Exploring a mission call in the early 1990s, I developed a romantic notion of what it meant to be a missionary — rural, rugged, sacrificial, cross-cultural, frontline. But also in my mind it was mostly the West to the rest of the world.
Adding to the image was my own heritage — more than a century ago Western missionaries paid an incalculable price to bring the gospel to my ethnic group. Those spiritual forebears are worthy of the highest honor and gratitude.
As the global face of Christianity has shifted, however, now finding its center in the Global South, so has the missionary enterprise morphed.
In this interview, we turn our attention to one of the most challenging places in the world to identify as a Christian: the “tension belt” of Africa — a swath that cuts across the continent from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Somalia and Eritrea in the east. You will hear a portrait of today’s missionary described as:
- Being of a relatable culture as those s/he is trying to reach (i.e., not a huge cultural chasm to cross)
- Sharing the gospel through oral and storytelling methods (rather than through literate means)
- Focusing on discipleship that leads to conversion (not the other way around)
- Using the bible as a “discovery” guide, asking simple questions pertaining to everyday life, and teaching immediate obedience to God (not stopping at head knowledge)
As a result, there is unprecedented fruit even among people groups who have historically been the most resistant to the gospel. For example, there is an actual saying among the Kanuri people, an ethnic group of 10 million people living largely in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, that expresses:
No Kanuri will become a Christian and live to see the sun rise.
Today the sun keeps rising while many tens of thousands of Kanuri follow Jesus.
I pray the enclosed interview with a key Fulani leader (one of the largest people groups of that region) will add insight to how God is reshaping the face of His mission.
To see His name be renowned,
Paul Park, Executive Director
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We’re here today with a dear Brother in West Africa, in Francophone country, that is leading a very significant ministry to folks that have been historically resistant to the Gospel seeing some tremendous results and we wanted to interview him today.
First Fruit: Brother, how are you doing?
Brother: I’m doing good, thank you. And you?
First Fruit: Doing very well, and we’re excited to learn from you and to share with our blog audience. The first question is just to orient people on the part of the world where you work and where you live and it’s often referred to as the tension belt of Africa from East to West there are historically tensions between particularly Christians and Muslims, and there are very sizable people groups, ethno-linguistic groups, that have been very difficult to reach with the Gospel even have been major contributors to the spread of Islam.
Why have they been so hard-to-reach and why are you focused on ethno-linguistic people groups?
Brother: Well, I decided to focus on the ethno-linguistic people groups because I think in this region there are some people groups that for me, are very strategic if you want to reach not only this region, but the continent. They are strategic in the sense that if they are reached, they can be a means to reach more people groups.
Let’s take an example of the Fulani. The Fulani people group who I would say are very much mission minded. They contributed to the spread of Islam in Africa and even today, there are a lot of Islamic scholars among the Fulani and they are seen as a people who know Islam, who are scholars. The Fulani have relationships with other people groups in the county that makes contact and communication very easy. If the Fulani are reached, the Gospel can spread easily because of the Fulani pacts on the continent.
Another big mission minded group is the Hausa. They are mission minded because they move. You’ll find them everywhere doing business. Again if the Hausa are reached, we can follow the connections that the Hausa has with other people groups. For me, it’s a strategy. It’s not only the fact that we say, “these people groups are not being reached by the Gospel” but it’s more than that. It’s strategic.
First Fruit: We should maybe note that you yourself are Fulani. Is that correct?
Brother: Yes. This is why my dream is each Fulani will come to Christ and become a missionary to reverse what my people have done by spreading Islam in Africa.
First Fruit: As I think about the challenge of the Church really in any society, is to see deep and lasting Gospel transformation occur in their context. Why has it been so difficult for the Church to contribute to that in your setting?
Brother: Before that, I think I forgot one aspect of the first question; why is it difficult to reach out to these people?
I think today in Africa, people continue to see Christianity as a Western religion. For me, the main reason for that is the way the Gospel has been spread.
We have, as a Church, have put too much of a link between being able to read and understanding the Word of God.
When you are in places like Africa where orality is the way of communicating, of transferring knowledge, of transferring values, when any thing is being spread through writing, the communities cannot identify with that.
I think this is one aspect where Islam is strategic. Even though Islam has a book, it’s being spread orally. By doing that, people in Africa can identify easily. Another problem that I see is the culture. Even sometimes the things that are good become obstacles to helping people know what Christianity is. Today when you ask many people in Africa what Christianity is, what they will explain to you, has nothing to do with the Bible.
I see three main issues as to why it’s difficult to see lasting transformation. One is the Church has complicated the Word of God. When we teach, it is too complicated. I had an old lady, before her pastor went to study, for her; this pastor was a great teacher. She understood what he was saying and then after five years of studying, the first Sunday he preached after he came back, she asked the elders, “Why did he change? I used to understand what he said but today I didn’t understand”. This was because he complicated the message. Two, I think the Church has put too much emphasis on knowledge instead of obedience. Like myself, when I came Christ, after a few months, I could recite at least 60 verses linked to different topics in the Bible. But then I was told I was a disciple because I went through a test and was able to reply to all the questions. The emphasis on knowledge instead of obedience is one of the problems.
Jesus said, teach them to obey everything that I taught you. But the Church is teaching knowledge instead of obedience. This cannot lead to a real transformation. It can lead to a lot of knowledge but I think transformation is about the heart, not the head.
The third issue is not taking into account that people are more oral than people who read and write.
