Attacks attributed to radical Islamic groups are happening on a weekly, or even daily, basis in Africa, posing security concerns across a vast swathe of the continent.
The phenomenon has dramatically affected Church activities in various regions.
But Rev. Reuben E. Ezemadu, Coordinator of the Movement for African National Initiatives (MANI), a grassroots African initiative aimed at mobilising African churches to send Africans as missionaries around the world, told World Watch Monitor the violence has at least had one unexpected positive effect: boosting mission work in Africa.
“The violence constitutes a real challenge for churches and mission work. But on the other hand, people displaced by that insurgency can come to places where they can easily be reached by the Gospel,” he says.
“Just an example: the widow of a missionary killed by Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria, who lives now in Ibadan, in the south, got engaged to a new convert from a Muslim background, who came to our school for training in mission. They got married in September last year. Later, they discovered that in a district of Lagos, there are Kanuris [an ethnic group originally from Borno State] living there and doing business. So now they are engaged in missionary work, reaching the Kanuris in Lagos.”
Rev. Ezemadu says there are now many missionaries among groups of internally displaced persons [IDPs], and that many Muslims have converted to Christianity.
“The upsurge in attacks have made some Muslims detest their religion,” he says, “and to ask the question: ‘Is this really a religion of peace? Is it really what we should follow?’ And as they come into contact with Christians, who show them the love of God, most of them are turning to Christ. We have heard stories of how God visited some of them, through wonders and miracles.”
He points towards the stories of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the apostle Paul, who started out as a persecutor of Christians.
“God could have prevented Stephen from being killed, but He let him be killed so that the Gospel could go beyond Jerusalem,” he says. “And then He let someone like Paul come on board, in order to do more things than Stephen could have done. We regard Paul as the first Boko Haram militant. His message was: ‘You are following Christianity. Because of that, you will die’. That’s what Boko Haram are doing now. But God used Paul to take the Gospel to different places.
“Out of our crisis, something great will come. For years churches were focused on converting people and claiming territories, without making disciples. The crisis will now force them to turn to Christ and be dependent on him.”
A turning point
Rev. Ezemadu adds that the nature of mission in Africa has changed, with Westerners no longer at the forefront.
“The crisis has also sent us a clear message regarding the future of mission in Africa,” he says. “Even before this upsurge of violence, anybody that is sensitive to the Holy Spirit would have known that the era of Western mission, in the way it used to happen in Africa, had passed.
“Even if Westerners can come, they can no longer go as deep as they used to go, for security reasons. Whereas African missionaries can integrate and mix with people.
“Moreover [some of] the people Westerners want reach in Africa are already in the West. God has brought them next to their doors, all over, whether in the US or Europe. Why don’t they stay there and reach them, as they can’t go to Somalia to reach Somalians?
“[Westerners] can also assist and encourage those who are doing it here in Africa. It’s like what America does [in conflict]: instead of sending troops to Iraq, they train Iraqis and equip them. Why can’t we do that in mission?
“We are not saying that Western missionaries should not come to Africa. But the time has come for missionary agencies to re-think their paradigm of missions, and even their strategies, and work in partnership with locals.
“That’s why a platform like this, MANI, exists – in order to engage African churches in mission, and also promote partnerships.
“So the question is not whether Africans are ready to take over the mission work. It’s only for us to discover our part and play it. Because for years we were sitting down and the white people were playing it for us.
“But now, many Africans are having breakthrough in leading international mission organisations (SIM, IFES, SIL, etc.). Some started as students, others footballers. But they are now planting churches and doing mission.
“That’s the message that MANI carries. We are God’s people, and we have a part to play in extending God’s kingdom. And what we have is sufficient to do what we can. But we are open to partnership.”