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Missionary graves, religious strife prove instructive to prof in Nigeria

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The somber gravestones spoke volumes to Mark Terry’s heart. They spoke of commitment and determination. And they spoke of the sacrifice of the many missionaries who have died in Ogbomoso, Nigeria.

“They laid down their lives to establish Christianity in Nigeria,” said Terry, the A.P. and Faye Stone professor of Christian missions and evangelism, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

“The Nigerian Baptist Convention, with 6,000 churches and over 1 million members, is a testimony to their faithful labor.”

Terry spent most of his February-June sabbatical teaching missions to 90 students at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary in Ogbomoso. But his primary goal was to learn — to learn about missions in an African context and about how best to teach others to continue the work of those missionaries who had gone and even died before.

“It worked out the way I’d hoped,” Terry said. “I taught a little and learned a lot. Things that I knew as theory about Africa, now I have observed from personal experience and interaction with African people.”

In total, Terry spent five months on the continent, visiting three different countries. Each stop proved eye-opening.

“I know a lot about Asia, but I didn’t know much about Africa,” said Terry, a former missionary to the Philippines for 14 years. “So I was looking for an opportunity to get some in-depth experience in Africa.”

This in-depth experience included a baptism into African culture, society and politics. All three present challenges to African missions and especially to Nigerian missions.

In the West African nation, Christianity must contend with widespread polygamy, rampant malaria and persistent Muslim/Christian political uneasiness.

Politically and religiously, Nigeria is split in half with Christians in the south and Muslims concentrated in the north.

Tensions between the two groups exploded earlier this year when northern Christians demonstrated over the imposition of Islamic Sharia law.

Muslims subsequently rioted, resulting in thousands of deaths and the burning of 24 churches. During the rioting, five seminary students at the Baptist seminary in Kaduna were killed on the campus, and the seminary was burned.

“It was very dramatic,” said Terry, who saw a video of the melee. “The Muslims were coming over the front wall, and the seminary folks were going over the back wall at the same time. The seminary was almost a total loss.”

Though they were many hours south of the rioting, Terry and the students at the Nigerian Baptist Seminary were very much affected. The threat of violence still remains.

Besides teaching, Terry also lent his expertise to local missionaries and church planters.

“I worked with them to develop a leadership training program to train Egede [a tribe of mostly migrant workers who have recently moved into Ogbomoso] men to serve as leaders of their own churches,” Terry said.

Such instruction is desperately needed because missionaries among the Egede are planting churches faster than they can train pastors. Missionaries there have started 60 new churches in three years, but 20 plants still need pastors.

Working with the Egede “was exciting … because that was a chance to do applied missiology in the field and not just teach it in the classroom,” he said.

Terry’s African excursion also included stopovers in Senegal and Ghana. In Senegal, several Southern Seminary “Two plus Two” program students benefited from Terry’s tutelage. The program is part of the master of divinity in international church planting where students obtain the last 25 hours of the degree on the field.

In Ghana, Terry made final arrangements for a five-year partnership between Southern Seminary and the Ghana Baptist Convention, which will allow both students and professors to gain missions experience in the African country.

The partnership will give Southern Seminary students an opportunity to participate in a number of different projects, including researching unreached people groups, village evangelism, church planting, conference leadership, leadership training and medical missions. A group of Southern students recently returned from an initial church planting trip to Kumasi.

The highlight of Terry’s African sabbatical was the Nigerian Baptist Convention’s 150-year anniversary ceremony in April.

There, Terry “celebrated 150 years of Southern Baptist missions in Nigeria and saw 12,000 Nigerians celebrating that missionary heritage and expressing appreciation for the sacrifice of missionaries,” he said.

The most surprising aspect of experience in Africa was the horrible traffic in Ogbomoso, Terry said.

“It was a lot like the days of the Judges where every man does what’s right in his own eyes,” he quipped. “In Nigeria, when people say, ‘I pray for your safe journey,’ they mean it. It’s not just a frivolous statement.”

Reflecting on the entire trip, Terry believes his sabbatical experiences will greatly enhance his classroom instruction.

“I think it’s really going to enrich my teaching, especially in the area of cross-cultural church planting, in that I understand a lot better what missionaries going to Africa need to learn and understand,” he said.

    About the Author

  • Bryan Cribb