Doing mission work in East Africa can be an uphill battle. Corruption is the default mode of operation for society at large, and corruption naturally finds its way into every institution—including the church. Jesus is presented by many as a second Lawgiver, Whose sole function is to police bad behavior. This legalistic emphasis is especially true in regard to giving.
One example is the phenomenon known as “briefcase churches.” These “churches” are founded by one person who has been able to procure financial support, usually from overseas, in order to sustain his work. When a representative of the donor organization visits in order to lay eyes upon the activities that his group has been supporting with its hard-earned money, he is shown what appears to be a vibrant ministry with many people benefiting from the contributions. What he is unaware of, however, is that someone has organized all of this from his “briefcase.” That is, he arranged for the use of a building, paid people from the area to show up and pretend to be church members, teachers, or school children, and made any other necessary arrangements to give the appearance of a legitimate operation. All of this is done for a fraction of the monetary support the person has been receiving. Once the satisfied donor departs, the people disperse, the briefcase is packed up and life goes on as usual. The money continues to flow in and the supporters are none the wiser. This is one of the many challenges which dot the minefield of mission work in East Africa.
Another challenge is the “prosperity gospel.” This brand of theology preys upon the most desperate and vulnerable. It promises a better life here and now if you truly and sincerely believe and put certain Words of God into practice. If your life hasn’t improved, then it is a result of your weakness, faithlessness, or disobedience. Contributions always help. If you donate $10,000, surely you will receive back $100,000, as long as you don’t do anything to upset God between the time you donated and the moment you expect to receive your reward. For someone who has few options left, this can seem like a plausible last resort.
Exorbitant fees for weddings
There are many people who wish to get married, but find the cost of an official church wedding extremely prohibitive. Fees to the church or pastor can approach a full year’s salary, and there are few exceptions. On top of that is the societal pressure to invite the entire family, clan, tribe, and friends as well. Feeding over five hundred people is a financial impossibility for most. As a result, many couples go against their consciences and live together without having the formal marriage ceremony or getting the appropriate paperwork from the government. Pastors even use this dilemma against people, extracting a form of monetary penance from them. Some go as far as to ban them from participating in the Lord’s Supper for living in a way that they, the clergy, essentially caused by requiring exorbitant fees for weddings.
Fees for Baptisms
Another lie that is exposed by the truth of God’s Word is the idea that a Baptism needs to cost an inordinate amount of money (or any money at all!) A fee is charged for a certificate, for the pastor’s time, for the use of the church, for acolytes or assistants to help prepare for the Baptism, and of course, there has to be a meal provided for the many people in attendance.
With all of these frustrating obstacles standing in the way, especially under the guise of Christianity, those of us who wish to do genuine mission work can be tempted to withdraw, become jaded, or lose hope. Yet we do have an advantage. For the simple and wonderful truths of Scripture that we proclaim are a cause for special celebration by these people, living as they do under the shadow of so many deceptive false teachings. The biblical teaching that salvation, Baptism, marriage, and the Lord’s Supper are given by God, and they all come as a free gift of God’s grace, is music to their ears.
“If it’s not in the Bible, these days I don’t want anything to do with it.”
One of the most recent contacts the CLC has had lives in Busia, Uganda. His name is Absalom. He’s an evangelist who never stops moving, can’t keep from dancing when he’s singing hymns, and meanders throughout the congregation while he’s preaching. His story is a prime example of someone enjoying newfound freedom abiding in the truth of God’s Word. He had been taught a form of Christianity that was overburdened by many of the abuses previously mentioned. What Absalom has realized and has shared very openly is that “If it’s not in the Bible, these days I don’t want anything to do with it.” Now there’s a reason to dance! To God alone be the glory!
Michael Gurath is pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and a visiting missionary to Africa.