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Lessons learnt: Humility and cultural understanding

A photo of CMS missionary Jenny Bennett with a local minister taken by Faith on a pastoral visit during her time as an MPS.

Former CMS missionary, Faith Blake, served in Tanzania for seven years, and then as a Mission Personnel Secretary for CMS Australia. Here, she reflects on the lessons she learnt about the need for humility and cultural understanding in mission.

“Faith, remember that you are just a baby missionary!” exclaimed a friend. I was venting my frustration that I couldn’t do anything worthwhile because of my lack of understanding of the language. I was used to being in control, knowing what was happening, and now I couldn’t even understand the staff meetings! I had been in Tanzania about six months at the time.

It was the best advice I was given during my seven years working in Tanzania as a maths teacher in a government school. Because of her words, I listened more and spoke less. In the process, I learned that in the African culture, people matter more than things or getting tasks completed, and working together is better than individualism. I don’t think I realised at that time that Africans, in general, learn in a different way to Westerners, and their view of teachers means that they don’t ask questions as much.

The challenge

One of the challenges that Western missionaries face is that we come from a position of strength. We sometimes think that our way is best, when it may not be for the situation we are in.

Many people come to Africa with their idea of what will work. They teach or lecture in their way, and sometimes convince students that the ‘Western way’ is the only way. But this is problematic. When someone then presents the same material in a way that will better enable students to learn and apply it to their culture, students feel they are not being taught the best way.

The solution

To be successful in a different culture, we need to venture out of our own cultural makeup.

When I was a Mission Personnel Secretary, in my discussions with church leaders and partners across the world my approach would be to ask, “How can we work with you?” I remember a bishop asking us to send student workers to his diocese to teach his pastors how to carry out student ministry in the many universities that had sprung up. It was a valid request and is an ongoing need. However, I felt that before they could teach his pastors how to do student ministry, the missionaries concerned would need to see how the principles of student ministry could best be applied, considering that culture’s worldview and way of thinking.

The future

I feel that the major way that CMS has helped to grow the African Church has been in Bible teaching, and in equipping and encouraging others to do this. As such there is an ongoing future role for CMS in Africa. In Africa relationships are important, and our relationship has been a long one. We can’t just can’t say, “Farewell, you can do it by yourself now”.

The African Church keeps on asking us to help them to “present every man mature in Christ” by sending personnel to teach the Bible at all levels, especially in student ministry in secondary schools and universities, as well as at Bible schools and theological colleges. Where we don’t have the personnel to send, we can provide the financial support to train locals at higher levels, or perhaps help support locals who have been trained to teach at higher levels. And of course, the need for prayer across all our endeavours in Africa, and over the African Church as a whole, remains an ongoing need.

Until Jesus returns, we all have a role to play in building God’s Church in Africa!


Pray that God would continue to equip missionaries with cultural sensitivity and wisdom as they seek to strengthen local churches in Africa.