Leading People to Christ in Africa
During recent weeks I have been confronted from various quarters with the idea that leading people to Christ in Africa is so much easier than it is elsewhere in the world. In a seminary class I teach in Johannesburg, South Africa, some of my Black students have commented on how easy it is to lead Black youth to Christ. I have also come across recent journal articles that say there is a much greater openness to the gospel in Africa than in the States. The following article in a Baptist Press publication on the 28th June 2000 highlights this feeling that evangelism is much easier in Africa:
Baptist teenagers touch lives by witnessing in South African schools - by Erin Curry.
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (BP)--More than 1,900 professions of faith were recorded when a collegiate team from Concord First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., spent two weeks in May doing one-on-one evangelism in South African schools. The group of 34 taught in schools, played sports and led assemblies in order to develop relationships and share the gospel with thousands of students and adults. International Mission Board missionary Alan Duncan connected the collegiate team with the students in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. "Our basic program was to reach schools where I had strong contacts with Christian leaders who were willing to assume the role of follow-up once the team left," Duncan said. South Africa is going through a time when educational leaders are rare, so many of the schools are looking for people who are willing to teach life skills classes, Duncan said. They also seek people who will volunteer time as guidance counselors or recreation leaders. While Christians volunteer to teach life skills classes concerning alcohol, drugs and sexual issues, they also are able to lead students to Christ and disciple them during class time. The collegiate students led assemblies each day, sharing testimonies, presenting tracts, and counseling children one-on-one. They also provided follow-up material and weeks later are receiving requests for more. "We need specific prayer for many of the youth as they are not allowed to be baptized or join a Baptist church until they leave home," Duncan said. "Their parents tell them they are already Christians, just not born-again Christians!" The American students were amazed at how easy it was to lead people to Christ. "If we gave an invitation right now, almost all the students from First Baptist Concord would return to South Africa just to continue serving the Lord in those wide-open schools," said college minister Jeff Lovingood.
When I read that a team led 1900 people to Christ in such a short period of time, just two weeks, I can't help but wonder whether it is possible that much of the so called responses to the Gospel are less that lasting experiences of genuine conversion. Please note that I am not judging the mission that the report refers to - but just questioning how effective our evangelism actually is.
It has been said, and I don't know who first said it, that the church in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. Could it be that the evangelistic responses are been made in many cases for reasons different to what the evangelists are assuming? I would like to suggest that this is the case and that some of these reasons are as follows:
If we want to see a strong church in Africa, we will have to rethink our approaches and avoid concluding too quickly that our Western methods work just because we are seeing results. We just could be doing more harm than good in terms of growing healthy churches in Africa.
Written by Mark Tittley, lecturer in youth ministry at BTC Southern Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa. He maintains the Commitment Level Model of Youth Ministry website at http://www.btc.co.za/model/index.htm
The colonial system of education that has been develop throughout Africa was based on a teacher-centered model in which the audience were not encouraged to participate - certainly not to ever talk back to a teacher. As a produce of the South African educational system I can testify to having been punished many a time because I dated to question the teachers authority. This educational system led to a generation of passive-acceptors who will listen when adults speak and politely accept what they say - now whether or not they actually accept what the teacher is saying is another story! Silent acceptance is not necessarily a sign of acceptance!!! When people who have been raised in this context are exposed to a gospel presentation, especially in a group setting, it is quite possible that they will respond with the same silent acceptance they gave to teachers in their school classrooms.
There is within African culture a deep seated respect for elders and people in general that translates into politeness when dealing with people. It is simply not a feature of Black culture to challenge another person's beliefs - especially not when the other person is White and you are Black (remember that for centuries you would have been taught to accept what the White man says and reply with, "Yes, Baas (Boss)!" to whatever came from this person you either believer or accepted to be superior to you). To disagree with someone is to shame them - and this is generally avoided in Black culture - where your relationship with another person is more valuable than honesty (in the West honesty is a greater value than keeping the relationship). When a group of American evangelists meet a Black person on the street and lead them through a gospel presentation, it is clearly understandable that they will more than likely agree to each question (some canned gospel presentations do still at least ask some questions along the way!) and end with the sinners prayer. Should we add that person to our list of converts so that our supporters can feel happy that we had an effective mission? Maybe, but certainly not necessarily. It is quite likely that others factors have been at work that have influenced the persons decision to respond positively.
