More Missionary Myths: How The “Game” Is Played
Successful missionaries have to be “successful,” and success is judged by how many of the natives have been baptized, how many churches have been established, and how many of the native men have been recruited to preach. If these numbers aren’t initially impressive, or at least steadily improving, then the missionary’s work will not be considered to be very much of a success. Knowing this, there is the observable, all too frequently documented tendency on the part of more than a few missionaries, if you’re inclined to paying attention, to accentuate the positive and never—I mean never—mention the negative. Such “reports” may not be an accurate description of how the work is going in the various foreign fields—in fact, such may be a gross distortion of the way things really are; but even so, this is the way the “game” is played.
Anyone who has spent the time to read and come to grips with the spread of Christianity recorded in the New Testament understands it was often very difficult for those who were converted to Christ to “put off the old man,” especially when the thinking and proclivities of that “old man” were so firmly entrenched in the target culture. This is illustrated by only a cursory reading of the apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthian church. Furthermore, in the apostle’s letter to Titus, a missionary to the Cretans, one doesn’t need to be a Ph.D to realize that Cretan culture was very, very bad. In Titus 1:12, Paul wrote:One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.
One can be sure that Paul was not just being uncouth here. Neither was he addressing the integrity of every single Cretan. He was, instead, reminding Titus of the persuasive influence of culture. In Cretan society, there was a general lack of integrity among its denizens. By and large, they were a cruel and savage people who would selfishly push everyone out of their way in order to gain an advantage for themselves. In addition, they were pleasure-loving (viz., they loved to eat) and lazy. “Cretanism” or “Cretan behavior,” in the ancient world meant “lying.” According to the ancient writers, the Cretans were experts at lying, cheating, and stealing. To them, “no profit is ever disgraceful” (The Histories VI, 46). Their forte, according to Titus 1:11, was “dishonest gain.” Consequently, it should not surprise us that the Philistines, who are still listed in our modern dictionaries as a rude, crude, vulgar, and barbaric people, were, according to Amos 9:7, descendants of “Caphtor” or Crete, if you will.
This is why Paul cautioned Titus to warn the Cretan brethren of the terrible influence of their culture (cf. Titus 1:13). If they were going to be “sound in the faith,” they were going to have to be “rebuked sharply.” We can almost be certain that some were more than willing to misunderstand Titus’ “sharpness” (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:10). Nevertheless, one ought to know that Paul did not prescribe this remedy for the destruction of the Cretan brethren. Instead, he imposed it for their edification. For the Christians at Crete, as it is for Christians everywhere, the New Testament, not their culture, is to be the benchmark of their behavior.
The Work In Kenya As An Example
When Paul Ayres and I first went to Kenya to preach the gospel in July of 1992, we knew very little of the Kenyan people and their culture. Our first impression was influenced by over forty people who “obeyed the gospel” during the six weeks we were there. Eight of these were denominational preachers of various ilk. Although we had some suspicions about so many denominational preachers obeying the gospel in mass, we were resigned to the fact that time would tell which ones were genuine converts and which ones were not. At that time we did not know just how corrupt Kenyan culture really is. Upon leaving in August, we were concerned about the immaturity of the forty-plus “babes” we were leaving behind.
By December, 1992, Paul and I were convinced that the denominational backgrounds of the Christians in Kenya were causing enough problems that another trip was necessary to shore-up the work. We had originally planned to return in July, 1993, but it seemed clear to us that we needed to get back over as soon as possible. In February, 1993, Paul and I returned for another five and a half weeks. We spent most of our time teaching those who had already been taught how “to observe all things” (Matthew 28:20). We were amazed at how little men who had been denominational preachers for many years actually knew about the Bible. We had really underestimated their basic knowledge of God’s word. Before we left at the end of March, Paul and I knew that someone needed to spend an extended period of time in Kenya teaching these brethren.
