The Continuing Call—Christian Missions in the Post-Colonial Age

“In the twentieth century, for the first time, there was in the world a universal religion–the Christian religion. Christianity acclimated itself in every continent and in almost every country. In many areas that hold might be precarious, and its numbers small, yet in country after country the Christians evinced the power to be a dynamic minority. It took root, not as a foreign import, but as the Church of the countries in which it dwells.” With those words, historian Owen Chadwick updated Bishop Stephen Neill’s classic history of Christian missions. By the end of the twentieth century, the Christian missionary movement had reached around the globe. Still, the missionary challenge looms larger than ever before. This comes immediately to mind in light of the remarkable cover story published in the January 29, 2006 edition of The New York Times Magazine. “The Call,” written by Daniel Bergner, offers fascinating and insightful coverage of the work of missionaries Rick and Carrie Maples, who along with their two children have moved to a rural outpost in northern Kenya, in order to bring the gospel to the Samburu people.

Bergner begins his account by describing the primitive church building in which he shares a conversation with Rick Maples. “I want this to be the last church,” Maples tells Bergner. “This should be the last church built in this section of the valley.”

As the article makes clear, Maples is speaking of the church building–not of congregations. His statement concerning the inappropriateness of the church buildings relates to the words on the cover of the magazine, describing Maples as an example of “the post-colonial missionary.”

Bergner’s article offers incredible insights into the transformation of Christian missions that has taken place over the last generation or so. Through the lens of his report, readers will come to understand not only why Rick and Carrie Maples would take their daughters into a desolate region of Kenya, but why they would also want to see the Samburu people develop their own indigenous manifestation of biblical Christianity. Put simply–evidence of indigenous Christianity among the Samburu would be seen in worship held out of doors, not in Western-style church buildings, however primitive.

Rick and Carrie Maples once knew a comfortable and prosperous life in Danville, California, an affluent community just outside San Francisco. Rick refers to his comfortable suburban life as “my other life,” even as Carrie remembers their jacuzzi and the ornamentation of their suburban home in California.

“We were really happy with our life,” Rick told the reporter. “We saw about 25 years ahead, and we were happy with what we saw.”

All that changed when Carrie and Rick experienced missions firsthand. As teenagers, they had been involved in various mission trips, and when they had married, they talked about serving as missionaries post-retirement. Then, in 1996, Carrie went with a nursing colleague on a three-week mission to a hospital run by Africa Inland Mission [AIM]. Upon her return, Carrie actually filled out an application to AIM but kept it secret from her husband, showing it to him only when he shared of his own sense of call to missions. As Bergner reports, “He recognized his desire one day at work, when he and his colleagues were chatting about what they would do if they ever won the lottery. His own answer, he said, had stunned him: he would quit his job and go as a missionary to Africa.”

Before long, Rick and Carrie, along with daughters Meghan (twelve) and Stephanie (four) moved to Kenya, first spending two years in Bonjoge, then moving to Kurungu, where they now serve with the Samburu people.

Instead of their suburban comfort in California, the Maples now live in a small cinder-block house that is served by a refrigerator that operates on kerosene. They live a day’s journey from Nairobi, and face daily challenges that could not have been imagined in San Francisco. As Bergner reports: “The family’s dog, Cooper, an irrepressible mutt, had been attacked and nearly blinded by a spitting cobra on the Mapleses’ back porch.” Beyond this, lions had recently killed several donkeys and a camel very close to the home. “The pair of Samburu guards that keep watch over the house recently chased the lions from the low fence of the family’s yard,” he reports.

Berger cites Todd Johnson, director for the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, and reports that American Christian missionaries around the world now number around 120,000. The liberal and mainline Protestant denominations have been reducing their missionary rosters for years, while missionaries from evangelical Protestant denominations and missions agencies continue to grow. Beyond the 120,000 missionaries cited by Johnson, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College estimates that some 346,000 Christians are serving for periods between two weeks and one year.

In Kenya, approximately seventy percent of the people now claim some Christian identity. Nevertheless, the Samburu, numbering about 150,000, have been staunchly resistant to the gospel. Instead, they continue to worship “Ngai,” whom they believe to be identified with the steep mountains that border their Kenyan valley.

Bergner is clear in pointing to the evangelistic motivation that drives the Maples and their ministry. “For us, this is home,” Rick confided. As Carrie explained, they were here by virtue of their call to bring the gospel to the Samburu. “How do they know the truth, unless they are told the truth?” she asks.

The Samburu people are a proud tribe, who have embraced the Maples family as friends. They appreciate the fact that the missionaries have assisted with practical needs and medical care. As the report in The New York Times Magazine makes clear, modernity has made few inroads among the Samburu people. “Their wooden bells clacking softly in the still air, the herds graze, tended by the Samburu, whose bodies are draped in wraps of brilliant cloth, whose necks and foreheads are resplendent in beads and burnished metal, whose hair is dyed with red ocher.”

