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Books for beginning missionaries

I’m hardly a seasoned veteran yet, but I’ve now spent over five years learning some of the basics of mission work and helping a lot of new apprentices on the field.  In that time, I’ve developed the following working list of books I think are great for new cross-cultural church planters to read.  This list doesn’t represent an exhaustive library of missiology, and I think certain vital elements are better taught through discipleship than books, but I think these are a great start, hitting on many of the most important issues:

  • A Vision of the Possible by Daniel Sinclair – This is a good book for a team to read before going on the field as it gives a great overall roadmap for cross-cultural church planting.  It’s very practical, dealing with such issues as team formation and leadership, preparation, entrance and residency, language learning, spreading the gospel, discipleship, raising leaders, and church multiplication.
  • Bonding and the Missionary Task by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster – This one should also be read before arriving on the field.  If there is any book I want a new missionary joining us to read, it’s this one.  This short booklet gets straight to the heart of one of the biggest mistakes missionaries make – not bonding with the local people and culture – and gives practical direction on how to bond effectively.
  • Language Learning IS Communication IS Ministry by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster – The companion to the Bonding booklet, this one presents language learning as the first important ministry the missionary should have in the host country.  We don’t learn language so that we can minister; rather, our language learning communicates powerfully to the locals and is itself an important ministry.
  • Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan – This excellent books deals with what the job of a cross-cultural church planter is and isn’t.  Through Donovan’s personal experiences as a Catholic missionary to the Masai of Tanzania, he casts a wonderful vision for mission work.  The vision is that missionaries should carry out the simple task of delivering the gospel message, trust the Holy Spirit to reveal the gospel’s application, make disciples, and then do one of the most important things they’ll ever do – leave.
  • Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen (available free online from Google books) – This book, overlooked for decades, has gained popularity in recent times.  Vincent Donovan was heavily influenced by it, so it’s a great read after Christianity Rediscovered.  Christianity Rediscovered casts the vision, and Allen’s work lays out the framework of thinking behind that vision – getting rid of extra baggage and simplifying our work to the type of ministry that allowed Paul to establish churches all over Asia Minor in just a few years.
  • Organic Church by Neil Cole – Organic Church gets at the heart of what the Church is in its simplest form and how God intended it to reproduce organically.  I like our new missionaries to read it to give them a clear and simple vision of Church, because complexity kills.
  • Church Planting Movements by David Garrison (either the full-length book or the concise booklet available free from the IMB) – Based on research of movements on several continents, Garrison’s work lays out characteristics common to every movement of rapidly multiplying churches as well as discussing factors that hinder them.  It hits on important topics such as the importance of prayer, broad sowing of the Word, lay leadership, and avoiding restrictive, authoritarian structures.
  • Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement by Roland Bunch – I recommend this book not because I think missionaries have to do agricultural development, but because its principles carry over very well to church planting work.  Two Ears of Corn deals with important issues like dependency, reproducibility, and simplicity.

What do you think?  If you were making your own list, is there anything you would add or subtract?  Those of you helping new missionaries entering the field, what are you recommending to them?

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)

Witch doctors and priests

The following is from Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, pages 103-105. In reading the entire book you can see that Donovan was by no means opposed to leadership in the Church; he was only opposed to that kind of leadership which separated the laity from God, resulting in a new incarnation of the Old Testament priesthood that Jesus did away with:

As I learned more and more about the pagan religious life of the people I had been working with, I took it all in with mixed feelings. I realized that these actions of theirs and the belief of the people existed in a context of life that was filled with piety and goodness. I felt a sense of respect for the life I saw, because I could only agree with St. Paul that all nations can seek and find God, and that each nation goes its own way with the evidence of God available in the good things he gives each nation. But as I witnessed the work of the witch doctor I also felt sad and slightly sick, if not ashamed. Every single thing I saw him do, I recognized, not from my acquaintance with other pagan religions, but from my experience as a priest in our own Christian religion.The temples or sacred places kept up at the people’s expense and labor; the class apart, witch doctors or priests, the privileged ones, the ones who make themselves the most important in the religious community, the ones who alone can talk to God, whether it be through words of incantation and blessing, or words of consecration and absolution; the ordinary people, especially women, completely at the mercy and whim and arbitrariness and exclusiveness of the holy one–not reaching the throne of God, or even understanding the word of God, except through him; the discrimination against women; the offerings for the sacrifice, and the daily sacrifice itself; the manipulation of sacred signs and relics; the air of unfathomable mystery about it all. There is scarcely a pagan trick that we Christians have overlooked or missed.

But surely all this is the very reason why the Christian religion came into being. This is why the early Christians cried out in anguish that their religion was different from the pagan religions, why they felt it necessary to disassociate themselves from temples, altars, sacrifices, and priesthood.

Was it for nothing that Christ entered once and for all into the holy of holies and offered the one and only Christian sacrifice?…

…I really could not go to the Masai and tell them that this is the good news I had brought them: they would no longer have to rely on the power of the pagan witch doctor; now, they could transfer their trust to the power of the Christian witch doctor. That is no good news at all. It is not worth traveling eight thousand miles to impart that news. Does not the good news consist in the proclamation that we no longer need contemporaneous mediators or a privileged caste to lead us to God? Is it not so that we believe that the people of God, the laity, can reach even to the throne of the living God, by the power given to them as a Christian community by Christ? Is not this what the good news is all about?

