Given a choice of spending months in Paris or months in a poverty-stricken African nation, most would gladly choose Paris.
Not Steven Wiebe-Johnson, the featured speaker Sunday at First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro for the congregation’s Mission Sunday activities.
Wiebe-Johnson was 19 years old and eager for his first Mennonite mission trip, but instead he became stranded in the “City of Light.”
“We’ll send you to Chad, in central Africa, to dig wells,” Wiebe-Johnson recalled being told. “I was in Paris for six months studying French, then war broke out in Chad and I was stuck in Paris.”
“A similar thing happened 10 years later, except this time I was in Liberia,” Wiebe-Johnson said of another mission interrupted by war.
War did not stop Wiebe-Johnson and his wife, Dorothy, from mission work in West Africa, which they began in 1988. He worked in Liberia, Ghana, Benin, and the Ivory Coast before becoming regional director of Africa for the Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, in 2002.
With flair that matched the brightly-colored Benin boubou he wore Sunday, Wiebe-Johnson challenged church members to re-think their understanding of overseas church mission.
“We have had a rather massive paradigm shift in the way we think and work with mission,” Wiebe-Johnson said.
Wiebe-Johnson described how the concept of mission has changed over the past century.
“It started with a couple of farmers in Illinois having a vision to work in Africa. We began as a mission to plant churches and share the gospel,” Wiebe said.
“Today we’re working with maturing churches around the world. There’s no sense you’re taking God somewhere he isn’t. He’s everywhere.”
The shift in mission focus is due in part to the growth of Mennonites in Africa, who now represent approximately 25 percent of Mennonite membership worldwide.
“We’re rapidly shifting to a church where the majority live in the geographic south,” Wiebe-Johnson said. “Who we are as a church is changing.”
Mennonite Mission Network has changed as well, shifting away from individual mission activities to partnerships with other agencies and churches to provide support to emerging churches.
“When I started in 2002, we had 28 adult mission workers in Africa. But very soon, I think I’ll be down to 10,” Wiebe-Johnson said. “But we have involvement with 20-some different partners, and we have grants to about half of those partners.”
While partnerships increase the impact of Mennonite Mission Network programs, the decline in the number of mission workers can be a challenge to fundraising, Wiebe-Johnson said.
“The struggle for us is so often our giving is tied to knowing the people involved,” Wiebe-Johnson said.
Wiebe-Johnson mentioned peace activist Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, as an example of Mennonite mission influence.
“There is a very clear sense you can find that this is closely tied to Mennonite involvement in peace work in West Africa,” Wiebe-Johnson said.