Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Are we overemphasising life after death?

While at university, one of my Old Testament professors used to refer to our traditional view on eternal life as “a pie in the sky, bye and bye, when you die.” I still find too many people focussing mainly on life after death instead of focussing also on life on earth. Obviously there is tremendous comfort in the knowledge that there is a life after death. This seems to be the focus of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 and especially verse 19 where he says: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. And what other comfort can we give the family of a Christian who had died than to assure them that the deceased is living with Christ. When my father died in 2000, this was really the only comfort which I myself had.
Towards the end of last year Brian McLaren published a book with the title Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. I haven’t read it yet, but I did read a review in Christianity Today about the book which you can access here. In Ron Martoia’s book, Static, which I have just finished reading he touches on the same topic which Brian McLaren also writes about, and this is (in my own words) that Jesus did not come to save souls, but that He came to save the world.
There is a huge difference between these two viewpoints. How often have you heard people saying that Jesus came to earth in order for our souls to be saved? But according to John 3:16 God sent His Son to earth out of love for the world. And it is clear, when studying the book of Revelations, that God’s interest in us doesn’t stop at the point that our souls are saved, but that He has much more in mind than this – just think of the wonderful description of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelations 21.
From my own background I know that, during the Apartheid years in South Africa, those who were discriminated against were often comforted with the words that they had to accept the hardship which faced them here on earth, knowing that in the next life things will be different! During the times of the Tsars in Russia, the peasants were also told to accept the hardship which befell them because they could look forward to life after death when things would be better.
One of the reasons why I believe the church has lost a lot of its credibility on earth is exactly because of this attitude. God, through Christ, has given us life in abundance here on earth and I believe that we have the calling from God to ensure that other people can also share in this wonderful life on earth. Contrary to many people who feel that we as Christians should not really speak about life after death, I do believe that we could and should speak about it. This theme occurs often in the New Testament. But it should not be done at the cost of keeping quiet about God’s will for people today. In short, our mission task is not solely focussed on the saving of souls but is also focussed on the saving of people and the earth on which we were placed. The church will have to regain credibility but will only be able to do it if we unashamedly stand up for the rights of people, reaching out to help the helpless, bringing health back to the sick, proclaiming peace where there is war, speaking out when the earth is being misused, etc.
I am uncomfortable when people seem to swing the pendulum to the side of only being involved in social and ecological issues, as if we may not speak about life after death. But I also understand this reaction against many Christians and churches which proclaim an unbalanced message of overemphasising life after death.

Monday, January 28, 2008 Posted by | Church, Death, Eschatology, Evangelism, Hope, Mission, Poverty, Racism, Russia, Social issues, Theology | 1 Comment

When culture and morals clash

Those not living in southern Africa may not be aware of all the things happening in South Africa on the political front. President Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa was recently voted out as leader of the ruling political party, the ANC and replaced by Mr Jacob Zuma. Accused of rape, a charge on which he was found not guilty after it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that there had not been consent from the girl who laid the charges, indications are that Mr Zuma will soon be standing trial on charges of corruption. Mr Zuma is also a Zulu, one of the largest population groups in South Africa, closely related to the Swazis.
Yesterday I was driving around in Swaziland accompanied by a nurse who is helping us with our home-based caring project. She is also a Zulu and she is also a Christian. Our discussions eventually moved over to politics and she admitted that she was fully in favour of Mr Jacob Zuma becoming the new president of South Africa. I, on the other hand, said that I would find it difficult to respect him as president due to a number of moral issues with which I cannot identify myself. One issue obviously is the fact that he never denied having a sexual relationship with the girl in question but only that he denied raping her. And when he was asked in court whether he was aware that the girl was HIV positive he replied that he did indeed know beforehand. When asked what he did to prevent himself from getting infected, he told the court that he took a shower after having sex with her! Oh boy!
What surprised me was when the nurse in the car with me remarked that my problem was that I didn’t understand the Zulu culture which was the reason why I couldn’t accept Zuma’s morals. I responded by saying that this wasn’t really the truth, as I feel that I do have quite a lot of understanding for the culture but that I, as Christian, could not identify myself with this part of culture. Furthermore, what is considered to be culture is causing the death of millions of people in Southern Africa.
This discussion just made me realise once again how sensitive cultural issues are. I would guess that most committed Christians would claim that there is only one thing important to them and this is to do what God wants them to do. But throw in a few cultural issues and it will soon become clear that nearly all of us have certain issues which we consider to be non-negotiable.
Knowing the integrity of the person who said this to me, I took her words seriously. And I did realise that God truly has to free us all from our cultures, be it African, Western, American, East-European, Asian or whatever else. In some cultures it may be racism that we need to be freed from. In other cases it may be arrogance. In some a culture of alcoholism in others a culture of free sex. Ultimately we all need to be purified by God in an ongoing way so that we can increasingly reflect the Lord’s glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Having said all that, I just realise how difficult it is, when working in another culture, to distinguish between matters that are truly Biblical and those which contradict my own, Afrikaans culture. This is not as easy as it may sound.

