Being sent in mission: an African perspective
By Dr Harvey Kwiyani, head of Missio Africanus and part of the Church Mission Society Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course faculty
In August of 1861, David Livingstone led the first group of the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) to Magomero in the Shire Highlands in what later became southern Malawi. This was the beginning of British mission work in Malawi. It was also the beginning of Christianity in Malawi.
Bishop Charles Mackenzie and his team were sent to Magomero by the Church of England to work in God’s mission in Africa.
Magomero – which happens to be my home – continues to be recognised as the place “where it all started”. Since then, Christianity in Malawi has grown to become the religion of the majority – 13 million out of 15 million Malawians identify as Christian. Yes, the explosion of Christianity in Africa is a direct result of the great sacrificial service done by the mission workers across the continent especially in the years between 1800 and 1970. Church Mission Society is one of the leading mission organisations who made this happen. It is not possible to tell of the history of Christianity in West Africa without acknowledging the important role played by CMS. For this we are extremely grateful.
Christianity continues to grow in Africa with millions of new converts coming to the faith every year. To convert a person to the Christian faith is also to invite – or demand – them to participate in God’s mission.
Nothing less. Thus, the five-fold growth that Christianity has seen in Africa since 1970, from 100 million to 500 million, translates into an African mission movement characterised by: (1) a commitment to the ‘evangelist-hood’ of all believers, which means that most of them live evangelistically, diminishing the gap between the ordained ministers/mission workers and laypeople, (2) a firm belief in God’s direct involvement in human life through the Spirit and (3) migration and other forms of displacement both within the continent and to other continents.
All in all, this means that ‘sentness’ is embedded in the African understanding of Christianity. It is a well accepted fact today that Africa has been converted to Christianity by African evangelists. To be a follower of Christ is to be sent as a bearer of Christ’s good news to a world desperately in need of such news. And this world in need may be within one’s own village or thousands of miles across the seas.
It is fair, I presume, for me to say that this understanding of Christians being sent in mission is central to most of African Christianity. Some are sent to be the good news right in their own communities. Others are sent to countries far away. But all are sent to share the good news with everyone who needs to hear it. I remember one of the popular songs we sang in Malawi in the 1980s, “ndi ndani wantuma kuti nkalalike uthenga wabwino” meaning “who has sent me to preach the good news?” Of course, the answer to the question was “ndi Yesu wantuma” (it is Jesus who has sent me). What I found significant about that song and many others like it was that they were sung by everyone, especially during evangelistic meetings. The people believed that they were sent to preach the good news. For them, ordination and commissioning were only additions to the calling. They believed that they could – and should – preach the good news even without being ordained. The call that they received when they decided to follow Christ was also their ordination to preach the good news to their neighbours.
This concept of being sent, (kutumidwa or kutumizidwa in Chichewa, my mother tongue), is very important for many Africans even outside Christianity. Mtumwi (the one sent with a message) or mthenga (the messenger) can be a servant of the king, the chief, or the government.
But mtumwi also happens to be the vernacular for “apostle” (Ephesians 4:11). The messenger is the bearer of the good news of hope. As such, a hospitable audience is the least they can be given because, of course, if you have been sent with a message to deliver, you must deliver it. And if a message has been sent to you, it must be heard. The honour due the sender is to be given to the messenger. Thus, when we sung “ndi Yesu wantuma,” we claimed it was Jesus, the king of kings, who sent us. We had to deliver the message.
One hundred and fifty years after the arrival of the UMCA in Malawi, God has sent many Malawian Christian sons and daughters to other continents. The same has happened in many countries around Africa. For Malawians, what started at Magomero has eventually brought Malawian Christians to Britain. Thus, African Christians living in the West are a fruit of the labour of the Western mission organisations (whether those organisations recognise this is another issue). But African Christians bring their ‘sent-ness’ with them as they migrate. In most cases, they find neither audience nor support. But when they do, great things happen.
God sends, and where God sends us, we go.