Out of Africa – 10 Things I Learned from 3 Weeks in East Africa Including Corruption and Abuse of Financial Support, by Pr. Rossow

I just got back from three weeks of preaching and teaching in East Africa. I met and talked with several Bishops, pastors, other church workers and laymen. Here are 10 things I learned. Some of them are encouraging and some of them are downright frightening. I plan on expanding on these ten things in future posts.

  1. Lutheranism is alive (but not always so well) in Africa. There are more Lutherans in Africa than on any other continent but in many cases they have not been catechized sufficiently.
  2. Lutherans in Africa are hungry to learn the faith.
  3. Theological teaching for African pastors and evangelists and day schools for their children is a higher priority on the continent than mercy.
  4. Modern Africa is the product of one hundred years of colonialism, corruption and communist/socialist revolt which has created a frontier environment that is not prepared to properly receive financial support from American churches. Our financial gifts to African Lutherans often do more harm than good. What is needed is teaching.
  5. The northwest diocese of the Tanzanian Lutheran Church has a newly elected bishop (Bishop Makalah) who is a fine pastor and great leader from whom we can learn much about how to be a bishop.
  6. Bishop Walter Obare is despised by most of the pastors and leaders of the ELCK (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya). Walter Obare has used money given him by the LCMS for personal use and to fix elections.
  7. Mission work in Africa is flawed at the core.
  8. LCMS pastors and laity need to learn about Africa and its true need before helping them.
  9. I was in Africa for three weeks, in two different countries, met with over forty pastors and evangelists and I did not see one malaria net nor did I hear of anyone who had seen one.
  10. We are fools if we think that the Church can turn Africa into something that we middle class American Lutherans would judge as a decent, clean, healthy, acceptable place to live. This is not the church’s duty nor is it possible for the church to accomplish this.

Many of these conclusions are not intuitive.  Some of them are contrary to the basic approach to missions we have adopted as Lutherans in the last generation. They are all rooted in my first hand experience a few weeks ago but I have also been a student of Africa from a distance for several years and have had several indigenous contacts there for the last few years.

As time allows I will unpack these 10 conclusions here on BJS in the weeks to come. For now I welcome your questions, insights, challenges and other thoughts in the comment section below.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Out of Africa – 10 Things I Learned from 3 Weeks in East Africa Including Corruption and Abuse of Financial Support, by Pr. Rossow — 31 Comments

  1. Pr. Rossow – Were you able to interact at all with Pr. James May and the Lutherans in Africa prgram he runs? He seems to be focusing as much as possible on precisely the issues you have hit upon: the theological education of the pastorate and the laity across Africa. His foundation may be a good place for financial support and/or direct material assistance in the manner of clergy shirts, stoles, portable communion sets, and catechisms both Small and in the BoC. French versions too.

  2. SK,

    Yes and no. I was the guest of LIA for the entire three weeks. I taught at their behest. For the last several years James has stayed out of this battle so as not to confuse the work of LIA with the problems in the ELCK.

    I have acquaintances in Africa who are concerned about these things and once they saw I was in Africa, they sought me out and what I had learned second hand I got to hear and see first hand.

    LIA is the mission of choice for support from BJS. You can see their logo in a clickable version on the side panel. It takes you to their website.

    You are right though in that LIA does its work based on many of the ten conclusions I listed.

  3. Any experience with Rev. Dennis and Dcns. Lorna Meeker? I believe they are doing good work there in Kisimu. My impression from hearing them speak is that corruption by government officials gets in the way of providing some of the aid that is sent there.

  4. I have had the privilege of preaching and teaching in Haiti six times. If you make some minor changes and add different names, EVERYTHING you write could be said of the Lutheran church there. I doubt this is a coincidence…

    In Christ, Clint

  5. Pastor Rossow, I really look forward to your exposition.

    I went last year on a one week “mission” trip. I now call it mission tourism. A complete waste of time and money but it made the people on the mission trip feel good about themselves.

    All the money for mission tourism(short term missions) should go to support missionaries to teach the bible to pastors and evangelist as you stated.

  6. Jeff,

    You are so right.

    There are many missionaries who basically are full time tour guides. There are others who describe their job as “handing out money.” It is very sad.

