Lessons From A Catholic Missionary

Vincent Donovan was a Catholic missionary in Africa in the mid 1900s.  In his mission work he struggled with his missionary calling and through these struggles he discovered that if there was going to be any discipleship among the indigenous people of Africa new ideas of church and mission were going to have to be imagined. 


During the 1950s and 60s the Catholic priests serving in Masai, Africa built and equipped four schools and a hospital, purchased and upgraded a car to run community errands, attended kraals and drank milk and honey beer (sounds good) – and all this was going on for years.  But now read the letter that Donovan wrote in May 1966 to his bishop:

But never, or almost never, is religion mentioned on any of these visits.  The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero.  As of this month, in the seventh year of this mission’s existence, there are no adult Masai practicing Christians from Loliondo mission.  The only practicing Christians are the catechist and the hospital medical dresser, who have come here from other sections of Masailand.


That zero is a real number, because up until this date no Catholic child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so.


Later on in the letter Donovan would continue, “I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy – and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa.”[1]


What fascinates me about what Donovan is saying is that he needs to abandon all theories and discussions.  In his context this means abandoning the idea of building schools, hospitals and attending the social events.  Lamin Sanneh, who writes about this event says that Donovan is even going to have transgress hallowed boundaries, including ideas of church.


As I look at what Churches of Christ are doing in Ontario it seems that Donovan’s words can set us free.  We need to be free from the theories and discussions of how to do and be church for these theories and discussions are only hindering and hampering us.  These theories and discussions are not creating disciples in fact an alarming number of young people are leaving our heritage.  Our theories and discussions are not allowing us to discover the neighborhoods around the churches nor are they equipping us to serve the indigenous people.  In fact what the theories and discussions are forcing us to be and do is to remain a Southern US Church of Christ from the 1950s and 60s.  We need to quit discussing amongst ourselves how our current structures can remain in tact and do as Donovan says, “Simply go to these people and do the work for which [we are called].”

[1] Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations (Oxford, 2008), 236.

Published in: on May 8, 2008 at 10:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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A 30 Second Window

 He was my neighbor when my wife and I lived in the apartment buildings down from our church building and because of this we have developed a friendship.  It is an outstanding date that every Wednesday at 3:00pm we meet at Tim Horton’s for coffee and a donut.  Sometimes over coffee we are able to talk about church and Jesus, but most of the time we are talking about family, politics, and most recently sickness and death.  Today I was forcefully told that I would preach his funeral. 

Of course you can imagine that our conversation turned into a serious conversation and so I asked him what was up.  He said his health is deteriorating at a rapid decline and that since he is 65 he mentioned that no one in his family has lived past the age of 70.  Did I mention that he doesn’t look like a 65 year old, but rather an 85 year old?

We talked about death and I asked him if he was ready to meet the maker?  With a few minutes of awkward silence he responded and said, “The only thing I hope for is to be at peace with myself and that I am able to believe God is able to forgive a sinner like me.  How can I be at peace with myself?”

At this time I have a thirty second window of opportunity to proclaim the risen Jesus.  What should I say?  Should I quickly tell him about the theological terms of justification and redemption?  Should I tell him “the steps to salvation?”  What would you say in this thirty second window of opportunity?  Would you know what to say?

Within this thirty second window very few words were spoken but what I did say, (looking back on the conversation) I pray captured what needed to be said.  I told him that because of Jesus we can have this peace of knowing God will forgive sinners.  Disciples of Jesus have no worry of death because we have the assurance that God will forgive our sins through the cross.  I then recounted the story of Paul, when he was known as Saul, and how even God can forgive one who murdered and imprisoned innocent people.  Paul writes,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand . . . (Romans 5:1-2)


For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6).


But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life (Romans 5:8-10).

 My prayer is that when the Spirit of God moves in our midst and gives us the 30 second window of opportunity to proclaim the risen Christ we will have something to say; that we will be able to announce God’s word and the good news of the cross.

Published in: on July 28, 2007 at 2:05 am  Leave a Comment  

It’s A Struggle

I have to admit being a minister of a small church (under 70) people is sometimes a daunting task, especially when I am the only one on staff and all requests for food, rent assistance, etc. is filtered through me.  It seems that at least for the past few days we have had many people “in need” arrive on the steps of the church building.  Unfortunately when this happens the people of the church call me – why can’t they help them?

