After serving 17 years as a pastor in Oregon, with a certain amount of fear and trembling I took my first trip to Africa in January of 1998 to teach a course at the Nairobi International School of Theology (NIST). About all that I knew about Africa at the time was that Nairobi was in Kenya. I was so naïve that I can remember asking the principal of the school, my good friend Dr. Lazarus Seruyange, “Is Africa all one country?” I was pretty sure there was more than one independent country on the continent. But I wanted to make sure. That was my introduction to the continent of Africa.
During one of our conversations during those two short weeks in Africa, Dr. Seruyange told me that researchers say that 20,000 people a day are turning to Christ on the Africa continent. He also told me that Christianity in Africa can be described as a river that is two miles wide but only an inch deep. When one hears that, they usually picture a continent where revival is taking place, and where there are baby Christians everywhere. Little did I know at the time the seriousness of the situation that is developing with so many baby Christians and so few trained pastors and teachers of the Word of God.
God used those two weeks in Nairobi, Kenya (just one of the over fifty countries on the African continent by the way) to change the focus of my ministry. I returned to teach a second course at the school in August of the same year, and continued teaching courses each January and August through January of 2005.
Each time I returned to the school, I learned more and more about the situation in Africa. There were students from all over the continent attending NIST so I heard comments and stories regarding all the continent. I began to hear about the traditional religions of Africa which include spiritism, animism, and witchcraft. I was introduced to the word “syncretism” which I learned means “combining different religions into a conglomerate religion.” In other words, the Christianity being taught and lived by most Christians in Africa is a mixture of their traditional religions and what little they know about real Christianity. I can still remember what one student told me, “Steve, the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian in Africa is that the Christian goes to the witchdoctor at night.” It was then I began to understand the situation we were facing there. But even then, I had no real idea of how bad the situation was.
During that first trip in January of 1998, one of my students was a pastor from Uganda. We became good friends during the two weeks of the class. As we talked, I asked him to pray for me as I was asking God if I should make these trips a part of my ongoing ministry. He did begin praying for me, and in the next few months we received the same confirmation from the Lord that we were to be involved in helping train pastors together in Uganda.
Two of my other students in that first class asked me if our church would like to begin planting churches in their country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). One year later we, launched a church planting ministry in that country. Today there are at least ten solid churches in the DRC that we have had a part in starting.
As I continued to go back to teach at NIST, other students would hear what I was doing in Uganda, in the DRC, and some began asking me to do the same things in their country. By the summer of 1999 I had become a fulltime missions pastor, and the future of my ministry had been clearly established by the Lord. But I still was not really in touch with what I believe is the greatest crisis in Africa.
I was in charge of raising funds for a rapidly growing missions ministry (church planting in the DRC, and pastor training in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Nigeria). I began looking for motivational statistics to build a case for the need to plant churches and train pastors. I came across just what I needed, a list of statistics revealing the needs in Africa.
Immorality, corruption, tribalism, mismanagement of resources, political instability, HIV/AIDS, disease, and poverty became the themes of my presentation when I was raising funds for our church’s missions projects. But my spiritual eyes still hadn’t seen what, I believe, is the greatest need in Africa. There are issues that meet the eye, that make the headlines, that grab our attention, and they are all needs worthy of our attention both individually and corporately through our churches. But there is another need that desperately needs our attention, and I mean desperately! The greatest need in Africa, in my opinion after traveling there over twenty times, is the spiritual poverty, the spiritual malnutrition, and the spiritual famine that is plaguing the continent.
A missionary who has spent 28 years ministering in Uganda recently told me “Satan has used American religious broadcasting to hijack the church in Africa.” Those are his exact words, and he is a mature man who chooses his words carefully.
The gospel is spreading like wildfire in most of Africa. In the year 2000, a survey revealed that 48.4% of those on the continent claim to be Christians. We are being told that an additional
20,000 a day are turning to Christ, and churches are popping up like popcorn pops in a popcorn popper. Yet I ask the question: what about the desperate need for trained pastors to feed these believers the pure milk of the Word?What has captured my attention in the past two years is the wildfire of false teaching sweeping the continent. The health and wealth gospel dominates Christianity there. The missionary I mentioned earlier is Baptist, and told me that on any given Sunday, 90% of the Baptist churches in Kampala (Uganda’s capital) will preach a prosperity gospel. The man who coordinates our ministry in Nigeria told me that probably 60% of the churches there preach a health and wealth gospel.
