I have seen it many times.
There in the soft glow of the waning African sunset, as the red dust swirls in the breeze, a life-worn elderly man crouches to step out the doorway of his mud brick hut to give a warm greeting to his fair-skinned guests. His gapped smile reveals that dental hygiene has gone without a thought these more than seven decades. The milky discoloration in one of his pupils indicates his sight has been halved by cataract. His sinewy limbs and wiry frame show that he maintains a basic, if not starvation, diet. Mangy stray dogs and trash flitter at his feet, and wood smoke rises as he crouches to take the kettle off the fire. Suddenly, there it is—the perfect shot.
This is photo will be the centerpiece of your post-trip slideshow. An image that is worthy of a Nat Geo cover or even a Pulitzer (if you can get the lighting just right) will surely captivate the hearts and minds of brothers and sisters back home and motivate them to pray, give, or even get on a plane to come help. With the right exposure, maybe you can get this man out of that hut. Maybe you can get him some proper medical attention and nutrition. You can even make sure the grandchildren he is raising will never have to worry about the cost of education. Surely this photo will light a fuse for the Great Commission to explode in his corner of the world. So you raise your Nikon up to your eye. But just before you click the shutter, the man begins to speak.
The Single Greatest Misconception
You listen as he joyfully recounts what he has been busy with the past several months. He has been traveling by foot every weekend to different villages in the area to share Bible stories and gospel presentations. He has already seen twenty-five converts in one village, forty in another, and this past weekend seventeen people in one of the most remote villages of his province gave their lives to follow Jesus. He thinks each of these communities will soon want to establish a proper church. And while it excites him, it also concerns him because he is getting older and cannot hope to adequately pastor these congregations from a distance. So his main prayer request is that God would raise up leaders to help shepherd these people. How can this be happening? Who is overseeing this work? Who is funding it? To whom is this man answering and reporting his results? As quickly as the questions form, you know the answer—only God. This man is not a hired missionary. He is not a commissioned church planter. He is not even a seminary-trained or ordained pastor. He’s simply an African Christian.
I believe the single greatest misconception about Christians in Africa is that they are the “mission field” and not a “mission force.”
From the glossy stock photos lining the walls of church buildings to the video montages generated by mission teams and organizations, the message to the American church is clear: “Africa Needs You!” We need to “reach” Africa for Christ. At this point, a “mission trip to Africa” is almost as cliché as the phrase, “rededicate my life.” And, of course, it’s true. Africa does need the American church. But for what?
Because the need is so vast, Americans who come to Africa end up doing what I call “material ministry dump.” This is a phenomenon in which people from materially prosperous places inundate materially impoverished places with goods and services under the assumption that the greatest needs in these areas are material. And while much has been written in recent years about whether this kind of relief is even the most effective way to meet material needs (see When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor), there is (I would submit) an even larger question to be asked—and that is, What is the true need? Put another way, What really is the Great Commission and what is the most effective way to accomplish it?
The True Need
If the Great Commission is first and foremost about “making disciples,” then our investment needs to be centered around that goal. How can we invest in Africa in a way that will enable maximal disciple-making? At this point the adages typically flood in: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” or “Their ears won’t hear the gospel if their bellies are growling.” True enough. We certainly cannot forsake genuine relief ministry where the needs arise. But I would also challenge Americans to evaluate whether many of the “needs” we perceive in Africa might simply be our imposing of western expectations on people who can and do survive just fine without such things. Of course, any group of people will be happy to receive material goods. Even as Americans it is difficult for us to refuse material gifts, even if it’s something we don’t really need. So the fact that African Christians may ask for and gladly receive material donations does not mean such donations are the right way to invest.
I would submit that the right way to invest in Africa is to begin seeing African Christians as a mission force. By God’s amazing grace, Sub-Saharan Africa has received an unfathomable amount of missionary effort for more than 200 years. All these efforts have been imperfect, and some have been better than others. But the net result has been a present-day flourishing of Christianity (in one form or another) on the African continent. Recent data from the Pew Research Center indicates that, while the global north and west are seeing historic declines in evangelical Christianity, the south and east are seeing a drastic increase. One of the most significant examples of this is that, by current growth patterns, Pew projects that nearly 40 percent of the world’s Christians will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa by the year 2050.
Of course, if you’ve been to Africa, you know that not everything which calls itself Christian is truly Christian (just like in America). But even controlling for spurious claims and false gospels, these numbers are staggering. Do you realize how many people 40 percent of the world’s Christians would be? Sub-Saharan Africa is indeed still a mission field (as is any place where lost people reside), but the time has come for us to realize that African Christians are no longer part of that field; they are part of the force that God has raised up to engage that field. As American Christians hand off the missionary baton to our successors in the task, we must resist the tendency, now that much evangelism and church planting has become self-propagating in Africa, to become preoccupied with humanitarian and relief work. Again, such work has its place and time, but the primary thrust of our efforts in this phase of the work in Africa must be the discipling, training, mobilizing, and sending of African Christians to reach Africa for Christ.
Waking the Giant
We spend millions of dollars per year to train American missionaries in cross-cultural contextualization, transport them thousands of miles, and keep them relatively safe, healthy, and comfortable in the developing world. But what if I told you there was another group of Christians who wouldn’t need training to cross cultures, because they are native to those cultures? What if I told you there was another group of Christians who don’t require thousands of dollars to transport them to remote locations, because they already live there? What if I told you there was another group of Christians who require next to nothing to live safe, healthy, and comfortable lives in the developing world because, after all, that’s their home? And what if I told you that group of Christians displays as much (if not more!) urgency and zeal to preach the gospel and make disciples in Africa as any western missionaries we’ve ever seen? Wouldn’t that be a “sleeping giant” of a mission force?
What if there is such a force? What if they’re called African Christians? And what if the time has come for American Christians and missionaries to focus our efforts on waking that giant?