Statue of Livingstone at Victoria Falls

“There is not just one way to do mission.” (Jack Thompson)

“I have the understanding of mission of being a beautiful song. We are singing a song of the kingdom of God.” (Paul Lloyd)

“I see it as working in partnership with the Holy Spirit.”(Paulette Robinson)

Just this week I received an email from a old university friend. She and her husband have spent the last 16 years in China as part of a Christian mission with OMF, and will be finishing next year. I have no idea how successful they have been, or regard themselves to have been, but I do know they are dedicated Christians, who have been living lives embedded in a local Chinese community, working and living as Christians, as “an example of the believers” (1 Tim 4:12). I was reminded of a broadcast of one of my favourite radio programmes Beyond Belief I had heard a few weeks ago now, discussing Christian mission.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Britain’s most famous Christian missionary: David Livingstone. To discuss the legacy of David Livingstone, presenter Ernie Rae (ER) was joined by: former missionary and Honorary Fellow at the School of Divinity, the University of Edinburgh Dr Jack Thompson (JT); Senior Pastor of the Victory Outreach Church Paul Lloyd (PL); and Cyprian Yobera (CY), originally from Kenya and now the Anglican Priest at a parish church in Salford. There was also an inset interview with an Olympic Games Pastor Paulette Robinson (PR).

Ernie Rae’s initial summary of Livingstone wasn’t especially flattering:

ER: He was born in Blantyre in Scotland and died in Africa where he spent most of the last 30 years of his life. But doing what? He’s remembered as a great missionary, but in fact he did very little in the way of conversion. He spent his last years searching unsuccessfully for the source of the Nile. He was apparently an inept leader. A contemporary talking about Livingstone’s unwillingness to listen to other people wrote “ I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader.” But he was acclaimed as a great Victorian hero, and his body is buried in Westminster Abbey. So what’s the truth about Livingstone and what’s his lasting achievement?

… He went to Africa in the 1840s. He was the first white man allegedly to see the Victoria Falls. He journeyed across Africa. He preached a Christian message, but he didn’t force it on reluctant ears. He searched for the source of the Nile, and during that search he lost contact with the homeland for 6 years before he was discovered by Stanley. And he died from malaria and internal bleeding in 1873. Now Jack, I know you’ve read Livingstone’s letters. You’ve even worn his hat. Does he deserve his high reputation, or has there been a bit of rewriting of history since his death?

JT: I think there’s always rewriting of history. From a Christian perspective Livingstone remains one of the great missionaries of the last couple of hundred years. But if you’re looking at it from a more secular perspective, and particularly from a post-modern western perspective, lots of things have been put into the mix. For example: the way that he neglected his family, his wife and his kids; the fact that his Zambesi expedition geographically was not a great success; the fact that according to some people, though I disagree with them, that he was a precursor to the colonial occupation of Africa, means that the balance of his reputation has gone down considerably.

Participants discussed the way in which Dr Livingstone pushed boundaries and opened doors in Africa for those who followed him, how he stood up against the slave trade. And then:

 ER: Jack, he only converted, as far as I know, one person. Do you think that’s a mark of lack of success?

JT: Not in the least. Livingstone’s favourite title for himself was missionary-explorer as a hyphenated word. And I like to think of him rather as a sort of John the Baptist figure. He prepared the way for other people. He said something like the end of the geographical exploration is the beginning of the missionary task.

ER: He’s alleged to have said that he came to open up Africa for civilisation, commerce, and Christianity, and whether he was the first to say that or not, it is inscribed on his statue at Victoria Falls. What that says to me is that politics inevitably becomes involved with religion, and future politicians were able to use what Livingstone had done as something to advance the colonial mission.

JT: The colonial mission, if one wants to talk about it in secular terms, but there was a lot of guff talked about this at the time. People who were very far from being what we might call good Christian gentlemen were part of the early colonial process, and they also talked about Livingstone as if they were following in his footsteps, which wasn’t necessarily the case. What is not generally understood is that he also opposed white domination in Africa. For example, he said on one occasion, not generally known, that the Kosa in the eastern cape of South Africa fighting against the Africaaner or Boer settlers had just as much right to use force as the Hungarians fighting for their independence against the Austro-Hungarian empire. So he’s a very complex character, Livingstone. In some ways, theologically quite evangelical and conservative, in political terms sometimes very very radical indeed.

ER: Interesting, because sometimes I understand Kenneth Kaunda to call him the first African freedom fighter.

JT: I was present when he did so… And what Kaunda meant by that was that Livingstone stood up against white domination in Africa. And I think one has to make that distinction between colonial settlement of Africa by which Livingstone meant bringing in small groups of Christian working class; mostly Scots artisans and agriculturalists to teach new agricultural skills to Africans. He had no inclination whatsoever for countries like Britain to take over huge swathes of the continent.