In July, 1993, my wife and I moved to Kenya for at least a six months stay. We actually hoped to be able to stay for a whole year. The Taylorsville Road church in Louisville, KY, a church that had supported me to do the work of an evangelist for thirteen years, agreed to continue my support during that time. Upon our arrival in Kenya, we learned that we had arrived not a moment too soon. The “leaders” of the churches in Kenya were trying to exercise ungodly control over all the churches. They were holding monthly meetings, originally designed for mutual personal edification, to formulate creedal papers for all to sign. Furthermore, it was learned that Lawrence Gitonga, our original contact, was a liar and thief (while being fully supported by the Taylorsville Rd. church, he begged money and support from Kenyan brethren, pretending he was receiving no support), and that he was the writer of the creedal statements, as well as the primary instigator of discord among Kenyan and American brethren. On the latter, his point was simple:Let us keep all our faults and secrets from our American teachers because if they find out, then no one is going to receive any support from America. If you tell on me, you are only hurting yourself, because if my support is discontinued, I will not be able to help you get support. Furthermore, I have worked with white men for a long time, and you just can’t trust them. If this current “chapter” (viz., support from churches of Christ) doesn’t work in getting us all supported, then I have “several other chapters” in the works.
A few were actively resisting such thinking. Others were being silent because they were afraid that if they were not, they would not be getting any support. Yet others bought into Lawrence’s ungodly philosophy “lock, stock, and barrel.” One of these extorted money from me under the pretext of having been arrested for preaching the gospel publicly in his village. The money was to help him defend himself. It was all a lie! A man who had claimed to be converted by this liar and thief moved in our midst for awhile pretending to be a genuine convert. He later was instrumental in “baptizing” two men in a distant village. These two men, who seemed at the time to be genuine seekers, later learned that this man was still in league with the first liar and thief, and that he, himself, had never been baptized. Before Anita and I left Kenya in December, 1993, I heard from the liberal American missionaries in Nyeri that they had received a letter from these two charlatans requesting that they come to their village to preach the gospel. To this, we could add many more shocking and disgusting stories of deceit and chicanery, but I am sure that by now you have gotten the point—something must be terribly wrong with Kenyan culture!
Yes, Kenyan culture is appalling. Corruption is everywhere! Almost everyone wants kitu kidogo (“a little something”) for doing what they do, from the common clerk to the government official. The most mundane transaction needs kitu kidogo. If there is no kitu kidogo, then there is no service, no license, no nothing! On the other hand, if you are willing to pay, the sky seems to be the limit!
Now, before you get down on Kenyans, let me tell you something you may not realize: Living in such a society is extremely difficult. Corruption is a way of life. If you are not willing to pay kitu kidogo, you are going to find out that your “row is going to be very hard to hoe.” Just about every time I asked for a receipt in Kenya, I was asked how much money I wanted it made out for. In other words, anything, including one’s integrity, is for sale in Kenya. Now, let’s personalize it a bit: How many days will you stand in line to pay a bill before you begin to rationalize a little kitu kidogo? How many times will you take the test for a driver’s license and fail because you didn’t pay “a little something” before you decide to “pass”? How often are you willing to let your utilities be shut off because you refuse to pay the clerk to make a correction of a mistake the utility company made on your bill before you decide that the clerk is surely overworked and needs “a little something” for her effort? Now, with all this firmly entrenched in our minds, maybe we all have a little better appreciation of Paul’s admonition to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Did he not go on to say: “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled” (verse 15)? How long would any of us live in such a culture before we became defiled in mind and conscience?
Am I trying to excuse the Kenyans for their general lack of integrity? God forbid! What I am trying to do is enlighten you as to the problems that have been encountered among the Kenyans and what some of us are trying to do about it. If we remain ignorant of Kenyan culture, I am convinced we will do them and the gospel a great disservice. Therefore, it will help to learn how Kenyan culture got to be the way it is.
How Did They Get This Way?
