How Western Missionaries Can Avoid Being Vehicles of Neo-Colonialism

Dr. Celestin Musekura, president and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, explains how Westerners can be effective in missions.

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An African political leader once said, “In the middle of the storm, ripe or not, the orange fruit will fall on the ground.” We are living in a changing world. And some of these changes are inevitable due to different kinds of storms. However, challenges and opportunities come with such constant changes. Therefore, to make a difference in these unpredictable times, you need to be flexible in your plans. Above all, flexibility will help you to fulfill your God-given mission.

Unfortunately, many mission agencies have continued to do missionary work as if the society is not changing. After all, the world is not waiting for them to execute the plans and strategies they developed 10 years, or worse, 20 years ago. I have heard missionaries say, “This is what our organization has done 15 years ago. Therefore, that is what we are here to do.” Because a “beggar has no choice,” the host church or community keep quiet and act as if the missionary and his imported programs(s) are helping them.

However, since the host communities were not involved in deciding what they really needed, they just accept whatever is offered. Hence, a little effect on their way of thinking, living, and acting. For that reason, when the missionary is gone, everything goes with him or her. After all, no one owns these programs or projects and no one was involved in bearing them.

What should be the role of a Western missionary today? What kind of programs will make a difference and what strategies do we need to be truly intentional in our approaches and incarnational in our program? Few things come to mind when I think about the role of a Western missionary in Africa today.

Here are five key roles of Western missionaries in the 21st century:

1. Western missionaries should be listeners

A listener who, without throwing away what he studied in books or what he was told by former missionaries and expert missiologists, will sit down with the people, listen to their heartbeat, their stories, their struggles, their fear, their despair and hopefully their hopes. Not only will the process immerse the missionary into the veins of the community, but it will allow him to really know them as they are. Hence, the incarnational ministry will be born out of this redeeming presence. Building relationships with the community takes priority over “doing” something for the community. Missions should be about “being” rather than “doing.”

2. Western missionaries should be fellow learners

A fellow learner who joins the host community in learning and discovering their problems and together find solutions to these problems. Here, the missionary with his community development skills will assist the community with tools to discover these problems and find locally appropriate solutions. The community will own programs and projects born out of this approach. The role of the partnership is more reinforced in this way.

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3. Western missionaries should be team players

A team player that comes with special gifts and talents and willing to recognize the gifts and talents of others (no matter how undeveloped these gifts and talents are) in order to form a stronger team. With time, this missionary could be given the role of the coach as others recognize his special gifts and talents. A stronger relationship and great respect will be born out of this approach.

4. Western missionaries should be a community link

A “Link” between the body of Christ in between his new community and the other communities, especially his sending agency or congregation. This role is for mutual support because every community has something to offer to the other community. This new role differs from the old role that presented the host communities as people without anything to offer to the rest of the body of Christ but rather to been pitied. This approach will not only develop strong relationships based on mutuality, but will restore dignity to those who once were considered useless, poor, and unproductive.

5. Western Missionaries should be bridges

A bridge missionary, or a “Barnabas” who will encourage, strengthen, introduce, mentor and help establish self-supportive and self-propagating communities who will change their communities from inside out (Acts 4:36; 9:27; 11:22,30; 12:25; 13:4; 15:39).

These are the types of Western missionaries Africa desires to welcome and partner with. We can build the body of Christ holistically when we are all aware of the image of God represented in each other.


Editor’s note: This article was first published at Theology in Africa.


Dr. Celestin Musekura, is President and Founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM, Inc.). Musekura is an ordained Baptist minister who was born and raised in Rwanda. He received a Bachelor of Theology at Kenya Highlands Evangelical University in Kenya, a Master of Divinity at the Africa International University (AIU), formerly Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST) in Kenya, a Master of Sacred Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, a Master of Science in Justice Administration and Leadership at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a Ph.D. in theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas. His doctoral research is on Contemporary Models of Forgiveness. He specializes in communal forgiveness and servant leadership and justice administration. Learn more about ALARM.


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