I recently spent some time in the bush of West Africa. Our team drove down dirt roads from village to village. Okay, the word “roads” is a bit of an exaggeration. In many spots it was just a dirt path.
I’m pretty sure where I was qualified as “the ends of the earth.” People were living in mud houses and grass huts. A well with relatively clean water was a luxury. We saw children surviving on a couple good meals every week. If you are reading this post, you and I are very rich.
It was in the midst of this environment that I may have experienced my biggest frustration on the trip. In these villages in remote West Africa, people are hearing the Gospel for the very first time. When that happens, they want to gather in community with other believers for teaching and worship.
What was frustrating to me is the investment churches are making in buildings. In just about every village we went into, the church building, if there was one, was the biggest and nicest building in the village. It was truly aggravating. Don’t these people realize church isn’t about buildings?
In one village we visited, the indigenous pastor showed us the tree the church first met under. Then he pointed out the first building made out of mud. Then he showed us their spacious, modern, new worship facility.
Get this, some of these churches are filling up their big buildings and they’re building even bigger buildings. Don’t they know that’s not how the early church did it?
The way it’s supposed to work is that you’re supposed to meet in homes. When one home fills up, you start another church in a second home. Or, you rent a building that already exists in the village. Why, though, would a church invest in a building when people desperately need food and water?
Then that’s when the pastors from the villages taught me a lesson about ministry. In these villages, it’s not uncommon for there to be a mosque. Islam is the predominant religion, so they have a significant physical presence. In fact, they are very intentional of building mosques in every village and they try to establish facilities as close to the center of commerce as possible. In a culture that associates “faith” with a place of worship, it’s impossible for the Christian church to grow and for the Gospel to spread if it doesn’t also have a place of worship.
In other words, these indigenous pastors knew their culture better than I knew their culture. Though I had a strategy for growing the church that I thought was more like the early church found in Acts, my approach would have prevented the Gospel from spreading in these villages.
And all of this was a good reminder to me that knowing the Gospel message is obviously very important, but so is knowing the culture that you’re trying to reach. It gave me new understanding for Paul’s words:
“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23, NIV)
It was also a good reminder that what happens to work here in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia may not necessarily be the best approach to spreading the Gospel in Portland, Oregon or New York City…and vice versa. In fact, last I looked around Atlanta, a lot happens in buildings–some very big buildings.
So, what do you think? Does the church need a building? Or, do the pastors in Africa just need to learn how to properly grow a church?