While Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted southward in the past century from Europe and North America, missionaries from the global South are still not welcome as full partners in global evangelism, an African missionary to Europe told a recent international gathering of Christians.
Fidon Mwombeki, general secretary of United Evangelical Mission, talked about challenges faced by South-to-North missionaries at Edinburgh 2010, the centenary celebration of a historic World Missionary Conference held in the city in 1910.
The first conference called together the mission societies of various Protestant denominations under the banner of world evangelization during the 20th century. They left with a fresh discovery of a nascent global Christianity that bloomed in the next 100 years into the modern ecumenical movement.
Participants at the 100th anniversary conference from June 2-6 celebrated the fact that much of the purpose of the 1910 gathering had been achieved. Today, there is hardly a culture or geographical part of the world where the gospel has not taken root. At the same time, many Western cultures where the church has declined following World War II are now receiving missionaries either formally sent or informally received through the immigration of Christians from former missionary lands.
Mwombeki, the first black person to be elected to the main governing body of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the country’s principal Protestant umbrella group, said many in Europe and North America still have a hard time thinking of their own continents as mission fields.
“They do not understand the idea of a missionary coming from the South to serve in the North,” he said. “For them mission is done by giving money to some mission organization which does it on their behalf.”
Another hurdle, Mwombeki said, is that too many people regard mission as helping the poor. Since the people in the South generally have little in the way of material goods to give to the North, he said many Northerners presume Christians from the South are not really missionaries but instead have come to “learn” something from the developed country they can use for the benefit of their people when they go back home.
While crediting several European mission societies for transforming into communities that include the former missionary-receiving churches as equal partners, Mwombeki said it has been difficult for Northern Christians to articulate what they need from the South.
“The Southern churches many times know what they want from their Northern colleagues, most of the time in material or financial terms,” he said. “They keep asking their colleagues to say what they need from the South, and that is a difficult question. Certainly exotic drumming and dancing is not enough.”
Mwombeki said he has talked to many people in mainline churches who complain that sermons are abstract and academic and have little to do with their everyday lives.
“People want to hear about Jesus,” he said. “They want to know God is with them. They want to know about the forgiveness of sins. They want to be able to talk to their children about their faith. They want to learn how to pray. And these are the things people from the South are used to do and can share if they have a chance.”
Roy Medley, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA, led a delegation from the Baptist World Alliance to the conference. It included Marvia Lawes from Panama, Noah Moses Israel of the Baptist Association of South Africa and Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia in Europe.
Medley commented in daily blog updates from the conference that Mwombeki’s address touched on an issue that has been largely overlooked in the immigration debate in the United States–the potential of sharing the gospel by those from the Southern Hemisphere for renewal of the American church.
“While many come with immediate material needs, they bring rich spiritual resources to the life of the church,” Medley said. “Opening our hearts, processes, congregations and structures to them is to experience not merely a Life of diakonia [Greek for “service”] to them, but a Life of the Spirit to us through them. Just as the migration of Abraham and Sarah was the expression of God’s plan to bless the nations, are we to understand that the migration of those from the South is part of God’s plan to bless and renew the church in the North?”
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.