I think we can relate to the idea that one conversion (or baptism) does not mean we have failed as missionaries. To what extent might US politics, or political ideas get tangled up in the gospel message?

Having rescued Livingstone’s reputation from Britain’s colonial past, the programme moved on to the establishment of missions, and the experience of Cyprian Yobera’s Grandfather:

CY: Yes. It’s a lot later than that that my village, when the missionaries came so long as they found who the gate-keeper was, for a specific village, they worked at converting that person, and of that person who is an opinion leader in the area was converted successfully then of course, he or she would be the one spreading the word after that. And to this day my village is a Christian village. The schools were developed then, and medical centres were developed then and those people that became Christians were taken to what you call mission stations and within the mission station everything was different from the village life.

ER: But the mission stations were controversial Cyprian?

CY: Yes. Your secondary school there, which was well taken care of, there was high quality medical services. But the removing of people from their villages because they are converted was the negative aspect. The changing of culture. You change your dressing and you can’t sing that song, and you can’t play that drum, because it does not fit in. That was the negative aspect.

As a British member, I can relate to the negative cultural aspects Cyprian describes. You can’t sing that song or hymn (it isn’t in the LDS hymn book), you can’t play that drum (or trumpet, or guitar, or..). And how come the US members can celebrate Thanksgiving, but we can’t do Harvest Festival (a whole separate post probably)? I do think as church we do still have a way to go when it comes to cultural sensitivity. But still that doesn’t mean some things wouldn’t be out of place, or might not go too far:

JT: … I think what we need to also point out is that in the history of the spread of Christianity in Africa, certainly in the last couple of hundred years, the vast majority of it has been done not by western missionaries at all but by African Christians themselves.

ER: Cyprian there is one very interesting example of what I would call cultural conditioning that I came across in my research for this programme. There’s a case of the Masai who apparently wanted to use certain elements for communion that the westerners thought were unacceptable.

CY: Yes. It came to light at a time when the Africans having now been converted and starting to understand Christianity for themselves realising that Christianity as was brought to us was dressed up in English culture or European culture, and therefore trying to undress it of the European culture to get the raw Christianity as it were, the elements of communion were a point of discussion. When Jesus sat with his disciples he sat at supper he broke what was before him and he drank what was before him and he used that as an illustration. So in the Masai’s situation their staple will be blood mixed with milk but of course the English person looking back on that would be even, perhaps I may use the word, disgusted by the experience.

What do you think?

Programme participants were then invited to speak about their own mission experiences.

Games Pastors at the Olympic Games 2012

Paulette Robinson had signed up as a Games Pastor for the Olympic Games held in Britain last year, was located at Stratford Station near the Olympic Park entrance, and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere. She spoke about the difference between being a missionary in day to day life and her experiences at the games:

ER: What about mission work at home. Have you been involved in that?

PR: Yes I do mission work personally, whether that’s going out and speaking to people that I meet, on a day to day basis. I’ve worked for my church. What do I consider as mission work? I see it as working in partnership with the Holy Spirit, to go out on an assignment and it’s to preach the good news to anyone who wants to hear it. Jesus told us to go into the world and preach the good news to everyone.

ER: How would you compare that previous mission work to what you did at the games?

PR: I think the only difference is that there was more people, and it was quite apparent that we were pastors, ministers, evangelists doing the work of God. Because of how we were dressed. However individually you are not dressed it’s just the person, so in terms of the difference, you yourself is the advert for God and I think that’s harder in a sense. Where at the games people are drawn to you because of what you are wearing, but on a day to day basis, you’ve got to go that extra mile. You don’t have a uniform it’s just yourself.

ER: What was you most memorable moment at the games?

PR: … I can just tell you about one memorable moment at Stratford station there was a couple who wanted directions to the Olympic park so I actually left the games pastor that I was with that particular day dropped them off at the entrance and walked back and there was a gentleman who had collapsed and he collapsed right in front of me and quite a few people around him went to support him. There was a plain clothes policeman on a bike who actually radioed for an ambulance and I just got down and held his hand and started praying for him. The paramedics came. But what was quite amazing about that, was that nobody asked me what I was doing or told me to go, and I was able to stay with him for about 15-20 minutes. Everyone I believe around me including the police, the paramedic, they had a respect for what I was doing.

Cyprian Yobera moved with his family from his friendly community in Kenya to what was, at the time, the worst place to live in England.

ER: … what was your mission strategy?

CY: (laughs) Our mission strategy went out of the window because when we first came it was really the youth that brought us. We came to do an outreach to the youth, and just finding that was difficult to isolate the youth and reach out to them. Our first question was to ask God ‘Why would you bring us from Africa into Harpurhey? What is there distinctive that we are carrying?’ And he pointed out to us it’s that aspect of the family and community which we so take for granted in Africa.

