Posts Tagged ‘African missions’

Urban Africa (Nairobi, Kenya)

The image of African mission work is that of walking dusty, impassable roads to get to villages with a dozen mud or thatch huts, no electricity, no running water, sometimes no well, working with illiterate people whose religion is animistic , pagan, and highly superstitious. And, in fact, much–maybe most–of the mission work done by American churches of Christ probably fits generally into this framework, even though specific works might not.

Read this paragraph from Wikipedia, which documents a major upheaval in African demographics since 1950.  It is this extraordinary shift that causes me to wonder if our paradigm for African missions has shifted along with it:

“It is estimated that in 1900 about 95% of Africa’s inhabitants south of Sahara lived from the primary occupations of farming, hunting & gathering, cattle nomadism, and fishing (Aase, 2003:1) meaning that less than 5% were urban. In 1950 (the start of the independence period) 14.7% of Africa’s inhabitants were urban, in 2000 it had risen to 37.2% and it is expected to rise to 45.3% in 2015, in effect 3.76% –3.35% per year (UN, 2002). The Nigerian city of Lagos that in 1963 had 665 000 inhabitants (Rakodi, 1997) and 8.7 million in 2000 is expected to become the worlds 11th biggest city by 2015 with 16 million inhabitants (UN, 2002). The urbanization of most of Africa is moving fast forward, especially south of the Sahara.”

My questions revolve around this growing urbanization of Africans and whether we Christians might be stuck in a strategy for missions in Africa based on the pre-1950 realities.
1. Are we training new workers for urban settings or is working in the “bush” still the primary assumption for preparations ? At a recent mission workshop, African missions was simulated so that students discovered experientially how missions were done and/or perhaps their own affinity for working in Africa.  Nowhere, though, was there an opportunity for talking about working with professional Africans in urban settings.  The entire experience was rural, fairly primitive Africa.

2. Do potential workers even want to go to cities, or is the African bush image that which draws them? We mission types don’t often admit that the exotic nature of our work is attractive to us—but it usually is. If a potential missionary is thinking about Africa, are they attracted more to a picture of themselves holding Bible studies for office workers in a downtown Nairobi high-rise , or would they rather see themselves preaching under African acacia trees to goat herders?
3. Are we defaulting to bush missions because it is perceived as easier or more receptive? Is the assumption that urbanized Africans might be more educated, more sophisticated, wealthier, and less superstitious a reason to head for the bush?  We mission-types often consider all of the above to be barriers to reception of the gospel message.

Even these assumptions about urbanized Africans are only true for a very limited part of the population, since so many of the Africans in cities are very poor refugees from the rural environs.

4. We know what to do for rural poverty. We drill wells and teach them to fish. We introduce drip irrigation and provide basic education. Do we, however, have a theology to share for urban missions in Africa that will address the wealth/poverty issues in urban settings where the two are in much closer proximity to each other? What is the word of the Lord for affluent and/or educated Africans?  And can a foreigner speak this word to them or should it preferably come from their own prophets?

I will be the first to admit that I know very little about African missions, so please forgive me if my questions are somehow offensive.  These are, however, my questions.

I would love to hear your response.


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About a year and a half ago, Sherrylee and I were in Africa for Let’s Start Talking. We were visiting either sites where we regularly send LST teams or new sites that had requested teams, but with whom we had had no personal contact.  It is impossible to tell if a new site is appropriate and/or prepared for LST teams without these personal contacts, so site visits are a regular part of our life.

Though it may sound paradoxical to those only vaguely familiar with missions, Let’s Start Talking has not had much history in Africa.  Two factors have contributed to this: first, LST is an urban ministry and most of the mission work done in Africa by churches of Christ is rural.

The second reason is that most of the missions done by churches of Christ has been in the English-speaking part of Africa, which limits the attraction of LST’s offer to help people with their English—at least, that’s what we thought.

A third reason that probably lies far behind the other two is that much of Africa is already Christian—at least superficially. LST works better where people come who have either little exposure to Christianity (Thailand or China) or they have had so much that they are apathetic toward the Christian message (western Europe).

However, we have tried to be open to where the Lord knows we should go, so when many invitations come from African national evangelists, we visit to see if we are called to work with them.  In the last five or six years, therefore, we have developed some deep relationships with certain national churches in Africa.

However, working in Africa brings a whole new set of questions and experiences for us personally and for LST. I shared some of this on Facebook notes before I started blogging, but I’ve been thinking more about these questions and wanted to share them with you.


My First Question About Missions in Africa

In the Gambia, we were told that it cost about $300/year to send a child to school. Many children don’t go to school because their parents do not have that kind of money. We met the same situation in Kenya.

Also the drought/famine in Kenya was heartbreaking. African ministers told about people in their communities who had nothing to feed their children, so they abandon them rather than watching them die.

Almost every day, we were confronted with some situation in which we felt like we should just pull out our wallet and fix somebody’s life–at a rather nominal cost to us personally.

We visited with Larry and Hollye Conway who are part of the “Made In The Street” ministry in Nairobi–a fantastic work btw. They have worked in Africa for about 25 years now. Sherrylee asked Hollye what the hardest part of her work was, and she said it was knowing when to give in love and when to withhold in love.

Jesus did not feed every crowd, raise every person who died, heal every sick person–but sometimes he did. I wonder how he made his choices.  Jesus is the one who said, “The poor you have with you always,” justifying the use of funds for something that seemed frivolous to others in the group.  But I always feel guilty if I am even tempted to quote that verse in any context!!

My experience is that it is often inappropriate for Americans to just walk in and start throwing money at every need they see, whether they are individual, institutional, or social.  But I can’t imagine that ignoring needs in the name of any philosophy of missions is right.

So that’s my question! How can we help the poor and needy, and how do we balance meeting their physical needs with meeting their spiritual needs.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it is not either one or the other! Feeding them, housing them, and healing them does not change eternity for them. But not feeding them, housing them, or healing them may change eternity for us.

What are your answers?



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