Duane Elmer recalls asking national pastors what missionaries could do to minister more effectively the gospel of Christ in their culture. He writes,
“I was not sure what I was expecting. But the answers did surprise me. Many said that they valued the missionary presence and the love they felt from them. But many said, with hesitation but conviction, ‘Missionaries could more effectively minister the gospel of Christ if they did not think they were so superior to us.'”
Wow. I agree.
I think we are all aware of how an emphasis on social justice can hinder church planting efforts in Africa and other places. That is a problem. But actually I think we can’t stop there. It is not that I think the problem is less than that. I think it is bigger. It is a symptom of a deeper problem, one that has been going on for much longer and that is even more serious. Where do these social ministries come from if it not from love for God and love for people? Usually pity. And where does pity come from? Sometimes common grace I suppose. But probably more often, pride. Social action that doesn’t flow out of the gospel and doesn’t make a priority out of the gospel is usually social action that flows out of feelings of superiority.
I have often said that in America many of us worship money and as a result when we see people without our god, we think of it as a major crisis.
As a result, we often rush in to fix things that aren’t even really problems. For example, we see someone living in a tin shack and we think, how can anyone live in a tin shack, and yet, you know, it is not great, but it is a roof over their head and perhaps they are content. But we become so focused on the tin shack that we don’t see that their relationships with other people in their community are actually deeper and more significant than the relationships we have in the community which we are from. And, we end up stirring up discontent over what they don’t have, rather than producing thankfulness and joy in what they do, because we act as if something were a tremendous problem when it really isn’t. Our pride has kept us from really seeing life from someone else’s perspective.
If we identify the primary problem as social justice kinds of ministries, however, we may miss the way this superior attitude has also impacted the way some approach preaching and church planting and missionary efforts in the past. How often have feelings of superiority kept missionaries from really developing relationships with the people they were serving and understanding them? This has happened over and over again. Our pride makes it very difficult for us to understand the people to whom we are preaching, and as a result, we preach messages and plant churches that don’t actually impact them on a worldview level.
Merrill Abbey gives an illustration of this when he writes about the surprising effect of missionary preaching on the Patuma people of British Guyana:
“Hearers among the Patuma people find certain words used by the missionaries so difficult to interpret so they simply used the missionaries’ terms – temptation, wicked, Christian, conversion, salvation. Listeners fitted these missionary terms into their pre-Christian experience. Certain ‘power words’ of their animistic religion had been used to call down curses on their enemies. Words they could not encode from the missionaries’ message were now regarded as having the force of ‘powerful words’ in the Christian language. ‘Now,’ one Patuma explained, ‘a person can go to a prayer meeting, kneel behind the one he wishes to curse, and while everyone is praying aloud, he can mutter those ‘powerful words’ and thus destroy the enemy.’ Needless to say, what the Patuma decoded was not what the missionaries, on the other side of the cultural divide, thought they had encoded.”
One of my concerns with identifying the problem with missions in Africa simply as being too great a focus on social ministries is that it will cause us to miss what is a much more significant problem in the long run. If missionaries simply stop focusing on what is considered social ministries and begin focusing on church planting, but still come at it with a superior attitude, their church planting efforts won’t necessarily have as great an impact or glorify God as much as they should. It’s vital we as missionaries love the people we are ministering enough to humbly come alongside of them and to get to know them.
One simple way to do that of course is to develop relationships with them and what happens when we develop loving relationships with people is that we want their best. I think this is why I talk about things that sound something like social type of ministries to others. Really what I am talking about is finding ways to help people see the world from the perspective of the individuals they are attempting to reach. It’s not so much let’s figure out how to start an orphanage. It’s let’s make sure we love this orphan.
I don’t think we need a whole lot more social action type ministries that begin as projects. Projects usually flow out of, I am here to fix you. Different cultures are so complicated anyway, that if I am just thinking social problems, and I go in project style, I will probably miss the heart of what the problem is anyway. Instead I believe we need to pursue significant loving relationships. And what will happen if we are pursuing significant relationships with hurting people, is that we will often want to come alongside of them and work with them to move forward.
In biblical counseling terms, what we are talking about here, is involvement. Not trying to do social justice ministries from above, not trying to plant churches from above, but coming alongside of people, developing significant relationships with them, seeing who they are, knowing them and applying the Word to their lives. If we are doing that, we are going to always know the gospel is most important, but we might also see there are some practical issues, they need help with as well.
Unfortunately, while this should seem obvious, too often, for many, it is not. For years and years, missionaries have come to foreign countries and built their compounds. The problem of course is not so much with the compound, (I hope not! since our house looks a little like one) but instead with the attitude that sometimes went along with it. (Not always! Not always!) But, sometimes, the attitude that says, we are here, you are there, we will come and teach you, but we won’t come and love you.
I have known people who have lived in Africa for decades. And yet some of these people did not have any significant personal evangelistic or discipleship relationships with any black Africans. And yes, they were committed to preaching. And yes, they were committed to evangelism. And maybe they would have even said they were committed to relationships. But they couldn’t seem to make them with a majority of the population. Now, I suppose some of them might have thought they had. I knew of some who had a sort of mentor relationship with others. However, sadly, often, it was more an old-school colonial type relationship. As someone put it to me about one individual, it was “Old South Africa” all over again. Yet, some of these men and women were thoroughly committed to biblical preaching. And they would say they were for evangelism. But whether they realized it or not, they came across to others as thinking they were superior. And when people talked to them about trying to change that and suggested one simple way to work on it was through ministries of compassion, all they could hear was social action, social action, when really they were just trying to say to them, real relationship, real relationship.
Don’t stop preaching. Just make it obvious you care.
That’s what we need in Africa. Not more projects from the outside. Not simply more social action ministries. And not more preachers who are far removed from the people they are preaching to. We need men and women who have been humbled by the gospel, who long to teach it, preach it, proclaim it, explain it, who love Jesus and want to see him exalted, and who love the people they are serving enough to get to know them, to see what’s happening in their life, to listen to them, to feel with them, to have a relationship with them, and actually to come alongside of them, bear their burdens with them and speak the truth of God’s Word to them in ways they can understand and apply.