Sometimes when we teach, it’s easy to forget that students also have knowledge to offer to us. Through my World Renew position in Uganda, I had the privilege of teaching pastors from Pentecostal Assemblies of God churches (PAG). While these pastors had an urgent need for biblical and theological training, they regularly taught me more about how to obey God’s Word in a practical way. I want to share with you three of the things I have learned, and am still learning, that I think the CRC (Christian Reformed Church, which is my denomination) could also learn from the PAG Christians in Uganda.
1. Prayer and fasting – Where we lived, the PAG churches do not take prayer lightly. They pray for their leaders, their families, and for the expansion of the Gospel through their missions. Each local PAG church has a day of prayer and fasting once a month, which usually includes an all-night prayer vigil. Then the main “assembly,” which is a whole group of local PAG churches together, has another day of prayer and fasting every month. In addition, every January, the whole assembly has what they call a Prayer Cloud. They do partial prayer and fasting for 7 days, which means no eating or drinking from 9am to 6pm. Then the following week, for up to 7 days, (depending on the person), they have no water or food at all! Before coming here I did not think this was medically possible. But this is what some of them do in actuality, even if it is hard for us to believe.
Now, I don’t think I’m quite ready to fast from water for 7 days! But imagine with me if all of our CRC churches took prayer and fasting more seriously, following PAG’s example. How much would the spiritual vitality of our churches change? How would God use such prayer for the expansion of the Gospel? Would we more clearly perceive the Holy Spirit’s guidance concerning the pressing and complicated issues facing our denomination today?
2. Church discipline – While I don’t want to exaggerate and say that PAG does church discipline perfectly, (I have heard of times it wasn't carried out well), I want to say that they at least do it, and it seems to work well most of the time. They actually follow passages like Matthew 18:15-19 and 1 Cor. 5:11. I heard of people being put under church discipline on a regular basis, and some of my friends there have gone through church discipline themselves. But through the discipline, they repented of the sin that they were living in, and later were enfolded back into the church. I have been in some very moving worship services during which the congregation celebrated people returning to the church after a period of church discipline. In such an atmosphere, while unrepentant sin might still exist in secret, generally Christians learn to take sin very seriously and they encourage each other in living in obedience to Christ.
There is some cultural difference from North America in that Ugandans may be less likely to view churches with a consumer mindset. They deeply value the community and fellowship of their church, so they are willing to come back to a church after being under church discipline, even braving the potential social stigma. Whereas, if a North American Christian goes under church discipline, they would be more likely to simply choose a new church. But even with this strong cultural challenge of consumerism, we in the CRC must try to get back to doing church discipline without fear of offending people, and with love and gentleness, if we are going to have healthy CRC churches. In North America, there seems to much less thought given to holding our brothers and sisters accountable to God's Word concerning issues such as marital breakdown, sexual immorality, addictive behaviors, and greed. Let’s learn from our PAG brethren, as after all, church discipline is one of the three traditional marks of what we call the “True Church.”
3. Church planting – I am continually amazed at how dedicated PAG is to church planting. In my city’s region alone (where we used to live), the head pastor of the local assembly of PAG churches has calculated that there is about one new church every 2 years. About half of the main churches have raised up a new church plant in recent years and they are still helping them to grow, training up new leaders, and building new buildings. These were done without full-time church planters. There is a whole month each year dedicated to missions in the assembly. Crusades are common as well as going door to door. In addition, every local PAG church has a designated evangelism leader, who leads the church in planning outreaches and trains the members in how to share their faith.
It is evident in PAG that church planting is understood to be essential to the life of every local church. It is not viewed, as it is in many places in North America, as only the work of a special ministry within a denomination, or only the work of full-time paid church planters. In PAG Uganda, the entirety of each local church is mobilized for ongoing outreach and the spreading of the Gospel, both to people a few kilometers away and sometimes to other tribes and regions. It also is interesting to note that the evangelists who lead the congregations in starting new churches, do so mainly on a volunteer basis. Even most of the senior pastors of established churches are only given between $2 and $4 per month by the congregation, though city pastors are given a fair amount more. Pastors have to work at other jobs and in their gardens in order to sustain their families. Pastoral ministry, and the work of spreading the Gospel, is not done for financial gain or career improvement, but is done as a sacrifice. As the pastors lead in this sacrificial mission, the rest of the church members follow. My hope for the CRC is that we can capture this vision, of sacrificing in mission together as congregations, rather than leaving this work to a professionally paid few. What a difference we would see in God’s Kingdom and the growth of the CRC.
I write this out of deep love and respect for my denomination, and my hopes for how we can grow when we are willing to learn from brothers and sisters across the ocean.