ER: But Cyprian, posed a special problem for you because you found that your children were playing with the children of neighbours who were very often the children of drug addicts, there were syringes around, that must have been a cause of enormous concern for you.

CY: It was, and it was. But basically again we had to lean on God and say ‘Well you sent us here. You have to take care of them.’ And without prayer we would not have stayed in Harpurhey. We believe that to reach out to the people of Harpurhey we needed to be part of them, and today we still consider ourselves part of Harpurhey community.

ER: Did you find there was any reverse discrimination? Did you find that because you were a black person coming to a predominantly white country there was a resentment?

CY: I’m one of those very positive people, generally, so I don’t see, I don’t seem to see it. I see in each person something special. If something is good news then it needs to be communicated as such.

ER: What was the one thing you did in Harpurhey that made people more willing to listen to what you had to sat about God?

CY: The gathering of community, bringing people together to do things together. You see when we first arrived Harpurhey, on my street half of the houses were boarded up. There was rubbish, pigeons and rats, and so on and so forth. Harpurhey had been named as the worst place to live in England. So when we arrived we worked at just cleaning up, you know, just bringing people together to clean up the streets. We did hanging baskets. We painted the boards. And the quality of the place just started to rise by it. The houses that were not being occupied started being occupied. People started buying in, renting in, and today if you went onto my street there is no boarded up house on that street.

Paul Lloyd was a former drug addict, describing himself thus:

PL: So from the age of 17 to the age of 27 I really plumbed the depths of street culture, gang culture crime hit the mountain top had the money the cars etc. And then slid down the mountain to the point where I was injecting heroin. And when I became a Christian at the age of 27, it was someone that I knew, and this is the importance of community. It was someone that I knew, that I trusted. I knew his background. I knew his history He had become a Christian, one of my best friends. And he told me about Jesus Christ. And that was what signified the beginning of the change for my life. I was delivered to become a deliverer. Moses, you see it all the way through the bible you see God’s people being sent back into the place that they came from to reach the people that they love that they knew and that they had that familiar ground with.

ER: Now Paul I suspect you would differ from Cyprian in your strategy of evangelism because Cyprian is quite reluctant to talk about God until he is arrived at a situation where he knows that who he’s talking to is really comfortable with that. I suspect you’re much more up front about that

PL: Yes. We take more of an ‘in your face’ kind of model. We just go, we look for opportunities. We go to the darkest places. We go to the back streets. We’ll go into the crack houses. We’ll go to wherever it is and reach out. I think that’s the important thing. That’s what the great commission is, to go and reach out. But it doesn’t mean to say that you just go and you shout and scream, and from a street corner It’s a lifestyle of evangelism I think that’s been lost by the church.

ER: Jack?

JT: I think its very important that we recognise that there is not just one way to do mission, even in a specific context, that we may be called to different tasks and I think we need a multi-stranded approach to whatever we’re going to try to do. For some it may be the direct approach of God talk. For others, as in the the interview with the games pastor it might simply be holding somebody’s hand when they’re in need.

PL: I completely agree. I have the understanding of mission of being a beautiful song…

ER: Jack, the word that keeps recurring within the context of mission is community. And the one thing that I take out of all this is the two are inextricably linked.

JT: I would say so, and I might even throw in another word. Going back to David Livingstone’s radicalism politically, and that word would be solidarity. I think it’s very important when one does mission, whether its in Manchester or Liverpool or Malawi or Korea, that as far as possible you identify with the people amongst whom God has placed you.

ER: Cyprian’s talked about the risk to his children. David Livingstone took risks, he took risks with his personal relationships. Paul?

PL: I’ve been a missionary. I’ve been in the far east, the middle east, but I’m more of a urban missionary. And going into urban environments I’ve had guns pulled out on me in Hackney in London, I’ve had knives pulled out on me in Salford. We’ve had stolen cars driven into the side of our building and blown up. There’s always going to be risk. But also I think the greatest thing about Christian mission is that we’re not just becoming subsumed into the cultures of this world, but that we’re pointing people towards something else, a different culture. There are many cultures but there’s one kingdom. The message that we bring is one of hope, its one of life, its one of salvation, and to me its a risk worth taking.

My further questions for discussion on this post are:

  • What can we learn from these individuals?
  • What might our specific missionary tasks be?
  • To what extent do you agree or disagree that community and solidarity have a place in missionary work?
  • How do you feel about risk?
  • How can we build a kingdom, whilst respecting the good of many cultures?
  • How can we recognise those points where our own cultures and God’s culture conflict?