First Fruit: When you came to faith, when you felt called to ministry, you obviously observed these things over many years and it’s let you to take a different approach in ministry to hopefully see a different result.
Tell us a little about on how then you’ve adapted, how you’ve tried to adapt your ministry to resolve these issues and hopefully see that transformation occur.
Brother: For more than 10 years now, they approach that myself and the people I work with use is what you call a Disciple Making Movement. This is a process but the end result is to see a church planting movement happen; to see churches that have planted, multiply, and spread. The process is a very simple process and the key tool for me in that process is the use of what you call Discovery Bible Studies. The focus is on obedience and helping people to understand everything they learn from the Word of God is to be obeyed. DBS helps them learn and teaches them how to obey. By doing that, we see God blessing that process in different places in Africa.
Discovery Bible Study has four parts. One, to start with guests asking simple questions to help people think about what is happening in their lives; what are they going through. I used to say that in Africa, when we visit, the greetings take a lot of time. We ask, “Can you tell me what happened this week that you are happy about or is there a challenge in your life? Do you see any challenge in the community? As a group, what can we do to help?”. These simple questions, each time the group meets and these questions are asked, it builds an attitude and character.
When a group meets once a week and these questions are asked, it develops a way a behaving in the community. The second part while in the process of DBS, there’s a revision of what was seen last week, we ask, “How did you obey what we learned? Did you find yourself in a situation where you had to obey what you learned?” These simple questions help people understand that everything they discover in the Bible, is to be obeyed. The third part is where the Bible study itself is done. It’s very simple.
They are reading the scripture or listening to the scripture if they don’t know how to read.
They then ask the question, “Tell me what you have read or heard.” Very simple. Each person in the group can go back into the community and do the same because it’s very simple. The fourth part is at the end of the Bible study, to encourage people to obey what they’ve learned and to find someone to share what they’ve learned. Each time the group comes together, this simple process is implemented. By the time the group discovers who is God, their need for Christ, and become Christian, they have a different way of thinking, behaving, and a different way of seeing things.
That way we can have Christians, we can have disciples, we can have Churches that practice obedience and also concern for the well being of the community they are living in. For me, this is what can bring transformation. Not only in the lives of the Church but also in the community where that Church is. Jesus said we are the salt and light of the earth of the world.
First Fruit: It does sound so simple and so practical. People listening to this may wonder, does it work? You work in very historically difficult places and you’re expanding into different places. Tell us what you’ve seen and what has happened.
Brother: Kanuri people have a saying,
“No Kanuri will become a Christian and see the next sun rise.
By God’s grace, since we sent teams among these people groups, we not only have many churches, but we keep seeing the sunrise, everyday. The reason why I committed to this process to reach out to people groups is because anywhere this process is implemented, we have seen results. Because it is simple and transferable and it’s done orally, people can identify and it’s also preferable.
First Fruit: Have there been some in that community that have been hostile or angry at the spread of Christianity among your people?
Brother: We have seen persecution. But what is interesting is it is places where we see the Church growing. We have seen even in some places, some violence, but the movement is progressing. This approach is less provocative and dangerous than other approaches I used to implement when I started ministry. I had more problems with other approaches than now. Now, there are less problems, people are coming to Christ, disciples are being made, and it’s growing.
First Fruit: Growing, but as you said, the persecution is there.
Brother: It is there, but there are places where we it’s forbidden to be a Christian. It’s forbidden for Nationals to become Christians. But we have disciples. We have two of our leaders who’ve been brought to jail more than once. It’s happened, they are brought in, released, but they keep going.
Last week I was with a group and they came with a few second and third generation leaders and this young man looked at me and said,
We will change the face of our country by the Gospel.
I think what we are doing is also spiritual warfare and I have come to learn that when we are going to bring people from the darkness to the light of the Gospel, someone will fight back. This is the enemy and his way to fight back is to create persecution, to create fear, to create a condition to prevent Christians to go in and do what they have to do; to prevent people from understanding what they are listening to or to become violent.
First Fruit: What are some things the listeners can pray for?
Brother: There’s a need of more workers in the field. There are a lot of evangelists, missionaries, a lot of workers, that go where there are a lot of of low hanging fruit where you can start a new Church, but we need more people who are willing to go in the field; more people who are wiling to say yes to the Lord and go. This is one. Two, we need protection. We need wisdom. When you se the Lord working no matter the situation, there is encouragement. Pray that the Lord will confirm the words when people are preaching in difficult places.
We need the Church in Africa to review its priorities. There’s a lot of work to do but it seems to me that most of the resources are used for not necessarily bad things, but things that aren’t’ helping expanding the Kingdom, just entertaining what’s already been done.
For me, I’d like to see the Church expand the Kingdom. They are in need of resources, transportation means for the church planters. This goes from bikes, motorcycles, cars and so on. In some places, audio resources are very much needed. They are countries where people cannot go back with the Bibles they get from the trainings. If they are caught at the boarder with the Bible, they will be in trouble. We need to find ways to make sure these people are equipped with something that can help them study the Word of God.
First Fruit: You’ve provided much thought provoking, insightful commentary and a real challenge for those listening, a call to prayer and to be engaged. Thank you so much.
Brother: Thank you.
The interviewee (name withheld for security reasons) is a regional leader of Cityteam International, a First Fruit grantee. To learn more about what God is doing in this part of the world, two recent books, Miraculous Movements and A Wind in the House of Islam, provide vivid accounts of how Jesus is calling people unto Himself among traditionally Muslim people groups.