Why go to Africa?
Pastor Jeff VanGoethem
Over the last 20 years I have made numerous trips to Africa. Mostly I have preached at pastor’s conferences, sometimes as the only speaker. African pastors will listen to preaching, even bad preaching, all day long. So it is a lot of preaching! Why do this? Well, the Christian faith began to take hold in the various African cultures about 100 years ago or so, by God’s grace, but it has been a difficult struggle ever since: poverty, animistic culture, tribalism, lack of development in education, health care, and commerce have all conspired to make life extremely challenging in Africa. Add to that political corruption, war, disease, misguided efforts to help and the aftermath of colonialism and it has made for a lot of chaos.
Amazingly, out of this has arisen a vibrant church and great openness to the gospel. However, one of the lingering problems is that African pastors and church leaders frequently have not had the opportunity for much theological education. Few pastors have study books and some do not have Bibles. Nevertheless, the pastors are charged with all the duties of shepherding the sheep, often in rapidly growing churches. They carry on but often without substantial resources, either financial and/or theological. I have sat with many African pastors who have shared with me impossible and perplexing problems in their churches and villages.
I remember one Pastor who was in debt to a kind of loan shark – he borrowed money to “buy” his bride (African men must often pay the bride’s father to acquire a wife) and couldn’t pay it back. Another had a sick wife whose family snatched her from the home and put her under the care of their local witch doctor. There was nothing legally or otherwise he could do about it. Another African pastor I know preaches among militant Muslims and every advance of his church makes things more difficult and dangerous. Another suddenly lost his wife and his means of support, since his wife actually had gainful employment, while his church only could pay him a pittance.
Thus the pastors at our conferences are often overwhelmed, discouraged, and distracted in their work. Most are paid little if anything. And now that television has come to many places in Africa, they are bombarded by the “Christian” TV health and wealth hucksters who have added to their theological confusion and sense of inadequacy. Last year I held what I believe what was the first ever pastors conference in a remote area of Zimbabwe called Binga. The first question I got from the pastors was, “Some are telling us that if we do not keep the food laws of the Bible, we will not see heaven. Is this true?” There is great theological confusion in many places in Africa.
Obviously this need makes them hungry for strong biblical teaching and encouragement. Almost any biblical topic is helpful. They love it when we dig deeply into God’s Word and make sound, coherent sense of it. Many take copious notes on our preaching and later reuse the material in their own ministries. Celestin Musakera, who founded the ALARM ministry to African pastors in Rwanda, as that country came out of genocide twenty years ago, recently told me that numerous pastors have spoken to him, saying that they would not have stayed in the ministry were it not for such conferences. I met one African pastor who rode his bicycle each day back and forth 90 kilometers (one way) to a conference. You should have seen the bike, with bald tires and bent rims! I don’t know how the thing made it. Last year in Binga some walked over 40 kilometers. This keeps me going to Africa.
It is a hard trip. It is expensive, it takes some money. The travel is a pain. The conference days are long and tiring. Many of the pastors want to meet and talk after the sessions. It can be draining. I have also stayed in some pretty uncomfortable places and eaten some pretty weird food. But I count the inconvenience as a small thing compared to the great blessing my African brothers have been to me. How they keep going and how the Lord is using them astounds me.
The Lord is being gracious to Africa in our times, there is MUCH suffering, but oh, how the Holy Spirit is being poured out! Normally when I am there I also get to preach in local churches on the weekends – seldom have I preached without conversions in the churches in Africa. What a privilege. So despite, the challenges, it is a joy to go. So yes, I keep going to Africa.
I remember the first time I was preaching to pastors in Africa. I was doing some teaching and preaching on prayer and really questioning in my own mind if I was connecting. I was inexperienced in the game at that point. I knew for sure that my normal jokes weren’t working and my illustrations seemed to fall down with a loud multi-cultural thud. However, at the end of the conference, one older pastor came up to me, excitedly grabbed me by both shoulders and exclaimed in a booming voice, “Thank you my brother, my devotional life has been restored!” I think he might have tried to hug me in the African way, but I could have kissed him! It was an important moment in understanding why we should be doing this. The blessing goes both ways.
Like you, I have been bewildered by the struggle and suffering of Africa. However, a veteran African missionary helped me understand this better. He said,
“You have to understand that the Christian faith has only been here a brief time after centuries of bondage and falsehood. It will take many generations for the Christian faith to work its way deeply into the various cultures of Africa. Remember, you are getting in on the ground floor and it is making a difference.”
I’ve never forgotten those helpful words, it is a privilege to get in on the ground floor and do something to help. The pastors of Africa are a crucial piece of the puzzle in God’s Kingdom and in the future of Africa. Now that much of the church in African is firmly in the hands of wonderful African leadership, we westerners still have an important role to play.
Thanks for reading.