Jonny Baker explores what Missio Africanus has to say to Fresh Expressions.
Ever since reading Vincent Donovan's Christianity Rediscovered in the late 1970s I have been fascinated by the challenge of mission across cultures. The book tells of mission amongst the Masai in Africa and the quest to share Jesus in such a way as to grow a Masai expression of Christianity rather than impose a Western one.
It is a book which has inspired many, myself included, to address the same challenge to reach people in our own communities. Thirty years ago, a group of my then fellow youthworkers looked at how we could we share Jesus in a way that would lead to expressions of church, what we now call fresh expressions, in those cultures - rather than expecting people to 'buy into' the imposed church culture.
Three decades on and I continue in the quest; the latest iteration being the training of pioneers at CMS. After all this time, two things never cease to amaze me:
- the inspiring and creative things pioneers are doing;
- the difficulty the church still seems to have with things that are different.
Since Donovan's work, African Christianity has seen an explosion of growth, with the heartlands of the Christian faith now most definitely located in Africa (and China and Latin America) rather than Europe. That growth has been accompanied by the development of African contextual theologies and spiritualities as they have sought to find their own voice and shake off the Western clothes that Jesus was initially wrapped in.
There has also been considerable migration in the last 20 years so that, in Britain, there are now many fast growing and replicating African churches that are part of the blessed reflex - i.e. a mission movement back in the direction of Europe. At CMS in Oxford, we recently heard more of what is happening from a gathering of African leaders working under the umbrella of the innovative Missio Africanus mission movement.
It was an absolute treat to hear respected African theologian John Mbiti who has sought to connect faith with indigenous African spirituality and religion. He told how he has been exploring African answers to the question 'Who is Jesus?'. Developing an African Christology is an exciting process of the naming of Jesus in people's own languages as related to their lives and communities. They locate Jesus in the African setting; he is at home with them rather than sounding like he belongs elsewhere. Together they exude a deep love for who Jesus is and he is at the heart of their Christianity, present with - and in - them.
This is not an ecclesiastically formulated Christology of any institutional church. It is a spontaneous Christology, a collective Christology, a mass Christology, a lay persons' Christology, a Christology in the fields, in the streets, in the villages, in the Christian homes, in the shops and schools... It is a lived and living Christology of African Christianity. It is literally infectious and self-propagating!
Some of the names of Jesus are ones we would recognise - 'door', 'king', 'path', 'hiding place'. Others come as more of a surprise, such as a name that translates as 'put down your load and have something to eat' and one that Mbiti expanded upon, Jesus the Bulldozer. This came from a group of charismatic Catholic Christians in a prison in Benin who had an intriguing song that included the lines 'bulldoze the lawyer, bulldoze the judge, Jesus is my bulldozer!'
Harvey Kwiyani is the man behind Missio Africanus and he is generating a conversation about African Christianity in the West. Unusually in my experience, he is at home both in the Western missional conversation and in the African diaspora churches. His recent book Sent Forth explores this challenge of African mission in the West. The questions of culture and translation and migration in mission are huge. Many African churches initially recreate the culture of Ghana or Nigeria in the churches in the UK and rapidly attract those like them but struggle to reach their Western neighbours. Missio Africanus is helping them read British culture and reflect on cross-cultural mission from Africa to Britain.
I hope and pray we will be seeing fresh expressions of African churches as they seek to follow the beckoning of the Spirit into the future. I suspect they will also be reading Christianity Rediscovered to help them share Jesus in a way that connects with the contexts they are in rather than imposing African cultures!
Having been encouraged in my initial ventures into mission by Donovan's story, I find I am now being inspired and challenged in new ways by:
- stories of mission and African Christianity. The thought that our faith is essentially a migrant faith has blown me away and made me reimagine who I am, who God is and what mission is. I think the challenge to do local theology that expresses questions such as 'who is Jesus?' is exciting and one that we in the West - and in fresh expressions - have not engaged with in anything like the depth we could. Our inherited and systematic theologies with the 'right answers' weigh us down more than we know. Is it time for some more risky theologising, for a lay persons' Christology, a Christology in our communities?
- the love for Jesus that is at the heart of African Christianity - where he is at home with them and among them.
- the call to join in the mission challenge that Missio Africanus is exploring together rather than apart so that we build communities of faith that are missional and multi-cultural. The mission challenges of our times never stay still!