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.


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

Continue reading

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.

Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not

Kruse Kronicle has just posted Religious Tourism – republished from Bob Lupton’s October newsletter. Here are some excerpts – read the whole story at Kruse’s Religious Tourism.

“They’re turning my people into beggars!” . . .

. . . . Juan was not blaming his people for becoming beggars. He was faulting the affluent, well-meaning U.S. church for its unexamined generosity. His accusations, now pouring forth with considerable force, were directed at naïve “vacationaries” who spend millions of dollars traveling to his country, perform work that locals could better do for themselves, and create a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments — all in the name of Christian service. The unintended consequences of such mission work was undoing the very vision Juan had given his life to — helping his people emerge from poverty through training, entrepreneurship, saving and hard work. . .

For some reason U.S. churches, filled with results-oriented members, seem oblivious to the abysmal outcomes of many if not most mission trips. Perhaps because it feels so good to be giving to those so much worse off, or because unconditional serving seems so Christ-like, the Western church embraces with great pride an unexamined form of charity that our nation as a whole rejected with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. We know that welfare creates unhealthy dependency, that it erodes a work ethic, that it does not elevate people out of poverty. Yet, in the name of Christ, we perpetuate this very welfare principle in the way we do missions. And the trend is growing!

A Princeton University study found that in one year (2005) 1.6 million church members took mission trips — an average of eight days — at a cost of $2.4 billion. And the number has grown every year since. “Religious tourism” as some call it has become a growth industry. The web is full of agencies (denominational and para-church) ready to connect churches to a “meaningful mission experience” in an exotic location rife with human need. The Bahamas, for example, receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents. . . .

Read the stories of contrasting water projects

. . . PS: Some believe that short-term missions trips whet the appetite for long-term mission involvement. Research does not support this claim however. In spite of all the moving testimonies of “life-changing experiences” by returning short-termers and the occasional example of full-time missionaries who point to a mission trip as the catalyst for their calling, there is no evidence that missions as a whole has benefitted. As a matter of fact, while short-term mission trips have increased dramatically over the past two decades, support of long-term missionaries has declined. Strangely, the correlation seems to be inverse. Perhaps because we have spent so lavishly on “religious tourism” we feel that our financial responsibility to missions has been discharged. Or is it that long-term missionaries do not serve the immediate self-interest of our church?

For more on short-term missions see the earlier post Short Term Missions or Religious Tourism and all the related links from RESOURCE ON SHORT-TERM MISSIONS at the bottom of Kurt Ver Beek’s page, (Calvin College)

I’m pretty ambivalent about what I call “missionary tourism” – Barna’s self reported results. There is even a safari company in Nairobi called “Missionary Tours.” At first I self-righteously scoffed at the concept. Then part of me started thinking why not? As long as people are going to do tourism, why not have some of the proceeds go more directly to some local communities and projects instead of the game parks and Serena hotels. You can start a safari lodge or you can start a community development project; both can bring in foreign income. (It’s just a different kind of capitalism at work; you give your money in exchange for feeling better about yourself 😉 I just get concerned when this kind of tourism comes with a “we are saving the world attitude.” Then again, what about my own motives for being here? (Call of God? Or a something I enjoy doing that makes me feel good about myself?) Don’t we all want to feel like we are making a difference?

More responses to Lupton’s letter:

1. Sometimes local sustainability is a lot more complex than the success story noted here makes it seem.

2. My fear is that if we make it sound too complicated, even well-intentioned people might stop giving at all. There are plenty of other things they will happily spend their money on – e.g. their own new church buildings. It’s hard enough getting people to be generous, and the needs over here can be overwhelming. Every bit of extra cash helps; infusing extra cash into the local economies can’t be all bad. (It’s not like it’s a $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street).

3. Why is it an either/or proposition? This particular true of the connection between short-term missions and long-term wealth generation.

Three personal examples:

Example 1: My brother-in-law worked very hard to do all the things recommended in the article on his own water project in rural Uganda – community organization, local investment, sustainability, ideas for wealth generation, etc. Still, until the overall economy of that area of the country rose high enough for parts to be more readily available (as well as water engineers becoming more prevalent in the area – thanks to other NGO’s). He still spent years trouble shooting emergencies to keep it going. It’s possible that some remote parts need a little bit more of the basic infrastructure to be able to sustain these projects.

