When using local resources means a shift in theology

When Church Missionary Society gospel workers Tamie and Arthur Davis came to Tanzania, they were armed with expectations of hearing hear a lot about prosperity theology and having to combat it.

But as they listened to Tanzanian pastors in churches, they realised that the kind of prosperity theology they preached had been misunderstood in the West.

In Swahili, the word for prosperity – mafanikio – is much more associated with success than with earthly comforts. So a Tanzanian preacher speaking about ‘success’ is likely to be calling for perseverance, rather than a solution-oriented, get-rich-quick message.

“When you come to prosperity, one of the things that comes into worldview is what some of your base level assumptions are about how the world is set up,” explains Tamie, who is writing a PhD on this topic.

“I think in the West often our base level assumptions are that things should be fair and that the world should be reasonably comfortable for me most of the time. And the Bible really challenges our views on that. It says to us, ‘Hang on, there was the fall and being a believer is going to bring persecution and things that really challenge us.’

“And, so we struggle with hearing about prosperity because anything that talks about prosperity just sounds like it’s playing into all of our cultural assumptions about comfort and everything else that needs to be challenged.”

“If the world is chaotic and it is set up that way and you never can make progress, why would you even think about trying to make progress?” – Tamie Davis

In Tanzania, she explains, the worldview is completely different, because people believe in spirits as well as God and assume the world is chaotic.

“People basically assume that things are going to go wrong. They often assume that the world is pretty chaotic and beyond your control, because they actually believe in spirits and God and everything else. And so, when someone comes in and says, ‘Hang on, in the book of Proverbs, it says that if you work hard, you’ll see reward,’ they’re like, ‘What?’ That’s completely counter-cultural because it really cuts against a lot of their background cultural assumptions.

“And it’s a really transformational statement, but the more you understand that background world view, the more you can delve into it. And so when someone comes and says, ‘You know, God wants you to be prosperous,’ what they’re saying is, ‘God doesn’t want you to sit around in poverty, being passive and never working,’ which is what a lot of people do. Because if the world is chaotic and it is set up that way and you never can make progress, why would you even think about trying to make progress?

“But if God has set up the world in good creational ways where there’s wisdom about how to do things, that completely changes whether you’re just going to sit down and do nothing.”

Tamie says the stereotype of Africans as lazy is a complete misunderstanding both of their theology and also how hard they do work – especially African women.

“It’s not laziness. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I know I should do that and I’m not going to;’ it can be a very strong belief that it is simply not possible to get on in this life because of the way it is set up and because of how the gods are and everything else. And so if you come in and you say, ‘No, God’s got a world that’s set up and actually hard work brings rewards, that makes a really big difference.”

CMS missionaries are encouraged not to assume that everyone thinks like an Australian, and to be open to other styles of thinking. Tamie learned the hard way how her Western style of theology can go down like a lead balloon when she led a seminar on helping someone who is suffering. She believed that the ideas of the prosperity gospel were damaging to people who were suffering.

“The question is, are you going to keep having faith in God to heal you or are you going to go to the witchdoctor to heal you?” – Tamie Davis

“And so you can’t say to people ‘Just keep having more faith and God’s going to heal you’ because that blames you for your faith and it holds out false hope to them,” she recalls.

“So I went into this seminar and I said that, and the entire seminar just blew up. They were horrified that I would say that. And I couldn’t get to the bottom of why they were so horrified by it because it seems so straightforward to me.

“So I talked to the cultural mentor about it later on and she said to me, ‘Well, Tamie, if they don’t go to God for their healing they will go to the witchdoctor. And I realised that I’d said ‘Don’t say to people keep having faith in God and he will heal you’ because I was worried about the ‘and he will heal you’ bit. But in Tanzania, they believe in healing, they believe in the powers, so healing’s always on the table. The question is, are you going to keep having faith in God to heal you or are you going to go to the witchdoctor to heal you? And I had just missed that whole cultural dimension of believing in the spirits and everything else. And so I’d basically told them to go to the witchdoctor. I’m so glad that the whole room went up in arms. That’s exactly what they should have done!”

When Western teachers give lectures at the local Bible college and say that life for the Christian is about suffering or the way of the cross, it comes across as saying “you’re poor and God wants you to stay poor and so do I.”

As Tamie delved further into this Tanzanian-style prosperity gospel, she found that there was indeed a “crazy theology of God’s going to drop it out of the sky and give all your money to me” which was damaging, but that her Western-style solutions were not going to work to combat it.

A better solution was to talk about how God has set up the world and is a God of order and that he can empower you to make steps forward.

“That kind of theology has many of the kind of same language and ideas that it’s addressing as the prosperity gospel, but I think it’s doing it in a far more biblical way and a far more effective way than my theology can do,” she says.

“Let’s all just calm down about thinking that Africa is somehow theologically poor because the Holy Spirit is growing his church here.” – Tamie Davis

This appreciation of the riches of African theology reflects Tamie and Arthur’s commitment to the practice of vulnerable mission, which emphasises using local resources and using local languages in order to listen and have Western mindsets altered by a different vantage point. 

“We saw that theology and thought ‘That’s the local resource’ and so how do we celebrate that? How talk about that?”

Part of her intention in writing her PhD was to “talk back to the West and to say to the West, ‘Our solutions don’t work, but let me show you the thing that does. And also, let’s all just calm down about thinking that Africa is somehow theologically poor because the Holy Spirit is growing his church here, there are theologies that work for this context and there are great theological riches here.

“And so any missionary who wants to come to Africa has to start seeing themselves as someone who can learn from those riches rather than somewhere who’s bringing something richer from the West and to work with those local resources.”

CMS missionaries Arthur and Tamie Davis support and encourage Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES) staff, who help Tanzanian students meet Jesus and follow him beyond university.