I want to get right down to things here, because I think this is an important lesson to learn, and I am desperately trying not to miss out on it. I am writing this blog just as much for you guys as I am for me.
The church building in Kong
When I first arrived in my host family in Kong, I really didn’t know what to think about church. Everything was in Dioula, nothing in French, so I really didn’t understand what was going on. I made efforts to learn Dioula, but it was just far too confusing for me, since I didn’t even have a good French foundation either. But as time went on, I began to see a pattern in my talks with the church pastor and the Scripture passages he used every Sunday morning. I took note of this pattern, and come January when I was headed to Niakara to be in my new host family, I compared my notes with my other teammates. They had gotten the same impression.
The thing we had slowly begun to realize was that the churches here very rarely spoke a sermon about grace and the love of Jesus’ sacrifice. All of the sermons seemed to be only about righteousness and being good. When I got to Niakara, it was more of the same, and then some (because I actually began understanding the sermons). I began figuring that the church here was being influenced by the Muslim culture in which it resides – a culture that believes in personal works achieving salvation. I was saddened by this and I think I even sent out a few prayer requests concerning the matter.
But what if I was wrong? What if these churches here have had it right the whole time? What if we should be preaching about righteousness and acting correctly more than we preach on grace and love and the sacrifice of Jesus? After all, isn’t that what the early church did? They evangelized with the Gospel. But they preached on the Day of the Sun with letters of encouragement and instruction from church leaders (like Paul and Peter) around the globe.
The basilica in Yamoussoukro
I want to tell you another time that I was wrong before I move on to what I’ve found to be right.
It was about two years ago. I was listening to someone tell me about a pastor of a Christian church who had siphoned off a whole truckload of money from his church. I remember listening to how he had been shutting down church programs and outreach and making the church into a much simpler structure of just Sunday morning services and not much else. At that time, I remember thinking, “Gosh. There’s a sure sign that he was stealing money. What kind of a pastor would get rid of events and programs for outreach unless he was trying to hoard expenses?”
Now that I look back, I believe my thoughts were rather unwise. Perhaps this pastor went a little too far (certainly he was wrong for stealing money, of course) in getting rid of some programs the church had. But maybe he did have something right: he was getting rid of the garish appearance of the church – stripping it of it’s unnecessary ornaments and jewelry that make it more appealing to the public. Maybe that’s what we all should be doing.
Okay now one more quick story and I’ll arrive at my overall point. Hang in there.
Back at the beginning of March, I was sitting in church in Niakara and listening to everything that was going on. At the end of the service the leader stood at the front and said, “Now I want everyone who is new today to stand up and tell us your name, where you are from, and whether you are a Christian.” Two people stood up. Keep in mind, this is all normal here. This happens every Sunday. The announcement is made and 0-5 people stand up and announce their names, where they’re from, that they are Christians, and that they are just here visiting family or something. But this time, these two people stood up and announced themselves as not being Christian. The service leader looked at them and said, “Well do you want to be Christians now?” They responded in the affirmative.
“Welcome to the church family.”
The church building at Niakara
That was it. There was no come-up to-the-front-and-speak-with-an-elder-of-the-church-after-the-service-and-we’ll-get-your-contact-information-and-pray-with-you. There was no effort to dunk them under some water ASAP. They simply let the matter go after that and continued through the end of service.
Now I have no doubt that they found these people afterwards (the Ivorians have a remarkable way of memorizing faces – something I am absolutely horrible at) and spoke to them after the service, but they didn’t seem to be concerned with catching them in a net like fish that were now in place to be caught but would soon swim away.
I couldn’t help but start worrying. How Christian was this church? They didn’t seem to have any interest in truly gaining disciples of Christ. What was the problem here? Do they really understand the Gospel? I was honestly about ready to have a serious discussion with someone about my concerns for the church at Niakara.
But then two weeks later, I heard a remarkable story from a wonderful 21-year-old girl in our church. Let’s call her Rachel.
Rachel told us a story about how one day she was coming back from the fields and walking by herself around mid-afternoon. Suddenly she heard some shouting coming from behind her. She turned around and saw a man shouting at her and walking toward her. Panicking, she dropped the things she was carrying and ran, fast, back home. However, she could only get as far as the town’s lake before the man overtook her and tackled her to the ground.
With the man’s hands around her throat and his full weight on top of her, Rachel could only think of one thing to do. With tears of pure fear streaming down her face, she sang. “Jesus, sauve moi” which means “Jesus, save me” in French. Immediately, the man’s grip around her neck loosened. He got up. He pulled her to her feet and walked her over to the stuff that she had thrown to the ground. “Take your stuff and go home,” he told her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Shocked and still very much frightened, Rachel did as she was told. As she walked home, she called her mom and through intermittent sobbing, she told her mom what had just happened. Her mom replied first with joy that Rachel was okay. Then with a tone of awe she said, “That’s amazing. I was just working in the garden when suddenly I realized that I didn’t know where you were. Then I felt this terrible need to pray for you, so I did.”
