Violence Isn’t the Only Threat to Evangelism in Nigeria
In June Benjamin Kwashi, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Jos, Nigeria, was elected as general secretary of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). Only a few days later, his home in Jos was attacked by Fulani raiders, resulting in the death of his neighbor Adamu Dung. “He was shot through the head because he flashed his light when he heard footsteps of cattle being rustled,” Kwashi wrote on Facebook. “The cows were mine.” This is far from the first time Kwashi has been targeted for religiously motivated violence resulting in tragedy. He and his flock have been under attack for nearly two decades.
Yet external persecution is not the only pressure Kwashi feels against his evangelistic ministry. Timidity is more endemic when it comes to sharing the gospel across the globe. “There was never a time when the apostles handed over anything but a hot potato gospel, one that was sizzling with excitement and power,” he said two days after the raid on his compound. “Woe unto us if we ever become lethargic.” Alex Wilgus, pastor of Logan Square Anglican Church, spoke with Kwashi about these two immanent threats to evangelism: intense persecution and casual indifference.
What is evangelism like while shepherding the church through intense persecution?
It may surprise you to hear this, but the effects of persecution are both good and bad. Positively, it shakes the institutionalism of the church and proves to us that there is no lasting home in this world. But it also destabilizes individual human beings and raises a lot of questions in the hearts of sufferers.
The first questions we encounter with people is this: “Is it because of our sins that God is punishing us?” That tends to be the most common interpretation of what we’re going through. But the truth is that churches impacting society by exposing sin are going to make those powers that are being exposed unhappy. When the church is a light in the world’s darkness, it will suffer from the darkness.
The other question we encounter is from people who cannot make meaning out of their difficulties. A young girl came back from boarding school and arrived to find her father, mother, and sisters, everybody at home, dead. And she wanted to know “why?” We don’t have answers to that except to continue to encourage such a person to trust God. Even though we don’t know why now, we will know it in eternity.
Yet persecution has increased the love, the sharing, and the caring of people for each other. We don’t love the persecution itself. But it has caused in our churches a practical demonstration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Strong churches move in to help people and take them in.
For example, my wife, Gloria, has a habit of taking in orphans. When I was in Jerusalem this past June for GAFCON, the mother of a seven-month-old baby was shot back in Nigeria. The killers thought they had killed both of them, but later on in the day, people went searching for the corpse of this woman, and they found the baby sitting there crying with his dead mother. They immediately knew to bring him to Mama Gloria, to our house.
Showing the love of God by caring for orphans and widows is a top priority, and it is a great witness to our neighbors who are not Christians. It is a great testimony of the gospel.
How is the baby doing now?
The baby is growing fine. He is chubby, chubby—that boy eats! Everybody knows that Gloria will take in any child. There are now 51 in our house. I joke with her that, because there are so many, I am now an orphan. So she will have to take me in as well!
“The power of the gospel” is a big theme in your book Evangelism and Mission. That seems distinct from teaching the gospel message. What do you mean by that phrase?
It is true that teaching and preaching the Word of God is the gospel. But we cannot cause that message to break into hearts, to devastate evil and Satan, and to institute the rule of God in the hearts of people and in society. Only God can do that. We see that again and again. Without even telling people about the power of God, we see people bring out their charms, amulets, and the idols they have trusted and throw them away. We see people who were extensively addicted to drugs and alcohol restored miraculously. We see people who are sexually perverse suddenly change.
The power of the gospel transforms lives, and we have seen it. We do not scream and shout like television preachers. But because we ask God to demonstrate the power of the gospel we preach—the same gospel you preach in the West—he does.
You also write that the institutional structures churches create in the name of evangelism can actually become barriers to evangelism. How so?
The moment you make evangelism the business of a board or committee, the rest of the congregation feels exonerated from mission. The danger is for mission to be specialized, like pediatrics or dentistry. Congregants think, Our mission board must be doing a great job so nothing more is needed. So if you are going to have a mission board or committee, its job should be to recruit and train every member, every family, every student, every child to be enthusiastic and zealous about the mission of God.