Saturday, January 19, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Culture, Culture Shock, HIV & AIDS, Indigenous church, Mission, Racism, Swaziland, Theology | 1 Comment

Contextualising the gospel

I’m through with David Bosch’s book. Actually I’m supposed to be on leave and should have much more time for reading, but I’m still involved with some issues taking up my time. In any case, I will be returning to a number of things he wrote which really meant something to me. Close to the end of the book Bosch wrote about the contextualisation of the gospel, specifically in the West. He argues that most missionaries had done a fairly decent job of contextualising the gospel in the third world countries where they work, but that it seems as if the same may not apply to the West. Or, alternatively, that the job had been done too well in the West.
Why is it that in many Western countries people are turning their back on the gospel? Why is it that Europe, from which our spiritual forefathers had come (in our case in Southern Africa, from the Netherlands and from France) has itself become a place which needs to be evangelised again. This is the question which Bosch asks. And the answer he gives on the one hand is that the church may wrongly have felt that the gospel had been properly contextualised and indigenised in the West, while in fact this may not be the truth. Or the alternative solution he offers (and which may very well be the real reason) is that it had been overcontextualised, so that the gospel of Jesus Christ lost its distinctive character and challenge.
I, and many (although definitely not all) of those reading this, grew up in a so-called Christian country. Even Swaziland, where I am presently situated, is known as a Christian country. Close to 80% of the country, according to Operation World, are Christians. But we all know that this is not the truth, not, that is, if we consider Christians as people who have made Jesus Christ the King of their lives and not merely those who are not antagonistic towards Christianity.
I grew up in South Africa in a time when we were led to believe that all the country’s leaders are Christians (pre-1994). Almost all political speeches referred directly or indirectly to the faith of the leaders and we honestly thought that the policy of Apartheid was the only way in which it could be ensured that the country would remain Christian. Most probably this is an indication of the overcontextualisation of the gospel.
Bosch, as far as I know, coined the phrase of the church as alternative society. When the gospel becomes so integrated with secular society (or government), that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two, then I believe that we may have overcontextualised the gospel. But is may also mean that we have not contextualised the gospel enough, thereby indicating to Christians how they should be different from the world.
Bosch ends the paragraph by saying that he himself is unsure exactly how we should go about addressing this issue, but it is becoming increasingly important to reflect on this issue.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 Posted by | Alternative Society, Church, Culture, David Bosch, Evangelism, Mission, Racism, Swaziland, Theology | 3 Comments

