July 20, 2006
Great post Mark. Very important subject. In fact, an evangelist just sent me a book on this very subject today. I may blog a few ideas from it next week. Meanwhile, one of our church-supported missionaries in Africa just sent this report to me in his prayer letter. His observations touch on some of the points you have raised.
"As I sat down to write this prayer letter I thought about what the significant events were that had happened in our ministry in Uganda since we had last written. The most important thing that jumped out at me was that our students at Westminster Theological College have a much better understanding of what the gospel of our Lord Jesus really is than before they came.
"For example, after one of our Congolese students, Joseph, had been in class for several weeks, he came up to me after class one day with tears in his eyes and said, “I have never understood this before. Neither I, nor any other preachers that I know in Congo are teaching this. I will have to go back to Congo and tell my people what Jesus has done for us.” What Joseph was referring to was a simple diagram that we had talked about of Jesus taking our sins upon Himself and Him giving us His righteousness, the only way that we could be acceptable to God.
"Much of the “gospel” that is preached in Africa is a “gospel” of works – going to church, giving money, being a kind neighbor, reading the Bible. Many, many church-goers in Uganda never hear of the free gospel of grace in Christ Jesus. Another example is of one of our students, Allan. Allan is a young Christian, but a very enthusiastic evangelist in his home village. One day in class he seemed confused about what I was saying, so I stopped and asked him what the trouble was. He said, “So you mean that not all of the people who come to the front during an altar call really become Christians?” We had been talking about Christians bearing fruit as evidence of true belief in class that day. Allan was confused because he saw so many people “walk the aisle,” but so few of their lives changing after they did. He didn’t realize that not everyone who “walks the aisle” is actually changed by the Spirit on the inside. His church was teaching what is commonly called “easy believism” just walk the aisle and pray the prayer and you have your ticket to heaven. Righteous fruit produced by the Holy Spirit after this “conversion” is not emphasized. The number of so-called “conversions” is what matters.
"The most popular “false gospel” that Ugandan churches are teaching is the “health and wealth” gospel, the idea that God wants all believers to be rich and healthy while on earth; if you’re not it’s because you are not exercising enough faith. It’s not the gospel of Jesus because it makes God a celestial genie, with man, not God, as the focus of all creation. It tends to make Christians feel very guilty if they are not rich and healthy. Another student, Henry, gave an example of this in class one day. He said that he and some friends went into a big church in Kampala, all dressed up in their Sunday best. Because of their dress, the ushers must have thought that they were wealthy and seated them very near the front of the church. When the offering basket was passed they only put in a few shillings, all that they had. The pastor noticed their meager offering, came up to them and told them to move back to the back of the church. These seats at the front, he said, were reserved for those who had strong faith, those who could put thousands of shillings in the offering. Needless to say, anyone can guess what that pastor had on his mind!
"This is a very common occurrence in some of the biggest churches in Kampala. The problem is that none of these “gospels” is the true gospel of Christ and as a result the culture here is full of unrighteousness because people’s lives are not being changed by the power of the Spirit working in them. One of the most important things that we teach the students at WTC is that lives are changed only by the power of the living Christ within us. As far as we are concerned this is the only true hope for the African Church and for churches all around the world.