It’s not that we shouldn’t support Global Missions, but maybe we should reevaluate how we support and whom we support.
Editor’s Note: It has been since February since Jonathan has posted. We hope you enjoy the new site layout and look forward to more articles in the future.
One of the blessings at being at a place like Gordon-Conwell is that I have had the chance to interact with Christians and Church Leaders from all over the world. I have met men and women from South Korea, The Philippines, Australia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Malawi and many, many more. I have tried, as much as possible to submerse myself in these friendships and learn all I can about their cultures and their views on the product of Western Christendom and how the interactions between them have affected their cultures for the worse and for the better. This has led to many hours of lament for me as I realize that the system I was raised to think was the truest form of Christianity has actually done a great deal of damage in other parts of the world. As a Church Historian I know the History of Western Christian Missions and even some of the history of non-western Christian Missions. It is easy to claim a certain degree of separation when you just study the history of a movement. However, when you start to meet people who have been or who still are being negatively effected by these events your perspective begins to shift.
As a student I have taken the advantage of classes that teach Non-Western Church History, even as a budding expert on 19th century American German Reformed at Mercersburg and the internicene controversies leading up to the Civil War. I am still permanently indebted to men and women like Justo Gonzolas, Robin Daniel, the Late Lamin Sanneh and many others for teaching me about Church History outside the West, particularly in Africa, South and Central America and throughout the Caribbean. I have seen through their eyes the mistakes of the Western Church and the times when Western Missionaries were effective ministers. Through them I have learned the language of the colonizers and how that language has been harmful, destroying both the historical memory of a people, something upon which their identity is built and the damage done by stripping it away.
In my conversations with African brothers and sisters, especially Joseph Byamukama of Veracity Fount, a man from the nation of Uganda who has a vision, plan and desire to see theological education in Uganda. I have learned much about what role, if any, the west might have in global missions from my conversations with him. “The Western Missionaries come to our country and stay in the air conditioned houses with lights and running water. They have all their western comforts with them at all times and they never really come into the villages except to play with the kids or to get a photo op” he tells me. “But America has so much money, the American Church is the wealthiest in the world, if the American Church sent financial resources instead of missionaries, it would be more effective.” This is similar to what Missions Expert Paul Borthwick said in his book “Western Christians and Global Missions” and what Missiologist and Mission Historian Doctor Hank Lederle taught us at Sterling College so many years ago.
Joseph is also well educated in African Church History. He sees European Colonization as one of the most damaging events in African History. White Europeans showed up to Africa with no understanding of African History. Race, which rose out of Darwinian evolutionary theory as a justification for the subjection and enslavement of people from the African Continent, particularly along the Ivory Coast. Combined with a presumed superiority by the Europeans meant they could exploit the continent and its human and natural resources and along the way destroy the historical memory. For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox or Coptic Church traces its roots back to the first century C.E. It actually predates the creation of some of the Churches which Paul wrote too and survived long after those churches were destroyed. “Yet most African do not know this” Joseph tells me “They do not know what it means to be African and Christian because they associate Christianity with colonization” not with the rich Christian tradition nurtured from the first century onward in North Africa by men like Tertullian, Anthony of Egypt, Origen, Augustine, Ambrose, Alexander of Alexandria and many more. These were Africans whose teachings undergird and inform our own theology today and whose origins have been all but scrubbed from the historical memory of the African continent. Men who have been portrayed as White Europeans rather than ethnically correct Black and Brown Africans. It is this history that is part of what Joseph hopes his Veracity Fount will help African Christians recapture so that they can continue to reclaim the Church in Africa, now the largest part of the global church, for Africans.
Along with his dream of bringing theological education to Uganda, Joseph also has plans and has purchased property to build a safari resort on the Grasslands. The business would be used to fund the theological training center but requires a great deal of capitol to start up. Conversations with wealthy American businessmen and women has often been fruitless and even difficult. “The other problem I have been running into” Joseph tells me “is that when I reach out to wealthy American Christians, they want to know what American Missions Agency or partner to send their money too. They do not want to write a check and make an investment with us as Africans, they want an American fronted organization.”
There are a number of misconceptions and stereotypes behind western ideals of Africa. The list we spent the first hour of our class on the Black Christian Experience from Africa to America is well over 100 items long. The west has a long history of judging, putting down and infantilizing Africans and Africa, starting with the idea that Africa is a country, not a continent made up of many countries. The most poignant story I have heard was of the American Missionaries who were headed to a town in an African country and who were invited, by a local African leader, to plant a church in his village they told him: “We have heard that there are no churches in the town we are headed too.” There were many churches in that particular town, all from different denominations who had all heard that this town had no true Christian churches. You see my point?