Disparity in salaries in missions

Readers of this blog may wonder why missionaries write so much about money. Before I came to Swaziland I also had the wonderful idea that missions is all about the gospel and proclaiming the peace of Christ and people of different cultures living in harmony with each other. It didn’t take long for me to come down to earth and to realise that there were many issues in missions which I had never considered before and which was never taught to us at university. And most of these issues concerns money. And mostly it is about local people working in the church not getting enough and closely related to this, that expatriates working as missionaries are getting too much.
John Rowell, in his To give or not to give, also writes about this problem. Western missionaries have always received a higher salary than the local church leaders and it is understandable why this would also cause a lot of tension amongst workers.
Yesterday was not a good day for me. Out of the blue I received a letter from one of our fellow church leaders in another congregation with a sharp attack against me personally as well as the missions committee which sent me to Swaziland on exactly this topic. This type of thing is really sickening. I went to university. He went to university. I’m getting probably about three times what he is getting. I’m being paid by the missions committee which sent me to Swaziland while he is being paid by the local church (which receives a subsidy from the same missions committee, but not enough to pay his full salary.) On the other hand, we also make use of church leaders who have not had official university training and he is getting about four times what they are getting. And so it seems to me, that the disparity is there and will always be there, unless if all church funds could be placed into one big pot and then divided equally. But then again: Will that be fair? Will everybody be happy then? As parents we always said that if you have four children and you treat them all equally, then three of them are being treated unfairly. Is the same true in the church? I know that the responsibility which I have to carry and the expectation which the church has of me is much greater than the responsibility which any of the local church leaders have to carry and the expectation which people have of them. But is that reason enough to have a disparity in the salaries?
If I think about what Jonathan Bonk wrote and I think of what John Rowell wrote, then I acknowledge that there is a lot of unfairness in the system. But then again, is there a way in which this will ever be solved?

Friday, October 19, 2007 Posted by | Dependency, Disparity, Giving, Indigenous church, Jonathan Bonk, Mission, Poverty, Racism, Rowell, Swaziland, Theology | 8 Comments

Amazing Grace – Getting involved in social issues

A few days ago we watched the movie Amazing Grace. (And if you read this and wonder why I’ve only seen this movie now, the answer is that we are about 350 kilometres from our closest cinema – that’s 220 miles – therefore I have to wait for all good movies to be released on DVD before we can watch them.)
This movie is the story of William Wilberforce who spent the greater part of his life to have the slave trade abolished in England. It is a remarkable story. The title of the movie is due to his friendship with John Newton, himself a captain of a slave ship at one time before his conversion (and even for some years after becoming a Christian – something of which he repented later in his life.) John Newton later wrote the hymn which we today know as Amazing Grace.
As I watched the movie, I thought back about my own life. As a student and even as young pastor, I kept myself out of social issues. I was called by God to preach the gospel and not to get involved with social issues – so I believed. In those early years of my ministry I met up with a professor in theology when I enrolled for my PhD program. He was my promoter and also a colleague of Prof David Bosch and between the two of them I started to understand that, as a Christian and as a pastor, it would be impossible for me to remain impartial towards social issues. I felt more comfortable with the way in which David Bosch involved himself with these matters. My promoter had a much stronger viewpoint than Bosch and although he never admitted that he supported the armed struggle in South Africa against Apartheid, he nevertheless never spoke out against the armed struggle.
But what I learnt from this exposure was that it is impossible to call myself a Christian without also becoming involved in social issues. My promoter was the one who made me aware (as early as 1990) of the coming time-bomb of AIDS and it is mostly through his concern for mankind that I myself became interested in the problem and why we are involved in this ministry at the moment.
I’ve never considered myself as someone lobbying support for some cause. But I have come to realise that, as Christian, my responsibility towards God’s creation goes much further than standing on a pulpit and preaching about salvation. If we want to be true to God, there will come a time when we will have to dirty our hands to bring about changes in the world.
If you haven’t yet seen Amazing Grace, then you should plan to do so. It is really worthwhile viewing and something to challenge your own viewpoint on a Christian’s involvement in social issues.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007 Posted by | Church, David Bosch, Evangelism, Grace, HIV & AIDS, Mission, Racism, Social issues, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

