Reflections on new openings in world missions, from an African perspective

Today is the annual Collegiality Day of the Minnesota Consortium of  Theological Schools. Luther Seminary‘s Paul S. Chung will present a reflection on changes in missions since the Edinburgh conference a century ago (“Mission today in light of the 1910 Edinburgh Conference.”) A number of folks will respond, including me. Though it will likely be trimmed a bit, my response will look something like this:

The successive “openings” of mission since Edinburgh

I hear in Dr. Chung’s paper a series of “openings” of world missions activity and thought since Mott and the 1910 meeting at Edinburgh. I want to review these briefly and then, as I am a historian, to illustrate them with a brief story from recent Christian history in the global south.

By the time of the 1952 Willingen missions conference, Karl Barth had sparked an opening or broadening from Edinburgh’s “pragmatic, purposeful, activist, impatient, self-confident, single-minded, and triumphalist” accent—in other words, its accent on human initiative—to a theological insistence that mission comes at the initiative of the Trinity. It is God who sends, and we who follow.

The missio Dei theology that emerged after Willingen further opened missions to see as its final goal not the church but the kingdom, which is the lordship of Christ over the world and the entire cosmos.

Sometimes, however, an opening move results in the loss of something important. This was the case as the Dutch school used missio dei to separate God’s mission from the church. Lesslie Newbigin moved to reanchor mission in church, which led to a balancing that was also an opening, as, for example, the Gospel and Our Culture network worked against American individualism and privatism, both by anchoring mission in the church and by taking seriously Christ’s work in the midst of the world and its needs.

Liberation theology and post-colonial understandings created a further opening along this line: a more fully formed understanding that mission must bring the good news for the poor and marginalized as well as denouncing institutionalized injustice and violence. Evangelization cannot now be properly understood apart from liberation.

Missiologists Bevans and Schroeder worked a further opening by reemphasizing the Catholic heritage of contextual mission, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci. Lamin Sanneh gave his voice to this insight, using languages of translation and world Christianity to indicate a mission that enters other cultures gently, a mission in which one takes off one’s shoes in the presence of the other, because God is already at work there.

Finally, Dr. Chung, working from Lutheran sources, proposes one more opening—a lively interpretation of God’s mission as word-event in light of viva vox evangelii (Gospel as living voice of God). This is a full contextualization of the gospel that notices how God has spoken in the biblical narrative in the midst of worldly affairs—and thus we expect to find him continuing to speak within the world. It notices that we find God in scripture in the “mixed multitude” of Exodus and the enculturated witness of the apostles themselves, and of Paul quoting pagan writers. It thus expects to find him in our own world, too, in his care for outsiders and aliens, and in the tangled limitation and vulnerability of human language and culture, and in the worship of God under names and guises other than those with which we are familiar.

In Dr. Chung’s vision, mission is a hermeneutical conversation with the other, in which a new meaning emerges that gives all parties a better understanding of their own traditions. This is the word in action, in the mode of participation and communication—not the word static, delivered as a single unified thing, in the mode of statement or information. It is the living word, which also cannot be understood apart from the world. Mission thus proceeds in the mode of thick description—the intimate understanding of culture that incorporates aspects of secular culture in its understanding. It is the same word who appeared on earth as servant, as deacon to the world. To participate in the mission of this word, we must therefore take a “hermeneutical perspective from below.”

Paul Adu’s story

As a historian, my impulse upon reading this fine paper was to ask, “Have these aspects of mission “opening,” described and given constructive theological form by Dr. Chung, in fact been replicated ‘on the ground’? Is this stuff really happening?”

For a “first answer” to this question I have turned the online Dictionary of African Christian biography, created by the Overseas Ministries Study Center and directed by Jonathan Bonk. This is a compendium of nearly 1000 brief biographies of the modern “African apostles”—the indigenous evangelists, church planters, and pioneers of African Christianity. Clicking into the site at, I went to the colorful map of the African continent. Then I clicked at random on Ghana. And in the list of biographies there, I discovered the life of Paul Adu.

Paul Adu was a Wesleyan Methodist who lived from 1915 to 1991—the period, as you well know, of one of the most amazing explosions of Christianity in the modern era, which took place on the continent of Africa. Mr. Adu’s brief DACB biography was written by Joseph Edusa-Eyison, a Ghanaian teacher of West African history. The account is based in part in his interviews with Mr. Adu’s son, Paul Jr., in January 1999.

What I found in Paul Adu’s story is a living example—one might say an embodiment—of the “viva vox evangelii” described here tonight by Dr. Chung—including each of the “openings” of the decades since Edinburgh that have contributed to Dr. Chung’s mission vision. We don’t have time to hear the whole story, so here are just a few key passages:

Paul Adu was born Kwabena Mensah on September 21, 1915, at Kintampo. The parents had moved to the Kwahu Traditional Area area to worship a local divinity Jaama Ntoa, in Jaama village, ten miles from Kintampo in search of a solution to the problem of child mortality that had troubled them for many years.[1] Nurtured in this environment, the boy Kwabena, the second of six siblings, was introduced to the worship of this divinity at an early age. Here we find God at work in an alien faith—in the midst of hermeneutical conversation with the other.