So, when I heard some missionaries speak, for the first time their presentation did not sit right with me. For starters, it was a ministry operating out of Ethiopia working for an organization that was recently mentioned on a front-page article by The Gospel Coalition about the worlds: “Longest running reformed bible study” that has been running in Africa. The organization is a school for under privileged kids which uses classical Christian education as a means to teach and train these kids to be good adults who will contribute to their society and country. They live in a compound that only allows them to have contact with their families outside after they reach their teen years and which has running, clean water and electricity. The person giving the presentation made sure that we knew that the country they were in, Ethiopia, did not have a largely “Christian Population” but instead they were mostly “Orthodox” who believed in “Salvation by works.” She did make sure we knew that Ethiopia had just elected its first Christian leader, an Evangelical, and that they were hopeful things would get better for Christians there. The presenter also noted that when these kids do get to see family they often spend time with Cousins who are attending the state schools and do not have a strong grasp of “English.” They also wanted us to send them more missionaries so that they could have more teachers and more people to run the finance and oversee projects required to run the school.
If you have been paying attention, the issues with this presentation should be obvious. These are missionaries working in Ethiopia who just referred to one of the oldest part of the global church as “Unsaved” because they were not “Evangelical Christians” because of a gross misrepresentation and incredible lack of understanding of Orthodox theology, summing up something incredibly complex as “works based.” This is similar to when TGC wrote and shared an article about “how to evangelize Eastern Orthodox” which was deeply insulting. They are using a Classical Christian Education, which is a purely western education system and which ill-prepares them to go out into their culture and interact with it. The effect and end product is a group of Africans who fit in better in America than in their own country. Gordon-Conwell has this same issue, bringing in African students and teaching them Western Theology which better equips them for American churches rather than African. The missionary also lamented that Africans outside of their school could not speak as much English as their students. They were lamenting that Ethiopians, who live in Ethiopia, not America or England, could not speak English. They also asked for more missionaries, instead of trying to raise up and train more indigenous leaders, they wanted more Americans to come and fill those teaching and financial supervision roles. Instead of asking and trusting Ethiopians to step into these roles, they wanted more Americans to come. Finally, they had the very infrastructure my friend Joseph talked about above, and though they were bringing in children to live in that infrastructure, they were cutting them off from their native language, culture and people instead of working to make sure that infrastructure was shared by all.
Some of you may not see the issues outlined above, if you are one of those, please take the time to read about the history of Christianity on the African Continent as well as the history of colonization and the language of colonization. The ministry outlined above is doing good in that it is caring for the needs of these children, but in doing so they are teaching them to despise their own culture and people. They are continuing the sin of whitewashing and colonization through using a curriculum that better suits them for America than Ethiopia. This is part of our history that is predicated on the false idea that western culture is somehow superior to other cultures and that the western church has the purest and truest form of Christianity, that is, the Evangelical Churches have the truest and purest form of Christianity. Africa, as a continent, long ago passed the west for the largest part of the global church, just as South America, Korea, Vietnam and other Eastern countries had long before it. Yet we are still the wealthiest arm of the church and that money could go so far in the hands of indigenous leaders overseeing their part of the global church. Leaders like my friend Joseph and many, many others who represent nation after nation who wonder why their western brothers and sisters will not let them lead.
I think the first time this hit home for me was when one of my sisters from the East and whose name is withheld for her safety, said to our professor in a class on the history of Christianity’s Creeds and Confessions: “When you talk about Calvinism in (her country) or Westminster or whatever it does not make sense to us, we want to study the scriptures but you tell us we have to study Calvin.” This spurred a discussion about how western systems are not one size fits all, often they do not even fit the west. The professors challenge was to write a paper about how her culture would address presenting unified doctrinal statements in a manner that was fitting to them so that she could teach us. The professor has taken this same sensitivity into his other classes, challenging foreign students to find ways their culture expresses faith and writing on that.
Honestly, there has to be a better way than destroying a culture and replacing it with our own. Perhaps it is time we humbly laid down any thoughts that we are somehow superior and allow the rest of global Christianity to teach us here in the West. Maybe it is time we go back to the feet of Jesus and instead of doing all the work, just listen to the Lord, our brother, who has given us the Gospel we proclaim. Maybe it is time we let my brother Joseph lead his own country and clean up our own back yard, leaving room for those who know their cultures and who can speak into the questions of those cultures better than we can
So, go my brothers and sisters, lead the way. May we be willing to support, love and lift you up as you use your gifts to reach the world for Christ.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.