Example 2: This August, I was a last minute addition to an entirely Kenyan pastoral training team to rural Western Kenya. In conjunction with this training, a team had come out from the US to do vacation Bible school (VBS), and help build a classroom (naturally). While the women and teenagers did VBS, the two men went to help build the classroom. Over breakfast the next day, I was talking to one of them named John who is a real estate project manager back at home. On the first day, he had rolled up his sleeves to help with the building, and was hustling pretty quickly as he moved bricks over to the wall they were building. Then as he looked around, he realized that all the young laborers had gradually quit working and were sitting under a tree; he had just taken all their jobs. So he went over and sat with them, and eventually they trickled back to work. He spent the rest of the week, talking to various people, learning about their local culture, and visiting several different projects. Most of his time, he just listened and learned about all the local challenges .

John got it right because he paid attention and set aside his own goal orientation, and in the end, he benefited a lot more. He now knows that he has just begun a long journey of learning all the paradoxical complexities – of poverty, economics, culture, and wealth generation. He wants to come back again next year to build on the relationships he started this time, but now he is thinking more deeply about how to be God’s instrument in truly partnering ways that help the community more long-term. Next time he comes, he will come with a completely different set of plans and expectations. That’s the way it should be, but he had to come that first time – “just as I am.”

Example 3: Not too long after Christi arrived, she was asked to be on the school board of the primary school where our kids go. The school always seemed to having financial problems and teacher moral was low – their salaries weren’t always paid on time. Then as the new school board started researching the issues, they discovered that many of the parents weren’t paying their kids tuition fees (about $100 a term). The principle was a soft-hearted women who saw the school as a ministry to poor seminary students, and she always felt bad demanding the payments. Once the school board helped her implement a stricter payment policy, suddenly the school was financially viable, the teacher salaries could be raised, and everything seemed brighter. (It wasn’t easy, after the new policy was implemented and the payment deadline arrived, the principle had to swallow hard and send about half the kids home for non-payment; about 90% of them returned within 30 minutes with the full payment. A staggered payment plan is also available.) Here was an example of a small policy change that transformed the whole ethos of school.

While the the main issue of financially sustainability has been resolved, the primary school still benefits from the largess of short-term missionaries. There is a dramatic difference between the amount of supplies and books this little school has and what the nearby American missionary school has. (Tuition there is about 10x as high; something none of these kids can dream of affording). So this little primary school thrives on short-term missionaries who bring lots of craft supplies and basics such as crayons and markers. A group in the US donated an entire children’s library to the school; excess books are being sold to generate more income. A copier that was donated by a church in the US is now being used to generate the salary of a computer teacher. Had people not freely donated computers, these kids wouldn’t be taking computer classes period (there just isn’t that much up-front cash in the local economy to purchase these kind of modern “luxuries”.) Has it turned the school into beggars? Hardly. All the income to run the core business is locally generated; the generosity of the short-term missionaries goes to improving the quality of life.

Early in Lupton’s letter he says,

What peasant scratching out a bare existence could refuse suitcases bulging with new clothing for his family? What struggling pastor could resist the temptation to accept a steady salary and generous church income in exchange for hosting visitors, organizing volunteer work, and staffing funded programs? What village would borrow money to dig a well or buy books for their school library or save money to build a church if these things were provided for them free of charge? If all they had to do was make their wish lists, show up for the schedule arranged by the donors, and smile graciously until their benefactors head back home, who would blame them for accepting this easy charity?

And I ask, “What’s wrong with that?” Why shouldn’t they get a bunch of free clothes from the affluent West? Why shouldn’t a pastor get a steady salary? Don’t we all want a steady salary? Maybe the issue isn’t the free clothes. Maybe the issue is that they simply don’t don’t know how to generate wealth. In other words, we may be talking about apples and oranges – two completely unrelated issues.

Let’s take the issue of the different water projects. Why can’t Juan say, “that’s great that they got a free water project. Let’s talk about how we can invest their resources in sustaining it or in creating other wealth generating projects.” Surely, there are other ways of generating wealth besides water projects. Or does Juan’s job security play some role in motivating his comments? For the record, I love what he is doing, but someone might cynically make the case that all these NGO’s supposedly setting up “sustainable” projects are primarily about generating salaries for themselves. (They are simply a different kind of capitalistic entrepreneurship, well-meaning as they might be.)

Bottom line: The heart of the issue may have more to do with a changing global economic paradigm than short-term missions per se. (Are long-term missions doing more to generate wealth?) Many of these cultures have had well-entrenched habits of patron and client relationships long before any missionary showed up. A society that has been doing fine for centuries on subsistence farming is suddenly faced with a population explosion and the costs of increased living standards in a globalizing world (all good things.) And mixed into all this is the good news of Jesus Christ – in all it’s different cultural manifestations.