When Rachel got home, she didn’t really know what else to do, so she went to our church’s evangelization that night out in the bush and told everyone who would listen the story of what had happened that day and how Jesus had saved her.
I didn’t hear the story until a few days later, but I was shocked when I did. At first, I was simply glad that Rachel was okay. She’s one of my closer friends in Niakara, though since she’s a girl, I still don’t really know her all that well.
My second reaction took a while to form in my head; but a few days later, I found myself thinking about Rachel’s story again and I realized why it nagged at me so. Rachel’s gut reaction despite the terror she was in was to turn to Jesus. And her mom’s burden to pray for her was obviously Spirit-led. I was actually (and I am ashamed to say) surprised.It’s not that I doubted that these people were Christians. I doubted that they fully understood the aspect of love that resides in God. They obviously understood His righteousness and justice, but I had not seen any evidence of their understanding His love.
So why is it then, if they understand His love and thus comprehend the Gospel, they don’t preach it? Why don’t they rake in believers throughout Niakara with all the power they can afford?
Bringing it All Together
“The question for us, then, is whether we trust in His power. And the problem for us is that in our own culture we are tempted at every turn to trust in our own power instead.” Radical by David Platt (1st ed. page 45)
What if it’s better for our church to have no coffee bar? No library? No fancy offices and classrooms? No youth programs? No special camps and events to attract people? Sure these things are okay in small portions once or twice a year. But when our churches becomes centered around them, that’s where the problem lies. Our churches have started to appeal to people’s creature comforts in order to convince them to come to church every morning. But if people have to be convinced to come to church, where is the Spirit in that person when they arrive at church? And if we get a bunch of people coming to church with no awakened Spirit giving them the desire to go to church, then how is the Spirit going to move in that church? And if the Spirit doesn’t move in that church, how are people going to truly get saved?
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” 1 Corinthians 3:5-7
For I am convinced that neither lack of electricity nor lack of chairs, neither lack of floor nor lack of roof, neither hunger nor thirst nor anything else in all our world of comforts can keep God from doing his miraculous works in the hearts of people. I am certain that if a church can be started with just a few people on fire for God and a tent in a field somewhere, that church can be more powerful for the kingdom of God than some 1000-person churches out there. No matter what the conditions at church, God will bring people whose hearts are ready to be opened to Him. Regardless of the passages we preach from, God will change the hearts of those who are willing and ready. So why don’t we start teaching people in church instead of trying to save them? And if we did that, maybe we could even start publicly evangelizing as a church! Then the gospel of grace would be spoken, too.
“We can so easily deceive ourselves, mistaking the presence of physical bodies in a crowd for the existence of spiritual life in a community.” Radical (page 50)
From my experience in churches and church divisions (and I have lived through and seen too many of those already at age 23), I find that it is better to have an empty church with a few people on fire for God than a full church that is overflowing with people who are simply there just to claim the title of “Christian”. The latter fills our churches with people who are not led by the Spirit, for the most part. This can be a huge hindrance to the Spirit of God in that church and can easily cause violent divisions. The former allows God to move swiftly and effectively, regardless of how few people there are and how few programs the church runs.
Now at this point, you may be getting angry with me, for multiple reasons. And you could have good reason to be. What I’m talking about involves a complete change of direction for the American church in many cases. So maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe I’ve been deluded by even such a short time in Africa into thinking that all churches are the same. However, if you’re angry at me, think on this: I find many times that when I get angry at someone for what they said (not always – sometimes) it’s because they’re right and they’ve pointed out that I’ve been wrong. Or perhaps even you don’t like me saying that there are “lukewarm Christians” in church. But there are. All over the church. Could you be one of them?
I feel strongly convicted on this issue. I look back on big church problems and issues that I have seen or been a part of and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the church focused on being more empowered in Christ and less attractive. Now I have been a part of many different events and programs in churches and I couldn’t even begin to think of where we should draw the line. I just want to get everyone thinking…
What if we started doing what the (unfortunately criminal) pastor did? What if we stripped our churches down? What if we started leading simpler churches without all the flashy lights and and expensive events? What if we just worshiped God in the morning without a cool worship band?
What if we started preaching the truth about how we should act as Christians instead of catering to the increasingly liberal society we live in? Jesus said we’d be hated right? Why then are we striving not to be hated? Then we could start purposely evangelizing with the gospel of grace!
What if we started having faith and trust in the power of God instead of in our own power?
Simply preach the truth. Simply hold church services where teaching and fellowship can occur. Let God do His work.
What if we did all of that?
You might say, “But that makes His job harder.” Really? Could anything at all be difficult for the God of the Universe who breathed out stars?