For two weeks earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in a country evaluation with Christian Reformed World Missions in Nigeria. From the Daniel Center, to the missionary compound in Jos, to visiting historic partner denominations in Takum, we put on a lot of miles and interviewed countless people who are involved with ministries there.
On the way to Abuja, I read the book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It reminded me a lot of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Now, many people read those novels and get the impression that missionaries are . . . to put it generously . . . not helpful. I took away a different message however - some missionaries are effective, some are not. Both of the aforementioned books show both types. I was anxious to hear for myself from the Nigerian leaders what they thought.
As I suspected, there were a few missteps in our history there. No organization is perfect! But those were overshadowed by the countless stories of appreciation for missionaries who took the time to mentor indigenous leaders; to show, as one person put it, "the gentler side of Jesus."
Churches in North America often want to hear numbers. How many people did you lead to Christ? How many churches were planted? How many Bible studies did you lead? How many wells were dug? The real ministry, though, happens in deep mentoring relationships that are difficult to quantify or put on a scorecard.
When we asked our Nigerian partners, "What are the most strategic roles that Western Christians can play in order to further encourage the Nigerian church to fulfill the unique mission that God has given her?" The following themes arose:
“Mentor. . . .discipler. . .. facilitator. . . bridger. . . . networker . . . .helps us think more strategically. . . respectful of our culture but also teaching us in a way that allows us to see beyond our culture . . . listens more that talks . . . . gives input sparingly . . . . .synthesizer …… helps us transcend barriers. . . . strong in prayer . . . . . someone who balances our passion by showing us the more gentler, more reflective side of Jesus . … helps us think new things. . . . points us to appropriate literature.”
During the interviews, the Nigerian church leaders also challenged us. Why is Christianity in the West shrinking? Last fall the Pew Forum reported that 'No Religion' is on the Rise. And so I wondered, is the list they provided about what makes an effective missionary applicable to North America? In a culture that is increasingly unaffiliated with church, who takes on that role? Do Christians in general listen well, have a strong prayer life, and take the time to mentor and disciple and have deep relationships with people who are not churchgoers or new believers? Are we more like the compassionate Brother Fowles or are we know-it-alls like Nathan Price? What kind of a missionary am I?
What kind of a missionary are you?