Evangelicals should view this article with respect and appreciation. Daniel Bergner writes of both the missionaries and the Samburu people with genuine respect–treating them as authentic human beings driven by understandable motivations. When so many impressions of Christian missionaries have been fueled by notions of Christian imperialism and worse, Bergner points to the deep Christian commitment and love that has brought the Maples family to Kurungu, and keeps them there under difficult and lonely circumstances.

Bergner’s reportage is touching and deeply moving. He writes of the loneliness experienced by Meghan, who at age twelve isn’t quite sure that she shares the same missionary calling. Nevertheless, she speaks of being “really blessed” through her experience with her parents on the mission field. “Sometimes I think I can live without friends, I just don’t know,” she told the reporter. “Sometimes I have these breakdowns.” There are almost no girls her age among the Samburu in Kurungu.

Bergner also writes of the “strategic” patience demonstrated by these missionaries. “It seemed to blend with the expanses of arid land and the timelessness of Samburu life,” he observed. “It seemed almost like a cover. And all the while the Mapleses were gaining trust and gathering knowledge so that they would prevail in an area where other missionaries had made little headway.”

Devastating criticisms of Christian missionary efforts as projections of cultural imperialism were often well deserved. In too many cases, Christian missionary efforts appeared to be motivated by something more like Rudyard Kipling’s infamous “white man’s burden,” rather than by the Christian gospel and the Great Commission.

Daniel Bergner’s article is a respectful and accurate demonstration that the age of colonial missions is now past–certainly among the most respected and established missionary organizations. Rick and Carrie Maples want to see an indigenous form of Christianity emerge among the Samburu, with indigenous churches and with appropriate cultural manifestations of transformational Christian truth.

As an example of the difficult issues often encountered in the collision of cultures and the presentation of the Christian gospel, Bergner points to the practice of female circumcision which is commonly practiced among the Samburu. “It’s a spiritual issue, it’s a public-health issue, it’s a human rights issue,” Rick Maples declared. As he explained, the body is God’s temple and the mutilation of the human body is a sin. “Once people have accepted the Lord, we’ll talk about how God created sex and ordained sex, that sex is to be enjoyed,” Rick explained. “It is a gift to a man and a woman who are married, and to take away God’s gift of pleasure is not right.”

The forthrightness with which Rick and Carrie Maples discussed sex appeared to shock Daniel Bergner, but the fact that Christianity would transform a culture and contradict certain cultural practices is part and parcel of the Christian missionary experience. After all, missionary pioneer William Carey, who went to India two centuries before the Mapleses went to Kenya, understood that the embrace of the Christian gospel must mean the end of the Indian practice of suttee (or sati), the ritual burning of a dead man’s widow.

What this important article makes clear is that Christian missionaries have been struggling with these questions for at least a generation now, realizing that the Christian gospel will transform every culture, but that the goal of Christian missions is not to replicate Western civilization, but to show the glory of God through the transformation of peoples in accordance with their own cultural diversity.

Writing almost twenty years ago, missions strategists Dale W. Kietzman and William A. Smalley observed: “There cannot be preaching except in cultural terms, and no human being can or should try to escape value judgments. The missionary cannot legitimately force or enforce any culture change. Nor does he have an adequate basis for advocating specific changes in a culture unless he has a profound knowledge of the culture.”

They continued: “The missionary does, however, have an extremely important function in the tactful, thoughtful, serious presentation of alternate forms of cultural behavior to the Christians in a society. On the basis of his knowledge of history, his understanding of the church elsewhere, and above all, his knowledge of the tremendously varied ways in which God dealt with men, as recorded in the Scriptures, he can make it clear to them that there are alternative ways of behavior to their own, and help them in prayer and study and experiment to select those cultural forms which would be the best expression for their relationship to God in their culture.”

The New York Times Magazine and Daniel Bergner deserve the respect and appreciation of American evangelicals for the careful and objective analysis this article represents. Non-Christians reading the article are likely to gain a new understanding of why evangelical Christians would abandon comfort in order to follow the missionary call. Readers will be assisted in understanding how modern missions has moved into a post-colonial shape, understanding and appreciating the diversity of human cultures.

Christians, on the other hand, should receive this article as an impetus and a reminder of what is at stake in Christian missions and of the challenge that yet remains–reaching hundreds of people groups around the globe who have never heard the Gospel. Beyond this, we now know of a people, the Samburu, for whom we should be praying–praying that they would be open and receptive to the Gospel. Beyond this, this article allows us to meet Rick and Carrie Maples, who along with their daughters are serving the cause of Christ at great sacrifice.

If nothing else, we should also remember the commitment to the Gospel of Christ that is represented by a twelve-year-old girl in Kenya who feels desperately lonely. The Kingdom is visible in such as these.