Money, Power, and Radical Incarnation—a model for missions (Muriu, Urbana 09)

A little over a week ago, Pastor Oscar Muriu spoke at Urbana–a giant (16-20,000) missions conference for American college students.

[Vimeo vimeo.com/8450561]

Money and Power: Oscar Muriu from Urbana 09 on Vimeo.

For more Urban09 videos, click HERE

(We had the privilege of hearing most of it at Nairobi Chapel earlier in the year—just an average Sunday sermon for us ;-).

Muriu begins by saying that if he were God, he would have brought Jesus as a powerful ruler, or a wise sage. He would have employed the the best marketing and branding strategies for all the world to see. The way God did it was to slow, too low tech. While the world waited desperately for salvation, God sent his son as a poor helpless infant.

His point is that before we go for missions, we must undergo an attitudinal incarnation. This incarnation has four doors:

1. From pride to humility.

2. From power to powerlessness (Phil. 2:6)

3. From privilege into poverty

4. From the harmony and the unity of heaven to the brokenness and dysfunction of the earth.

Side Note: I haven’t been able to locate a smaller MP3audio. I understand that this is directed at a young, American audience, but I couldn’t help noting that the very nature of the video link (124MB by my count), means that many Africans—even many with “reasonably good” internet access—won’t be able to see or hear this message. Just another way that Africans generally can be marginalized (by the missions infrastructure) from “missions” thinking and discussions…even when Africans speak. At least Americans are hearing their voices now; I commend the speaker lineup.

[More detailed notes]

1. From pride to humility.

The incarnation of our attitude is more fundamental than geographical relocation. Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ (Phil 2). Before you go, we must undergo an attitudinal incarnation; consider others better than yourselves. Leave your pat answers, your degrees, your learning…and take on the attitude of a humble servant.

By way of illustration, Pastor Oscar talks about

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Systemic challenges facing African theologians

Following are some of my own observations about some of the systemic challenges my colleagues face in trying to do genuine African theology—dialogue between African cultures and the world of the Bible. (My experience has been largely with evangelical institutions, but many of the principles might apply more broadly.) Please feel free to add some of your own observations.

[no particular order; numbered to facilitate comments]

  1. Almost all formal theological training is done in the West or by Western-trained African theologians who have been indoctrinated to Western priorities and methodologies. (All of us are shaped by our mentors, and our mentors are shaped by their environments.)
  2. Many theological schools in Africa tend to depend on resources being doled out by Western institutions with Western interests.
  3. African thinkers are forced to write for Western audiences in order to gain academic credibility and get published.
  4. Whereas Western theologians have the luxury of being able to be essentially mono-cultural, successful African theologians (who wish to be published) have to have a sophisticated mastery both Western and African thought patterns and ways of communicating.
  5. Many of the best and brightest African academic pioneers have been snatched up by western institutions where they are forced to spend most of their time catering to white American audiences and explaining Africa to them (e.g. Sanneh, Tienou, Katongole).
  6. In any theological institution there are already strong, established feelings about “how theology should be done.”
  7. Evangelicals, especially, are very nervous about any new ways of doing theology.
  8. Specific denominational dogmas are so sacrosanct that all we can do is regurgitate acceptable “truth” (from the teaching vessel to the recipient student and hope it doesn’t experience any corruption in the process.)
  9. Seminary and Bible school programs and curriculums in Africa are almost exactly the same as their Western counterparts. (Accreditation is a factor, but not the only factor.)
  10. Africa is often perceived by and portrayed to outsiders as a dark, poverty-stricken, crisis-ridden continent. (What could it possibly have to offer?)
  11. The fear of syncretism—Christo-paganism. (While this might be a genuine concern in a few, rare cases, the fear of this extreme should not prevail.)
  12. Many of the most successful African academics are not in touch with their own traditional cultural heritage; they may not even speak their own mother tongues, which could help shape their theological thinking.
  13. Creative African theology is not given very much institutional priority in terms of grants and infrastructure support that frees African thinkers with the resources, freedom, and focused time to pursue research and writing African theology.
  14. The sheer number and diversity of different African cultures can be overwhelming.
  15. Genuine African theology requires cross-disciplinary expertise. In addition to the biblical studies expertise needed to understand the Bible in its original cultural context, ethnographic research along with anthropological and sociological analysis are needed to help immerse the theologian in different African cultural worldviews. (Doubles and triples the fields of academic expertise required.)
  16. We don’t have access to that many models of how African theology can be done. In some ways we keep going back to the same few pioneers who laid the groundwork; new creative efforts need to be encouraged.
  17. The younger, brilliant African theologians I know here are too busy addressing pressing community needs—pastoring churches, running NGOs, doing administration, working to change political leadership, etc. The ones that do teach in academic institutions tend to be teaching course overloads and are buried in administration—in addition to all the normal community pressures.

