How can we best work with Africans to develop a theological understanding of mission? We asked Tony Swanson, our African Mobilisation Consultant.
The church on the continent of Africa has grown exponentially over the last 100 years, from around 9 million in 1910 to approximately 350 million evangelical Christians by 2010. This has outstripped the growth of Christianity in every other continent. But why is it that a thriving missions movement has not naturally grown out of the burgeoning African church?
Paul, writing to the Ephesians, tells them that Jesus chose some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in order ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service’. Therefore the objective of all ministry activity, the focus of our calling, is that others will be equipped. For us to be involved in the missionary mobilisation of our partner churches in Africa, we must decrease, and they must increase. Our motivation, time, energy and resources need to be focussed on equipping, enabling and empowering them for these missionary works of service.
Going to those outside
Traditionally, AIM has been quite effective at equipping for certain ministries: pastors and evangelists for ministry in the local church, doctors, nurses, and teachers. It would seem, however, that when we consider the crucial work of cross-cultural mission by African missionaries, this has not been promoted by us or particularly adopted by our partner churches. John 3:16 points out that the focus of the love of God is the world. The recipients of the love of God in Christ include those outside of the church, who have not yet had the opportunity to respond to the gospel message. The church is the major means through which this love is communicated to them.
In Acts 13, the Holy Spirit’s call to Barnabas and Saul occured at the centre of the worshipping community in Antioch. For the church in Africa to effectively send to the unreached, the whole church needs to be engaged. Many historic missional endeavours have been initiated at the periphery of the church, reinforcing the idea that cross-cultural mission is only for the super-spiritual, wealthy, odd bods or experts, rather than a central core expression of the faith of the local church.
“The equipping of the African church for missionary work starts at the communion table, where the message of God’s love for the world directs the church to the lost.”
Directing to the lost
The equipping of the African church for missionary work starts at a foundational level, at the communion table, where the message of God’s love for the world directs the church to the lost. Christ’s blood was shed and his body was broken not only inspire us to leave country, family and home, but also motivate our African brothers and sisters to do the same. Without this foundational motivation, the great ship of the African church will stay in dry dock, full of highly trained, faithful, well-resourced people, yet stationary because the navigational system of the gospel has not been fully engaged to direct it out to the lost.
It is important to change how we think, and how we engage with the local African church. This is especially relevant when we consider the role of the pastor or elder in igniting a vision of global mission within the church. The pastor or elder is often the gatekeeper to the church – we must first engage them. This observation impacts us on two levels. Firstly, in the formation of church leaders through our involvement in formal, informal and non-formal modes of theological education. This raises important questions, and challenges us as to how to include a ‘missional dimension’ in our theological education. Secondly, in enabling, mobilising and inspiring our local pastor/elder to have and encourage a global mission vision.
For any pastor to have a missional heart he must be ‘walking in the truth’ (3 John 4). He must be committed to it and captivated by it. The result of this can often be seen in the outward-focused investment of his church, including changed relationships with those outside, together with a strong desire to see the rest of the world won for Christ.