By Jonas Odocha
Conscience is an intangible human asset which guides the human mind in distinguishing between good deeds and evil. Our conscience is, however, nourished by the teachings of the holy books and it is greatly influenced by the secular society and our upbringing. It is this influence, therefore, that manifests in our behaviours and attitudes towards fellow human beings and our general assessment of things around us.
When the messiah came down to earth to right our wrongs and forgive us our sinfulness, some of His adherents at the time sought from him the true way to salvation. He admonished them to love God and to love their neighbours as they would love themselves. Further, and for clarity, they sought to know from Him who their neighbours truly were or were meant to be. Ordinarily, judging from everyday parlance or literary meaning, they had expected their neighbours to refer solely to the folks next door. But the good Lord in His infinite wisdom presented to them the parable of the Good Samaritan. The latter had come across a traveller who was attacked by armed robbers, leaving him wounded and abandoned for dead. A priest and another traveller had earlier passed him by without stopping to attend to him. But this Samaritan tended to the wounded man and carried him to where he was given proper care on his account. The Lord then asked the multitude, of the three persons that came across the victim, who truly was his neighbour?
To me, this is the foundation of evangelism. I have since remained fascinated by the definition of evangelism which I had come across in one of the most spiritually inspired religious texts, OUR DAILY BREAD. It defined evangelism as follows: EVANGELISM IS ONE BEGGAR SHOWING ANOTHER BEGGAR WHERE TO FIND BREAD. Nothing could be clearer than this simple but worthy assessment of evangelism. We are all sinners and it is only through genuine evangelism that we can be brought back to the path of salvation. It is therefore imperative that all those with the calling or authority for evangelisation must be seen to be above board in both word and deed.
We must continue to pay dear tribute to the very early evangelists and missionaries who journeyed to remote parts of the world, defying the rough seas, harsh terrains, and hostile tribesmen to spread the gospel and religion. Theirs was genuine evangelism. Let us cast our minds back to some of the evil practices that were being carried out prior to their coming. Twin babies were being killed together with their mothers, children born with defects were thrown away, strangers were not tolerated in communities and clothing to cover nakedness was also seen as an abomination. These are just to mention but a few, and today we can all look back and laugh at our ignorance in the name of culture.
In 1857 when the Church Missionary Society [CMS] arrived in Nigeria from England, their main task was not only to abolish those devilish and primitive practices, but also to train indigenous Christian workers for the rapid spread of their message of salvation and good neighbourliness. They realised very early that this could only come through education and they therefore set up churches and schools.
But how could they accomplish this when there was obvious cultural and language barrier? Simple! They stooped low and mingled with the common people to understand their language and their ways of life. Sooner, rather than later, they learnt and understood their languages, dialects and attributes, thereby communicating more effectively. This rather extraordinary task was accomplished by these ordinary humans because they were dedicated to their mission. They lived simple and down-to-earth lives, realising that their mission could only thrive if they shunned distractions of worldly demands. It was this attitude that they passed on to their indigenous pupils and trainees in the vineyard. This enabled them to focus on evangelism as a means of leading their flock to the path of spiritual salvation. Thus they were spiritually, physically and emotionally bonded to their flock and their flock could feel the genuineness of their mission. There was no distinction between the rich and the poor flock. The sick received visitation and healing prayers by the elders of the church, irrespective of the status in life. Family values were emphasised and parents were encouraged to bring up their children in the fear and respect of the Lord and their parents. Parents who abandoned this responsibility were either penalised or ostracised by the church, while corrective action plans were put in place for such children. Church activities then were therefore interesting and inviting as they touched on both the spirit and the family. The major attraction was not monetary, but a genuine effort to strengthen the faith and unite all in the Lord. One could go on and on but this can only make sense to those who were around at the time of the early missionaries, before the advent of commercialism in religion. It is quite obvious that today faith has been turned into a commodity item whereas materialism has overtaken spiritual stewardship.
In a very recent message to the Anglican bishops of the Church of England, the primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, admonished his bishops to seek ways to abandon their present day palace life styles. He also requested them to cascade this message down to all their missionaries, if the church must survive. This call and concern from this quarter is timely and must be taken seriously by all those who truly believe in the power of prayers and evangelism. This is the basis and subject of this contribution, as a way of examining the challenges posed today for the modern day evangelist. As I was contemplating this, I became more compelled to go on after I listened to Pope Francis I a few days ago while delivering his homily in Cologne, Germany. He also called on the church to return to true evangelism instead of the commercialization of faith and the rapid drift towards worldly materialism.
In concurring with both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, what do we in reality observe today in the form of evangelism? The more the proliferation of churches and related bodies, the more the prevalence of evil in the society. Yes, the church is gradually drifting more to the ways of the world rather than the world being influenced by the ways of the original church. Materialism is now the order of worship. There is the tendency for evangelism to continuously focus on worldly prosperity thereby exposing adherents to commercialized religion. Hence the Pope’s reference to faith being turned into a commodity item. The reasons are not far-fetched. The modern day evangelist equates himself or herself to the ordinary man or woman in the business world, whose dictum or bottom line is the return on investment. This ought not to be when it comes to evangelism, as the Lord’s vineyard is for those with the calling or spirit filled volunteers, and who like the lilies in the field and birds in the sky are fed and clothed by the Lord.
How many of our modern day evangelists are willing, ready and able to accept this injunction which is copiously quoted in the holy books. But they are quick to emphasize the fulfillment of tithes and tithing, seed sowing and other money spinners, with a warning for non-conformists to be ready to face God’s wrath.
Little wonder then that there has been massive and uncontrollable influx into the flock of evangelists by job seekers and prosperity-focused individuals without any iota of calling. You may wish to compare their life styles to those of the earlier missionaries or evangelists. The difference is clear. What type of houses are they compelling their flock to provide for them. What cars or means of transportation are they demanding from even the poorest of their flock? What functions or activities, albeit personal, are they insisting that the poor worshippers must sponsor on their behalf. The list of demands is endless. But must this continue?
This is the time for all to heed the calls of both the Archbishop and the Pope and come out of our shells to provide concerted efforts to tackle the challenges staring modern day evangelism in the face. First and foremost, all those called or aspiring to be called to serve in the Lord’s vineyard must search their conscience, convincing themselves that they are ready to labour and win souls for the Lord. In my little village church, about 75% of the worshippers are widows and the rest of the congregation are not on any sustainable income. There must therefore be a limit to the demands, financial or material, imposed on them or they may be forced to seek for their ‘salvation’ elsewhere. The evangelists must be seen to be the shepherds of the flock who will always identify with them by empathizing with them, as an assurance that our God hears their prayers.
Whatever little amount of money they can contribute should be managed judiciously to meet their spiritual needs. The challenge is therefore for the evangelists to cut down on their worldly expectations and live a more transparent and accountable life. The Archbishop of the Church of England has said it all to his Bishops. The Pope has warned the church that faith is not a commodity to be hawked for the rich and famous, and therefore should be preached and not commercialized. Let us all search our conscience and retract from the modern day path of materialism in evangelism, so as to attract the meek, the gentle and the poor. Afterall evangelism is one beggar showing another where to find bread for the soul and for salvation.