before me and continue to strive in faithfulness. I’m concerned for the glory of God. Let me not be the one who obscures his work, or fails to report on it!
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