However, around 1922, a Methodist missionary from Wenchi in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana preached the gospel in Kintampo. About this time, Paul Adu began his elementary education and he was in his first year at school when his elder brother, Jacob Adu, converted to Christianity. They joined the church’s singing band. But their father was angry with them for converting to Christianity. His attempt to withdraw them from the church was restrained by the timely counsel of the priest in charge of the Jaama cult. He advised their father to allow the boys to continue in their new faith because he perceived a spirit in them greater that his.[2] Here is the Trinitarian initiative of mission—God’s spirit at work, and recognized within the alien faith.

Kwabena was subsequently baptized and adopted the name Paul.
Following the recommendation of Rev. C. C. Ohene, the Methodist superintendent minister of Koforidua, Paul Adu enrolled at Wesley College, Kumasi, in 1937 and finished in 1939 as a teacher-catechist. As a lay Christian, he worked at Atebubu in northern Ashanti where he founded a school and a church. At Yeji, he founded more churches along the Volta River, one of these at Kwadwo-Bofokrom. Here we find God’s mission rooted not in the individualistic peregrinations of the itinerant evangelist, but in the church.

In 1953, the year of his ordination, Paul Adu was appointed to a five-member commission of the Gold Coast Synod of the Methodist Church to study the situation in the north with the aim of starting a mission there. And here we find that the church of Mr. Adu is one whose self-understanding appears to be a missional one. Two years later, the church decided to extend its ministries there, and Paul Adu was selected as the first African missionary of the church to begin work in what is today northern Ghana.[3]

The Ghana Methodist Church had initially considered beginning a ministry of evangelization among the people of the north, beyond the Ashanti midlands, in 1911, but the effort soon met with difficulties from the colonial government. Cecil Hamilton Armitage, the colonial chief commissioner, placed difficult restrictions on the movements of the Methodist missionaries sent there. He held the view that protestant missionaries were difficult to control, unlike their catholic counterparts who “were much more amenable and law abiding.” Due to this and other obstacles the work was abandoned in 1915. Here we have the mission at work in a situation of worldly power—perhaps finding the necessity of speaking truth, in a small way, to that power; and yet for a while, at least, finding itself thwarted.

Paul Adu was chosen to reopen the work, almost forty years after the first attempt.[5] Although Tamale was predominantly a Muslim city, most probably hostile to the Christian message, Paul Adu was not discouraged from starting a mission work there. He began by organizing worship services with some local Akan-speaking people and this resulted in the establishment of the Tamale United Methodist Church.[6] His success resulted from patient labor and tact in relating with the people, as he held a sympathetic view towards Islam and relentlessly encouraged Christians to live at peace with Muslims. Here is God at work through a contextual mission understanding.

Paul Edu was not only a church planter, he also put his linguistic versatility to good use. A polyglot, he was conversant in most of the languages of northern Ghana. He was fluent in Dagarti, Walla, Dagbani and Hausa. This became a great asset to his mission work as it facilitated his communication with indigenous peoples. He translated the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and some hymns and choruses into Walla. One of the choruses is:

Yesu Christo wanna,
i wanna kusinti.

[Jesus Christ is coming,
and He will soon come.]

Here is God at work in the translation so necessary to “world Christianity” by Sanneh’s definition. And this translation by its nature engages the missionary in the hermeneutical conversation with the other that constitutes Dr. Chung’s understanding of God’s mission as word-event in light of the viva vox evangelii.

At a time where many in northern Ghana suffered from river blindness, Paul Adu thought that one of the ways to win the victims to Christ was to offer blind children education. So he founded the Wa School for the Blind and, with the help of volunteer teachers, he offered them free tuition.[7] In addition, he made available free health services and, as a result of personal efforts, obtained basic medicines for these services. Still, in his tenacious commitment to mission, Paul Adu began a night school to meet the needs of the people of Wa. As farmers worked all day doing farm work, he set up night schools to serve interested participants. In every way, he shared in the common life of the people, and gained their confidence. In response to his identification with them, the people began to develop a serious interest in the gospel he was preaching. Here is the evangelization “from below”—the good news to the poor that begins with identification with the poor.

The success in Wa led to the extension of the message to the adjacent towns of Vieri, Mangu, Kaleo, Swala and Bole, along with the establishment of nine primary and middle schools. In response to the educational needs of the children who were not on the farms with their parents, Paul Adu built schools where they learned reading, writing, arithmetic and had religious instruction. Some of these pupils were won over to the Christian faith. Here we have the building, not just of the church, but also of the kingdom as the Lordship of Christ is extended to all realms touched by education.

* * *

There is more to Paul Adu’s story before he retired in 1981 and passed away in 1991, having served the kingdom of God well in his native Ghana. But I hope this is enough to enrich our conversation about our colleague’s insights, as we meditate on how mission has changed since the Edinburgh conference of a century ago.

One response to “Reflections on new openings in world missions, from an African perspective

  1. The presentation (abbreviated from this version) went well.

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