Redefining the mission field
Christians in Guinea-Bissau take charge of ministry work
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Eighteen adults gathered in the classroom of a Christian school to learn the basics of missionary evangelism. They spent three months in intensive study before heading out to preach the gospel. Their mission field? Their home country of Guinea-Bissau.
Joao and Sabi Cabi had gathered the fledgling missionaries in the capital city of Bissau on the Atlantic coast of the West African nation in 2019 to evangelize Muslims. Most of the Christians in Guinea-Bissau live along the coast, while the interior of the country is largely Muslim.
“It resulted in a lot of conversions,” Joao said in Portuguese of those initial missionary efforts, adding that the pandemic stalled efforts to continue the training on that scale. “Many of those conversions have lasted to this day.”
The couple received missionary training in Brazil before returning home in 2015. They hope to “add a new layer” to the mission field, starting with existing churches before setting up a formal training center.
The Cabis are among several Christians in the West African country engaged in a vibrant effort to establish fruitful, long-term mission efforts. Others are translating the Bible into local languages for the first time. These and other efforts have sparked cooperation between denominations.
Guinea-Bissau is free from insurgencies that have plagued other countries in the region. The nation of about 1.9 million people is the continent’s only Portuguese-speaking country with a Muslim majority. Muslims account for about 45 percent of the population, Christians for 22 percent, while about 31 percent follow animism and other indigenous religious practices. The majority of Christians identify as Catholics, but evangelical mission efforts have continued to grow.
Although the country has had its share of coups and only one president who has so far completed a five-year term, Christians there say they still enjoy religious freedom.
Iabna Tibna is vice president of the Evangelical Church of Guinea-Bissau, which traces its start to 1940. Tibna said churches organized mission conferences and mass evangelism events as the primary means to spread the vision for evangelism. But that alone has not been sufficient.
Christians are mostly centered in Bissau and the coastal regions, leaving gaps in other areas. Pastor Domingos Cabaneco da Silva, who leads the Church of Bethlehem in Bissau, pointed to the eastern region, home to the majority Muslim population. He added that bad roads and waterways in the south also pose a geographic challenge.
“The real vision is to reach the rest of the country,” da Silva said in Portuguese.
That’s where the Cabis stepped in. After the 2019 training, the couple received invitations from other church groups, including Presbyterians and Assemblies of God, to share their missionary training.
Two of the missionaries they trained left for other countries, including The Gambia, where one started a Portuguese church. “The first priority is to find and select people with some theological training but who don’t have any missiological training,” Joao said.
In 2014, Tibna started a radio program on a national Catholic station under a joint initiative between Catholics and Protestants. He began a second radio ministry under his evangelical church last year. The programs have drawn in nationwide listeners, not all of them Christians. “A number of Muslims are listening to it and are contacting me to learn more,” Tibna said in Portuguese.
Some missionaries see the country’s different ethnicities and languages as an opportunity to employ creativity. For instance, Miguel Indibe, an evangelical pastor in Bissau, said missionaries can’t use the same strategy when reaching out to Muslim and animistic communities.
One way he is responding to the diversity is by working on Bible translations. Bibles in Guinea-Bissau exist in Portuguese and Guinea-Bissau Creole, the official and unofficial national languages, Indibe said. He set up a Bible translation institute in 2014 to help speed up the translation of Scripture into local languages. His center works with foreign groups like Seed Company and Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Indibe expects to complete the New Testament translations for the first nine languages in about three years. His center, which includes Catholic and evangelical members, has plans for more translations in the future.
The ongoing process has already started to bear fruit. Locals who are helping to fact-check some of the Scripture in their native languages have started asking questions. “In the process of involving community members, people are turning to Christ as a result,” Indibe said in Portuguese.
The pandemic slowed some of the ongoing mission work. The government imposed restrictions last March before easing them and reopening religious institutions in September. But the measures also made way for some new opportunities.
The six Portuguese-speaking African countries held their first regional conference online last year. John Lewis, an American missionary who has worked in Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, said 62 people joined the online conference, where they shared their efforts and vision to spread the gospel. The session empowered Christian leaders like Indibe, who have welcomed the growing regional connection.
“There’s a new sense of partnership, a lot to learn from other Portuguese-speaking countries,” he said.
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