Let me be clear, I’m the first in line to cheer for sustainability and helping people generate wealth. (I’ve tried to make that point repeatedly elsewhere.)  I’m also quite critical of the self-centered nature of short term missions. It boggles my mind when I think how how millions of “missionary tourist” dollars could instead be invested in local, long-term economic growth. But I also know that without the missionary tourism, there probably wouldn’t be any cash infusion at all. The locals all get this, so they just smile and wave. Maybe with a little bit of tweaking, we can have a both-and scenario.

Believe it or not, when I started this post, I didn’t expect to be defending short-term missions. All I’m trying to say here is that maybe short-term missions and their short-term generosity are just an easy whipping boys for what is really a much more complex economic and cultural mix.

The $330,000 car for missionaries (more putting it in perspective)

Coffee girl confessions (thanks, Jutta for the link) has a post on missionaries who are relatively poor in the States, but “made of gold” in their mission context. She poses the following question:

Do you ever wrestle with the disparity between your own resources and those of the people you are working with? Do you feel guilty for the comforts of internet access, digital cameras, vehicles, etc.? Or do you choose to live without them to align yourself with the people you work with?

In one of the comment, Karis writes: [context: Cameroon]

We had just purchased a vehicle. All vehicles are imported so very expensive here. The blue book value in the U.S. is $4000, but we talked them down to $14,500 here. I like to crunch numbers. If you don’t or if my explanation of this is too confusing… sorry… Here we go — if you make $5 a day (which many here do) and work five days a week, you’d make approximately $1300/year. Our $14,500 vehicle (remember it is 13 years old so we’re not talking about a newer model here) is 11 years worth of salary for them at $1300/year. If the average American makes $30,000 a year and you take that $30,000 and multiply it by 11 years, that number is $330,000. So, here’s the bottom line. A $14,500 vehicle to someone out here making $1300/year is like a $330,000 vehicle to someone in the States making $30,000 a year. Someone making $30,000 a year in the States could never afford a $330,000 vehicle — that would seem like a luxury that is so out of reach except for “rich” people. Crunching these numbers helped me to realize why an African would think it’s such a big deal to be able to afford a vehicle. They’re not seeing our vehicle and thinking $14,500 — they’re seeing $330,000!

So, if we can afford a “$330,000” car, how can we not give them money for food, school, medicine, the dentist, and on and on… and we’ve only been here for 2 months and we’re already facing this frustration!

I grew up in the real African bush, and here is what my wise dad always said, “No one minds if you have money, as long as you are willing to share it.”

When Christi’s brother was here, we did a lot of thinking on similar issues – sustainability, indigenous church independence, etc. (He’s launching a missions team into Southern Sudan.) As we talked, I kept thinking that what we really need is more Christian business people willing to help poorer places generate wealth. I know missionaries aren’t used to thinking that way, and I’ll have to leave my thoughts for a future post, but . . .  (Kruse Kronicle has helped me with some of my thinking in this area.)

The new face of African missions

For the new face of African missions, look no further than Patrick and Violet Nabwera – the Kenyan couple that has been our next door neighbors for the last year. It’s no exaggeration to say that these two are true saints in every sense of the word.

They work for a twenty-year old mission agency that is entirely Kenyan. They live simply, and they go to places where Christians normally fear to tread. They have to start slowly because everyone suspects that they are there to “convert” them. Sometimes the challenge is simply to fight the spiritual weight that presses them down in bed every morning.

They start schools, teach English, join the football (soccer) associations, and become an integral part of the community. Before long, people start coming to them seeking advice and prayer for various problems. Neighbors can see that their faith in Christ makes them strong and wise; eventually a new community of believers in Jesus begins to form.

Once an area has been “tamed,” they replace themselves with newer missionaries, and begin looking for areas where the gospel has still not been lived out or preached. They’ve moved through remote parts of Tanzania now and are looking to mobilize new teams for Mozambique. If you take out a map of eastern Africa, and look for the most remote sections, that’s usually where their heart is.

Even here at NEGST, they have not taken a break. In their first year of study, there was a housing shortage on campus, so they had to live 20 minutes away. Still, Patrick and Violet won the “couple of the year” award. When they moved next door to us, we immediately knew why. There’s hardly a moment when you won’t find someone sharing a meal at their table or pouring their heart out to them.

Our children have become inseparable, and are equally at home in each apartment. (Joy is Kiara’s age, and Abby is between Leila and Liam.) One of my secret highlights of living next door to them is the “song” of their early morning prayers; I can’t hear any of the words, but as these prayers float over the concrete walls, they are sweet music to my ears. We will all miss them deeply when they graduate in July.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more passionate and strategic about contextualized missions than Patrick, so next week, I’m going to post a series of segments from Patrick’s master’s thesis – “Attrition among African Missionaries” (or in rough terms- why missionaries quit.)

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.