St. Peter described this new situation: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people at all, and now you are the people of God” (1 Pet 2:9, 10).

In insuring that a young church has everything necessary to become a mature, adult, and independent entity, more important than financial subsidies for the clergy, and academic programs and seminary structures for candidates for the ministry, is the imparting of a truly basic, Christian understanding of the ministry and priesthood.

(Above photo courtesy of sparky4927)

The tribal god

This excerpt comes from pages 33-36 of Christianity Rediscovered. In it, Donovan recounts his discussion with a Masai village in East Africa after asking them what they thought about God:

Then they told me of God, Engai, who loved rich people more than poor people, healthy people more than the sick, the God who loved good people because they were good, and rewarded them for their goodness. They told me of God who hated evil people–“those dark, evil ones out there”–and punished them for their evil. Then they told me of the God who loved the Masai more than all the other tribes, loved them fiercely, jealously, exclusively. His power was known throughout the lush grasslands of the Masai steppes; his protection saved them from all the surrounding, hostile, Masai-hating tribes, and assured them of victory in war over these tribes; his goodness was seen in the water and rain and cattle and children he gave them……Each African tribe believes in God, and it is generally considered to be a monotheistic God. But each tribe likes to restrict the attention and protection of this God to its own territory, thus planting the seeds for polytheism.I continued talking with the people who were now listening very closely: “When Abraham followed God out of his land, there began on this earth the story of the one, true, living, High God.”Everyone knows how devout you Masai are, the faith you have, your beautiful worship of God. You have known God and he has loved you. But I wonder if, perhaps, you have not become like the people of the tribe of Abraham. Perhaps God has become trapped in this Masai country, among this tribe. Perhaps God is no longer free here. What will the Kikuyu do to protect themselves against this God of the Masai–and the Sonjo? They will have to have their own gods. Perhaps the story of Abraham speaks also to you. Perhaps you Masai also must leave your nation and your tribe and your land, at least in your thoughts, and go in search of the High God, the God of all tribes, the God of the world. Perhaps your God is not free. Do not try to hold him here or you will never know him. Free your God to become the High God. You have known this God and worshipped him, but he is greater than you have known. He is the God not only of the Masai, but also my God, and the God of the Kikuyu and Sonjo, and the God of every tribe and nation in the world.”And the God who loves rich people and hates poor people? The God who loves good people and hates evil people–‘those dark, evil ones out there’? The God who loves us because we are good and hates us because we are evil? There is no God like that. There is only the God who loves us no matter how good or how evil we are, the God you have worshipped without really knowing him, the truly unknown God–the High God.”There was silence. Perhaps I had gone too far. The mention of a wandering search that took a lifetime must have evoked memories of their own ancestors recalled from generation to generation around nomadic campfires. Abraham himself must have seemed like a long lost ancestor to them, he who used to like to “fill his eyes with cattle.”……Finally someone broke the silence with a question. Whether he asked the question out of curiosity or anger, I do not know. I only know it surprised me:

“This story of Abraham–does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?”

I was about to give a glib answer, when all of a sudden I thought of Joan of Arc. I don’t know why I thought of her, but suddenly I remembered that since the time of Jeanne D’Arc, if not before, the French have conceived of God (le bon Dieu–what would the Masai think of him?) as being rather exclusively and intimately associated with their quest for glory. I wonder what god they prayed to?

Americans have some kind of certainly that “almighty God” will always bless their side in all their wars. Hitler never failed to call on the help of “Gott, der Allmächtige” in all his speeches, in all his adventures. A Nazi doctor once told me that they could always count on the Catholic school children to pray for Hitler every morning, to ask God’s blessing on him. What god, the Teuton god?

I have been to many parishes in America where they prayed for victory in war. I recognized the god they were praying to–the tribal god. I will recognize him more easily now, after having lived among the Masai. And what about the God who loves good people, industrious people, clean people, rich people, and punishes bad people, lazy people, dirty people, thieving people, people without jobs and on welfare–“those dark, evil people out there?” Which god is that?

I sat there for a long time in silence looking at the Masai people. They called their God Engai. Well, that is no more strange-sounding than our gods. The god invoked by the pope to bless the troops of Mussolini about to embark on the plunder of Ethiopia, and the god invoked by an American cardinal to bless the “soldiers of Christ” in Vietnam, and the god of French glory, and the German god of Hitler were no more the High God of scripture than is “Diana of the Ephesians” or Engai of the Masai of East Africa.

To each one of these cultures must ever be presented again the proclamation of the message, symbolized in the call of Abraham–to leave their land and their nation, to learn of the High God, the God of the world. All nations are to be blessed in Abraham.

I finally spoke out again, and I marveled at how small my voice sounded. I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning:

“No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.”

(Above photo courtesy of TangoPango)

Why you should read Christianity Rediscovered

Since I intend to post a few things from Vincent Donovan’s book Christianity Rediscovered, I figured I should go ahead and give an official plug for the book.

