Why “Christianity Rediscovered” deserves a fresh reading
In May 1966, the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan wrote a letter to his Bishop, a year into his work in Loliondo, Tanzania. He had joined a long-term mission which was having a strong influence in the locality through excellent work involving schools and a hospital. But Donovan was frustrated.
Crucially for the future of the work, he carried the godly frustration of a true pioneer, which ultimately leads to courageous and clear-sighted action.
This story, about a Catholic man communicating the gospel to tribes of mostly illiterate cattle herders on the plains of Tanzania, informed and challenged my own missional practice in planting a church in the Langworthy estate in Salford, England – a place renowned at the time for high levels of crime and deprivation.
Donovan’s work, separated from my own by 7000 miles and 40 years, gave a beautiful theological language to what we were experiencing as we pioneered a new expression of church in an estate where a tiny percentage of people attended any church or had any concept of the gospel.
The first thing we learned from Donovan was the importance of humble listening. A group of us had moved into Langworthy in 1999: young, shiny, happy Christians arriving with answers to every question and a clear idea of how to help people improve their lives and find Jesus. We didn’t realise at the time that we had much more to learn than we had to give. This was a painful lesson for us. When Donovan is asked by a Masai tribe whether his ‘tribe’ has found the most High God, he thinks deeply before answering ‘no…I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with me. Let us search for him together’. He invites them on a journey of discovery. He will listen and they will listen and they will seek God together. Unlike his missionary colleagues, he doesn’t go with medical help or education, but simply to sow the seeds of the gospel and see what grows up.
There is a humility here that has echoes of St Aidan’s mission to the tribes of northern England. Not imposing the gospel from a position of power, but offering it with openness and a willingness to listen and learn. Aidan went to a place and a people written off by his peers as impossible to reach, too barbaric and wild. Donovan was told it might take one hundred years before the Masai were ready to discuss the Christian faith, that ‘it is impossible to preach the gospel directly to the Masai’.
Like Aidan and all true pioneers, it was this apparent impossibility that drove him to abandon the theories and discussions, and ‘simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa’ (13). When he did this, the question he received was ‘why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’.
As Donovan and the Masai began this journey together they began to realise that the Most High God, the God of the whole world, had been with them before the missionaries came. When we began our work in Langworthy there was almost a sense that we were taking the light of Jesus with us into this dark, godless place. It was quite a revelation when we realised that Jesus was already there!
Donovan helped us to understand the Missio Dei – that God is on a mission everywhere and in every person. It is our job to join that mission. For every person I meet, my task is to find out what God has been doing in their life, and help them to join the dots and recognise that those moments of awe and wonder are signs that (to use Donovan’s analogy) the Lion has been pursuing them.
This is a reflection of the whole biblical story. Creation begins in the tohu wabohu – formless, void, wilderness. The story of the people of God starts with an elderly couple who can’t have children. The news of the Messiah comes to the shepherds. The impossible places, the unreachable people. Yet God is at work there.
Another issue that emerges in pioneering mission, or ‘first evangelisation’ , is we can often come with our quick answers and theological assumptions, and then they don’t work anymore outside the safety of our church bubble. Jonny Baker talks about a ‘theological homelessness’ (see Jonny’s chapter in The End of Theology) often experienced by pioneers as they leave the comforts of what they know and relearn the gospel for the culture or group they are reaching. It is fascinating to see how Donovan wrestles with this, ‘every single thing I prepared to teach them had to be revised or discarded once I had presented it to them. Just what was the essential message of Christianity?’ There is a thrilling freshness to the message that emerges as a result of this process, as there is all over the world as the seeds of the gospel are sown, including in a little forgotten estate in the north west of England.
We searched in vain for a proven model that we could use for our mission in Langworthy. Donovan taught us to discard the models and listen to the whisper of the Spirit. He taught us the importance of proximity – of friendship, and of living and working among the people you are reaching. Proximity is not only significant missionally but also theologically, as you observe at first hand the traces of the Missio Dei in people’s day to day lives and in their culture and the stories they tell.
Donovan gives a stunning example of this in the Masai custom of bringing peace between feuding families. The two families prepare endaa sinyati, or holy food, and bring it to the centre of the village accompanied by the whole community, and in the exchanging of food, forgiveness comes and a new covenant is established between the families. In Donovan’s words ‘a new testament of forgiveness is brought about by the exchange of holy food. What more can one say?’ (49) Evidence of the work of God in a supposedly ‘godless’ culture.
What is the gospel? What is church? Every missionary pioneer will have grappled with these questions, and Donovan grounds them in this real and remarkable story. It is both beautiful and unsettling, and speaks to the Christian church today with great relevance and power. It reminds us of the importance of mission for the church – ‘a church that turns in on itself is no longer a church’ (85) – and challenges Western concepts of individualism and organisation. When decisions are made as a whole tribe, what about those who don’t fully understand the gospel? How are leaders raised up and recognised by the wider church when most of the Masai leaders are illiterate and the usual ordination processes simply don’t work for them? What is the future for such a mission?
There are many big questions raised here; some are answered eloquently within the book and others are left for the reader to wrestle with. It is an incomplete and imperfect story, yet beautiful and breathtaking, and this is fitting because this is the very nature of Christian mission. Our story in Langworthy is also incomplete and imperfect, yet at times beautiful and breathtaking, as is your story and that of your community. Read this book and be challenged and inspired, be frustrated, be equipped, but most of all, wrestle with the ideas here and sow the seeds of the gospel into your context and see what emerges!