The Church as Alternative Society

If someone should ask me which theologian had the greatest influence on my personal life, I would answer without hesitation: David Bosch. I had the privilege and honour of knowing him personally. As far as I know I was also the last doctoral student for whom he acted as external examiner before his untimely death in 1992 in a car accident. Among many other things, I learnt from him the concept of the church as alternative community.
Where I grew up in South Africa, there was very little distinction between state and church. In a very real sense the church was used to sanction the decisions made by the government at that time – specifically regarding the country’s racial laws. The opposite was also true: When the church was against something, pressure was put on the government to forbid this through law. I have the feeling that South Africa was not alone in this regard. I have also seen in other countries of the world that the line between the church and the state can sometimes become very thin – perhaps not as thin as described above, but thin enough to be considered as an unhealthy relationship.
In an article Bosch wrote with the title: How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community which was published in the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa in 1982, Bosch argued that there could never be a direct connection between the church and the secular society. For many years the West had considered itself as being Christian, for no other reason than simply because it was the West. We had the same situation in South Africa. The Whites were regarded as the Christians who had to convert all the other heathen races. Whites were considered to be Christians not on the grounds of their confession but mainly on the grounds of the colour of their skins!
So what does Bosch mean when he refers to the church as alternative society? For one, in the church there are other rules than would be found in the secular society. In the church the rule of love would stand out first and foremost. In the church the other cheek can be turned. In the church people can be forgiven. In the church people are bound to each other, not because they belong to one nation, but because they belong to one God. In the church the blood of Jesus Christ flows thicker than the blood of one’s ancestors. But at the same time the church will (should) serve as an eschatological sign of what could happen if the world should follow this example. It goes without saying that we need to be very humble in saying this, because the reality is that we are still very far away from God’s goal for the church. Nevertheless, within the church of Christ we should be able to say that we are on our way, trying to reach the goal of a new or alternative community where people are bound to each other with bonds stronger than flesh and blood and where we live under a new commandment.
Which brings me to another term Bosch used in this regard, namely that he considers the church to be an experimental garden which should keep on giving hope to the world that, in spite of how badly things are going, there is a possibility that things could eventually change and become better in the world.
What does this have to do with missions? Everything! A church that truly becomes an alternative society, a beacon of hope, will draw people to them. In many places people don’t want to hear what the church has to say. They want to see what the church can do differently. Should we fail, many people will not only reject the church but also reject Christ. Should we succeed, many people will want to know about the God who enabled us to live in an alternative way!
Somewhere along the line, albeit perhaps unintentionally, this vision of the church as alternative society had played a huge role when I committed myself and our church to bringing hope and change in our community in Swaziland.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 Posted by | Alternative Society, Church, David Bosch, Eschatology, Hope, Mission, Racism, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Cultural Sensitivity

