Saturday, October 29, 2005

Parting Thoughts

Before I leave for my two-week visit in the States, I want to share bits of the recent edition of BBC’s “Focus on Africa” magazine, which I try to read regularly. It’s published quarterly, and sold in a nearby Yaounde supermarket.

In the July-September 2005 issue, there are a series of articles under the front-page headline: “Evangelism: The New Colonialism.” That’s a serious charge, one that I’m particularly sensitive to, and thus, has been crawling under my skin for the last week.

In the first article, “God, Gospel, and the Dollar,” Leslie Goffe writes the following:

Africa is being colonized and Christianised all over again. The colonizers this
time are Americans, not Europeans, and the brand of belief they are bringing to
Africa is Evangelical Christianity, a fundamentalist version of the Protestant
faith that many Pentecostals, Baptists and others have allied themselves with.
The fastest-growing Christian sect in the United States, Evangelicals –
President George W. Bush is one of them – wield enormous influence in American
domestic affairs. They want to duplicate their success abroad, especially in
Africa, which they believe is in ‘spiritual darkness’ with the highest number of
‘unreached people.’
The article goes on to speak of the great work that Evangelicals have done in Africa, not only spiritual, but social, medical, and educational.

But Goffe also retains a bit of skepticism toward the development, by quoting Kwame Okonor, a Ghanian and head of an NGO: “This is not so much a colonizing of land as it is a colonizing of the mind. It is a mental attack.”

There are other articles about the fast growth of Christianity in Africa, including a devastating critique of a failed Benny Hinn crusade in Nigera earlier this year. But it’s Kwame’s words which are the most challenging.

(As a brief aside, let me remind you, reader, that United Methodists are Evangelical Christians in one sense, though not as Goffe would define “Evangelical.” We are not “fundamentalist,” neither are we “Pentecostal,” but we do take seriously the Great Commission, and actively practice “evangelism,” as characterized by words like “conversion” and “new birth.”)

For years, missiologists, theologians and church leaders have been trying to distance themselves from the excesses of the past, the brutal combination of colonization and evangelism which did great harm on the African continent. Any book on the subject of missions these days rightly is full of the language of inculturation and contextualization.

But in the end, Christianity is a kind of “colonizing” influence. Christians are people who have become followers of someone, live in a new kind of community together with each other with new rules and guidelines, and are actively seeking to bring other people into that community.

And Kwame is right: to become a Christian, requires a mental change of mind.

Becoming a Christian means changing, but to what degree? Must you be completely different? Can you continue to do certain things? Do you have to worship like “the white man,” or can you keep the music and liturgies of the traditional past?

The difficult part – for all of us, no matter where we were born -- is deciding how much of the old self (or “old man” as Paul would put it) to hang onto, and what part of us needs to be remade into the image of Christ.

I fear I have only scratched the surface of a tremendously large debate in this brief blog, but I will let it be food for thought for the next few weeks.