My translator asked the question of our audience after my first session. In a room of 60 Malawian overseers, about 50 hands went up. Each of them had responsibility for between 6 and 30 churches but very few had learned even a basic doctrine of God.
In May I travelled with Ian Milmine, my boss, to Malawi and Kenya, preaching the gospel and training pastors. It was a tremendous opportunity and I’d be keen to go back, especially for the chance to support African ministers. As one professor of theology in Kenya told me, few of his students – most of which are ordained ministers – could actually articulate the gospel. In a country where 80% claim to go to church, the preaching they hear is a steady diet of ‘holiness teaching’ with a heck of a lot of altar calls thrown in.
As an evangelist I must have prayed with hundreds of people to become Christians on our trip. But at times it felt like Luther’s experience of climbing the “Scala Sancta” steps in Rome. It was years before Luther’s conversion and as he said the Lord’s Prayer on each step, he thought he was earning time off purgatory for his relatives. But when he got to the top he proclaimed “who knows whether it is so.” I have to admit the same statement crossed my mind when scores of folk indicated “decisions for Christ” – Who knows whether it is so?
It worked like this: whenever I finished a talk, the host of the meeting would either invite a response himself or ask me to do so. Hands were raised, people stood up or came forwards, dozens would repeat a ‘prayer of commitment’. Yet it seemed obvious to me that they’d ‘given their lives to Jesus’ many times before.
One evening at a university I decided to preach very strongly that “the gospel is not our life given to Jesus but His life given to us.” After hammering that point for 45 minutes the host of the meeting got up and – I kid you not – asked “If you want to give your life to Jesus now, please raise your hand.” I found myself in the strange position of praying that no-one would. And no-one did! Never have I been so sure that the word was received as when no-one “made a response”!
While I was dubious about the constant push for “mass conversions”, seed was sown and people rejoiced to hear the good news. There was often a response to the word of liberation and joy, very different from the forced response of ‘the altar call’. Anyway... rant over.
In addition to our preaching, Ian and I had separate opportunities to lead hotel staff to Christ in the course of our trip. These one-on-one opportunities were wonderful gifts from God. There is undeniably a spiritual openness in Africa that reveals the darkness of the West all the more!
This is an extract from my most recent prayer letter. If you'd like to receive my prayer letter, please email me: glenscrivener at gmail dot com.