There is a photograph floating around that depicts five old African men sitting on a bench, holding hymnbooks and singing. Four of the men are black men, their faces distorted, their thoughts transposed by the beauty and intensity of the words they sing. The bench is as sturdy as a politician’s promise.
The fifth “old African man” is my father, his face similarly transfixed by the Shona hymn they sing. He is one of them, melded and fused, the third sekuru (grandfather) in the picture. Their voices are in harmony, their thoughts in unison.
He is an African, one of them. Forty years of working with, crying with, rejoicing with, worshiping with these people will do that to you.
There are simply some things you cannot do in a two-week campaign for Christ.
This is not to say that no good can come from a brief campaign, but it is to say that countless nights around the sparks of a fire teaching, thousands of Sundays in the open air preaching, thousands of fellowship meals of steaming sadza (thick grits, well, very thick grits) makes you one of the people you serve as missionary. He has become an African because of them, but make no mistake, they have become Christian because of him.
There is a theological term for what Jesus did when he came from the delights of heaven to the devastation of earth; it is incarnation, the process where one’s love compels him to come to his beloved’s home and serve, strengthen, and become one of them.
God, they say, had only one son and he was a missionary. Jesus came to the earth and lived as one who was human down to his heart, extending to his very DNA. He suffered what humans suffer – disappointment, temptation, and the event that all humans endure, the thing that makes us most deeply human: He was mortal. He died (Hebrews 4:14-16; Philippians 2:5-11).
That’s what missionaries do. They become immersed in the lives and heartbreaks of the people they serve. That’s what preachers do. They are not “guest speakers” every Sunday; they become part of a community. That’s what Christians do. They become immersed in the lives of their neighbors, the hurting, the broken, the sinful.
I hope we never get to the place where we worship by “Skype.” I am glad a sick individual might join us in worship by that means, but a congregation that assembles “virtually” misses the warmth, messiness and joys of a community. A church represents an investment in time and emotion, but it is history’s best investment. People, whether Africans or Americans, are neither “prospects” nor “customers.” They are souls, and the investment is for eternity.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what would a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV).