As I continue to reflect on my experience with the African church (see my previous posts here), a “missionary mindset” is another aspect of church life that seems to be missing. The shortfall is not giftedness or desire but primarily that of training and resources. And if I’m being honest, much of this shortfall is not African at all but is instead missionary.
What I mean is that for generations missionaries have been laboring in African contexts with an approach that is, knowingly or not, paternalistic. Paternalism in ministry can be very simply described as a mindset that says, “We who have the resources and training will come and do ministry to you who are without them.” While on the surface this may have a ring of logic and common sense, at a deeper level the mindset is inherently flawed because it assumes that the possession of one form of wealth (financial, material, educational, etc.) places one person or group in a unique position to do ministry to another person or group, creating a provider-recipient relationship.
What this mentality fails to take into account is the reality that every human being, regardless of ethnic, political, or economic status has been created in the image of God with gifts, abilities, and creativity. And if a person has been redeemed through faith in Christ, he/she has additionally been endowed by Jesus with the empowering and gifting of the Holy Spirit. What this means is that missionaries must not view believers and churches in any context as mere recipients of ministry/missions but instead as co-laborers.
Seeing those to whom we minister as co-laborers does not mean missionaries should refrain from ministering to believers and churches in their contexts (my primary ministry in Zimbabwe is working amongst believers). What I am simply saying is that believers and churches in our contexts are not merely the recipients of ministry; they must be empowered and equipped to join forces with us. Ultimately, they must take the baton of leadership to engage their own people groups and the rest of the world in mission.
While this perspective of ministry can be understood from Scripture and well-explained in theory, we have not seen this fleshed out in practice on a large scale here in Africa. By and large, local churches here are seen as places for people to come seeking some benefit (be it spiritual, material, or financial) while contributing very little. To be this kind of source of ministry, then, pastors must seek by whatever means possible to generate income for themselves and their congregations, which frequently takes the form of donations from outside organizations. But this is not as it should be.
Believers and churches are never intended to be mere recipients of ministry. Every Christian is under scriptural obligation to put their hands to the plow and to co-labor in ministry. Obviously, we have examples of churches in the Bible and in history that, at times, did not have the means to contribute much (if any) toward the mission. But this was never to be the normal mode of operation for any believer, church, or group of churches.
I am thankful to have come from a church (and a family of churches) that has historically been marked by extreme and sacrificial generosity and missional-focus. Indeed, my family would not be able to be sustained on this field if it weren’t for the generosity and missional mindset of our U.S. church base. And even while we labor here to shift the church mentality away from a paternalistic “recipient” mentality toward that of co-laboring, we are reminded of the blessing it is to be part of a family of believers in the U.S. who have been equipped and mobilized for the Great Commission task.