Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mission Mistakes

It came to my attention just this morning that Bruce Wilkinson is no longer with “Walk Thru the Bible.” Since there was nothing on the “Walk Thru” web site about Bruce, I was fearful he had died. Actually, he left “Walk Thru” hoping to fulfill a dream.

During a visit to Africa, the enormity of the AIDS crisis hit him hard and left him with an intense desire to get involved. He left “Walk Thru” and went to Swaziland, one of the areas hardest hit with the AIDS pandemic. Confident God would continue blessing him because of his ardent praying of the “Prayer of Jabez,” Wilkinson soon discovered his plan did not generate acceptance in this poor African country.

Although Wilkinson operated out of good motives, he made mistake after mistake simply because he failed to understand the African culture. Rejecting the advice of the U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland as well as Christian brethren, he forged ahead determined God would bless him and he would do a great work for God. The “Wall Street Journal” and numerous web sites chronicle what happened. Wilkinson’s dream shattered around him.

What were his mistakes?

1.     He invested almost magical qualities to the “Prayer of Jabez.” This little prayer, nestled among a listing of the descendants of Helah (1 Chronicles 4:9) calls on God to bless the prayer (Jabez) by enlarging his territory and keeping him from pain. Wilkinson attributed his fortuned earned from massive book sales to God’s faithfulness in fulfilling that prayer. In my opinion, he permitted that prayer to become a mantra and it became devalued by vain repetition.

2.     He failed to consider the African culture. Wilkinson asked for large parcels of land on which to build his “dream villages.” He did not take into consideration the fact that the nationals saw land as something of tremendous value. As a result, national leaders believed he was carving out a territory for himself rather than seeking bases of operation.

     Further, he wanted to take children orphaned by the AIDS virus away from their villages where they would be cared for. The African people saw that as a violation of their culture. If there is anywhere where “it takes a village” to nurture children, it is in Swaziland.

3.     He emphasized the secular rather than the spiritual. The emphasis was on dealing with AIDS first with little attention given to biblical evangelism. In some ways that was not a totally bad strategy, but when dealing with AIDS becomes the only emphasis, something is wrong with the agenda.

Now I am not a missiologist by any stretch of the imagination, but my own travels have taken me to Southeast Asia five times over the last seven years. As a result of those trips, I thought I understood the culture fairly well. This past trip proved me wrong. The Asian culture in which I work is so self-giving and others-oriented that it is easy to slight them with no intention. Let me give you just one example.

We spent three weeks in the Far East this spring. As we moved into the second and third week our stamina dramatically flagged. We were running out of steam. If my memory served me correctly, our tickets sent us back to the USA a day before most of the others. Several other team members decided to change their tickets and leave a day early. They had no responsibilities during that last day, so they decided to spend a day in Bangkok seeing the sights. Only later did we learn our hosts felt badly that so many decided to leave. It was merely sloppy thinking on our part. There was no desire to insult or offend, but because we failed to consider the cultural issues involved that was the result.

Bruce Wilkinson, like most Americans including those I travel with, thought every problem could be solved with an American solution. Although I think cultural understanding has to be a two-way street, I know that we Americans sometimes come across as believing our culture and our ways are superior. Perhaps in many cases they are, but in other cases they definitely are not. Many around the world desire the things and freedoms Americans enjoy, but they must come to realize that America’s plenty resulted from earlier spiritual commitments. (I know a lot of secular Americans would disagree with that last sentence, but I care not!) We must realize we can’t impose those commitments. They must be shared one individual to another. Then we must recognize that Christ’s redemption of an entire culture may shape that culture differently. Just as churches differ – even those in the same fellowship or denomination – cultures will differ in their expressions of the Gospel.