Monday, January 13, 2014

God's Gift to Man

This may seem like an Epiphany reflection blog - and in some ways it is.  But not in a typical way.  This blog may cause some controversy.  But I think it is something I need to say.
The house I live in.

As you may know, I rent a room in a three bedroom house on the campus of the African Theological Seminary (ATS).  The other two bedrooms are often rented out to visiting guests -  not just guests of ATS but other ministries or non-profits can rent the rooms as well.  The price is about $8 US per night, so very affordable.  I have met many, many people over the last year as they come and go in Kitale, from all over; people involved in different ministries, each having their unique story for what brought them to Kenya.

Sadly, there is a growing discomfort in me whenever a new guest arrives.  I find that increasingly I have a desire to hide in my room and not engage these guests.  Recently I have been thinking through my apparent anti-social behavior. In time, I came to the heart of what the issue is for me.  Maybe I can best explain this with a recent example.  For two weeks in December, two guests shared the house with me.  They were two men from the East side of the US, one whose day job was maintenance and one who worked in Human Resources; the first one African American (mentioned only to dispel the myth that Caucasians are the only ones who come to do mission work) and the other one Caucasian; both were very sweet and kind, seeming to have gentle spirits.  For all intents and purposes, it seemed that both men appeared to love the Lord very much.  Both men desired to see people come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  They preached revival services in two different towns, at multiple churches, multiple services, day after day.  On a particular Monday they greeted me, thrilled to share that three people gave their lives to Christ the day before at the worship service; in fact, one of the three had been "a member of the church for twenty years!" they excitedly shared.  Both men were willing to spend their personal time and money to travel 7500 miles, to come to Kitale and preach the Word.

And there, in my humble and admittedly fallible opinion, lies the problem.  But what could possibly be wrong with that?  What could possibly be amiss in coming at the sense of divine prompting and offering one's talents to spread the gospel according to one's sense of calling?

Allow me to explain, and because what I am about to write may seem like a new idea to you, even one that is counter-intuitive, please be patient with me as you read.  I know what I am writing may appear cynical.  However, I think it is important for the Church to struggle with these questions.  Hopefully we can struggle together to discern the good and the true with such endeavors.

I have come to the view that many people who come to places like Kitale for a very brief period of time, come believing that they are God's gift to Africa.  Does that sound harsh?  They come, week by week, believing that it is their preaching ability, their God-given message, that will make a significant difference in Africa.  They set up meetings in churches, schools or orphanages, spend their own money or that of their supporters and preach for a number of days.  They then return to their contexts and declare that a certain number of people gave their lives to the Lord.  When they leave, armed with photos, videos, and testimonies, everyone who is a part of the effort winds up feeling very satisfied and fulfilled.

There are several problems with this form of mission.  First, there is the issue of self-delusion compounded by a lack of cultural understanding.  I dare to say that there has never been an unanswered altar call in Africa.  At face value, this statement is probably foolish to make and probably untrue.  However, if one takes the word "never" with a grain of salt, I think I am on solid ground to make it anyway.  It is true in most cases.  Working in three countries and having visited a number of other churches around the continent, I have never witnessed an unanswered altar call.  If some of these guests had taken the time to learn something about the host culture, they may have responded to the apparent movement of the Spirit at the altar with a little more humility.  Most Africans will answer an altar call if for no other reason than that they don't want to see the preacher embarrassed.  Someone must respond, maybe many someones, in order to help the preacher save face!  Kitale, Kenya, like many African cultures, is a warm cultures that places a much higher value on community than on the individual.  Now obviously people do respond to messages and revivals and people do come to Christ from these endeavors.  [Side point: did you know that less than 5% of those who give their lives to Christ in a revival remain in the church?]  The question that outsiders should humbly ask themselves is whether the Holy Spirit speaks more strongly through them than through the pastors who are already here?  There seems to be an unspoken arrogance under a veneer of good intentions in a lot of this western short term revival circuit preaching.

[In a recent discussion of this issue with a fellow American working in Africa, this American shared the following story:  He was new to Africa and was preaching at a church in Uganda.  He gave an altar call at the end of the sermon and over one hundred people responded!  He started thinking to himself that this is his calling!  That God has gifted him with evangelism!  After the service, he said casually to his host, "That went pretty well, didn't it?"  Expecting an affirmative and encouraging response, he was surprised to hear his host say, "Well, actually, less people responded than normal."]