  7. I agree there is corruption, Pastor Tim, but there are infrastructure needs for the people that need to be addressed before and during teaching of the Word. It may have been that Malaria was not prevalent in the areas you went to. These are long-term efforts. Tourism missions often do more harm than good. I’m not as optimistic about Africa as Bill Gates is, but the West has greatly improved conditions over the past 20 years.

  8. Thank you for this report. I have said for many years that these short term mission trips by lay people are nothing but tourism. It makes no sense for an individual layman to spend thousands of dollars to make a one or two week trip, when that money could be sent to efforts like LIA, and do far more good.

  9. Ted,

    Let “the West” improve conditions in Africa while we the Church improve their eternal condition.

    The mercy work of the church according to Scripture is to look after the widows and orphans in the parish who do not have any relatives to care for them.

    This is born out by the history of institutional mercy efforts of Lutherans. Our Lutheran hospitals, orphanages, adoption agencies, senior homes for the most part have either faded or are hardly confessional. (On another string I shared the examples of Lutheran Hospital here in the Chicago suburbs doing more abortions than anyone else in the region and our Lutheran adoption agency placing children in homosexual homes.)

  10. A member of my congregation served his Ft. Wayne vicarage in Botswana Africa with Lutheran Bible Translators, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization. He mentioned to us that the people there are still heavy into ancestor worship–I hope he wasn’t talking about the Lutheran ones! He later accepted a call with LBT and went back over there to Ghana to work with Scriptural Engagement, something to do with providing recordings of the Bible in the native languages.

    I’d asked Rev. May with LIA if they ever did anything with LBT in Africa but it sounded as if they never have anything to do with each other.

  11. @Tim Schenks #14
    I’d asked Rev. May with LIA if they ever did anything with LBT in Africa but it sounded as if they never have anything to do with each other.

    Lutheran Heritage Foundation also does translation and provides materials overseas. Good News (magazine), which originated in the LHF organization, (when Wallace Schultz needed a job?) is provided in about two dozen languages.

  12. As an African born and raised before becoming American on purpose:

    * Don’t lead with your dollars or you may as well box leading with your chin – you will get knocked out quickly.

    * Africans want your respect, not your pity and patronage.

    * Don’t project your standards for comfort onto Africans (and vice versa).

    * Some Africans are unusually skilled at exploiting western guilt.

    * What you may regard as privation is often security and contentment in Africa.

    * Africans are resourceful. A simple one-room farm school in a tribal area can produce future doctors and engineers for 1/100,000 the cost sunk into their American counterparts.

    * Books are incredibly expensive in Africa. What we take for granted as a moderate price from CPH with 2 day shipping can amount to a chunk of monthly income, especially for seminarians in Africa.

    * If you send books / materials be careful not to burden the recipients with customs duties and taxes. Some countries charge 100% import duties. Use Facebook to network for people to act as couriers.

    * Support teachers and translators.

    * We as a church body are irresponsible when we expect our missionaries to be sales reps as well. We don’t allow engineers to also do sales work in the real world, so why are we so casual about it in the church?

    * Send your money to the missionaries who are on the ground and know how to deploy it for the best result.

    * Care for the missionary family. Oftentimes their hardships get ignored in the flow of money, time and materials.

    * Short term mission trips do enormous damage by feeding the self-esteem of the traveller and encouraging dependency in the recipients.

    * Do not confuse the Gospel with acts of mercy. Anyone can drill water wells and build latrines. Very few people can rightly divide the Word of God for Africa.

    * Despise missions bureaucracy.

  13. Thank you for this article. The synod should be reporting back the results of their mercy work, but you’re right, that is not happening. If it was, they would hopefully come to the same conclusions as you do and restructure their program. Problem is, the “mercy” work is what everyone can agree on–theological teaching, not always so much. The day schools should be a no-brainer, though. Great idea, hope the powers that be hear you. Blessings on your ministry.

