The early church’s preaching turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). The first generation of Christian’s obeyed Jesus Christ’s great commission (Matthew 28:19-20), and by the power of the Holy Spirit and because of God’s grace they saw staggering change, from individuals to societies. Sometimes we romanticise this period and forget that we have the same gospel and Spirit. Therefore Christians in Africa must be committed to evangelism, as well as being aware of the many challenges to evangelism in Africa.
1. Abandoning the gospel
It is increasingly uncommon to preach the centrality and supremacy of the gospel today. The gospel is seen as the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). God’s gospel cuts to the heart and evokes faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:37). The purpose of the gospel is not to excite or entertain but to provoke a reaction that leads to the confession of sin and turning to Christ.
Ministers fear that if they emphasise sin, people will leave. So in order to keep the people, the offensive truth of humanity before God is omitted (Ephesians 2:1-3). But people don’t get saved by nice messages. They must be confronted with their sin and comforted by the Saviour. If people in our churches are not being changed by the message preached, then we should ask probing questions about what exactly we are preaching. The points below are in many ways symptoms of this vital point.
2. Departure from evangelicalism
The African church is weak because there has been a departure from evangelicalism. We have lost our biblical and spiritual mooring. In order to be effective in evangelism, we need to uphold the fundamentals of evangelicalism:
- The authority the Bible
- The necessity of the gospel and its power to save
- Personal salvation through evangelism or proclamation
- The centrality of the cross of Christ for forgiveness of sin
If these things are not the backbone of our ministry it signals much more than denominational preference or the mere swapping out of an outdated title. Evangelicalism is an identity, rooted in God’s revelation and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
3. The prosperity gospel
Many ‘men and women of God’ are absorbed with materialism: stylish fashion, extravagant lifestyles, lavish spending, fancy cars and mansion-sized homes. These worldly treasures are often treated as the measure of a minister’s spirituality or success; the Lord’s favour.
Because their ambitions are worldly wealth over winning souls their preaching rarely mentions sin or demand repentance. The true gospel has been replaced by sermons tailored to being liked, esteemed and considered greatly blessed by God.
Many churches have substituted Christ’s emphasis on discipleship with an undue attention to attendance numbers. Preachers are more interested in numbers in seats rather than conversions, followed by discipleship. Similarly to the above point, a commitment to numbers can reshape the message. Where numbers are emphasised, the preaching will often seek to make people comfortable rather than asking what they must do to be saved.
Preachers have become like politicians who see people as votes; businessmen who view people as inventory stocks for their balance sheets. Preachers cherish numbers more than the fact these numbers have a personal relationship with God. This is because it has become fashionable to talk about numbers and to associate them with a ‘preacher’s anointing’.
Following from the previous point, many clergy have become “title driven preachers.” It has become both fashionable and desirable to string titles together before your name: Apostle, Prophet, Psalmist, Bishop and even Doctor. It has become old fashioned to just be ‘pastor.’ It is no longer appealing to be called an evangelist or pastor – under-shepherds of God’s flock. We want impressive titles rather than the desire to impress on our hearers God’s glory.
Doctrine is no longer popular, having been supplanted by ‘prophetic ministry.’ A friend told me how one bishop challenged him over his emphasis on doctrine in his teaching, “Are you going to eat doctrine?”. Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of faithful and true biblical teaching, preachers have been disseminating error instead.
The modern pulpit has become a place to sell anointing oils, holy water, holy soils, prayer shawls, anointed soaps, seed sowing for breakthrough prayers, etc. False preachers are one of the greatest obstacles to effective evangelism. They emphasise that individuals with needs should give away a seed for their prayers to be answered. “There is a seed for every need.” They even preach that people should give a seed for the salvation of loved ones. This is not a far step from the Roman Catholic indulgences, viscerally opposed by the Reformers. The office of minister should never be treated as an opportunity to make money.
In some cases, because pastors want to retain wealthier new visitors to church, they tend to fast track them into membership and baptism, even leadership. This is little more than securing future financial benefits through the kind of partiality God abhors (James 2:1-13). The results of this have been disastrous in churches where lay leaders are appointed according to size of their wallets rather than their Christian maturity.
Paul was no stranger to churches that wandered from the truth. We need only read Galatians, 1 Corinthians or the Pastoral Epistles to see that many challenges in the 1stcentury arose from within the church. Thus it is no wonder that nearly all of his epistles are introduced by prayer (Philippians 1:3-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4), or that he asked, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). A few verses on he wrote, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:4-5). If the gospel is going to thrive on our continent then we must be men and women committed to the only gospel that saves, confident in the sovereign God who hears our prayers.
This article is adapted from a talk given at the Global Evangelists Forum, hosted by the RZIM Africa Trust earlier this year.