I recognize that this portrait risks severe caricature, but perhaps it will stir some of your ideas. Catholics seem to have done a far better job of supporting African scholarship (most of the books on my shelf related to African theology—written by both Protestants and Catholics—are published by Catholic presses), but in practice, they seem to have institutional and hierarchical challenges that many Protestant churches wouldn’t.

Cf. bibliography for African Christianity or (by date) or the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (e.g. Musa Dube, Nyambura Njoroge, Mercy Ouyoye, Isabel Phiri, etc.) for more African theologizing.

Ping Pong; short term missions and exchanges (Ker)

Stay tuned for a couple of guest posts on missions in Africa (I’m not writing them; I’m just posting them because I think you ought to have the opportunity to read them  ;-).

Meanwhile, David Ker has written a brilliant post on the changing face short-term missions: Ping. Pong.

A few excerpts:

. . . Short-term missions often seek short-term results. And they aren’t financially efficient. Expending thousands of dollars to send people with no cross-cultural training or language skills to a foreign country and then expecting them to do something positive is naive and wasteful. One solution to this is long-term commitments to a specific project or mission. In this model, short-termers are less mini-missionaries and more ambassadors and accountability partners. I’ve written on my blog before about local church to local church partnerships that are making a long-term difference. 

There is a risk of mission-tourism. And then there’s always the expense of sending a group of outsiders that might be better spent on projects on the field. . .[see Short Term Missions: Are They Worth The Cost? by Jo Ann Van Engen (pdf)]

. . . But my larger concern is not financial. The second weakness I see in churches adopting overseas projects is the lack of reciprocity. In every case I’ve ever seen, Western visitors come with the perspective that they have something to give and that the locals should be grateful recipients of their largesse. But the longer I live in Africa, the more I’m convinced that we are the ones who should come begging. Africans have much to teach us about life based on spirituality rather than materialism and the richness of a society centered on relationships rather than the individual. Finally, Christians I meet in Africa are much clearer-headed about the nature of the Gospel and they lack the cynicism and confusion that paralyze many Western believers. . . 

. . . No missionary, short-term or long-term will ever be as efficient as an insider with the resources and motivation to tackle a development task. . . 

. . . The Western church and the church of the developing South could make beautiful music together. But first we need to get together, get in tune and acknowledge the gifts that God has given each of us in the glorious global church of the 21st century. . . 

Some interesting comments too: Ping. Pong.

Why African Christianity is "a mile wide and an inch deep"

I bristle every time I hear someone make this statement, “African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.”

  1. So-called “Christianity” everywhere could be labeled shallow. I don’t think “Christianity” that happens to be located in Africa has a corner on the shallow market.
  2. Examples cited are often comparing apples and oranges – e.g. seminary students in the West to the uneducated churchgoer in Africa.
  3. The underlying assumption is that depth seems to be measured on certain intellectual articulations of “sacred” – especially Reformed – theologies. I’ll take lifestyle Christianity over intellectualized faith any day.
  4. The depth of faith I have seen in many Africans – East and West – puts any other Christianity I’ve seen to shame – especially the petty Christianity I’ve seen portrayed by so many “deep theologians” of the West.

I sometimes laugh (or cry?) when I hear Americans say that they have come here “to help strengthen the faith of the Africans.” I think to myself, “my friend, you have no idea. I hope you pay enough attention to let the African saints show you what deep faith really looks like.”

Having stated that strong caveat, I do think there is a reason Christianity hasn’t taken root to the depth that it could have. Bottom line: I think we have tried to grow the Gospel on the imported the rocks of Western and modernist cultures and have neglected the fertile soil of the African cultures. My mind was going in several directions at this point when I read Mark at Under the Baobab Tree’s review of David Smith’s Mission After Christendom by David Smith. I’ll pull out a few quotes, but you’d do well to read the whole post

. . . the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to Christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview . . .

. . . Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”. . .

. . . The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, . . .

The best form of Christianity:

is . . . as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. . . [emphasis mine.]

. . . reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches . . . which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. . .

. . . “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”. . .

The Gospel will always critique the elements of a culture that are bent away from God’s intentions and distort the image of God that humans bear. Unfortunately, many of the critiques that came in the name of the gospel were simply against things with which Westerners were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable. As a result, many of the Christianities in Africa became schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have the “church world” where we can say and sing all the right things. On the other hand, we have the rest of the world which we know to be true from our basic worldviews. Sometimes the two worlds never met.

If we truly understand the contexts of Scripture, we will see that God’s Word has always been presented in the language and images that resonate with the worldviews with which they come in contact. (Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako show us how this was done in the ear of the early church.)

A couple clarifications:

I don’t ever want to diminish the self-sacrifice and compassion of the self-sacrificing, pioneer missionaries, but I do wish that there had been more cultural awareness and appreciation for where African cultures reflected the image of God. There are many examples of missionaries who did this brilliantly.

This is also not to deny that there are many gross distortions of the Gospel here. But the bottom line is that African cultures and many manifestations of African Christianity have a lot to offer the West when it comes to deeply rooted faith.

This is a subject I’m bound to return to many times.

Healing tour (Mombassa), cell phone Bible, etc.

The Bible on cell phone
– This is a series of posts in lingalinga early March

For those of you who followed the tragedy of the Ebola virus in Western Uganda. A happy moment a very happy moment – baby Jonah Muhindo.

This quote from the cover of Lancet (British Medical journal):

Africa carries 25% of the world’s disease burden
yet has only 3% of the world’s health workers
and 1% of the world’s economic resources
to meet that challenge.

Follow the the “Wheels of Hope” – Kenya healing tour.

On Day 1, Pastor Oscar Muriu writes: We have just gone through about the most amazing prayer day ever. The air was sizzling as over 200 pastors prayed together and confessed the sins of the city of Mombasa. I stood briefly in a corner, watching, and could feel the hair on the back of my neck rise with excitement! The passion, the excitement, the tears, the cries of prayer. It was overwhelming.

. . . if Mombasa stands judged before God it would be for the 3 sins of idolatry, witchcraft and promiscuity. Mombasa is known in Kenya for being the most active center of witchcraft in the country. It is also known for it’s sex trade, now mainly sex tourism.

As we prayed together the story of the coming of the gospel to Kenya was told. The first missionaries to Kenya were a small team of Catholics who set up a chapel in Malindi in the 1500’s. Though they tried they were however unable to penetrate the interior. Finally they gave up and left. The next attempt was 350 yrs later in late 1800’s. This time it was an Anglican mission. They landed in the Miji-Kenda land (Miji-Kenda (9 homes) are a tribe made up of 9 clans, who have a different dialects, but common traditions. They occupy much of the coastal strip). As the story goes (and this is folklore – happened 150 yrs ago), the Anglican missionaries met the elders of the tribe and requested permission to build a church. The Elders then met together and discussed the matter, recognizing the missionaries were about to introduce a new god to them. This they did not want.

But they also recognized they could not say no. So they slaughtered a goat as a sacrifice to their gods, and made a spiritual covenant that the territory of the new god would be limited to the size of that goat skin. They buried the skin in the ground and then gave that piece of property to the missionaries to build their church on. This is the Anglican church at Rabai. To this day the gospel has not penetrated the Miji-Kenda tribe even though it has been there for over 150 yrs, and only a handful have become Christians over that time. Most churches at the coast are full of inland people, but not Miji-Kenda.

[Read the rest of this entry.]

History of the Easter Calendar

The question of the proper date for Easter—the most important festival on the Christian calendar—is another of those fascinating and complicated odysseys in the history of Christianity.

10 reasons I don’t read your blog (Lingamish), with a response from Jim West. (Insider stuff.)

Lots of great stuff from biblioblogs that will have to wait till tomorrow.

An update from my pastor: church healing/prayer tour about to start

oscar-muriu.jpgHere is a letter from my pastor Oscar Muriu updating what the church is doing in Kenya this week. [For background information on him see the Leadership Journal interview – Spring 2007, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Page 96 http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2007/002/3.96.html

Transcripts, Audio and video of his landmark message on Global Christianity at Urbana 2006 are available here.

Hi all, We are just getting ready to begin the Msafara this Friday. We have done all that we can . . . and the time has come. To prepare for the Spiritual warfare, we have engaged a strategy of 4 levels of prayer Continue reading