  14. Rev.Rossow you will be able now to speak to your people LCMS in the language that they understand because if me or some of my brothers within ELCK speak they will say LCMS head office has always been in touch with ELCK hence they have not understand ELCK since they are only told one sided story of the state of the Lutheran Church in Kenya. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has and will be doing good Mission work if they dont think that they will save Africa by their money. My fellow clergy in ELCK have tried to shout but it lands on deaf hears. Now our Church is divided into many segments while our leaders who are illegally in the office boast of the great support from your Church. Although you were in Kenya for short short time but it was long enough to hear and see. Your visit has made a big difference other than those who visit Head office of ELCK where they dont see what you have seen and heard. I look forward to read from you in the coming weeks.

  15. @Tim Wood #16
    One small point to pick: In the “real world” engineers are *often* salesmen. My wife’s brother-in-law is a computer/electrical engineer and a large portion of what he does is essentially “sales”. It actually makes sense when you think about it. The one who has the technical knowledge is best able to communicate it (at least in the computer/information/networking field) to potential customers/clients.

    Nevertheless, your point re: missionaries is still quite valid, and quite important. “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

  16. @Rev. Loren Zell #12
    Fwiw, John Nunes has been saying that for a long time. If I ever go “overseas”, it will either be a. carefully vetted so that I know I’ll actually be doing something worthwhile–teaching, etc. (My dad taught a term at Concordia, Nagercoil, in 1994.), *or* it will be entirely my dime, as purely a tourist trip. I would genuinely like to see many places, and visit many brothers and sisters in Christ in those places–Siberia, India, various places in Africa, …. But not as a “mission”, per se.

    But if none of this happens, so be it.

  17. @Tim Wood #16

    You wrote:
    * Books are incredibly expensive in Africa. What we take for granted as a moderate price from CPH with 2 day shipping can amount to a chunk of monthly income, especially for seminarians in Africa.
    * If you send books / materials be careful not to burden the recipients with customs duties and taxes. Some countries charge 100% import duties. Use Facebook to network for people to act as couriers.

    Yes, and yes! This is exactly why, as Helen wrote earlier, the Lutheran Heritage Foundation exists (www.LHFmissions.org): to translate and publish the great books of our Lutheran faith into the languages of the people! To date, LHF has translated Luther’s Small Catechism in nearly 80 languages. We’re also at work on several editions of the Book of Concord, including the Amharic translation which will soon be distributed to pastors throughout Ethiopia.

    (In the interests of full disclosure, and in case you couldn’t already tell, I should tell you that I’m the director of public relations for LHF. You might think that I’m posting this information because it’s my job, but in fact, it’s the other way around. I work at LHF *because* I believe so strongly in the work they’re doing.)

    I know how many of you are dedicated to supporting good mission work through your prayers and gifts. Good teachers and missionaries are sorely needed, and they are most certainly deserving recipients of your mission offerings. I urge your continued to support of them.

    For those who are able and interested, may I encourage you to consider adopting an LHF mission project, so that we might provide the materials these men use to teach people about Jesus? These books are given free of charge to the very people Rev. Rossow met: the new believer, the seminarian, the evangelist, the pastor, the bishop.

    The most amazing part? Most books cost about $5 to publish, maybe up to $10 for a Book of Concord. Isn’t that incredible?! LHF has developed a network of printers overseas, greatly reducing the shipping costs you mentioned. So to break it down: A gift of $100 provides 20 copies of A Child’s Garden of Bible Stories for a Lutheran school. $500 covers the costs of 100 Small Catechisms – enough for a small village!

    I’m sure many of you are already personally supporting a number of good missions. If so, please consider sharing an LHF mission project idea with your Sunday school, Lutheran day school, or church missions committee. No matter how large or how small your congregation may be, the Holy Spirit can work mightily through their gifts.

    Thanks for bearing with me. I know this is a shameless plug, but I can’t help myself. As Rev. Rossow saw for himself, this work is just too important to not talk about it every chance I get!

    In Christ,
    Jen Bagnall
    Lutheran Heritage Foundation

  18. http://www.lcms.org/makeagift/gsi

    Global Seminary Initiative (GSI) helps to fill the need for trained pastors and leaders who are native to the region and cultures in which they serve. Professors from both seminaries of the LCMS are sent to help train and increase the capacity of partner church faculties, providing mutual consolation and encouragement to faculty and students in partner seminaries. Our seminary professors have taught in places like Siberia and South Africa, India, Argentina, Kenya, Lithuania, Chile and many other countries.

