Seeing in the Dark, Part 2
An interview with Michelle Tessendorf, Executive Director of Orchard: Africa
What are some challenges the African church is facing now which we may not be facing in the Western church?
Africa is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis that the world has known. We see all these earthquakes and natural disasters, and clearly the church responds to that and should respond to that. But on a daily basis we having that disaster play out in Africa, and I think sometimes we become numb to those statistics but they’re very real. The church in Africa is truly suffering tremendously, especially rural churches. Rural churches in Africa have typically been poor and struggled with very little resources, but the church leaders are so full of the Holy Spirit and so determined to serve God even within that poverty that is a result of AIDS and the economically active adult population dying off. The Western church needs to be aware of that. The Western church needs to follow the book of Acts, where those who had plenty helped those who didn’t have. Mission trips were initiated, and the church truly helped each other and worked as a church worldwide. The Western church needs to be aware that this isn’t just the popular thing to get involved with right now and then move on in a year or two. We truly need a long-term solution and long-term partnerships from the Western church.
One of the issues that we have is that the Muslim imams are seeing the same death that we see at Orchard: Africa, this missing generation. And they see an entire generation that can be brought to Islam. sub-Saharan Africa has had hundreds of years of Christian missions, and we could lose all of the ground we’ve won in one generation if the church does not step up and see there are millions of orphans that are vulnerable. It is the church’s responsibility to maintain the Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s the church’s responsibility to strengthen the rural church in Africa, so that we do not lose this generation for Christ.
What problems and challenges do we have in common?
Human creatures that God created are the same intrinsically. The bottom line is we all just want to have good family lives. We want to see our children progress. And we have the same challenge as children grow up to maintain their relationship with the Lord as they become teenagers. Just making sure that people are truly connected to Christ and not being entertained in church. The church sometimes tries to compete with the world and sometimes our church services turn into entertainment. That can happen in the church in Africa as well, where we entertain our congregations rather than uplift them and challenge them and draw them closer to Christ. Church leaders struggle through how we get our message across in the way that people can relate to.
Regardless of where you live on the planet, we are still human. The same needs, the same desires, the same sinful nature, all those things are true regardless of what setting you’re in.
What is God doing in African churches?
There is a compassion in Africa in the churches. The Western world has so much. The Western church is so tremendously blessed, and there is so much available. Yet when I’m in an African church in a rural setting where they have absolutely nothing, perhaps they’re meeting under a tree or in a shack as a church, the enthusiasm and the love for Christ and the way in which they worship is just profound. Without any musical instruments, without anything but their voices and their hearts and their spirits, the worship is amazing. The love for Christ, the connection to Christ, because he is all they have, is something worth seeing. I believe that every Western church leader should visit a church in Africa just to feel the absolute love for Christ and dependence on Christ.
How can Western churches best come alongside churches in Africa to offer partnership and support? What’s the best thing we can do to offer support?
That depends on the church. At Orchard: Africa, we have specific projects in place and ask churches to come alongside. For example, they can sponsor a village. That basically means come alongside a village church as a Western church. They can help support the AIDS prevention program, the feeding projects, the orphan intervention programs, et cetera, obviously with financial support.
But my challenge to the Western church is not just to send money, not to have a kneejerk reaction and say, “Well, now we’ve got to build orphanages because there’s all these orphans.” But to find out what that community truly needs. Africa does not need orphanages. What we need are children to be cared for in a community setting, and that is a much more difficult thing to do than to build an orphanage. I’m not against orphanages, and sometimes one is needed. But I think the Western church sometimes has the kneejerk reaction; we go in and build something and we can take photographs and go back and show our congregation what we did. That’s not necessarily sustainable. And who’s going to maintain that orphanage? Community care for the orphans takes a little longer thinking, a longer commitment, a more intense commitment, but it certainly has a much more profound and long-term, sustainable outcome.
Church leaders need to truly do their homework, their research, get involved with an organization on the ground in Africa that has been working there for many years and understands all the nuances of what goes on in rural Africa and partner with an organization like that.