by Glenn Fluegge
LCMS missionary and theological educator in Africa for the past 14 years, Pastor Glenn Fluegge reflects on the work to which God has called him and his family.
In reflecting on the numerous and varied trials and tribulations that our family has traversed over the past years, I have asked myself some deep questions: Why are we here in Africa? Was it worth it to bring my family here for over a decade? Is it worth the financial support that so many faithful friends have donated to our ministry? Is education for the Lutheran churches in Africa really that important?
Similar questions confront our Synod during these challenging financial times. Why are we as a church body involved in theological education in Africa? Is
it really worth the sacrifices and resources that our church invests in it? Are our education efforts in Africa really that important?
When faced with such important questions, I’ve found it’s often helpful to look back in history, to gain a view often missed when we focus on the present. Germany, at the time of the Reformation, provides interesting parallels that help to shed light on the present situation in Africa.
Challenge: Traditional African Religion
There are parallels between the challenges faced by the Lutheran churches of post-Reformation Germany and those faced by the churches in Africa today. The first of these challenges is that of the traditional religion. Christianity, nearly universal in Europe some 500 years ago, was often intermingled with the traditional folk religion of spirits, magic and witchcraft. These remnants of a pre-Christian culture lurked just beneath the surface of popular understandings of Christianity.
Similarly, the traditional African religion of ancestral worship and animal sacrifices continues to seriously threaten the churches of Africa today. In many parts of Africa, even the strongest Christians are beset with temptations to revert to former beliefs and practices, especially during transitional life events such as birth, weddings and death. Syncretism, the mingling of Christianity with elements from the traditional African religion, continues to challenge the African church.
Challenge: Sects and Cults
A second challenge to Christianity is the multitude of sects and cults. During and after the Reformation, a host of sectarian movements sprang up all over Europe, threatening the newly formed Lutheran churches. Luther and other reformers spent considerable time and effort combating these movements and convincing Christians of the danger these sects posed to the very Gospel itself.
Today, a vast number of sects and cults have risen up and grown alarmingly popular in Africa. Mormonism, Eckankar and Jehovah’s Witness have strongholds across Africa. These sects from the United States are joined by a host of cults originating in Africa. Self-proclaimed African prophets mingle elements of Christianity with traditional African religion and gather significant numbers of followers in almost every country of Africa.
But the third “threat” is perhaps the most serious. At the time of the Reformation, all of Europe was at the brink of war with the Muslim Turks, who were at Europe’s doorstep eagerly poised to invade. And with the Turks came their religion — Islam.
Today in Africa, Islam is entering through an open door. Prevalent in Northern Africa, adherents to Islam also encompass the vast majority of the population — around 98 percent — of many countries in West Africa, such as Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Central and Southern Africa have fewer Muslims, but their numbers are growing. Muslim merchants, financed and sent from Northern Africa, are arriving daily to settle in countries of Central Africa (trade has historically been a primary means of spreading Islam). It is most alarming to see Muslim “missionaries” intentionally at work in Africa, building mosques in remote villages and openly proselytizing in public places.
[quote]Today in Africa, Islam is entering through an open door.[/quote]
When we talk about the Reformation, we often focus on those familiar, famous events — Luther’s vow to become a monk on the road to Erfurt, the nailing of the 95 Theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg and Luther’s courageous response at the Diet of Worms. What we often forget is that after the break with the Roman Church, the Christian church in the German lands found itself in a state of utter chaos. Though Christianity was widespread, the Church had lost its shape.
Most devastatingly, in separating from the Roman Church, the new “evangelical” [Lutheran] churches lost the very structure that provided them with spiritual leadership. One result was an alarming shortage of well-prepared pastors and preachers so desperately needed to lead the newly established church.
In Africa today, Christianity is also widespread and is rapidly- growing. There are roughly 20 million Lutherans in Africa alone. Because of this rapid and pervasive growth, many Christian church bodies in Africa do not have adequate structures in place to provide desperately needed pastors and preachers. Lutheran churches all over Africa face an alarming shortage of well- prepared pastors.
Reformation-era Europe was also largely an illiterate society whose inhabitants interpreted the world around them in an oral and aural way. Yet the Lutheran Reformation revolved around the written Word — the Word of God. Suddenly, there was a need for an educated clergy that could read, interpret and preach this written Word.
Modern Africa, perhaps to an even greater degree, is also comprised of oral societies, and a faith based on a written Word is inherently foreign. Lutheran churches in Africa have the same urgent need for a well-educated clergy.
The reformers, in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges — religious threats to the Church, chronic lack of well-prepared pastors and the inherent challenge of sharing the written Word in an oral society — set out to rebuild the church from the bottom up. Where did they start? Education. As early as 1524, Luther wrote a letter, “To the Councilmen of all the Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” He and the other professors at Wittenberg also set about completely revamping the entire university curriculum so that it might produce the well-prepared pastors that the German church so desperately needed.
Luther and the reformers understood that good, faithful leaders in society are brought about through good, Christian education. Likewise, solid Christian education was seen as of the utmost importance for the health, well-being and growth of the church. The transformation of the church (and society) would be through education.
The strategic emphasis placed on education by the reformers has since become a legacy of Lutheran churches around the world. Our Lutheran forefathers arrived in the United States and immediately set about building schools with the result that, to this very day, Christian education is a hallmark of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
So, is it really worth it for us to be involved in education in Africa? History shouts a resounding, “YES!” Lutheran education (both theological and general) is one of the most important ways in which we can assist Lutheran churches and our partners in Africa today.
A final concluding remark is warranted: Education is a long-term investment focused on decades rather than tomorrow — on generations rather than years, and this may discourage us. Let us bear in mind that Luther and the other reformers did not see the results of the educational reforms they worked so hard to bring about. And yet, countless generations continue to reap the harvest of the seeds the reformers planted.
Has my time in Africa been worthwhile? Most certainly —the long-term good of investing in education for the Lutheran churches in Africa is immeasurable. There is little that I would deem more important than what God has called us to in Africa — building up Lutheran churches through teaching God’s Holy Word.
About the Author: In June, Pastor and Missionary Glenn Fluegge and his family departed Africa for Irvine, Calif., where he will continue to preach and teach at Concordia University, serving as co-director of the Cross-Cultural Ministry Center and as assistant professor of theology.