Tag Archives: tanzania

Vincent Donovan’s summary of the role of a missionary

The following passage from pages 120 and 121 of Christianity Rediscovered provides a good outline Donovan’s understanding of the role of a missionary, developed throughout his book. Read it, cross-cultural missionaries, and reflect on it. It has been challenging me greatly, though I do not yet know what the outcome of that challenge will be:


But before dreaming of world evangelization we would have to change our approach to young mission churches. [Protestants can substitute the Protestant equivalents in the following sentence:] Today before we count our work finished in the young churches, we feel compelled to leave with them a staggering complexity of buildings and institutions and organizations; church buildings and their accouterments, seminaries to train candidates for the priesthood, catechetical centers to train teachers, novice masters and superiors to begin religious congregations, lay organizations, diocesan and chancery structures and a promise of continued financial assistance and subsidies.What if instead of this unending process we considered our work a truly finishable task and left these churches only what St. Paul left them? At first sight, this seems much less than we feel compelled to leave with them. In reality, it is more than we dare to give them.As you sit watching the sinking sun you wonder if there were still time for missionaries, somewhere, somehow to be able just once to carry out missionary work as it should be carried out:To approach each culture with the respect due to it as the very place wherein resides the possibility of salvation and holiness and grace.To approach the people of any culture or nation, not as individuals, but as community.

To plan to stay not one day longer than is necessary in any one place.

To give the people nothing, literally nothing, but the unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel before baptism.

To help them expand that gospel into a creed and a way of life after baptism.

To enable them to pray as Christians.

To leave them the bible towards the day when they can read it and use it as a living letter in their lives.

To insist that they themselves be their own future missionaries.

To link them with the outside church in unity, and the outside world in charity and justice.

To agree with them that baptism is indeed everything; that the reception of baptism is the acceptance of the total responsibility and the full, active sacramental power of the church, the eucharistic community with a mission.

To encourage them to trust in the Spirit given at baptism, and to use the powers and gifts and charisms given to the community by the Spirit.

And then the final step.

The final missionary step as regards the people of any nation or culture, and the most important lesson we will ever teach them–is to leave them.

(Above photo courtesy of Will Pate)

Vincent Donovan on the rejection of Christianity

In this excerpt from page 82 of Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, he reflects on the gospel being rejected by a Masai village. Donovan spent an entire year making difficult weekly treks out to this particular village to bring the Christian message. He shared with them everything he had to share, they understood it all, and he felt they were very ready for baptism. When decision time came, though, they rejected the gospel. I admire Donovan a lot for his response at that point. He did not try to talk to them more, share in a different way, or make the gospel more palatable. Masai villages make decisions as an entire community, and he did not then try and single out individuals who he thought might be willing to be baptized. He simply thanked them for their time and attention and, recognizing his work there was done, walked away.

Here are his reflections on the episode (remembering that he speaks from a Catholic perspective):


But there was an end to my work with these people. There were no moves left to make. The only reason I came these thousands of miles was to bring them this Christian message. They rejected it. There was nothing else I could do. My missionary obligation to them was finished.Perhaps the most important lesson I was ever to learn in my missionary life, I learned that day: that Christianity, by its very essence, is a message that can be accepted–or rejected; that somewhere close to the heart of Christianity lies that terrible and mysterious possibility of rejection; that no Christianity has any meaning or value, if there is not freedom to accept it or reject it. It is not an automatic thing, coming like a diploma after four or eight years of schooling and examinations, or after one year of instruction. It must be presented in such a way that rejection of it remains a distinct possibility. The acceptance of it would be meaningless if rejection were not possible. It is a call, an invitation, a challenge even, that can always be refused. The Christianity of a born Catholic or of a produced Catholic (the result of an automatic baptism following a set period of instructions) which is never once left open to the freedom of rejection, to the understanding that it is a thing freely accepted or rejected–is a dead and useless thing.Since that day, I have never seen those people of that village again, but I remember them as I remember no other people that I have come across in all my missionary years. For me, at least, they are distinct. They are unique. I feel a tremendous respect for them. They taught me something that no other people in Africa have ever taught me.

But it took a long time for that lesson to sink in. Day after day I found myself returning in thought to that moment at high noon in the hot equatorial sun when I heard no! for the first time. And I never remember any other time when the silence and the solitude of the African nights seemed so complete.

(Above photo courtesy of TangoPango)

Christianity Rediscovered

Our friend and church planting coach, Rob, loaned me a book called Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan.  I have been picking through it just a few pages at a time before I go to sleep at night.  Donovan is a Catholic priest who was a missionary to the Masai tribe in the country of Tanzania in East Africa.  He became disillusioned with the seeming ineffectiveness of many of the traditional missions tactics (schools, hospitals, etc.) that had not yielded one adult believer after seven years of work.  He got permission from a bishop over him to pull free from those activities and “just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message.”  In the book, he shares many of his experiences with evangelizing and discipling the Masai, and he offers reflections on what he learned about God, missions, and the Church through it all.

I have found Donovan’s book both interesting and challenging.  It has stretched me and caused me to reflect.  I’m realizing lately how much you learn about Christianity when viewing it through the lense of a different culture, and that was Donovan’s experience, too.  I think his book is a little more off the beaten path of popular books with Western missionaries, and I recommend it for precisely that reason.  He offers a somewhat unique perspective.  I thought I would share an excerpt I read a couple of days ago, where Donovan reflects on inward versus outward turned Christianity:

“How does one prevent a distorted meaning of Christianity from creeping into a community right at the start?  It is only in the imparting of an outward-turned Christianity that we have any hope of achieving Christianity.  An inward turned Christianity is a dangerous counterfeit, an alluring masquerade.  It is no Christianity at all.

The salvation of one’s own soul, or self-sanctification, or self-perfection, or self-fulfillment may well be the goal of Buddhism or Greek philosophy or modern psychology.  But it is not the goal of Christianity.  For someone to embrace Christianity for the purpose of self-fulfillment or self-salvation is, I think, to betray or to misunderstand Christianity at its deepest level.

The temptation to look inward is one that affects not only individuals, but also whole communities, parishes, dioceses.  In such cases the physical or spiritual well-being of the Christian community becomes the very goal of the community, the whole reason for its existence.  Any ulterior motive for the community’s existence is completely forgotten.  Indeed the only valid reason for the community’s existence is forgotten.

Christianity must be a force that moves outward, and a Christian community is basically in existence ‘for others’.  That is the whole meaning of a Christian community.  A Christian community which spends all its resources on a building campaign for its own needs has long ago left Christianity high and dry on the banks.  Or all its resources on an education program or youth program for that matter.  A Christian community is in existence ‘for others’ not for ‘its own.'”

What thoughts do you have as you read what Donovan says?