So much of our evangelism is geared to produce converts whose focus is on entering into the kingdom (often to escape from Hell) and has little to do with how their whole lives need to change to reflect the priorities of the living in the kingdom of God. Just this morning I came across a web article by Todd Styles in which he asks: Are you creating consumers or making disciples? (it is available online at: http://www.youthleader.org/Publications/Consumer.cfm). In the article Todd suggests that just like in John 6 where the multitudes were following Christ for all the wrong reasons (like food and a show) we are faced with a similar challenge where we need to raise people's level of expectation and encourage them to become disciples and not just attenders. Jesus' challenge to the crowd was to follow him (note the active verb); and not just to buy into a product (note the lack of extra food or tricks from Jesus in the chapter). Too much evangelism is designed to get people to convert to Christianity - but without minimising the importance of this - I must at least ask whether it is possible that much of this is actually doing more harm than good. Even in the extract from the ezine quoted from earlier many people think that they are already Christians. Many people in Africa will die thinking they have no need to repent and follow Christ because they had made some sort of a response at the end of a gospel presentation.
Most, if not all, of the Western methods of evangelism are focussed on individual decision for salvation. This is foreign in cultures in which people are not individualistic, and where they do not they make decisions on their own. The ezine quoted above reflects something of the tension when youth are 'reached' and return home, only to be told by parents that they are not allowed to be baptised or join the church until they leave home. Those of us in Africa must begin to take the need for a more community-based approach to evangelism seriously and begin to develop, use and share a new approach with others.
Much of Africa has already been evangelised and what we are needing to engage in is actually re-evangelism. Missionaries are not new to Africa - in fact, much of the traditional African churches have been greatly influenced by earlier missionary endeavours. But the danger now is that when we communicate Christian truth people feel that they have heard it all before and that there is nothing for them to do in response - yet, Christianity has hardly taken root in their lives.
Western methods of evangelism are focussed around the critical moment of decision that the unsaved person must come to. Yet, it is strange that even for many people in the West, the exact moment of conversion seems to be much less a reality than the ongoing journey of faith that they are engaged in as they seek to follow Christ. In African Independent Churched (AIC) less emphasis is placed on the moment of decision and more on participating in the community of faith. I recently read a new book by George Hunter II entitled: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (published by Abingdon, 2000), in which he contrasts the Roman and Celtic approaches to evangelism - now, certainly these are far removed from our context, but the implications are relevant. He compares two approaches to evangelism: the Roman (which I guess refers to the Roman Catholic church tradition) and the Celtic. The Roman model involves the following steps: (1) present the Christian message; (2) invite them to decide to believe in Christ and become Christians; and (3) if they decide positively, welcome them into the church and its fellowship. The stages are Presentation; Decision and Assimilation. The Celtic model involves the following steps: (1) you first establish community with people or bring them into the fellowship of your community of faith; (2) within the fellowship you engage in conversations, ministry, prayer and worship; and (3) in time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit. The stages here are: Fellowship; Ministry and Conversation; Believe, Invitation and Commitment. The following quote sums up the Celtic way: "People's experience of fellowship enables them to believe". At a recent conference with Pete Ward in Johannesburg, he said that in our post-Christian, post-modern world, people need to belong before they come to believe. The more traditional approach seems to be to get people to become believers and then to start attending church and develop a sense of belonging. Yet, for most people, the actual way into the kingdom is probably not like that - ie. they start attending a church; meet Christian people; and only later hear the gospel and repent.
Closely connected to the emphasis on decision making is the reality that many people are more concerned about attendance than about involvement. Why do we hear so much more talk about commitments that have been made than about people who are growing in their faith? Well, for one, it is much harder to quantify the latter - and anyway, too often we are long gone before we know whether converts are actually becoming disciples of Christ.
Overemphasis on the knowledge component of our faith has resulted in evangelism and follow-up that is purely intellectual. It is possible that our Orthodox emphasis on knowing the truth has been at the expense of an experiential participation in the truth. Most follow-up material lacks in one critical area - it is not skills-based; in other words it is not geared to helping the new believer to live the Christian life on their own. We think that if we can just get people to attend church, then they will be well-taught - yet, it is as important, if not more important, that they learn how to interpret and apply the Word of God on their own and to their own lives. Yes, communal studies are critical, but they should be building on a personal devotional life that applies the spiritual disciplines.
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