Let's press on to the second issue.  For argument's sake, if indeed the Holy Spirit does speak louder through these outsiders, then should these men and women leave so soon?  Is there not a corresponding responsibility to disciple those they believe their ministry has brought to Christ?  Are they building any capacity of discipleship as they move on or are they merely leaving this task to the apparently woebegone pastors who are left behind to carry on the work?
A 92 year old Kenyan pastor, attending a revival, and still taking notes!
[Note: the irony is not lost on me that we are living on a seminary campus, dedicated to training African men and women in sound, transformational theology.  Is that irony missed on these guests who come and go?]

The two men who visited in December are from a denomination that firmly believes in baptism by the Holy Spirit as a second and subsequent blessing in the life of faith.  Within moments of talking to me, they applied this theology to me and declared that I did not have the Holy Spirit and that I was in bondage.  They said I needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  They gave me a number of scripture verses and told me I needed to study.  Hmmm. (And I wonder why I want to hide in my room.) Being a westerner and having been around the block a few times, I could hear their message and sift through its theological strengths and weaknesses and move on. However, it is this same approach of one way communication that these would-be missionaries bring to long established African churches as well. They come in without having taken time or humility to discern what God is already doing in the churches in Kitale or wherever else their circuit may take them. Charismatically they will parachute in, deliver their revivalist payload, be confirmed its in efficacy by the kindness of Africans at the altar, and leave with photos and stories to move donors and believers back home.

Having had their ministry thus confirmed, these two well meaning guests declare how excited they are about coming back next year for an encore. 

Now, I can hear the questions this response may well bring to you, the readers. Perhaps this is simply sour grapes. Perhaps I'm jealous because they get to leave and go back to their families. Perhaps I'm jealous that they get to leave after two weeks and feel so satisfied. I have been at this work for more than eight years and only rarely do I feel like we are making progress - true, measurable progress. What must it be like to swoop in for two weeks, do your thing, and then leave again declaring success. The appeal of such an approach is inescapable.   
I can imagine some readers struggling with this particular blog. I can hear some of your voices in my head: “But Renita, are you saying pastors shouldn't come and preach? Are you saying such  revival  meetings should not happen?” Some of you may press me a bit further. “Renita, are you not being a hypocrite in being critical of the work of others while thinking YOU have something to offer Africa?”  Good questions.  I think these questions and more need to be faced and agonized over by any would-be missionary believing they are bringing something of value to a foreign context. I'm not proposing a solution.  I'm identifying a problem that is widespread and increasingly disturbs me.  It would be great if such would-be missionaries and sending churches would wrestle with the tough questions of discernment, and honestly ask themselves: “What local capacity is being built here?  What is the long term plan? Who benefits more by a given effort?” 

Well-meaning, well-intentioned, God-fearing persons attempting to do good - but at the end of the day, I wonder who got more from it.  Sadly, I can’t escape the impression that it is often the guests who benefited rather than those in the churches where they ministered.  What most outsiders don't see is the plethora of people coming in to "do good."  They have followed their sense of call and imagine a unique moment in the history of missions. I look at the amount of money that is spent on such trips and wonder  how that money could have been used for scholarships to help the pastors already here get the education that they need to preach year round in their churches and provide ongoing discipleship for church members.  Sadly but truthfully, many a visitor will spend far more for a trip for themselves in the starring role before it would occur to them simply to give such amounts towards building indigenous capacity.

I cannot help but include myself in the circle of critical reflection traced above. In my worst moments, I know I thought that I was God's gift to the church or at least to the church in a given context.  Occasionally I still delude myself into thinking that God needs me.  Even though it’s not always pleasant, I have found that such thoughts are often rewarded by a quick dose of painful reality.

As we attempt to do good, as we attempt to spread the Word of God, and as we attempt to love our neighbor, questioning is healthy. There is no perfect answer to how to "do ministry."  Still, the church need struggle with its stewardship of money and people in our attempts.

And that's where this becomes a post-Christmas message.  At the end of the day, I am responsible to God for what I do with my gifts and talents, as are you. I am in need of a Savior and thankful for the reminder of that gift in this season.  God's gift to man is Jesus - full stop.