Before they were colonized by the British, the Kenyans’ culture varied according to the tribe of which they were a part. Although all Africans had a belief in the existence of a supreme being who is the creator of all, he usually had neither temples nor priests. He was regarded as a transcendent being too exalted to be concerned with the affairs of men. For example, the Kikuyus, the predominant tribe in Kenya, acknowledged a supreme creator-god who resided on the snow peaked tips of Mount Kenya. In addition, they had a whole pantheon of lesser gods, or “nature spirits,” who were associated with their tribe. These lesser divinities were much more important than the supreme god, who was simply too aloof. These lesser divinities were perceived to be related to some particular aspect of nature, or some area of life over which they ruled, and could be manipulated by some form of ritual or magic. In this world view, rocks and trees had supernatural powers, and spirits, good or bad, often took on human form. Incidentally, a good tribalist would never think of evangelizing someone from another tribe, because his “nature spirits” were associated and concerned only with his own tribe—other tribes had their own divinities. Furthermore, what was morally right or wrong was not prescribed by some supreme deity, or even by the lesser divinities, but was decided by tribal elders and, ultimately, the chief of the tribe.
Although modern Kenyans come from many different tribes, their traditional religions were all animistic, with no dividing line between what we in Western society would call the “natural” and the “supernatural.” In this world view, which the Africans themselves dub “traditional beliefs,” sorcery and witchcraft occupy a prominent position. The diviner, or shaman, is important in that he prescribes “medicines” and charms to cure or ward off sickness, spells, and evil spirits. And then there is the witch doctor. Although most Westerners still think the African witch doctor is the chief of witches, in the “traditional religions,” the witch doctor is the chief enemy of the witches. The witch doctor is in fact the specialist doctor to whom one goes when he is suffering harm from witches. He is a respected and feared member of the community. Witch doctors continue to be active in Kenya and people are still all too frequently being accused of being witches. Some of those accused of witchcraft are “lynched,” which means they are stoned, hacked, or burned to death. Shockingly, there were over five hundred lynchings in 1993, of which many were suspected witches.
Now, add to this the “traditional beliefs” concept of sin, in which sin was essentially regarded as ceremonial error, or the violation of the honor of the tribal community, and one gains some insight into the Kenyan’s propensity for lying to the muzungu,or “white man,” in order to get gain. For a thirteen-year-old boy to show any signs of discomfort during his public circumcision would be a terrible sin; but, to steal cattle from another tribe would not be considered wrong. Factor into this colonial rule, which was the forced subjugation of all the Kenyan tribes by the powerful white man’s “tribe,” and you have a nation of people who did not think they were doing anything wrong when they lied to the British for their own personal gain. Add to this the perverted warrior mentality of many of the African tribes that said, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine,” and you had all the ingredients for the development of a society bent on “dishonest gain” (Titus 1:11). Finally, include in this equation the “Christianity,” of the colonials, who mistakenly equated Western Civilization with true Christianity, and we understand that colonialism, from the very beginning, was bent on changing Africans socially, politically, and religiously.
As soon as African and Western culture met, a synthesis began to take place that would ultimately culminate in a syncretism, or Christo-paganism, which still contaminates Kenya. The religion of the white colonial masters—I’ll call it Western Civilization Christianity—was, and will always be, an imported religion in East Africa. Cut off from his past, but unable to imbibe completely the religion of his colonial masters, the African memorized an imported set of legalistic rules, sang and played a bunch of rhythmless hymns, and practiced a religion consisting mostly of meaningless outward ritual in a church building constructed along Western design, all of which penetrated only one day of his week, and then only for a few hours. Consequently, the religion of many East Africans is a superficial religion practiced by hypocrites.
Today, forty-plus years after independence, Kenya calls itself a “Christian nation.” Their national anthem even mentions God, the Creator of the universe. But, for the most part, their’s is a nation of two faiths. The “traditional religions” are still very much a part of Kenyan society. When faced with difficulties and conflicts, the Kenyan consistently opts for non-Christian solutions. It is clear that they have never understood the all-encompassing nature of the lordship of Jesus Christ.They have simply been playing church!