Something which really upsets me is when I notice a lack of sensitivity in people (Christians) towards those from other cultures. So often I’ve seen this happen in Swaziland, typically when people visit the country and it soon becomes clear that they have no understanding nor any wish to understand and respect certain customs found in Swaziland. Some of these customs were also difficult for us to understand. When arriving in Swaziland my wife and I felt that we would, as far as possible let people use our first names. And for those of you who are non-South Africans: We grew up in a culture where a minister was (and still usually is) addressed as Reverend or Pastor. In an attempt to come closer to the people and to attempt to establish a feeling of unity amongst us, we thought it would be good to break down all barriers that exist – one of them being the use an official title.
So we moved into Swaziland and we introduced ourselves by our first names to everyone who wanted to meet us. Only to find with a shock that we were seriously stepping on toes! The Swazis do not address married people by their first names. Never. A married man is known as Ba-be which literally translates to Father and the women are known as Ma-ge (Mother) and this is then linked to their surnames, like Father Smith or Mother Brown (or rather Ba-be Ndlangamandla or Ma-ge Hlatswako). Furthermore, a wife will never even refer to her husband by his first name when speaking about him, but always by using the surname and vice versa. So there we dismally failed our first test on cultural sensitivity. I was taken aside and severely spoken to because of not keeping to their customs. So now I am the Umfundisi (literally The one who teaches) and my wife is Ma-ge van Wyngaard.
Something else: A Swazi man and woman will never kiss in public. Nor will they hold hands in public. Not even if they are married. One day one of our church leaders who lived across the road from me was away from home for a week or two. When he came back we were in the garden and greeted him happily. His wife and children heard his voice and rushed out to greet him, and he formally shook his wife’s hand and then shook his children’s (infants at that time) hands. Wow! This was difficult. I have quite a number of American friends, many of whom had visited us in Swaziland and from them I learnt that a “bear-hug” is an acceptable way to greet each other and even when two men give each other a bear-hug, it’s still OK. (I’ve got a wonderful friend who used to play football for the Chicago Bears – Mike Cobb – and when he gives me a bear-hug, I disappear from view for a while until he releases me – he’s so huge!) So I’ve now introduced the bear-hug to our members in Swaziland and although very uncultural they really enjoy it when I arrive at church or at other meetings and go around and give each one a hug.
A couple who worked for some time in Swaziland as missionaries once, unknowingly, made a serious blunder. They were living on a farm which was originally intended to be a mission station (have you ever realised that mission means to go and station means not to go!) and close to the house was a dam. On a hot day the two of them got into their bathing suits and spent an afternoon in the cool water. This nearly led to the collapse of the church at that place. Unknowingly they had been swimming in the water which many of the local people use as drinking water (there’s little logic in this, as most Swazi people get their water from rivers where the cattle not only share the drinking water with them but do much worse things in the water than just swimming!) But what had happened was that their swimming in the water was seen as a lack of respect for those living on the farm and it took long hours of talking before they were forgiven.
My personal relationship with the Swazis at present is such that I would easily tease them because of some cultural habit. For example, the Swazis are always late. Therefore, when we have a meeting and we have to wait an hour or two for everyone to turn up, I would tease them because they are using “Swazi time” while I’m using my watch. But then, when I do things which they find a bit strange, they would tease me because of my habits. But I realise that the ease and comfort with which we can now approach each other’s cultural differences, came over many years of building trust and they and I know that, when we smile or even laugh about our cultural differences, then it is always done with love, respect and understanding and never to humiliate the other.
By the way: This is my 100th post on this blog! And I still have plenty of topics I want to write about.

Friday, September 14, 2007 Posted by | Africa, Building relations, Culture, Culture Shock, Humour, Mission, Racism, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Whose conversion was the most significant?

Yesterday I was leading a discussion group on Acts 10. (Regularly on Sunday evenings I meet with a group of white, Afrikaans-speaking Christians and at present we are busy with discussions on the book of Acts). Acts 10 tells us how the gospel went into the heathen world.
Those not interested in the nitty-gritty may skip this next paragraph, but for those who would like to understand a bit more about the book of Acts: The key to understanding the book of Acts is Acts 1:8: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Up to chapter 8 we read how the gospel spread in Jerusalem and Judea, in chapter 8 we read how the gospel reached Samaria and then in chapter 10 we read how Cornelius accepted Jesus as Saviour, whereby the gospel started penetrating the heathen world. As a matter of interest, this last part of the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise took place in phases, starting with the gospel in Antioch, then Asia Minor, then Europe and ending with the gospel in Rome, which for the believers in that time was virtually “the end of the world”. Each breakthrough ends with a “concluding” verse: 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20 and 28:31.
Back to last night: Lesslie Newbigin first opened by eyes to the remarkable message in Acts 10 & 11. He said that this is in fact the story of three conversions. It is clear that Cornelius and his family comes to repentance. But there is also another significant conversion which takes place when Peter says in 10:34 & 35: I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. Later we also read about the conversion taking place in the church in Jerusalem when the church members say in 11:18: So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.
The remarkable thing about this story is that Cornelius, the heathen, has the least difficulty in coming to repentance. When he hears about Jesus he and his family immediately accept the message and they are baptised as new believers. Peter struggles with the Lord. In the vision which he has in Acts 10, he repeatedly refuses to do what God wants him to do and it is only when he reaches the home of Cornelius that he repents of his wrong attitude. The same applies to the church in Jerusalem, whom we would expect to be rejoicing that even heathens have come to accept Jesus as Saviour. But on the contrary, they complain about this. Only after Peter had explained what had happened, were they also willing to repent of their wrong attitude.
After we finished last night a lady came to share something with me. She had been working in a government office in South Africa but had to stop because of her racist attitude. (She doesn’t normally attend our Bible discussion group and was there last night “by pure chance”). And she said to me: I know that I had to be here tonight, so that God could also speak to me about my attitude. I think it took a lot of courage to say this.
The reality is that many (most) of us still struggle with some kind of favouritism – be it on the grounds of race, nation, sex, culture, social status or whatever else. It is not so easy to be free of favouritism. But in the church there is no place for favouritism.
Little wonder that Lesslie Newbigin described this process of becoming free of this attitude as a conversion taking place!