Most of the time there is usually a story to tell and then the punch line arrives and they tell us what they need – usually money.  We have a rule that we don’t give out money.  If people need food they than ask if they can have a food voucher, but we say no because we have learned that a lot of people buy smokes or buy a pack of gum and than get change back.  We politely tell people we will give them non-perishable food items and/or go grocery shopping for them.  We have discovered that those truly in need will take anything they can get and those who don’t need food walk away.  Every time someone walks away empty handed I wonder if I am turning them away when they are truly in need or if they are “scamming the system”?

This week we have had two individuals need assistance, except this time assistance with their cars.  One individual who lives in the van with his mother says they got pulled over by the police for an unsafe vehicle (no brake lights).  The story was told that if I give them $350 they could buy a new van and their current vehicle would be taken to the junk yard.  This was on Sunday.  On Monday they again arrived at the building and after a long discussion I said I would fix their break lights.  Upon fixing their break lights they then said that their van was no good and unable to be driven.  Again they said they needed $350.  The money is not an issue because our church practices tithing and so the mission team can easily purchase this van for them.  I contemplated this all day on Monday and after deciding to send an email to the mission team requesting to purchase this van I replayed the different conversations in my head and discovered there were two stories – each contradicting themselves, but they were so close I could hardly tell the difference except for two key statements that the mother and son made.

Turning people away is not really an option for me or the church.  We are in the “serving” business and the church must serve those in need.  How though do we decipher between those in need and those “scamming the system”?  Should we decipher or should we help all those who knock on our doors?  This is a major struggle I am having and I believe I will continue to have this struggle as I continually learn what it means to serve in the name of Jesus Christ.

Published in: on June 19, 2007 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Acting Our Way Into A New Way of Thinking

I love canoeing.  There is just something about paddling down a quiet river with only the mosquitoes and black flies disturbing the quietness of the moment.  As I paddle down the river the beavers slap their tales as a warning, the ducks and birds fly away and I see the odd fish become startled from my moving shadow.  The river seems as if it will never end, but then to my horror around the bend a log jam blocks the path and I can’t get through.

This is how ministry is sometimes.  The church is moving in one direction.  The leadership teams, the volunteers, the staff and even the lay people are moving as one but then to our horror a log jam is blocking the road.

I feel that this is also a picture of my ministry thus far.  For awhile when I had an eldership we seemed to be paddling, but in different directions.  Once we all got turned the right way and were heading in the same direction it seemed that all would work out.  Unfortunately what I didn’t realize was a log jam was forming that would block the path.

As I am living with the log jam and trying to navigate a path (well, looking for God to navigate a path so that I can follow) I am noticing that something isn’t sitting right with me.  It seems that I have been trained and somehow believed that if I can only teach another class in order to help the congregation think of a new way to navigate the log jam than we will be able to continue on our journey of faith.  What I am trying to do, as Alan Hirsh has said, is “to think our way into a new way of acting.”[1]  I am sitting on the bank of the river teaching the basic and fundamental principles of removing a log jam. 

What would happen if something completely opposite took place?  For example, what would happen if we acted our way into a new way of thinking?  Thus, instead of first teaching the basic and fundamental principles of removing a log jam I/we begin to remove the logs one at a time while learning the basic and fundamental principles.  This is a more hands-on approach.

In my last piece of writing I talked about how we have lost touched with our neighbors.  In order to help the congregation be a better neighbor I could probably could give a class and preach on what it means to be a neighbor.  I could talk with people over a cup of Star Bucks coffee about being a better neighbor and I could probably plead, urge, beg, and get down right nasty with the congregation telling them to be a better neighbor.  If I did this then I would be helping us think into a new way of acting.

Another option arises; I could help us act into a new way of thinking.  Thus I could solicit some key leaders and we can organize a couple of activities, like a strawberry social for the condominiums and lead the congregation into the condominiums, thus helping the congregation act into a new way of thinking.  It is one thing to teach and tell people how to act; it is another to provide tangible opportunities and experiences so that learning can be incorporated into life situations.

This idea of acting our way into a new way of thinking touches all aspects of ministry.  For example, help the congregation act in prayer, giving, reading of scripture, a life of serving, forgiveness, justice, etc., and eventually as they act (and of course hear some teaching) they will eventually begin to think differently. 

If we are going to help our churches become missional in nature and if we are going to help our churches shed the Constantine mindset it is going to take more than just teaching another class and more than allowing the congregation to hear another sermon.  It is going to mean helping the congregation act in a new way and as they act in a new way they will eventually begin to think in a new way.

[1] Alan Hirsh, The Forgotten Ways (Brazos, 2006), 122.

Published in: on May 14, 2007 at 12:54 am  Comments (1)