Where Do Missionaries Go?

One suggestion is that there are more missionaries in the one city of Nairobi than in the whole of Francophone Africa.

This is another of my posts inspired by talks at the recent Global Connection’s Conference. During one of his talks, Daniel Bourdanné of IFES came out with a phrase that was very dear to my heart and which I immediately tweeted.

N’oubliez pas l’Afrique francophone @Bourdanne #GCC2014 >> OUI!!!!

“Don’t forget Francophone Africa!” To which I added my own YES!!

Daniel was referring to the fact that a huge proportion of missionaries go to places where there are already lots of Christians, or as he also put it:

#GCC2014 When you look at the number of missionary agencies who base themselves in Nairobi you wonder if it’s mission or tourism @Bourdanne

This ties up with my experience of Nairobi, where I’ve often thought that you couldn’t throw stones for fear of hitting an evangelical missionary. Interestingly, when I tweeted this a number of people agreed with it, while others suggested that Chiang Mai in Thailand suffers in the same way. Someone else suggested that there are more missionaries in Nairobi than in the whole of Francophone Africa.

I realise there is a need for regional offices and stable, foreigner friendly cities are very attractive for them, but it is surprising how many missionaries you can find in tourist hubs!

However, leaving the issues of the big cities aside, I believe that Daniel has highlighted a significant issue. Missionaries are distributed in a very uneven way and the majority of them go to places where there is an established church and often many other missionaries. As Hannah put it in a post on the Wycliffe blog:

or every 20,000 Christians like you – Bible believing and living out their faith – only one will go to tell the gospel to an unreached people group.

Or as Martin Lee put it in his excellent talk to introduce the conference:

There are still vast numbers of people who have never heard of Christ and many countries still where Christians are few and far between. Indeed some countries have seen Christian fleeing elsewhere due to war and conflict and persecution such as Iraq and Syria.

Despite this according to the Atlas of Global Christianity, 85% of all Christian mission is aimed at other “Christians”. Much mission deployment is still trying to sustain the growth of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Often when I am talking to church leaders, they will tell me that their church has a link with a church in Africa. Almost invariably this means in one of the Anglophone Countries in East Africa. This is understandable, it is easier to reach people who speak our language, and the relatively easy climate makes travel easier (not to mention the game parks). But these countries are also the ones that have the most Christians. I have never heard of a church in the UK which has a direct link to a Church in the Central African Republic, Gabon or Togo. These areas tend to be left for the mission agencies!

As we look at world mission, we can’t afford to forget Francophone Africa, or those other parts of the world that receive the fewest missionaries.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

4 replies on “Where Do Missionaries Go?”

Simplistic question, I’m afraid. “Missionary” is at the same time a cover term for more than one kind of worker, and a label that not everyone who might qualify for will gladly use.

Says my Congolese teammate, in support of your general thrust: “If you’re looking for lost sheep, you’re credible only if you come back with scratches on your arms and thorns in your feet.”

But the points of Peter (first comment) and Kate are well taken: The apparent distribution of western missionaries is skewed in part by the fact that only some of those “sent” are at liberty to wear the label.

I affirm Peter’s later point as well — there are fewer and fewer contexts in which Westerners are the best-placed to “reach the unreached” (except at the invitation of believers who are geographically and culturally closer).

But not all cross-cultural workers are church planters and frontier evangelists. Many bring needed technical expertise as consultants and trainers, so that the church can do its work — e.g. linguists and their ilk. There is still a role for pilots, doctors, educators, etc. from abroad. Some of these people can contribute through travel to places where their skills are needed, which is better than not contributing at all.

All that said, a hearty AMEN to the challenge to Western churches to mobilise workers for the less comfortable assignments. Even a steady trickle of qualified and committed workers in the DRCongo would be a real encouragement…

I don’t agree that it is a simplistic question and even if I did, I’m not sure how I could capture the complexity of the world Christian movement in the few words allowed for a heading.

Whether people self identify as missionaries or not doesn’t change the reality of what they are doing. I know one large organisation many of whose staff resolutely resist being called missionaries, while happily being supported by churches and church mission boards/committees. Those of us in the “mission world” like to draw complex lines and distinctions which are not observed by the rest of the world.

Put another way, not all cross-cultural Christian workers have the same thing to offer. Some plant churches, some fly aircraft or provide logistical support, some offer relief or development assistance, some further Bible translation, some are teachers, some start businesses, some minister to other workers, etc. All should go where they can contribute, under the appropriate auspices; and none should decline to go at all on the grounds that they personally can’t go where the need is greatest.

Point taken about the need for a manageable heading. But perhaps the general topic could form the basis for more than one blog post — e.g. making the choice between Anglophone and Francophone countries (for example), other things being equal; the question of who really needs to work in places that receive a lot of vacationers; and relationships with national and local churches, where these exist.

Point taken also that cross-cultural workers from the Global North are generally all perceived to be alike. But there can also be a place for workers to disabuse people of misconceptions about the nature of their ministry. What we have to offer is often not what people expect.

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