Mentors on My Journey in Mission: Kwame Bediako, African Missiologist
by Jeff Ritchie
The Rev. Dr. Kwame Bediako was a giant among missiologists. I began to read his writings in the mid-1990s and looked forward to meeting him some day. That opportunity came in 2005 when he spoke at a mission conference sponsored by The Outreach Foundation and Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship.
Dr. Bediako spoke a powerful message, but beyond his specific message was another “word” to those of us present. Bediako’s was modeling for the North American participants at that conference that some of the best mission thinking and practice was being done outside North America. It was time to learn from the church in the “Majority World.”
As a follow-up to the conference, I gathered a group of people who wanted to learn more about mission in a non-western context, and we made a pilgrimage to Akropong, Ghana where Kwame Bediako lived and served as Rector of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute for Theology, Mission, and Culture. The week that we spent in Akropong with Dr. Bediako and the staff of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute both enlarged and transformed our understanding of Christian faith and theology.
Kwame Bediako was a Ghanaian by birth, from the Akan culture of Central Ghana. Educated in France and the United Kingdom, he had a ministry to the universal church of Jesus Christ. Through his ministry of teaching, preaching, and writing he tirelessly pointed out how each culture of humanity has elements within it that help us better understand and experience the jewel that is the gospel.
Bediako’s thesis, often illustrated from the cultures within Ghana, is that when disciples of Jesus Christ look at their culture through the lens of the gospel, they find elements in it that bring special insights into the gospel they have come to believe. He affirmed that God has so created humanity with our various cultures that each of them can reflect a special “facet of the diamond” of the full-orbed Christian faith. This is not dissimilar to what Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians when he said that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known through the church.
On that 2006 trip to Ghana, we enjoyed the hospitality of the Akrofi-Christaller community as we plunged into mission. Dr. Bediako engaged us in lectures, chatted with us around the dinner table, and prayed with us during the devotional times at the mission study center. We met the love of his life, Dr. Gillian Mary Bediako, and the colleagues and scholars who made up the community.
While the almost larger than life figure of Kwame Bediako towered over the whole community, we also met people inside and outside the Institute who challenged him and sharpened our thinking as well. The whole goal of theological and missiological reflection as modeled by Bediako was this: how does our mission theology help us become more faithfully and fruitfully engaged in the mission of Jesus? The Akrofi-Christaller Institute is no sterile theological institution; it is a center for Christians to be formed spiritually and equipped intellectually for participation in God’s mission.
We left Ghana alive to the rich insights into the gospel from the cultures of Ghana. One particular symbol from the Akan culture, the “gyname,” has become part of my spiritual formation. The symbol, shown here, literally means “Except God.” It connotes the idea of the supremacy of God who is greater than all. This symbol from the Akan culture captures well the concept of sovereignty of God that is the hallmark of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. That is precisely the point of Bediako’s missiology: the gospel is universal, yet it can be expressed in each culture in ways that capture these universal truths.
Dr. Bediako’s insights into African Christianity and culture have been used by his colleagues at ACI and fellow missiologists around the world to show how other cultures manifest those special facets of the diamond of Christianity. My forebears, for example, are from the Celtic Christian tradition of Scotland and Ireland. In the pre-Christian Celtic culture there is the concept of “thin spaces,” that is, physical places on earth where the spiritual world and the physical world seem closer than they ordinarily do.
This concept has helped us see and experience the immanence of God, to open ourselves to times and spaces where we can encounter the living God face to face – in nature, in the ordinary “stuff” of living, and especially in those holy moments of worship when we set apart common elements of bread and wine to “feed on Christ by faith.”
Thank you, Kwame Bediako, for pointing us to the riches in our own cultures for experiencing and speaking about the gospel. As we learn from each other, may we demonstrate that rich variety of the wisdom of God and be so knit together in the Body of Christ, that Christ is truly formed in us individually and even as we work for the day when Christ will gather up all things into himself, things in heaven and things on earth.
Associate Director for Mission
The Outreach Foundation