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G8 summit’s focus on Africa nothing new for missionaries

EDITORS’ NOTE: Sue Sprenkle, the International Mission Board’s missionary correspondent for Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya, has covered the continent’s struggles — and how Christians respond to them -– since 1999.

NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–Politicians, celebrities and activists turned the world’s eyes toward Africa during the international Group of Eight (G8) meeting in Scotland July 6-8.

The G8’s shared goals: to save lives and eradicate poverty on the continent.

For more than 150 years, Southern Baptists have been working toward the same goals in Africa. Some of the first Southern Baptist missionaries landed in Liberia and Nigeria in the mid-19th century. They confronted the same problems facing Africa now -– including disease and poverty.

Today, hundreds of International Mission Board missionaries work throughout the continent. While they strive to alleviate physical suffering and death on a daily basis, their main concern is Africa’s state of spiritual lostness. According to some estimates, just under half of all Africans claim Christianity. Christian workers, however, know this statistic is likely overstated. In many cultures, if you are not Muslim you are considered to be Christian — whether you are “born again” or not. Syncretism is widespread. Evangelical believers numbered about 116 million in the year 2000, according to Operation World statistics. Africa’s total population tops 900 million.

Through the years, the International Mission Board has made some hard choices about how to spread the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways. Mark Hatfield, an IMB mission strategist for central, eastern and southern Africa, said the decision not to do missions the easy way — by sending money to replicate Western churches — was a good shift.

“The Western idea of a church with four walls, a metal roof, concrete floor and a seminary-trained pastor can’t be reproduced by local churches in quantities sufficient to allow the Gospel to reach all parts of Africa,” the veteran missionary said. “It is so easy for missionaries and mission volunteers to focus on how good it feels to give funds and see physical results of their aid. But we need to get the same good feelings from helping African churches and their leaders depend on the resources God is providing.

“Africa has the resources both human and physical to be independent of outside aid,” Hatfield insisted.

Many Africans voiced the same view at a meeting of the continent’s leaders held a few days before the G8 sessions. While some called for total debt relief for the entire continent, Uhuru Kenyatta, a leader in the KANU party in Kenya, told the world not to expect self-supporting improvement in Africa if outside nations keep handing out money.

“You can give a man a fish and he’ll eat today,” Kenyatta said. “Or you can teach the man to fish and he’ll eat forever.”

That is exactly what missionaries try to do: teach local Christians to take the Gospel to their own people.

“We have thousands of dedicated African believers who form the foundation for Africa’s future,” Hatfield said. “We have leaders like the presidents of Zambia and Nigeria who have stepped out to lead from a Christian base. We have strong churches in many countries that are meeting spiritual and social needs previously met only by missions and non-governmental organizations.”

One of the fears of G8 leaders in disbursing funds in Africa is corruption — the cause of much of the current suffering and economic chaos in Africa. British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged that no amount of money will improve Africa’s prospects without better national leadership. “In the end, only Africans can lead and shape Africa,” he said at the end of the G8 meeting.

Hatfield offered a little advice to international leaders who believe they can solve Africa’s problems through debt relief and monetary aid alone:

“I think organizations like the G8 that look at aid and debt relief as their goal will experience the same results from the methodology as we did,” he said. “Subsidy causes dependency — and stifles true social growth.”
Africa Fast Facts:

Countries: 58

People: 924 million (mid-2004 estimate) among more than 3,500 ethnic groups

Languages spoken: 2,110

Economy: Africa’s economy has stagnated for 40 years. Many countries have become poorer; a few have made progress.

Religion (reported by percentage of African population): Christian (48 percent); Muslim (41 percent); traditional/indigenous (9 percent); Hindu (0.2 percent); Baha’i (0.2 percent); other (1 percent). Religious freedom has increased in Africa in recent years, but persecution of Christians by Muslims also has increased.

Christian missionaries to Africa: nearly 18,000

Christian missionaries from Africa: more than 12,000 (some 3,000 serve on other continents).

(Sources: Operation World and Population Reference Bureau)