Monday, September 3, 2007 Posted by | Mission, Racism, Theology | Leave a comment

Overcoming “Pride and Prejudice”

Friday evening we had unexpected visitors. Well, they would have stopped by our house for a few minutes for a cup of coffee on their way to a holiday resort. Then things turned out otherwise when they drove through a pot-hole and blew two tyres. Eventually I drove out with a spare tyre to help them and after arriving and having supper (around 10 pm) my wife convinced them to sleep over and then to leave early the next morning. As they were visiting, they shared much of their frustration of trying to get things from government offices in South Africa. Well, I may be wrong, but my experience is that government offices all over the world tend to be more or less the same – frustrating to visit at the best of times. But they had particular complaints because most government offices in South Africa are run by Black people and this tends to frustrate them even more.
This got me thinking: As I have mentioned many times, we grew up in Apartheid South Africa. One of the arguments which I often heard during these times was that South Africa had made one big mistake, which was to give the official name of “Apartheid” to something (racial discrimination) which was being done in other countries as well. There was a time when this argument sounded correct to me. But later in my life I realised that this is not the truth. It is not only that an official name was given to racial discrimination. It was also that racial discrimination was justified in this way. Racial discrimination was made to be good.
I don’t know if the name of Professor Johan Heyns rings a bell. He was probably South Africa’s best-known professor in Dogmatics and he was tragically murdered on 5 November 1994, probably due to his liberal viewpoints on racism (the murderer was never caught). One day in class (I can’t remember the topic we were discussing) someone asked him how he feels about racism, and in large letters he wrote on the blackboard: RACISM = SIN. I think this was also one of my “A-ha” experiences. What I had probably known for a long time was suddenly said in words. Racism, in whatever form, is sin!
Thinking back to our conversation Friday evening, I realised once again what I had often said about South Africa: Apartheid may be dead, but racism is alive and well! At one point I mentioned to them that to survive in Africa takes someone with guts. The man replied that he no longer wants to try and survive in Africa. He is sick and tired of being frustrated.
To truly overcome racism is not easy. I have seen racism in many colours and flavours. I have seen racism even when people are trying so hard to make someone from another race “one of us”. How I personally worked on overcoming racism was to treat people of other races in exactly the same way I would treat someone from my own race – in other words not with an unnatural friendliness. I truly believe we need to take away the emphasis of the difference in skin colour and concentrate on the fact that we are both humans. There are really times when I truly don’t notice the skin colour of the person I am speaking to. It just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
One of my other “A-ha” experiences happened about a year after I came to Swaziland. I attended a Brewster course in language and culture acquisition skills. The person who presented the course had been a missionary for many years in Malawi. One day he said to us: If you want to make yourselves acceptable to people of another culture, you have to be willing to make yourselves vulnerable.
And this is what our visitors are not willing to do. Wherever they go, they consider themselves superior. And I deeply regret saying this, but they will die one day while still feeling angry and disgruntled towards people of other races, because they have never learnt to make themselves vulnerable amongst other people.
I also get frustrated at times. By nature I am usually in a hurry. But over the years I have learnt, when crossing the border into Swaziland, to put myself into “slow mode”. I accept that I will have to stand in long queues, that things may take a bit longer to sort out than I want. But a genuine friendly attitude goes a long way in Africa to open doors and get things done. The more frustrated one gets, the slower the process seems to go.
Dropping our pride (becoming vulnerable) will help a lot towards getting rid of prejudice (in this case our feeling of superiority towards people of other races).

Sunday, July 22, 2007 Posted by | Mission, Racism, Swaziland | Leave a comment