February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
August 8, 2005
A number of statistics are thrown around when discussing HIV/AIDS and Africa. In fact, statistics are the closest encounter most have with this crisis. There are no pictures of catastrophe or mass chaos as seen in the recent tsunami crisis or hurricane Katrina devastation—only mind-numbing statistics. Over 40-million people are currently infected by HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Projections are that by 2010 this number will reach 85 million, making it the worst pandemic in history. These statistics are staggering and for the most part well-known. The number of AIDS-related deaths every three weeks in Africa is higher than the number killed in the recent tsunami crisis – yet we are not really moved. Somehow the awfulness of these deaths makes little imprint on our conscience, unlike when a sudden tragedy strikes. Did you know that, despite Christ’s direct mandate to “protect the orphan and widow,” evangelical Christians are the least likely group to help the 12-million children orphaned by AIDS? A survey in 2002 showed that barely 3% to 5% are likely to give to an organization that is directly involved with the AIDS crisis. The reasons for our lack of involvement are many, including a strong sense that the crisis is avoidable and a result of bad moral choices. So the questions I ask myself are these: What will drive the church to a massive, compassionate response to this crisis? If the numbers and pictures do not move us – what will? What will mobilize Christians to care and get involved? This may be a long shot, but I hope that another round of statistics will begin to turn the heart of the church. Ponder the following:
These stats are alarming, and trying to figure them out just might be what begins to move us, as a church, to intervene. I invite you to thrash out why there is a correlation between Evangelical Christianity and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Let me begin by recounting a statement made in November 2004 by the former Minister of Health of Swaziland who now heads up that country’s AIDS task force. When speaking to an audience of ministers and pastors, he pointed out that historically 92% of Swazi women would marry, yet currently only 35% of them were getting married – despite the fact that 92% of Swazi people are Christian. He contended that these pastors have congregations filled with people having sex yet not getting married. He asked how this could happen under their watch. We as a church have to ask the same troubling questions. There has been no missionary effort equal to the effort in Africa over the last 150 years. By most measurements, the effort has been a tremendous success. Africa has, for the most part, heard and responded to the Gospel. In most sub-Saharan African counties, over 80% of the population would call themselves Christian. Yet the culture is in a mess. The Gospel has failed in many respects to bring upliftment and change. Men and women who call Christ their Savior are committing adultery, fornicating, stealing, and being lazy and non-productive in a scale that is beyond belief. In the decade of the nineties, the gross domestic product of Africa declined, while all other continents increased. Africa has become the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS crisis where it is no longer confined to high-risk sex. Africa is renowned for political corruption and greed. How can this be? I propose that the Evangelical church has failed Africa. In saying this, I include myself among the guilty. I am not throwing stones. I am stating that the church, of which I am a part, has had an unwitting hand in this crisis. We have failed to bring a life-changing gospel to Africa. I grew up in Africa where massive evangelical campaigns as well as tireless missionary efforts are a part of life. Devoted missionaries have given their lives to reaching the African man for Christ, and yet our corporate effort has failed to reach the African culture for Christ. We have brought people to the Cross, but failed to disciple them in what the Christ of the cross taught. We talk about eschatology (with an urgency that often exceeds the written text) without talking about life today. We give many Africans a ticket to the heavenly train, but have no idea whether they actually boarded. We teach how to get to Heaven, but not how to live on earth. I suspect that the crisis, in part, has been caused by the urgency to get the Gospel to everyone before Christ returns. I grew up constantly hearing that the return of Christ was imminent – possibly just months or weeks away. Things were so bad that Jesus had to return soon. Look at the Middle East. Look at the sin of the world. Look how bad things are in Africa. Rather than applying the salve of Gospel to the terrible plight of daily African life, we the evangelical church would offer the escape of the imminent return of Christ coupled with the threat of an eternity in hell. The urgency was not to disciple Christians in how to live – but rather to teach them the urgency of reaching more people for