Category Archives: Missiology

African Christians in Secular Amsterdam

Stefan Paas notes the significant presence of African Christians on the rather low-key Amsterdam church scene: “In Amsterdam perhaps three percent of the population regularly go to church, half of which consists of import Christians from Africa and a large part of the other half consists of import Christians from the Bible belt.” Consequently an important question for him is: “Can we learn something from non-Western Christians who are currently discovering Europe as a mission field.”[1]

[1] Stefan Paas, Vreemdelingen en priesters: christelijke missie in een postchristelijke omgeving (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 2015), 10, 13.

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In Seventeen Hundred and Ninety-Two…

Why is A.D. 1792 an important date in Christian history? Some might recognise it as the year that William Carey’s world changing Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathens was published. Andrew Walls notes another reason for its significance: “That same year saw the arrival in Sierra Leone of some 1,100 people of African birth or descent, bringing with them from North America their own churches and preachers, to form the first church in tropical Africa in modern times….The first church in tropical Africa in modern times was not a Western missionary creation, but an African one, an African creation marked by the experiences of America.”[1]

After A.D. 1792, West Africa would never be the same again.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 28.

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Christianity Rediscovered, an Epilogue

In an endnote to Doing Theology with the Maasai, Doug Priest gives a succinct summary and something of an epilogue to Christianity Rediscovered: “Vincent Donovan’s book (1978) provides some of the first evidence of this new openness of the traditional Maasai to the Gospel. His work was located in northern Tanzania. Donovan wished to approach the Maasai in their homesteads without resorting to the more common approach followed by most missions. That approach was identified in the minds of the Maasai with primary schools, clinics and mission stations. Donovan went to the homesteads where he presented the Gospel over a year’s time. He then asked for a verdict, baptized those who wished to become Christian and then moved on to different homesteads. While his approach was commendable, in personal visits in the area several years after he left, I was saddened to learn that most all of the new believers had not continued in relation to the church due to lack of continued teaching.”[1]

[1] Doug Priest Jr., Doing Theology with the Maasai (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1990), 13n.

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Vincent Donovan on Mission

After starting from scratch in his attempt to bring the gospel to the Masai, Vincent Donovan arrived at the following understanding of what it means to be a missionary: “A missionary is a social martyr, cut off from his roots, his stock, his blood, his land, his background, his culture. He is destined to walk forever a stranger in a strange land. He must be stripped as naked as a human being can be, down to the texture of his being. St. Paul said Christ did not think being God was something to be clung to, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave. He was stripped to the fiber of his being, to the innermost part of his spirit. That is the truest meaning of poverty of spirit. This poverty of spirit is what is called for in a missionary, demanding that he divest himself of his very culture, so that he can be a naked instrument of the gospel to the cultures of the world.”[1]

Being a missionary would seem to be a rather lonely task of continuous self-emptying, yet for Donovan it is primarily the task of a community: “I believe that missionary work is that work undertaken by a gospel oriented community, of transcultural vision, with a special mandate, charism, and responsibility for spreading and carrying that gospel to the nations of the world, with a view of establishing the church of Christ.”[2]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 158.

[2] Ibid.

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The Dark Quiet Teatime of Mission

Vincent Donovan gives a sobering account of Roman Catholic missionary work in East Africa. When the missionaries first arrived, the big problem was slavery. The missionaries’ approach was to buy as many slaves as they could in the hope of christianising them. The result? A miserable failure and a distortion of mission that would cast a shadow over missionary work in East Africa for years to come.

The next missionary method was the school system. As Donovan writes, “The basic premise underlying all of this was that if children entered a mission school, they would not emerge from that school without being Christians. And the premise was essentially correct.”[1] In fact, Rome was so sure of this method that “In 1928, Monsignor Hinsley, Apostolic Visitor to East Africa, told a gathering of bishops in Dar es Salaam: ‘Where it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your educational work, neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools.'”[2] The result? Education on an enormous scale but a weak, disorientated church that could hardly stand on her own two feet.

Independence came as a shock to the system. The African leaders of newly independent nations were quick to direct missionary efforts at nation building. In the postcolonial context the propagation of the faith was set aside and a new definition of missionary work emerged: “aid to developing countries, material help to these countries without any strings attached.”[3]

As Donovan concludes, “There is no mistaking the fact that missionary work is in a shambles. Born in slavery, disorientated by the school system, startled by independence, and smothered in nation building – mission in East Africa has never had the chance to be true to itself.”[4] Small wonder, then, that he felt the need to start from scratch in his attempt to bring the gospel to the Masai.

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 6.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 11.

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Vincent Donovan on Intercultural Theology

Vincent Donovan highlights the important shift from missiology to intercultural theology in his preface to the second edition of Christianity Rediscovered: “Mission is not a one-way street moving away from the home church to the foreign mission field. The new, the young, and the particular churches of the Third World, spoken of by Vatican II, have something to say, in turn, to the church at large.”[1] Yet, in Donovan’s view, it is clear that missiology is not simply to be replaced by intercultural theology (as is the case in much liberal Protestant thought). On the contrary, “The premise of this book is that every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”[2]

Nevertheless, as a deeply contextual theologian, Donovan is cautious about the possibility of intercultural theological dialogue: “[My] experience, lived out in the lonely pastoral setting of the Masai steppes of East Africa, is far removed from the spreading urban-technological society in which we live. Can the experience of one world be of any value to the other? I do not know. I can only say that the cry of hopelessness I heard then in that desert setting is not much different from the cry I hear today in the wasteland of our cities.”[3]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), xvii.

[2] Ibid., xx.

[3] Ibid.

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African Reactions to Missions

Lamin Sanneh brings some helpful nuance to the discussion of European missions in his preface to the third edition of Christianity Rediscovered: “In one sense Africans reacted to missions as a variation of Europe’s unsolicited tutelage, but, in another sense, Christianity offered Africans the language of liberation and equality with which to oppose colonial repression. It was not so much the Christian discovery of Africa that challenged prevailing attitudes towards non-Western cultures as the African discovery of Christianity.”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), vii.

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