I had the privilege of knowing a leader of the association of evangelicals in Angola about a decade ago. He was willing to share honestly his perspective on church mission relationships. Unfortunately the lessons are are not unique to ministry in Angola.
He said, “Many times we give answers to problems of local churches without taking the time to find the questions. We come with prefabricated solutions.”
As people motivated by the gospel of Christ we can get too attached to the means without attention to the ends. When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” by the rich man seeking to justify himself, Jesus gave him the answer in story form. Jesus didn’t just supply an answer but took the time to address the real questions (e.g. ethnic and religious pride) behind the question. We must communicate the Word of God not just by speaking (from our perspective) but by listening to the perspective of the ones we are serving (and then speaking).
He continued, “In building community we tend to see only social problems. But the basic problem of the world is spiritual, not social [our alienation from God]. We can’t transform hearts by only changing the environment.”
In the early days of missions our forefathers went to the rural areas and brought rural education. Literacy rates began improving. But while rural education began to improve there was little effort to change the educational system by reaching business people or teachers in the cities. In the end the church lacked trained people, people who could contextualize the gospel message for the local culture. Core cultural assumptions were not touched and thus some ‘believers’ reverted to animism. His own understanding as a young man was that if you fail in life, perhaps then you can become a pastor!
It is a beautiful thing to educate children. But if we tackle only education without discipling teachers we may have limited impact. We are not just in missions to change the environment (education, health care, justice issues) but to communicate the glory of God in Jesus Christ and His redemptive plan for men and women. This means transforming local leadership, by His grace, to continue to follow Christ and meet the social, spiritual and physical needs around them. As outsiders we must think about the whole picture not just our part. As Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth He reaches whole people — bringing us out of bondage to sin and into new life, in order that we can be salt and light to others!
He also said, “The church is depending on missionaries for leadership and funds even to get recognition in the country.”
I believe that much progress has been made in this last decade or two by the Angolan believers, but how important it is that we ‘missionaries’ have a heart to develop and train local believers — allowing them to ‘increase’ while we ‘decrease.’ Not an easy job. In fact it is impossible, given our own sinfulness. But, with God, all things are possible. In fact Jesus has already promised, “I will build my church, and the gates (authority) of hell will not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18