    GSI has several components. First, it provides scholarships for students from emerging and partner church bodies to attend Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis or Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne for an advanced degree, usually a master’s in Sacred Theology or doctorate degree. Second, it supports both LCMS seminaries by providing financial support for the school’s operation. Third, GSI provides funds to send LCMS professors and qualified pastors to teach at regional seminaries around the world, hold continuing education classes or pastor’s conferences. This threefold approach allows for GSI to provide the maximum benefit and flexibility to serve the church at-large.

  19. @Norm Fisher #23

    Hi, Norm. Yes, we have a wide variety of solutions, actually! 🙂

    The first option we always look into is what printers are available locally to print. Then there are very few shipping charges!

    However, depending on the part of the world, local printers aren’t always a possibility (certain areas of Africa, for example, simply don’t have the technology, and in other areas, it’s illegal to print Christian literature). In those cases, we try to figure out the most cost-effective way to get the books into those places.

    As an example, there are now several books ready to go to the press for Ghana and for Sudan/South Sudan. However, neither of these countries have low-cost, good-quality printers. It’s actually cheaper for LHF to get the books printed in Bangkok, Thailand and have them shipped by boat to Africa. We also try to save money by having many books printed and shipped at the same time.

    Both of these solutions are far, far cheaper than having the books printed and shipped from here in the United States. Our American dollars go much further overseas!

    Hope this helps,

  20. @Jen B. #25
    Both of these solutions are far, far cheaper than having the books printed and shipped from here in the United States. Our American dollars go much further overseas!
    Hope this helps,

    Thanks for the up-to-date information, Jen! I have been interested in Lutheran Heritage Foundation since they started working in SE Asia quite awhile ago now. Having spent a year in Bangkok, I was somewhat acquainted with the people who began teaching Lutheran Christianity in a private school there. [What they began was subsequently served by Thai Pastors who graduated from St Catherine’s in Canada.]
    A closer friend, here in the states, made teaching trips several summers. There is so little Christian material published in Thai that missionaries of some non-Lutheran groups attended the Lutheran doctrinal sessions. (The last translation project I remember was a book of Bible stories for children.)

  21. James May and Lutherans in Africa are the Lutheran Heritage Foundation agency in East Africa. About half of James’ work is supervising the translating work for Africa.

    Speaking of hauling books, we brought two suitcases full of Swahili Small Catechisms from James’ place for Africans here in America.

    Also, Tim Wood practices what he preaches. We carried Bibles for him over to Kenya on our trip there. We packed lightly so that we could use our extra free checked suitcase for books.

  22. LHF (Lutheran Heritage Foundation), Good News (Dr Wallace Schulz), and LIA (Lutherans in Africa) all work together.

    LHF gives a significant grant each year to our organization so that we can work with locals who know the language much better but need help in the art of translation. Many times theological words do not exist in indigenous languages so a phrase needs to be developed. But because of Pentecostal influence it makes the job very difficult. One example is the word “repentance”. This has been translated and published in some African bibles to mean “change your way of living” in order to be saved. LIA uses the Good News magazine to help correct the errors of these terms. Then we can proceed with the translation. LHF helps us to print these locally which are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than printing in America and shipping overseas.

    So all these organizations are crucial and I would say with bias the most important for spreading the Gospel in Africa. The books are needed for teaching (LHF) but the books are no good if the translation is bad (Good News helps here) and these errors will not be corrected without a teacher (this is LIA Lutherans in Africa’s role). So I wouldn’t say one without the other. As the director of LIA, I need the resources that LHF and Good News provides. We need to work together. But let us not waste important resources on things that the church is not called to do and which do not save.


  23. @James May #29
    LHF helps us to print these locally which are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than printing in America and shipping overseas.

    “American” printing is sometimes done overseas. I visited a small shop specializing in book printing, binding and repair. They had a stack of cases of books, waist high, there. It seems that the books had been printed overseas, for economy, but the owner was not satisfied with the binding. So the covers were to be removed and new ones made here.
    I think appropriate labeling is required but I don’t know if most of us would look for it.

    Thank you for this post, Pastor May. I knew that LHF and LIA were somewhat connected, but not much more than that.

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