In his 2003 essay, ‘Future Trends in Mission’ Chris Wright opens with a nice, illustrative story. (the essay can be found in Bartholomew et al, The Futures of Evangelicalism)
‘The people who prefer to dance’ – a very short story
There is a tribe in northern Nigeria known as the Gwandara-wara. During the early part of the twentieth century, two attempts were made by Christian missionaries to reach and evangelize this tribe. Both attempts failed. The gospel was not communicated. Nobody came to faith in Christ. No church was planted. In the mid 1980s, a third group of missionaries tried again. This time they were more successful. They were allowed to live among the tribe and cultivate some land. They discovered that the tribe’s name means, ‘The people who prefer to dance’. From the tribal elders and story-tellers – the guardians of the tribe’s identity and history – the missionaries established that the name went right back to the tribe’s rejection of Islam in the nineteenth century when, in response to the attempt to covert them to Islam, the tribe had insisted, ‘we prefer to dance’ – that is, we will not give up our culture of music and dance for a religion which wants to prohibit them.
Reflecting on this new information, the third group of missionaries came up with a new strategy of evangelism: they would dance the gospel to the ‘people who prefer to dance’. So they devised a means of telling the Bible story, including the story of Jesus and the cross, through the medium of African music and dance. The communication gap was bridged. There was a breakthrough of understanding; some believed the gospel and there is now a church of Jesus Christ among the Gwandara-wara.
Who were this third group of missionaries who succeeded where others had failed. They were not white nor Western, neither American nor European. They were in fact Africans, members of the Evangelical Missionary Society of ECWA – the Evangelical Church of West Africa, one of the largest churches in Nigeria and throughout West Africa. The EMS is a fully indigenous Nigerian mission agency, with some 1,000 missionaries serving cross-culturally throughout western Africa.
This is a story which could be repeated myriad times in many other parts of the world. It illustrates at least three things about mission today and in the future. First, God is still keeping his promise to Abraham. Second, mission, like the church itself, is multinational and multidirectional. Third, God is calling for adaptation, creativity, flexibility and hard thinking in mission.
Reflecting on this story in relation to how we communicate the Bible, it seems to me that Wright’s final points are particularly helpful. We look back and see in Scripture the assured promises of God – we are encouraged. We look around and see the many and varied ways that the global church can join together to understand and communicate the Bible more fully – we are rebuked of the narrowness of how we have done this in the past, but inspired by what might be possible in the future. As we partner together we look ahead to see the ways we as a global church can develop the creativity and appropriateness with which we will strive to communicate God’s Word together.
And I like his final statement. These changing dynamics lead to innovation in practice, but also some hard thinking. The realities of mission should be reckoned with in biblical, theological and missiological thinking, as well as in our practice.
And a brief piece of self-critique to round things off: is it significant that I reflected on Wright’s summary/explanation rather than the story itself? Read up on the differences between oral and non-oral communicators to see why this might have been the case: Bible and orality resources.