Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

An atheist’s viewpoint on God and missionaries

I must have had twenty or thirty emails from friends over the past few weeks, encouraging me to read an article which was published in the Times on 27 December 2008, where an atheist, who had grown up in Malawi, shared his viewpoint on the role of missionaries and Christians in Africa. Matthew Parris writes columns for the Times. If you are one of the few who haven’t read this article yet, here is the link: “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.”
What he writes is truly amazing – not so much because it is strange, but because I think it must be difficult for an atheist to admit this. After 45 years of being out of Malawi (or Nyassaland as it was formerly known), he returned to the country and found that the real positive changes in the country had happened through the intervention of Christians. He writes: “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
Actually, this is how it should be. If Christians become a light for the world, then they have no option other than to make a difference in the community. But Matthew doesn’t stop at the aid given by the church. He recognises that faith itself, made a difference, not only to the missionaries, but also to the people. Listen to what he observed, as a child, about the Christians: “The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.” Wow! Isn’t that a great testimony of what God can do in the lives of people who allow Him to become their Lord!
Mr Parris made another observation, which I have long felt myself but which most people would consider politically incorrect to say. Western people seem to have the idea that traditional tribal values in Africa are correct and above critique. (I find this irritating habit in many Hollywood movies where some Chinese guru constantly has all the wisdom available and never makes any mistake, never becomes angry, never does anything wrong!) What Matthew saw was that traditional tribal values has many flaws. Traditional tribal values bind people. It is only when Christ becomes a reality within a community that true liberation can take place. Which, of course, is exactly what is written in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
I have one question to ask Mr Parris: Is the reason perhaps why you have become an atheist, while living in the Western world, because you have seen so little of true Christianity in our world?


Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Evangelism, Hope, Mission, Theology


  1. Great post on a great article. I think that if we just lived out our faith, people would see Christ. There’s too much commercializing and marketing of Christianity in the West.

    Comment by Michelle | Wednesday, January 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. Arnau, I posted this article to my blog as well, and it started a small discussion.


    More opinions on there are certainly welcome!

    Comment by brad | Thursday, January 29, 2009 | Reply

  3. In describing rural African culture, Parris suggests that tribal culture suppresses individuality and bemoans the problems of “group think” in Africa. He says “People won’t take initiative, won’t take things in their own hands or on their own shoulders.”

    Do you agree with this Arnau? There is such tension between not doing things for people that they haven’t demonstrated some initiative about so insure sustainability. But Parris describes a problem with Africans not being able to initiate because of how they’ve been shaped by African culture, which is what we’ve experienced where we work.

    Suggestions or thoughts?


    Comment by Wendi Hammond | Friday, January 30, 2009 | Reply

  4. Wendi, I think he’s absolutely correct. Obviously none of us want to make mistakes, but as long as you don’t take responsibility you can’t make mistakes and nobody can blame you. There are very few African people who will take full responsibility for anything. I will do research, find out as much as possible and eventually say that I believe what I’m doing is correct and then go for it and trust things will work out. Obviously I’ve had to apologise when things didn’t work out as I planned, but I’m willing to take that responsibility. In Africa few people are willing to do this, because every decision taken will have an influence on the group and therefore the group has to make the decision.

    I have two EXCELLENT books on the topic, but unfortunately they’re written in Afrikaans and as far as I know they were never translated into English. What a waste! I learned so much from reading them.

    Perhaps, to put things into perspective: I am also not keen on the idea of rushing in and doing everything for the people in Africa. In that regard I respect their culture in as far as I will sit down and discuss things with them and try and reach consensus. Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t want to Westernise them. I want them to start experiencing the freedom that comes through Christ, because I do believe that within their culture they are bound through a belief-system and through cultural practices and taboos which rob them of the freedom which God intended us to have.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Friday, January 30, 2009 | Reply

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