Monday, April 14, 2014

Spiritual Warfare in Africa (or How Not to Give a Missionary Talk)

Naomi's face still tear-stained from enduring the pain of a smashed finger just 30 minutes earlier, and my boys still hungry from having eaten a rushed and small supper, we dashed to the church around the corner from our house tonight for the scheduled missionary talk. We had spent our first 2 1/2 years in the D.C. area either without a church or far enough away from our church that I'd never taken the kids to a missionary talk before. But we've been attending this local church for the past 2 months, and so I thought, "Now's our chance to hear from someone ministering in Africa. What a great opportunity for the kids!"

To be honest, my children didn't want to go. They didn't know what to expect but they had presuppositions. They predicted they would be the only kids there, and that it would be 'boring.' I reminded them not to pass judgement before having actual experiences, and I assured them we could leave early if it wasn't worthwhile. I didn't know anything about the missionary doing the presentation. In fact the church bulletin had only said that he lived and worked "in Africa" (pet peeve to someone who's also lived in Africa, knowing how massive a continent that is, and preferring to tell people I lived in Nigeria).

On the positive side, this missionary did tell story after story of spiritual warfare and God's miraculous works. In my mind, 'boring' would be the least descriptive word for tonight, since I love stories and the ones being told were unlike any I'd heard before. I learned about places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, through first-hand accounts, and I left feeling both educated and inspired.

However, there were some gaping holes in tonight's presentation as well, the biggest of which was that there was no actual introduction or explanation of this fellow and what he does. It was continuously assumed that the church members present already had a relationship with him and a background enabling them to understand all he said. I'm glad the church has such a strong tie with Missionary, but the minute I walked into the small room, especially with three children in tow, I guess I would have hoped he'd want to give at least some context for those of us who don't know him and his work.

Along the same vein, the presentation was sadly lacking in visual aids. There was no map. No photos. No graphics and nothing tangible. Which is okay if everyone knows exactly where DRC is and has vivid imaginations or has read all of Missionary's photo-enriched prayer letters. But wouldn't any talk and every talk, no matter who the audience, be more interesting and memorable with at least a few visual reminders of the topic? Goodness, I know my African geography better than most Americans (not to brag, but it helps that I've lived there), and even I would have appreciated a map so I could compare distances when he was talking about his various travels from country to country.

And finally, the saddest of all to me: my children (the only ones there) were implied to be a hindrance, rather than amazingly open recipients of inspiration. My three can be noisy, no doubt, but tonight, they were as quiet as can be. They were attentive and receptive, and Missionary totally lost out on an opportunity to touch such open hearts. Instead, he and his colleague -- not once, but multiple times -- pointed out to everyone there what "age group" was present, and how this would alter what they could say and what stories they could tell. Mentioning it once, in a tone that showed respect for my kids' naivete would have made sense. I can appreciate that they would say "relations" instead of "sex" because of young ears in the room. (Though funny enough, I'm one of the most upfront and honest-with-my-children sort of parent out there, so they've heard "sex" plenty before -- gasp!) But it wasn't just once, and after the first time, it was said more in a tone of exasperation. Additionally, between the lightning speed of countless disconnected stories and Missionary's sometimes-hard-to-figure-out foreign accent, my children (even my oldest) couldn't keep up and understand what was being talked about.

I have been part of many missionary talks before -- both as a listener and a presenter -- and all I know is that if I saw strangers and children in my audience, first of all, I'd be ecstatic that they'd even have taken the time and interest to come. I would think "Wow! I can bring more people on board with God's amazing work in ______!" And second of all, I'd figure out some way, even a small way, that I could tailor my talk to reach the children and give them something memorable to go home with. And I would hope that thirdly, I'd even make a point of encouraging parents by praising their efforts to broaden their children's minds at such an early age. I certainly wouldn't make them feel bad for changing the level of 'horror' I could tell in my stories because of young ears.

I won't give up on going to missionary talks with my kids. But I certainly hope their next experience is a much more positive one!