Christian mission workers from the global South find it hard to break into the "closed societies" of the North, Tanzanian church leader the Rev Fidon R. Mwombeki told delegates attending the 2010 World Missionary Conference last week - writes Trevor Grundy.
When he delivered a paper entitled, "Mission to the North: Opportunities and Challenges", Mwombeki, who is General Secretary of the Wuppertal, Germany-based United Evangelical Mission, spoke about the experience of missionaries from countries such as his own.
"The Southern churches many times know what they want from their Northern colleagues, most of the time in material or financial terms. They keep asking their colleagues to say what they need from the South, and that is a difficult question. Certainly, exotic drumming and dancing is not enough."
In his address on 4 June 2010, Mwombeki reviewed the history of missionary activity since the first such conference on the work of missionaries took place 100 years ago in Edinburgh.
He said that when missionaries from the North went to Africa they relied almost solely on the co-operation of local people, who taught them local languages, showed them what to do, and gave them food plus land to build churches.
Mwombeki contrasted the generosity of those people with the indifference shown to missionaries from the South today, when they arrive in places such as the United States or Britain.
"It is," he told ENInews, "particularly difficult for missionaries from the South, as foreigners, to penetrate the society. Stigma against foreigners is high. Foreigners in the North are generally stigmatised." He noted, "The most frequent question one hears from the native people, when they get to know one, is, 'When are you going back home'?"
The African missionary said that missionaries from the South are regarded as "beggars", and that at the beginning their gifts are not "easily appreciated". "Most people in the North do not believe Southerners have a message to tell them but that they are somehow trying to take advantage of the system to get access to wealth and services in the North."
Commenting on the fact that 100 years ago missionaries from the North went to what some called the "pagan" South, he declared, "There is (today) real hunger for the Gospel in the North. The churches have been starved of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for a long time."
In October 2009, Mwombeki became the first black person to be elected to the main governing body of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's principal Protestant umbrella group.
Mwombeki said that many people from the mainstream churches in Europe had complained to him about having to endure abstract sermons from their own pastors.
"I often hear the lay people say that most of the sermons have nothing to say about their daily lives or their real concerns. People want to hear about Jesus," said Mwombeki. "They want to know God is with them. They want to know about the forgiveness of sins. They want to learn how to pray. And these are things people from the South are used to doing."
In an interview with ENInews, the Rev Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, said there is a need to build bridges so that missionaries from the South can move more easily and comfortably into the North.
"Today mission is everywhere, so people coming from the South to the North are only one part of this phenomenon. I think this question of hospitality is really important. The churches of the South bring several things to the North," said Tunnicliffe. "There is their deep sense of passion. Sometimes we in the West become so sophisticated that we have lost some of that great passion."
Asked if he thought Christians living in the North are less than friendly in receiving and accepting missionaries from the South, Tunnicliffe said, "Some of this is cultural - language and cultural differences. One of the things that we have been trying to do in Europe through the European Evangelical Missionary Alliance is give orientation to those coming in from other parts of the world, who want to do mission in Europe."
He added, "Some people from the South who I have talked to do feel like the Rev Mwombeki but others say they have been made very welcome."
The official Edinburgh 2010 website can be found here: http://www.edinburgh2010.org/