This is the situation everywhere I go in Africa. I sat in a church in Kenya where one of the leaders told the congregation that God didn’t want Christians driving Toyotas but BMWs. I heard similar things in a church in Zambia.
But the false teaching is broader than this one issue. Self proclaimed “super apostles” offer prayers of deliverance for a fee. So-called “prophets” tell untaught, gullible church attenders who will be going to the United States next, who will get a nice car next, who will get a job next, and more. Then they take an offering. People seem anxious to give to these false prophets.
Besides the false teaching about prosperity, and the false prophets who fill the churches, the health gospel is driving people to witchdoctors. People are being told that God wants all believers to be healthy, and when Western medicine doesn’t heal them, many often turn to the local witchdoctor.
Many pastors manipulate the church members threatening them with God’s judgment if they do not follow the directives of the pastor. Not only that, but they try to manipulate God as well. The missionary from Uganda told me that in many ways (in practice and position) the pastor functions like a witchdoctor only using a Christian vocabulary. They lead their members to appease God, hoping to get something in return. Part of the appeasement is giving money, hoping God will give more in return.
Then there is the problem of infidelity on the part of many pastors who use their position to gain certain favors from women. And it is common for a pastor to have more than one wife. It was revealed to me that one of my key volunteers was one of them. When I confronted him, he told me that he was man of God and the two families gave him permission to leave one and move in with another. Other pastors live with women and have families out of wedlock because they are unable to pay the dowry, and the culture allows for this.
There are a few sources where these false practices and heresies come from. The traditional religions taught ancestor worship, spiritism, and witchcraft is one source. Their culture which allows some of these unbiblical practices is another. But the primary source of the health and wealth gospel is American religious television which is broadcast into all of these countries.
Almost every home that I’ve been with a television has the channel set to whatever religious station there is, and as I watch I see many of the programs and personalities we see in the States. Most of the Africans appearing on these stations are carbon copies of their American counterparts. So pastors and church members alike watch these programs all week, and because the pastor is untrained and undiscerning they go into their church and preach what they hear on television, and the heresy spreads.
To make things worse, this is what much of the Christian populace wants. They see the health and wealth gospel as their ticket out of poverty and disease. That is why the health and wealth churches are flourishing, and why religious leaders encourage their pastors to preach a health and wealth gospel. It is an uphill battle we are fighting there, but a battle that must be fought.
The mission I serve under is International Training and Equipping Ministries. Our motto is “Using Scripture alone to train leaders for the church in the world.” When our seminars begin we tell those in attendance “At this seminar the Bible will never close.” We are not just teaching biblical principles when we train pastors, we are teaching them the Bible in an expository fashion letting the text define the topic not the other way around. We are trying to help them establish a biblical foundation upon which they can build their ministry.
We call our basic seminar The Institute in the Foundations of Church Leadership. We begin with a basic overview of bibliology in order to establish the Word of God as our sufficient and only resource. Once that is established we begin to look at what it says about the pastor, his role, and the purpose of the church. Before it is over we study Acts 20:28-35 and what Paul told the Ephesian elders. We survey the Pastoral Epistles since they were written to young pastors. We look in depth at the qualifications of leadership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and ask the pastors to evaluate their own qualifications and lifestyle in light of those chapters.
In the advanced seminar we give an Old Testament overview in one lecture, and a New Testament overview in another. We cover the important theology in Romans and Ephesians, and confront head on the origin and teachings of the health and wealth gospel, plus the biblical approaches to spiritual warfare, and church discipline. New seminars we are working on are a biblical approach to women’s ministries, a biblical approach to church growth, and a seminar on how to study the Bible which is directed to the lower level of education and the lack of resources that we find on the African continent. Our challenge to these men during each of these seminars is to be willing to “suffer hardship as a good soldier,” and to “fight the good fight” in the war for the truth.
We are currently conducting seminars in five countries: Democratic Republic of Congo (where Les Lofquist our Executive Director was in August) Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia. We have requests from Kenya and Tanzania as well. There are other open doors that we have been unable to walk through due to a lack of manpower. Bob Allen, another IFCA member, was with me in the Democratic Republic of Congo in August, and is currently raising his support and will become director for our West African, French speaking ministry.
So we covet your prayers and solicit your help in bringing biblical accuracy and sound doctrine to the continent of Africa which has been overrun by false teachers and heresy but is also filled with willing and very teachable pastors who are eager to learn and be effective communicators of the Word of God.
Dr. Steve Van Horn is President of International Training and Equipping Ministries of Beaverton, OR. Learn more at www.iteministries.org or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a member of IFCA International.