The individuals who speak like this are often young couples raising very young families. They speak about going to places where they will be far away from their families and friends, where they will forego many of the comforts of Western life, and where they will be exposed to disease and danger. Yet they speak with great excitement and anticipation. It is something they want to do for Christ and for the gospel. They sense that this is what will bring fulfilment to their lives.
We can easily say, with a very judgemental spirit, that these are individuals who have failed to make it in life in their own country, and so they want to get out onto the mission field in order to survive. Let us suppose that was true about some of them. Well, then, why don’t those in our circles “who have failed to make it in life” come forward asking us to send them as missionaries into our rural areas or into impoverished and dangerous countries in Asia? Even that is not happening here!
We are still a receiving church
I think that there are a few reasons why we hardly experience this phenomenon in Africa. To begin with, we are still very much a receiving church. We still see missions as something the white man does. After all, they are the ones who brought the gospel to us so many years ago. Due to this unconscious view, we do not feel guilty about this sin of omission. It is like children in a home who do not participate in raising funds for the education of their siblings even when they have started working. “It is the responsibility of mom and dad. After all, they are the ones who brought us into this world!”
I also think that it is because the subject of missions does not occupy any meaningful part in our regular worship. I have noticed that in many churches in the USA, there is a deliberate effort to focus prayer on specific countries of the world that are most needy spiritually. This is often also included in the church bulletin for that particular Sunday. Hence, children grow up in church thinking about the worldwide needs as far as gospel work is concerned. This bears fruit as they begin to wrestle with what to do with their lives in their late teens and early adulthood.
That is not the case here in Africa. The average church in Africa does not have any specific section of its worship dedicated to the subject of missions. Everything is inward looking. Even when you come to the church prayer meetings, the requests are about sick uncles and aunts, travelling mercies for those going out of town, money for school fees, etc. It is not God’s worldwide agenda at the centre of the prayer times but individual needs within the church. Missions is conspicuous by its absence!
We think we are too poor
I think that another reason is that we see the lack of money as a real hindrance towards the work of missions, especially when it involves crossing lands and seas. How can I find myself in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, without having a pocket full of money like the Americans? We think, “If I am already struggling to survive financially in a place where I have friends and relatives, how much more if I go to a place where I do not know anyone and the people are hostile to the Christian religion?” Hence, the work of missions is not an option.
What we fail to realise is that most Americans who have to make their way to Africa or Asia (or anywhere else in the world) spend an entire year or more going from church to church to raise their support. Many of their supporters give small amounts regularly. They often have to survive with very little support coming in. They also have to spend some of that money to keep their supporters well informed as to what is going on in the field so that their financial and prayer support can continue. Sometimes disaffection creeps into their relationship with their supporters and the tap runs dry. However, despite all this, the missionaries still want to serve the cause of the gospel abroad.
We lack African role models
We also lack role models. Whereas we have church pastors serving in African churches, we do not have African missionaries who can come to our churches with reports of how God is extending his kingdom through their labours in foreign lands. We do not even have such biographies in our bookstores for our young people to read and be inspired. All our missionary biographies are about Western missionaries, and so we relate to them the way in which we relate to movie actors. We are mesmerised by what we read but we conclude that these are not men of like passion as ourselves.
That is not the case with our American friends. They read biographies of men like David Brainerd and Adoniram Judson and can relate to the towns where they grew up and the schools they went to. They can understand the sacrifice that they made to leave their own world to go and serve among the local Indians and the Burmese across the oceans. They sense that the same God is also calling them to leave their comfort zones and go into places of poverty, disease, and danger for the sake of the gospel.
Therefore, there are a number of challenges that come to us today, those of us who are pastoring churches in Africa. We need to teach our people regularly that the days when the church in Africa was an infant are over. The days of receiving must give way to days of giving. The Great Commission is as much our responsibility as it is the responsibility of Christians in the West. We also need to serious make space for information from the mission field and prayer for missions work in other countries—especially the most needy countries of the world. There will never be a burden unless statistics are known.
Those of us who are pastoring churches in Africa also need to network with other churches, both within and outside Africa, in order to raise funds for the work of missions. Yes, in comparison to our Western friends, we are poor; but if we can pool our resources together we can do something. Where our Western friends are sending out thousands of missionaries, we will send out hundreds of indigenous missionaries.
And finally, we need to seriously look for African role models. Surely, we should have a few dynamic men and women who have left the bright lights of the African cities to plant churches in rural areas. We must have a few African men and women who have quietly gone into Islamic and Communist countries to spread abroad the aroma of Christ. We need to know them and put their heroic examples before our people.
The Zambian Annual Reformed Family Conference and School of Theology this year is on the theme, “Missions—Not Beyond Our Reach.” It will be addressing this very matter. So, if you are able to join us, please mark Monday 27 to Friday 31 August in your diary. We need to put our heads together and turn the tide around. We as an African church need to take our place in the grand purpose of God in world missions. We can do it. Missions is certainly not beyond our reach!