I want to pass on a few observations I made on my recent sojourn through West Africa. I had the privilege of seeing God at work in some pretty amazing circumstances in multiple countries.
I was really hoping to post throughout the trip, but the connections were just not there!
The most important observation I would make is that indigenous missionary efforts are paying off. I had the great joy of meeting with a circle of former Muslims that are now all missionaries among their own countrymen. As we discussed their ministries the depth of their missiological insight impressed me. Collectively, this group has started about 50 village churches. In another location, I witnessed church plants conducted in a different people group. This team had over 100 church plants started. In both cases, the work was being conducted among traditionally Islamic people groups.
On a couple of occasions I had the incredible experience of sitting in on a church startup in a remote village. One evening, for example, we drove out into a rural area where literacy rates are almost zero. Most, if not all, of the children in this village have never set foot in a school. A group of about 30 people gathered under the flickering light of a fluorescent tube attached to the side of a thatched roof home. Sitting on benches, one by one the entire church shook my hand and then pressed their palm on their chest in a symbol of heart-felt greeting. The meeting started with worship. Everybody clapped a strong rhythm as people took turns leading out in song, followed by the group’s resonating response. Soon, the small congregation was on its feet, dancing in a circle and joyfully laughing and singing. The leader closed the time in prayer and then related a Bible story to the group. We prayed and then went home.
At other gatherings there was a more concerted effort to have the people themselves share the Bible stories with the rest of the group. They were memorizing these stories (remember – these are illiterate people) and were able to relate the lengthy stories word-by-word. After a number of the young people were able to tell the stories, one of the African missionaries told a story using drama and a much more compelling presentation style. He encouraged the group to not only learn the story, but to learn how to tell it in an intriguing and exciting way.
Here are some observations:
1. Orality / Storytelling strategies have been highly effective
The use of storytelling among oral cultures is powerful. The purposeful and systematic approach that is being used has produced a much more positive and effective result. Churches are being planted and the Kingdom of God is growing.
2. Western agencies continue to play a role in numerous ways
I asked about the role of Westerners in Africa. I was assured there was still an ongoing need for Western workers. Not only are there vast unreached people groups that continue to be unengaged, there are also specific roles that we can play in assisting the indigenous workers.
3. Funding from outside sources is helpful but augmented
Most of the efforts I observed were funded by both outside money and indigenous support. Often, the core leadership team was funded by the West. However, one indigenous agency, with hundreds of African workers, received virtually no outside funds for the staff. African money is supporting the effort. Overall, the move toward local funding of missionary work is continuing to grow.
4. Moderate contextualization
For those who know what I mean by the “C-Scale,” these churches were C-3 to C-4. I would particularly point out the use of strong “conversion” language that typically means that people understand that they are transferring their religious identity. Similar to my observations in other parts of the world, "Insider Movement" strategies are not popular with the indigenous church or indigenous missionary movements.
5. Church planting movement (CPM) strategies were partially present
CPM philosophy is spoken about, but the efforts I observed were not strict in following this type of ministry paradigm. They emphasized the storytelling approach more stridently. For example, many of the churches were ultimately trying to build buildings. The old argument that “The Muslims have a mosque so we need a church to be credible” was repeated a couple of times. If they continue to hold onto this idea, the rate of reproduction will suffer.
6. The application of the same strategies is uneven
Lest we think it’s all about strategy, the same strategy was being used among different people groups with different results. It’s not possible to conclude that by simply following certain strategic principles a CPM will happen. If so, there would be more consistency between these various works. In fact, in some of the people groups of West Africa, there is virtually no response to the gospel despite decades of work among them. The recent application of CPM and storytelling strategies has not produced a change. We still need to rely on the Holy Spirit for progress!
I was very encouraged to see what is happening and I look forward to the huge growth of the African missionary movement in the near future.