Christ. After all, if Jesus is soon to return, let’s get as many people saved as possible. When I was a child in 1965, I recall a prophecy conference held at our church in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). There was great excitement and wringing of hands as the prophecy gurus predicted that Christ would come, according to their understanding of the Scriptures and the times, sometime in 1966. It was a packed house – standing-room only. The following conference was on holiness, and hardly anyone attended. This urgent pre-millennial mindset, and its motivating influence, had two results: It made discipleship less important and preparation for the future pointless. I remember wondering if I would ever get to drive a car or get married! Emphatic sermons predicted that Christ’s coming was just around the corner – how many people will you lead to the Lord in the meantime? Add to this skewed emphasis the language and cultural differences that exist in Africa. It is not difficult to preach an evangelical sermon and reach the ear of the African through an interpreter. But to disciple the convert is another thing. This requires a relationship that is not easy to accomplish. It is impossible if you are a traveling evangelist – and almost impossible if you are a missionary who does not engage the community on an intimate level. Many of our missionaries have set up compounds and lived in first-world conditions (by African measures) and have not had much to do with their converts on a social level. Discipleship consists of formal meeting times, possibly even Bible School, but little happens relationally. Add to this the reluctance to talk about real issues like work, play, sex, or family in exchange for easier topics about doctrinal distinctives and other things we consider theologically important. Included in this mindset is a level of legalism that is surprising. Just as Jesus criticized the Pharisees for straining at gnats and swallowing camels, many Evangelical churches in Africa will enforce simple rules like avoidance of smoking and drinking—with great conviction—while ignoring the fact that many in the congregation are having sex with multiple partners and not providing for their families. Those of us who grew up in churches that were somewhat legalistic tended to think that God’s pleasure in us was in sync with our ability to obey the rules we were taught. The pinnacle of obedience was to become a missionary. This would be the ultimate sacrifice, and God would be most pleased by our act of service. Perhaps, as a result, we have exported to Africa many who were best at “keeping the rules” and have presented Africa with a Gospel weighed down by shallow legalism, devoid of true discipleship and understanding of the greater issues of life. Many Christians in Africa will avoid “vices” like alcohol and tobacco, yet swallow the camels of immorality and laziness. At one conference I attended, the African pastors emphatically insisted that they could not ever preach a sermon about sex. The conference was about how to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis in their neighborhood. They acknowledged being bogged down with funerals every week, yet were not prepared to deal with the real issues that were hurting their own flock. Talking about these matters requires relationship and love. It demands time and commitment. I believe that in responding to the AIDS-orphan crisis in Africa, the church has an incredible opportunity to be obedient to the great commission, as children are raised in the love and admonition of the Lord. We have one of the greatest opportunities, in the history of Africa, to bring the redemptive work of the Gospel to the African culture through raising children. The Agathos Foundation (www.agathosfoundation.org) raises children orphaned by the AIDS crisis in Africa. As it works to rescue and love these children, its message and mandate centers around 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. This passage compels us as Christians to the following virtues:
These virtues are not taught from the pulpits in Africa. They are not always modeled by pastors and missionaries, either. Especially the last virtue – that of self-sustenance. Most African countries live on handouts, and most Africans are accustomed to begging. As much as the AIDS crisis is one of loose sexual morals, the poverty crisis is also a moral crisis. Agathos Foundation encourages the church to be obedient to James 1:27 and Matthew 25, and take advantage of an opportunity to raise the orphaned children of Southern Africa. We want to see happy children raised in an environment of self-sustenance where Christ is exalted and the Word of God loved and taught. Each village is part of a vibrant healthy church that is either supported or planted. Agathos desires to link loving Christians who care about the crisis with orphans who are victims of the terrible plight that has taken the lives of their parents. Please take a look at our website, and please allow the statistics to move you to action. www.agathosfoundation.org or www.onechurchonevillage.org
Rob Smith - Agathos