This is a guest post by my brother-in-law Ben. Ben and his wife Brenda (my sister) work in West Africa.
According to Philip Jenkins, historian and author of The Next Christendom, the Christian church is currently growing faster in Africa than on any other continent. If this is true, then why on earth should any more missionaries go to Africa? Surely there is a greater need for missionaries in places like Europe and North America, where the church appears to be in decline, or in the Middle East, where the church is small and growing more slowly. African Christians must be doing something right to experience such amazing church growth. How could missionaries from elsewhere contribute anything significant to the evangelistic efforts of the African church? It’s very expensive to fly missionaries across an ocean, educate their children and provide them with health insurance and a retirement plan. As outsiders, perhaps the most efficient and effective way of promoting evangelism in Africa would be to focus our resources exclusively on issues like poverty, AIDS, infant mortality, corruption and war. Through this investment, African Christians will be better equipped to tackle the task of spreading the gospel, a task they are clearly capable of handling themselves.
I’ve regularly heard this type of argument in the US and occasionally in Africa as well. This argument is persuasive, in no small part because it holds a lot of truth. Africa’s poverty, disease and conflict are crushing evils that demand a response from Christians worldwide. The African church is a model for Christians around the world in its vision and faith in the midst of suffering. The Holy Spirit is working through many African evangelists who are extremely effective at spreading the gospel without any outside help or expertise. Missionaries are desperately needed in many parts of the world besides Africa, and missionaries from distant lands, North Americans and Europeans in particular, are indeed expensive to send and sustain overseas.
All this is true, but let me offer three reasons for why Western missionaries are still needed to play a direct role in cross-cultural evangelism in Africa.
First, many Africans (particularly African Muslims) have never had any exposure to the gospel. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the percentage of people worldwide who have never heard the gospel has declined from 64% in 1900 to 24% in 2001. This is certainly a cause for rejoicing, but the sobering truth is that this means 1.6 billion people in the world still haven’t heard the gospel. Many of these are the hardest to reach. Take the Muslim nomadic people groups in Africa as a prime example. Missions Frontiers reported that two thirds of the world’s nomadic people live in Africa and most of them are Muslims. In a report for the US Congress in May 2008, Hussein D. Hassan states that experts estimate over a third of all Africans are Muslims. That means there are more than 300 million Muslims in Africa, the same rough estimate that many give for the population of African Christians. Most of these African Muslims have no Christian witness among them.
Second, Christians in Africa are not evenly distributed across the continent or among all of its diverse people groups. Operation World estimates that in fourteen African countries, evangelical Christians made up less than 1% of the population as of 2001. These Christians are not only a minority of the total population in each of these countries, they are also usually members of minority ethnic groups with limited interaction with their neighbors. It may be difficult for most African Christians to imagine places where there is virtually no Christian presence, but much of the northern half of Africa fits this description.
Third, the demand for cross-cultural missionaries who will bring the gospel to those who have not yet heard it far exceeds the supply. In spite of the tremendous church growth in Africa and what Operation World estimated to be 13,000 African missionaries working cross-culturally in 2001, the need for additional missionaries remains immense. Resources are a serious limitation on the number of African Christians who are reaching out to their neighbors, but the cultural barriers between Africans from different ethnic groups are also a significant challenge. At the root of many of Africa’s conflicts are deep-seeded tensions between ethnic groups. In many cases, the cultural divide between these groups is just as large, or possibly even larger, than it would be for any outsider coming to Africa. Will the growing church in Africa overcome these barriers and reach out to Muslim nomads? In order to accomplish this task, the African church needs partners, not just partners who will give money, but those who will pray, who will serve and who will go and work alongside them.
Extreme poverty, political injustice, civil strife, and the ravages of AIDS and other diseases are African problems that demand our attention as Western Christians with relatively abundant resources at our disposal. However, bringing the gospel to all nations is also the responsibility of the global church, and we cannot excuse ourselves from becoming directly involved.