By Rob Moll
Our world is one in which people, ideas, and products travel from everywhere on the globe to anywhere else. As a result, every place is a mission field, a home to people in need of the gospel. Yet bringing the gospel to them can be a serious challenge.
Typically, missionaries find ways to contextualize the gospel, to make it understandable and meaningful in a particular culture. In the U.S., where the gospel has to a large degree shaped the culture, the problem is not contextualization but over-contextualization, says Casely Essamuah. How do you make the gospel understood where it is such a familiar presence as to be unremarkable? This is the challenge of missionaries who come to the U.S.
Casely Essamuah is global missions pastor or Bay Area Community Church in Annapolis, Maryland. Originally from Ghana, Essamuah and his wife met while they were students in Boston. Angela Wakhweya-Essamuah, after receiving an MA in Economics at the London School of Economics, is now deputy director of infectious health for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The couple works with short term mission trips from Maryland to Africa as well as with immigrant communities planting churches in the U.S. The couple spoke at the Henry Center Scripture and Ministry Series (Lecture: Audio | Video; Interview: Audio | Video).
Around the world, the gospel has not been evenly contextualized. “In 1900,” Casely said, “33 percent of the world identified itself as Christian. That is the same as in the year 2000. The Christian market share has remained the same, but the real issue is where the growth took place.” In Africa and Latin America, growth of the church as been feverish, he said. “This is a testament to the successful contextualization of the gospel. God worked through southern church.”
However, Casely said, despite some success in South Korea and a few other countries, efforts at church planting in Asia have not gone far enough. In the West, the picture is ambiguous. “The church is alive and thriving,” he said. “Churches are active in relief among the global poor. The church seems to be meeting the challenge of the 21st century, but there are clouds. The Western church suffers from an over-contextualizing of cultural forms.”
Missionaries coming to the U.S. have so far only recognized the problem. These missionaries are not sent by their home churches specifically to share the good news on U.S. soil. Instead, they come to America as economic migrants and slowly their identity shifts toward that of a missionary.
Casely said that most Americans today don’t recognize what the rest of the world saw as a momentous decision when, in 1965, the government overturned the system of country quotas that preferred immigration from European countries. “That set the U.S. on a course that was different than past 300 years,” he said. “Today we have a president called Barak Obama.”
This allowed migrants from very different cultures to arrive on these shores, and they brought with them their religion, often Christianity. However, they are often shocked at the degree to which their faith is absent from American culture.
“One of the things we encounter around the world is the shock when Westerners are introduced to poverty,” Casely said. Immigrants to the U.S. don’t experience the same type of shock. They know what the U.S. looks like. They’ve seen television shows or movies, and they know what to expect. But what does shock these immigrants is the degree of secularization of American culture, Casely said, “especially when people come from where Christianity is strong. They see the U.S. as a place of dry bones.”
This is the start of their transition from economic migrants to missionaries, and these reverse missionaries are having incredible success, first with fellow immigrants and slowly with the rest of American society. “The church of Pentecost is 50 yrs old in Ghana,” Casely said, “and they have established 200 churches in the U.S. in 25 years.”
As a Ghanaian Methodist minister in Annapolis, Maryland, he said, “There are six Ghanaian Methodist churches within an hours’ drive.” They were formed to provide refuge for immigrants looking to worship in their language and a familiar culture. Now, however, “They are renegotiating their identity as Ghanaians in the U.S.”
The effect of their missionary efforts remains to be seen. Can reverse missionaries change American culture? Time will tell. We do know, however, that there is no need to wait for experts to travel around the world to find out. Americans can visit their local store-front church or neighborhood recreation center on a Sunday morning and see the whole world in worship.