That’s a big task. Where should pastors start if they want to see this kind of complete transformation in their churches?
I started by insisting that the church ushers be trained. They are in a position to either welcome people to the kingdom or send people away. If they do not know someone, their face can drive that person away. If they are segregated in their minds, then they will welcome the sorts of people whom they know and like, and make others feel out of place or unwelcome. So the first training I conducted in evangelism was for those who wished to be ushers in the church. I told them that they hold the keys, not me. I am all the way inside by the altar! I do not know what is happening outside the door. People need to know Christ in order to stand at the door and welcome others into the church.
That may seem like a simple step, but let me tell you, it was civil war! I dissolved the Cathedral routine and started a new one. That process was locally divisive. But after it was all done, everybody was waiting to see how it would be carried out.
Practically speaking, how do you carry out evangelism?
In my leadership as bishop, I never forced anybody to join me on mission. I would say, “I am going out on an outreach. Would anyone else want to join me?” At first the clergy would not come, but some people did. And those who did come with me would come back telling stories and testimonies. And that enthused the younger generation. They wanted to come out and see.
Typically I take a few small groups of people to a region. We spend the first night praying all night in a central place. Then we provide transport for each of the groups to go off to various surrounding villages and preach the gospel for the next four or five nights. We all rendezvous again at that central place to take reports. Immediately we start sending missionaries to relocate to those places.
When I look for a place to go, I ask myself, How can the Lord meet the people’s needs?What is the Lord going to give these people to help them start in the faith? So we are not only leading people to Christ, we are also introducing a new way of life. In some places, we discover that basic hygiene is absent. Sometimes there are no schools. Because missionaries are Bible teachers, they naturally become head teachers of any schools that we set up. And sometimes these missionaries get basic health training—and their wives will sometimes do so too—so that they can treat simple things like Malaria, children’s wounds, and nutritional problems. When we outfit our missionaries with these things, their churches grow.
Unfortunately we don’t always get as many missionaries as we need, so we give a missionary responsibility over two or three stations, and we visit them to make sure they are nurtured, the provisions we send to the people actually reach them, and the church in that place is growing. In some places we check on a school we set up or a new clinic. In some places there are neither, but the pure gospel is preached and the people are enthusiastic enough about their salvation that it naturally leads them to live better lives. They keep their homes clean, and their farms yield more food.
Most of the missionaries we send have to build their own homes, raise their own funds, and grow their own crops.
You wrote in your book, “It seems today that … there is a growing, calculated, definite inoculation against boldness when it comes to the gospel.” Why do you think that is the case?
I believe any political or cultural reasons for this situation are all symptoms of failing to make the mission of God primary. God wants to solve the problems of humanity, and the only way he will solve them is through mission—not just talking about it, but actually living it.
After a hundred years of Western nations sending out missionaries to Africa and elsewhere in the world, it got to a point where, if you were talking about mission, you were only talking about going to help people “out there.” That was a mistake. The church in Western and non-Western nations must pursue God’s mission to the world, not just from one part of the world to another. We will put our energies together and see to it with prayers, with biblical foundations, with the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no part of the world that is impervious to the gospel.
Do you think there is an opportunity for a new kind of mission movement, one going from East to West?
That is necessary. It is the need of the hour. We must get Latin Americans, African Americans, Africans, Europeans, we must get all people to agree that we have a calling to do the mission of God. And wherever there is a need, we will go there as a team. If Africans cannot provide the money but Europeans can, then they should provide the money. If Africans can provide some money, and Europeans can provide some money, then together we should go somewhere else in need. It will be a movement of God’s people convinced about God’s mission for the world.
Alex Wilgus is pastor of Logan Square Anglican Church in Chicago, Illinois, and host of the Word & Table podcast.