Are we discipling the nations to be more like Christ, or to be more like us?

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

In the African classic, Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo and his friend Obierika lament the changes exacted on their village by foreign powers. Okonkwo asks, “Does the white man understand our custom about land?” To which Obierika responds,

“How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Obierika’s despondency over the foreigner’s ability to demonize and discard what he does not understand echoes throughout colonized lands across the globe. The Western Church bears some responsibility for this pain due to its participation in the colonial agenda to forcibly assimilate and dominate native peoples.

In tracing the early influence of European Churches on Indigenous communities in Canada, The Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada’s report A Matter of Faith: A Gathering of Aboriginal Christians, states,

“To the missionaries, the idea that Aboriginal people were able to communicate with higher powers on a day-to-day basis, and that these multiple, powerful entities even existed, was simply incomprehensible … As a result, they taught the Ojibway that Nanaboozhoo, the main protagonist and the culture-hero in their ontology, never existed. They told the Iroquois that their Peacemaker, the heavenly messenger, was just a figment of their imagination. They convinced people that they were irrational and illogical, their beliefs meaningless and empty, their moral and ethical systems perverted and corrupted.”

Most Canadian Christians acknowledge this history and are grieved by the suffering the Church has brought to Indigenous communities. But we tend to see the darker parts of our history as isolated from the workings of modern Christian missions. If Western missions expanded in a colonial context, then we have to investigate whether the remnants of colonial sentiments are present in our modern missions framework. We have to ask ourselves: are we discipling the nations to be more like Christ, or to be more like us?

Our storytelling around missions says a lot about our understanding of the roles of the missionary and the host community. I have heard people share about their missions experiences in Africa, Asia, and Latin America without naming the specific cities, villages, or ethnic groups they have visited. Many have travelled with little to no information about their missions site, leaving them vulnerable to unchecked biases and stereotypes.

The story of their missions work is often focused on how they have benefited from being around the poor, how they felt encouraged or inspired by comparing their own privilege to someone else’s poverty. This narrative reflects a framework of missions that places the experience of the missionary at the center of missions work with the host community as a passive recipient of charity or a tool for the missionary’s personal development. In this framework, there is no room for the unique identity, character, or skills of the host community to play an active role.

As a therapist, one of the core commitments of my profession is to provide culturally competent care to my clients. Cultural competency involves making space for the cultural beliefs and background of the client, acknowledging how culture impacts their experiences in the world and in our sessions. We can then leverage culture as a part of their healing process.

I cannot care for my clients effectively if I do not intentionally aim to be culturally competent. In a similar sense, missionaries cannot effectively love and care for the people they minister to without pursuing cultural competency. Without a desire to understand the stories, beliefs, and practices of the host community, there is a great risk of harm.

The Apostle Paul gives us a meaningful example of culturally competent missions in his address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Paul was rightfully disturbed by the number of idols in the city. Yet, he credited the Athenians for their religiosity, quoted from their philosophers and ultimately presented the gospel in a way that affirmed their dignity and humanity.

Paul decentered himself to introduce the people of Athens to the God they had been searching for. Instead of a saviour swooping in to save the Athenians, Paul was like a matchmaker bringing together a bride and groom.

Culturally competent missions did not end with Paul. Parallel to the darkness that lurks in the history of Western missions, there is also a long legacy of culturally competent missions work that has been ordained by God to fulfill His good work throughout the world.

One example is Mary Slessor, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary among the Okoyong and Efik people of Nigeria. Although her early letters home reflected a low view of Africans, she eventually learned how to speak Efik, wore traditional clothing, and lived in the community. Her willingness to embrace the culture of the region allowed her to gain the trust of the people and to effectively challenge harmful beliefs and practices around the treatment of women and children.

Paul was no less a Hebrew when he was in Athens and Slessor was no less a Scottish woman when in Nigeria. Their identities and cultures remained intact but their humility allowed them to elevate the identities of those they ministered to. Instead of trying to dominate, they sought to understand. Instead of tearing apart peoples, they built up communities.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto, Ont. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”