A few years ago I was invited to speak at a pastor’s conference in Rwanda. Hundreds of pastors attended from the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda and of course Rwanda. I had prepared a topic that was theological. I spoke on the role of the Holy Spirit in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. After all, most of the pastors that would be ministered to were uneducated, and I felt that they probably had a hunger to learn about the word of God. Having ministered in various parts of the world, I also try my best not to contextualize my teaching according to a Western context.
I was the last speaker that day, and I was shocked by what preceded me. All three pastors before me spoke on how to grow a church, and all of them did it according to a Western context. One pastor talked about the importance of follow up and how the pastors need to get their people to fill out cards, so cookies can be taken to their parishioners. Another pastor told those in the room that they should offer a coffee cup to first time guests. I was shocked and embarrassed. At the end of the session, we offered opportunities for questions. To the panel’s surprise, not one question was about how to grow a church. Every question pertained to doctrine, theology and the word of God and how to feed their congregations. For the most part, all the questions were directed at me.
When we got back in the van to head to our hotel, every pastor on the trip griped and complained at how ignorant these pastors were. They did not understand why none of these pastors cared about church growth. The missionary stated, “I am going to tell them that the next conference I put on will be only abut church growth. If they are interested in that, then I am going to tell them to stay at home.” My response was quite different, “Instead of focusing on church growth, maybe we need to see what they need, and meet that need.” Sadly, I was shot down by the whole group.
In Thomas Oden’s terrific work entitled How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, he discusses how long before Europe and the West, the Gospel was formed in the great continent in Africa. In his view, “The Christians to the south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north. Africans were informing and instructing and educating the very best of Syriac, Cappadocian, and Greco-Roman teachers.” In other words, our doctrinal foundations are spawned by the West, but by Africa. He goes onto explain how this was the case and how we can recover the orthodoxy that so richly flowed from the continent.
Often times, the West believes that because of our education, wealth and structures that our way to do church is simply the only way to do church. As I read Oden, I could not help but think that we have been overwrought with Western context in foreign fields. How often do Western missionaries come into the land to become the great white hope? While the West does have a lot to offer, there have been quite a few missteps as well. While there is not time for a long discussion on this topic, the West brought about institutional religion where the sacred and secular were separated (Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come). This is a battle that is still being fought today, and often times we bring this context into the mission field and it is often times a tragedy.
Over the last year and a half, I have been able to shape our church’s mission’s strategy. Primarily, we partner with mission endeavors that places a high priority in training nationals to reach their people within their context. I believe this is the strategy to reach every tribe and every nation. Oden’s work just reaffirms that position, and as a pastor, I must firmly cling to the word and the gospel and not get distracted by the method. After all, within the next twenty years, there will be more Christians in Asia and the Global south than there are in Europe and America, so we need to pass on a faith that will be sound and not methodology.
 Oden, 28