By Robert J Wafula
One day after providing a PowerPoint presentation entitled the Foundations of Friends Mission in East Africa, my wife, Nancy and I shared a table with a young couple who exhibited a desire to go to Africa as missionaries. I encouraged them by mentioning names of a few missionary Friends I know out in the field, examples of carrying the Gospel to God’s people in foreign lands. I also explained that I was doing the work of a missionary in the U.S. Another Friend seated across the table interjected by saying, “I thought you said you are from Africa. I don’t know that I would call someone from Africa a missionary in the U.S.” With some surprise, I asked him, “How so, and why not?” The gentleman responded emphatically that the U.S. has always sent out missionaries to Africa and other developing societies. He could not accept the fact that Christians could come to the U.S. from Africa to serve as missionaries. Perhaps this Friend had a point. He raises a very pertinent question on the relevance of cross-cultural gospel outreach missions in our modern era.
It may sound simplistic to ask, “What is mission and who is a missionary?” Most people would define missions as rendering Christian service in a foreign land. This could be the most common perception in the Christian thought. If this is true, how far does one need to go geographically to be involved in mission work and thus qualify as a missionary? Who qualifies to be called a missionary? Does the continent or country of origin matter?
Based on the definition of “missions as rendering Christian service in a foreign land,” anyone who leaves their native land to go to a foreign country to perform some Christian outreach is actually involved in Christian mission work. For example, after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, my local church, like many other religious organizations, sent a small team of Friends to assist in relief efforts. For about 10 days they rendered services among Haitian victims. In 2007, John Muhanji and a small team of Kenyan Friends went on foreign mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the company of Eden Grace and Judith Ngoya, John and his team recently returned from another mission trip to Tanzania, having energized and revived a community of Friends whom they described as having been isolated. Both of these engagements, one in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the southern, fit into the category of mission work. All those who were engaged in these endeavors would qualify to be called missionaries.
In my perception, mission work has nothing to do with location or land of origin at all. Anyone who is engaged in Christian outreach anywhere, regardless of their country or community of origin, is doing mission work, and therefore should be perceived as a missionary. What is important about mission work is not the host country or the country of origin, but rather the kind of work in which they are participating. The work of a missionary is summed up in the New Testament’s Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. Many New Testament scholars see this as the origin of Christian missions. It simply commands us to preach the Gospel and make disciples in every nation of the earth. Therefore the terms, mission and missionary should equally be inclusive in their definition and application.
I think of mission from the perspective of the first disciples. They were in Jerusalem when they first received the Great Commission. Then they were commanded to be Christ’s witnesses beginning from “Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Had I been one of those disciples, my Jerusalem would have been my hometown in Kenya, Bungoma. All Judea would have been Kaimosi and all its institutions, and Samaria would have been Nairobi where I spent several years as pastoral minister. I would have envisioned the U.S., where I have spent my 16 years, as the “end of the earth.” Yes, I am a missionary of the Word. I am sure that anyone who has been out of their own town or been overseas on mission outreach can use this formula to describe their own Great Commission story. You, too, can be called a missionary as long as you are actively participating in the completion of the Great Commission.
What is the difference between an American, Canadian or British Friend preaching or doing mission work in Africa and an African Friend doing ministry in the U.S., Canada or Great Britain? Is there a difference in the mission that is being fulfilled? Is one more Godly than the other? I do not think so. It is the same mission, no matter to whom or at what place it is being rendered.
The universal Christian Church is moving towards an era whereby the term missionary is being replaced by what they call missional. In other words, churches are discovering the need of doing mission work in their own communities. Co-authors Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson of Come Back Churches state the terms missionary and missional are gaining more acceptance on the religious market, which is an indication that churches worldwide are becoming more aware about biblical ministry in their respective communities. A missional church therefore is an indigenous group that takes root in the soil of its own society and appropriately reflects the culture of its own community. In this modification, churches prepare leaders among themselves to perform the role of missionaries
in their own communities, irrespective of context. They do what missionaries do. They learn a local language, adapt to the new environment, are part and parcel of the new culture and contextualize the gospel.
Scripture clearly teaches that every individual Christian is called to the mission field and charged with the mission of propagating the good news of Jesus Christ. This mission includes, among other activities, the task of both local and global evangelism, social justice and the tending of human needs. This, of course, is what the Friends United Meeting (FUM) provides under the department we now call Global Ministries. FUM programs and affiliate groups and organizations such as Right Sharing World Resources (RSWR), Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), United Society of Friends Women International and its counterpart, the Quaker Men International, are founded with the objective to lifting up the plight of the weak and the marginalized in our communities, and making them visible to the world. Indeed, this is the work of missionaries.
A missional church takes Acts 1:8 literally. It acts faithfully and intentionally with opportunities God grants. The advantage of a missional church is the direct focus in meeting the needs that are within and outside of a local community. A missional church is an incarnational group functioning as the body of Christ. The church does not exist for itself, but rather, it lives as a replica of Christ in the community. It represents Christ in the community.
Friends Heman Jaika Otioko and Isaiah Bikokwa (now retired) and their teams, including John Moru, Sammy LeToole (new Director for Samburu Friends Mission), and Michael Wasike, have served as missionals in Turkana and Samburu mission fields for several years. These are Kenyan Friends. After serving among the Turkana community for many years, and with the help of funds from FUM, Isaiah Bikokwa is credited as having been a pioneer Kenyan Quaker Church planter among the Samburu ethnic community of Kenya.
Based on the progressive reports coming from the African Ministries Office in Kisumu, Kenya, our spiritually vibrant and theologically sound Friend, John Muhanji has done a great deal. With his team of Kenyan nationals and two North American Friends, Eden and Jim Grace, he is breaking new grounds in the East and Central African region. Engagement of missionals to do mission work in their communities is imperative in the modern era. I perceive of this as one of the best strategies for fulfilling the Great Commission.
Robert J. Wafula currently teaches Comparative Religions, Anthropology, and Cultural Diversity at Columbus State College and Central Ohio Technical College, Ohio, U.S.A. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Malone University, and coordinator of Global Missions at Orange Friends Church, Ohio. Dr. Wafula is a graduate of Friends Theological College (FTC), St. Paul’s University, Earlham School of Religion (ESR), and Ohio University.