Having never been exposed to true Christianity, it is interesting to note that spiritually shallow Kenyans recognize members of all denominations as “Christians.” Unity is very important to the African, which is to be understood in connection with the tribal cohesiveness of his past. As “Christians,” they believe that all the various denominations now belong to one Christian tribe—Christianity. Therefore, many Kenyans greet people they have met for the first time with expressions about what they consider to be their common “salvation.” The person being greeted in this fashion is expected to “amen” the greeter’s testimony and then give his own, which the first person is then obligated to “amen.” Of course, this concept is not uniquely African. Ecumenism everywhere teaches that the church or body of Christ is made up of all the various denominations.
The Gospel As Judge And Redeemer
When the gospel entered Kenyan culture in July of 1992, it came as both judge and redeemer. Paul and I had absolutely no desire to Westernize the Kenyans. We only wanted to serve the life-giving message of the gospel in an African cup so as to plant indigenous African churches. After obeying the gospel, Kenyans would still be Kenyans. They would only need to reject those things in their culture that were inconsistent with, or forbidden by, the Scriptures. Of course, in their case, quite a bit of their culture would need to be rejected. This caused some problems. As the gospel judged them and their culture, some thought we were trying to Americanize them. This was intensified by the fact that their cultural standards and Bible standards were in such stark contrast to each other. They started to realize that they were going to have to change a lot. As they began to realize that the gospel relates to every aspect of human society, they learned that they had to examine all those things they had absorbed from their culture in view of what God had to say.
Some began to change; others did not. Some had truly been converted; others had not. Some truly wanted to worship the Lord Jesus Christ; others simply wanted to bow down to the almighty American dollar. There were some whose mouths needed to be stopped, who could subvert whole households (cf. Titus 1:11). In attempting to do the work of evangelists, we preached the word, in season and out. Using the word as the objective standard, we convinced, rebuked, and exhorted with as much longsuffering as we could muster. In the circumstances and situations in which we found ourselves, we taught those who would listen what the Bible said. Some repented; others would not.
As the days turned into months, we saw men and women growing in faith and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What joy! We also saw those who lost the battle against their culture. What sadness and disappointment! We saw those who were transformed and renewed in their minds by the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 12:2), and we saw some who returned to the cultural vomit of their corrupt society. In addition, we saw a government decide to make itself an enemy of the Lord’s church by refusing to allow autonomous churches of Christ to be registered and therefore legally recognized. This means that faithful assemblies of the Lord’s church are officially illegal in Kenya. Even though this is a dangerous situation for these Christians, we saw them bravely decide to continue meeting publicly. On the other hand, one, who we had more than a little confidence in, upon hearing that the church had been refused registration, informed me that he was going back to the safety of denominationalism. This was extremely disappointing, but fear is a strong motivator, especially when one’s faith in the Lord is weak. Word has since come to me that this brother, a substantial and influential member of a new congregation, has repented of his cowardice. Praise God!
As the churches continued to grow in Kenya, we knew they would face many difficulties, not the least of which would be dealing with the strong pull of their own culture. But we knew that as they learned to out-think, out-live, and out-die the Christo-pagans around about them, the genuinely coverted would learn that the church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is counterculture rather than subculture. We had every confidence that as they did so, they would become lights to a very “dark continent.”
There is much more to this developing story and, Lord willing, I will unfold it for you in the next edition of this magazine. Some of it is very, very good, and some of it is very, very bad. I will tell it all to you now because I can no longer contain myself: If we are going to be faithful in our mandate to preach the gospel to a lost and dying world, evangelists/missionaries and the churches and individuals who support them must refuse to “play the game” that in too many instances has become “the only game in town.”
All editorials are written by Allan Turner. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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