First allow me to share an excerpt from Donovan’s introduction that may pique your interest:

…Suppose you were a missionary and you realized how questionable the whole system was. And yet suppose you believed in Christianity, believed that Christianity had something to say to the world that is pagan–for that is what it is, more than three-quarters pagan. What then? What would you do?

Maybe you would do as we did, begin all over again from the beginning. That means precisely what it says, starting from the beginning, with, perhaps, only one conviction to guide you, a belief that Christianity is of value to the world around it. That is presumption enough. Beyond that, no preconceived ideas either as to what Christianity is or what paganism is. What it means is a willingness to search honestly for that Christianity and to be open to those pagan cultures; to bring Christianity and paganism together and see what happens, if anything happens; to see what emerges if anything can emerge, without knowing what the end result will be.

The actual carrying out of such a quest has been an adventure, a journey of the mind and of the soul, a disconcerting, disturbing, shattering, humbling journey. I would like to invite the reader to go on that journey with me. But before commencing it, one would want to have the same open-mindedness toward it, with no convictions beyond the one that Christianity is something of value; no preconceived notions about God, salvation, Christ, the meaning of being a Christian, the church, the sacraments, the liturgy, the priesthood, or anything else traditionally associated with Christianity. Without such an openness of mind on the part of the reader, this book would make no sense.

I highly recommend this book to those who are making disciples and planting churches in a cross-cultural context. Most of you immediately think of foreign missionaries when I say that, and they make up a good part of who I am writing this to. But I think in a country like the United States, the church will do well to realize (and is realizing more and more) that a good percentage of the ministry we do within our own cities is cross-cultural.

I recommend Christianity Rediscovered to you cross-cultural ministers because Donovan brings a fresh perspective. He was a Catholic, so his thinking breaks the mold of a lot of what those in evangelical circles are used to being exposed to. He was also a practicioner. He wrote as one who got his hands dirty working and sometimes failing, learning his lessons week-by-week as he brought the gospel to the Masai villages of East Africa. He was not a theoretician, isolated behind the walls of academia.

Theologians can also benefit from reading Christianity Rediscovered, because our theology is richer when informed by cultures besides our own.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of the book, here it is on Amazon. If anyone does read it or has read it, I would love to hear what you think.

Vincent Donovan on what the job of a missionary is and isn’t

Last year, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Vincent Donovan’s excellent book Christianity Rediscovered. It is one of the very best books I have read concerning cross-cultural mission work. I am now re-reading it, and will probably be sharing a few excerpts from it in the coming weeks.

Donovan was a missionary to the Masai people of Tanzania, east Africa. In the following excerpt from pages 23 and 24, he discusses the convictions he came to regarding what should and should not be the work of a missionary. I have been challenged a lot by the ideas he shares. I, too, have a growing conviction that we missionaries are messengers. Our responsibility is to deliver the message, not dictate the response to that message. Here’s what Donovan has to say:

Going back to the New Testament, to that original mandate which sent missionaries all over the world, we find the command of Christ to preach the gospel to all the nations of the world, to disciple, make disciples of, to evangelize all the nations. The words used in the Greek Testament for “all the nations” are panta ta ethne. In fact, every time it is mentioned the word “nations” is translated by the Greek word ethne. I do not believe that the bible knew of nations in the modern political sense of the word, like the nations of America and Canada and Tanzania.Ethne would refer more to ethnic, cultural groups, the natural building blocks of the human race. While the political nation of the United States might have very little to do with salvation as such, the Masai culture or a Hindu culture or the cultures that make up America might have very much to do with salvation…

…The gospel must be brought to the nations in which already resides the possibility of salvation. As I began to ponder the evangelization of the Masai, I had to realize that God enables a people, any people, to reach salvation through their culture and tribal, racial customs and traditions. In this realization would have to rest my whole approach to the evangelization of the Masai.

I had no right to disrupt this body of customs, of traditions. It was the way of Salvation for these people, their way to God. It was one of the nations to whom we had to bring the gospel–bring the gospel to it as it was. In those customs lay their possibility of salvation.

Christ himself said, “I did not come to do away with the law (the Jewish culture and religion) but to fulfill it” (Mt 5:17).

Everything concerning a nation (an ethnic cultural group) has to do with salvation. It is the job of the people of that nation, it is their affair to respond to their own call of salvation. It is not the sphere of the evangelist, of the missionary. If we would be consistent, I think we would see that the field of culture is theirs. Ours is the gospel.

An evangelist, a missionary must respect the culture of a people, not destroy it. The incarnation of the gospel, the flesh and blood which must grow in the gospel is up to the people of a culture.

The way people might celebrate the central truths of Christianity; the way they would distribute the goods of the earth and live out their daily lives; their spiritual, ascetical expression of Christianity if they should accept it; their way of working out the Christian responsibility of the social implications of the gospel–all these things, that is, liturgy, morality, dogmatic theology, spirituality, and social action would be a cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.

The gospel is, after all, not a philosophy or set of doctrines or laws. That is what a culture is. The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.

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?